Why this pesky wabbit still pulls the strings

 

An amusing pop-culture product or a generation’s most reliable source of high art? TARA BRADYexplains how Bugs
Bunny has inspired a symphony

THERE’S A MOMENT in Seinfeld, in a fourth season episode called The Opera to be precise, when an exasperated Elaine turns to Jerry and laments: “You know, it is so sad. All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.” Fans of said jackrabbit will undoubtedly be amused by the misplaced scepticism of this remark. There is, in fact, a very fine education to be gleamed from repeated viewings of the Looney Tunes back catalogue.

An accidental though accomplished historian, Bugs Bunny has wound up in such unlikely locales as the court of King Arthur, Hermann Göring’s Bavarian retreat, Emperor Nero’s Rome and, lest we forget, Albuquerque.

Within these adventures we encounter the diverse figures of Benito Mussolini, Christopher Columbus and Napoleon and find reference to highfalutin delights such as Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Menand William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

In the face of these weighty allusions our hero knows precisely what to say: “What’s the hub-bub, bub?” Daffy Duck might find it “despicable” but this kind of insouciance has always been part of Bugs Bunny’s charm. In the early 1940s, as animator Tex Avery refined the character into a ringer for Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, Bugs came to define a uniquely American cool.

Clever rather than intellectual, his unflappable demeanour saw him through where Wile E Coyote’s rocket science was doomed to fail. The same Darwinian smarts dictate that Bugs Bunny does not start fights but he sure can finish them. His battle cry, a mantra adopted from Groucho Marx – “Of course you know, this means war” – signifies that any moment now, a piano or anchor will fall on his enemy’s head.

Between bouts with reliable villains Marvin the Martian, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, the iconic rabbit has even found time to torment the Axis powers in the 1944 shorts Herr meets Hare and (the now banned) Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.

The contemporary viewer may well find parallels between Bugs’s post-war cockiness and the strut of TV’s Mad Men. Bugs, however, is incapable of affecting that show’s misogyny. An inveterate cross-dresser, he rarely leaves home without a frock that might send Scarlett O’Hara into a jealous swoon and has seduced both Elmer Fudd and Göring in full Brunhilde garb. Forget dames: in the world of Merrie Melodies cartoons, there is nothing like a Valkyrie.

Eagle-eyed viewers might also note that Bugs frequently enjoys ambushing Elmer Fudd with wet kisses and displays a strong affection for show tunes. “I’ve just washed my ears,” says the bunny in Knighty Knight, “and I can’t do a thing with them.”

The golden age of American animation that spawned Bugs Bunny spluttered to a halt in the 1960s, but this resilient trickster has maintained his cultural currency across various media, as the star of numerous video games, TV spin-offs, motion pictures, and a 1997 US postage stamp. Just last quarter, Warner Brothers Studios announced a new 3D vehicle for the beloved “varmint”.

He has even inspired a symphony. A marriage of stirring live orchestral score and classic Looney Toons episodes, Bugs Bunny at The Symphony makes its European premiere in Dublin today. The show, the 20th anniversary sequel to a 1990 Broadway smash, is the brainchild of Emmy-winning conductor and composer George Daugherty.

“The magic of the Looney Tunes of the golden era, the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, is that they provided these classical and cultural references amidst the brilliant context of these hilariously funny cartoons,” says Daugherty. “So people got the culture without the culture shock. But at the same time, the creators of the cartoons – people like Chuck Jones, Carl Stalling, and Milt Franklyn – did it in a way which was still totally respectful to the original composers, for example, Wagner and Rossini. The music is not bastardised in any way. The Wagner is full-blown Wagner, with all the themes intact, and the instrumentation gigantic. One of the new cartoons we have added for our new show, Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl, is the Die Fledermausoverture. Barely a note has been either deleted or changed – it is pure Johann Strauss, albeit it at breakneck speed. But so exciting. So I think the crucial thing is that the creators of these cartoons never dumbed down the underlying material.”

Daugherty, an Irish-American with a ridiculously romantic lineage (his great-great-great grandfather was American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his godmother was the actress Susan Hayward, and two of his great-uncles died in the Easter Rising) attributes his glittering international career as maestro, in part, to the long-eared shenanigans in What’s Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville.

“That Seinfeld scene has always been one of my favourite pop-culture references to Bugs Bunny and his contributions to classical music because it is so true,” says Daugherty. “I think if you did a poll of most people in the English-speaking world, 90 per cent would have to admit that they received their first exposure to Wagner and Rossini from Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes. And the other 10 per cent would be liars. Elaine and Jerry, in that scene, were speaking for their whole generation. Including me.”

The conductor, alas, can neither confirm nor deny that he’ll be greeting Dublin audiences with: “Ah, me public.”

Bugs Bunny at the Symphonyis at the Grand Canal Theatre on October 8th and 9th