Shel Silverstein’s children’s books have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million copies. The most popular of these, the touching narrative The Giving Tree and the poetry collection Where the Sidewalk Ends, remain core components of many a childhood reading library.
Yet there was so much more to Silverstein (1930–1999) than sweet–natured kids’ stuff. As a songwriter, he gave the world “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Unicorn,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and that all–time hippie classic, “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.” He made several singing/songwriting albums in the 1970s, the best–known being Freakin’ At the Freaker’s Ball, full of quirky, left–of–center humor and unashamedly ribald lyrics.
That’s right, Shel put his quick wit to good use on some pretty dirty poetry. He was, after all, a longtime writer and cartoonist for Playboy, where laughter and spry sexuality made good bedfellows.
He also wrote short stories and plays, some of which have found their way into An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, assembled posthumously by his longtime pal David Mamet for the Atlantic Theater Company in 2001.
Christopher Stanley is directing An Adult Evening this weekend at Bay Street Theatre. “For me, it’s been a learning experience,” Stanley says. “As a kid, I knew him as a children’s author. And then I learned that he had written for Playboy magazine, and then at some point in college somebody handed this script to me, An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein. I read through it and started realizing this side to him.”
In a rare 1975 interview, Silverstein explained his literary origins – sort of. “When I was a kid –12, 14, around there –I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls,” he said. “But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that.
“So, I started to draw and to write. I was also lucky that I didn’t have anyone to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style, I was creating before I knew there was a Thurber, a Benchley, a Price and a Steinberg. I never saw their work til I was around 30.
“By the time I got to where I was attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to me.”
Indeed, Silverstein’s catalogue includes 21 books (some for young readers, some for adults, some anthologies of his cartooning and literary work for Playboy and other periodicals) and more than a dozen albums.
He received Academy Award and Grammy nominations for “I’m Checkin’ Out,” a song he contributed to the 1990 rehab comedy Postcards From the Edge.
Performed by a cast of 12, An Adult Evening consists of 10 vignettes from Silverstein’s twisted pen, including “Going Once” (in which a woman is auctioned like so much livestock), “The Best Daddy” (a father gives his little girl a dead pony for her birthday) and “Buy One Get One Free,” a classically rhythmic beat–poetry story–song in which two streetcorner prostitutes attempt to sell themselves to a not–so–gullible man.
The thread that runs through them all, Stanley believes, is “absurdity.” Death of a Salesman, they’re not.
There are four shows in the Bay Street run of An Adult Evening. The first three strictly for age 21 and older, while the final production (Sunday, Jan. 29) is open to an 18+ audience.
By no means, Stanley stresses, is this a show for children.
“I think when you start reading these, or see them up onstage, you kind of immediately recognize that it’s Shel Silverstein,” he says.
“But for those that just know him from Where the Sidewalk Ends or The Missing Piece, they see the style but in a completely different way – much darker, much more sinister.”
An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein
Where: Bay Street Theatre (Club One), 1 Jefferson St.
When: At 8 p.m. Thursday–Sunday, Jan. 26–29
Sunday show is age 18+, all other shows 21+