WRITING IN THE British weekly New Scientist recently, David Osselton debunked the notion -- "widely believed, even among scientists and mathematicians" -- that if enough monkeys were set to tapping away at enough typewriters, they would in time produce all the works of Shakespeare. Mr. Osselton says it isn't so, that the numbers involved would be so stupendous that the planet probably couldn't even generate enough energy for the animals to accomplish this deed.
In fact just such an endeavor has been attempted, although little is known of it and little of that is believed. "The Shakespeare Project," as it was known, was quietly set in motion in the early 1950s under the terms of a bequest made by an eccentric billionaire. Some 40,000 rhesus monkeys were put to work banging away on Remington portables in a converted aircraft hangar in southern California.
The project proceeded as expected for a time, and by 1957 the monkeys had produced entire acts from "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Julius Caesar," as well as a scene from "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." Then one day, a human attendant excitedly yanked from one of the typewriters a sheet of paper on which a monkey had typed a single line -- "Sha bop sha bop sha bang alang ding dong" -- and took it to a recording studio, where it was incorporated into a popular song that was to sell 2 million records. The next day there was a bunch of bananas next to every typewriter, and there followed a steady flow of "Shoowop shoowops," "Doo- wahs" and similar expressions accounting for about 15 percent of the lyrics in what are now considered seminal works in rock music.
Since then, the monkeys have not produced another line of Shakespeare, but there have poured forth with statistical inevitability dozens of scripts for movies, situation comedies and TV dramas filled with treachery, lust and greed that have enthralled millions of viewers; romantic novels; scenarios for rock videos (dozens); more romantic novels; the text of a $95 coffee-table book on the Flemish masters; a financial newsletter; a successful syndicated column; and, you may by now suspect, an editorial or two.
Mr. Osselton is right when he says, "Obviously . . . there is no earthly chance of generating a literary work by any such random process." But a work doesn't have to be literary to put bananas on the table. Mr. Osselton is also right when he concludes that monkeys certainly couldn't produce all of Shakespeare's works, but then neither could Shakespeare, in this market.