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Jazz at the Intergalactic Nightclub: Window to the end of the world?

December 11, 2011

Mankind has long been obsessed with how our world will end. As long as there have been stories detailing the creation of the world, there have been stories about its eventual demise. The latter half of the twentieth century was rife with fears of the “end of times,” and artists of all sorts found different ways to interpret or handle these dire “doom and gloom” forecasts.

Thomas McGrathPoet Thomas McGrath (1916 – 1990) experienced many moments in his lifetime where it appeared that the end of the world was near. After his family lost everything in the Great Depression, when it appeared that modern society was on the verge of collapse, McGrath enrolled in the army during World War II and was stationed on the Aleutian Islands. Although he did not see direct combat, the news reports, stories from his fellow soldiers, and pictures emerging from the travesties in Europe and the result of the atomic bomb must have had a dramatic effect on McGrath’s view of the world around him. Even after the war ended, Americans could not relax and enjoy their newfound prosperity as the Cold War began, bringing with it doomsday proclamations and constant anxiety nuclear war. This continued well into the 1980s, where a simple push of “The Button” could end everything in one moment. After seeing the power of atomic weapons in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and numerous atomic tests, Americans were terrified that the technology they had created might be their undoing.

When McGrath wrote his poem “Jazz at the Intergalactic Nightclub” in 1983, he portrayed the end of times in a science fiction-style, cabaret parody, an almost comical take on America’s preoccupation with their untimely end. He probably never suspected how frenzied the world would become as the celebrations for the turn of the millennium came around, complete with doomsday reports, “end of the world” predictions, and the Y2K panic. His poem speaks of a world that is about to step into a new era, a new eternity, one where every clock in the world will suddenly strike midnight at the same time. McGrath saw a different kind of future, one where humanity, under the control of “the Universal Congress of Transmogrification,” would be ushered into the end of time as we know it, the “enduring midnight.”

Almost twenty years after the poem was first published, the Metropolitan Museum in New York announced a concert of new works celebrating the arrival of the new millennium, all performed by tenor Robert White. Libby Larsen (b. 1950) was asked to contribute a new work, and it is easy to see why this particular text spoke to her. Larsen imagined the piece as the announcement of the second act of a cabaret show, when in actuality it is the announcement of the impending “the ultimate midnight.” The ending of the poem is reminiscent of the way the world reacted to the final countdown to the new millennium on December 31, 1999: the entire world waiting on the edge of their seats wondering if the computers would fail, or the stock market crash, or whether we would all be whisked away in “the Rapture.” As midnight hit, and the world continued as it always had, people had the same reaction as the speaker at the end of the poem: “There. It has happened. You may all go home.”

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