Tell Us One of Your Famous Stories: ‘Twas a Dark and Fearsome Night

Antonio? Canfield and Carlton? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Experimental fiction and metafiction became influential in literary circles during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, I recall a playful story from the beginning of the twentieth century that used recursion. A character named Antonio presented a comically nested tale to a group of brigands. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: A good example of this convoluted narrative appeared in “The Buffalo Times” of New York in March 1900. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

‘Twas a dark and fearsome night. Brigands great and brigands small were gathered around the camp fire. “Come, Antonio,” they called to the terrible chief, “tell us one of your famous stories.” And Antonio arose and said:

“‘Twas a dark and fearsome night. Brigands great and brigands small were gathered around the camp fire. ‘Come, Antonio,’ they called to the terrible chief, ‘Tell us one of your famous stories.’ And Antonio arose and said:

“‘Twas a dark and fearsome,” etc., etc., indefinitely.

There is strong evidence that this metafictional tale was already circulating a few months earlier. The following excerpt appeared in the “Buffalo Evening News” of New York in January 1900. The tale was referenced, but it was not fully explicated: 2

And then, possibly Gen. White, like Antonio, may be seated round the fire with brigands great and brigands small, and may tell us of one of his fa-a-a-mous victories.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1902 “The Indianapolis Journal” of Indiana described the performance of a vaudeville team called Canfield and Carlton. The duo included the recursive tale in their act, and they may have been responsible for its creation and/or its popularization: 3

The team is on just before the cycle whirl, and they stretch their buffoonery to give the men behind time to set up the track. The male half of the sketch begins his old story about the brigands sitting around the fire, and “the captain turned to his trusty lieutenant Antonio and said, ‘Antonio tell us a story.’ and Antonio began as follows.”

After this rigamarole has been repeated several times the property man of the theater—who is called on about once a week to take a small part and is developing dramatic ability rapidly—drags the weazened man off the stage. He is next heard behind the scenes shrieking about the captain and Antonio, but in a muffled tone, as if the property man were holding a piece of carpet over his head.

In 1910 “The Plattsmouth Journal” of Nebraska printed an instance of the tale. The ungrammatical “known” appeared in the original text: 4

“‘Twas a dark and stormy night and the brigands were seated around their campfire. And the brigand chief, turning to his lieutenant, said: ‘Antonio, tell us a story.’ And Antonia said: “‘Twas a dark and stormy night and the brigands were seated around their campfire—,'” and so the childish rigmarole goes on in an unending circle. We never known Antonio’s story.

The vaudeville act containing the story was memorable, and in 1922 a popular column in “The Chicago Tribune” repeated that part of the performance. The reminiscence was prefaced with the question “Do you remember way back when?”: 5

Canfield and Carlton were a vaudeville team and Canfield recited his Antonio story:

‘Twas in a dark and dismal evening, ‘Round the camp fire were seated Brigands large and brigands small.

“The captain turned to his trusty lieutenant and said, ‘Antonio, tell us one of your famous stories.’ And Antonio told as follows:”?

In 1952 William L. Alderson of Reed College wrote a short piece titled “Two Circular Formula Tales” in the journal “Western Folklore”. He stated that his family members recited a version of the tale: 6

Twas a dark, stormy night on the Susquehanna river, when a band of robbers were gathered together. The chief struck up a story and it went like this: ‘Twas a dark, stormy night etc.

In 1954 “Western Folklore” published the testimony of Olwyn Orde Browne who heard the tale from neighborhood children in Los Angeles, California. The story teller alternates between Bartholomew and Antonio in this version: 7

It was a dark and stormy night. Bartholomew and Antonio were sitting beside the fire. Said Bartholomew to Antonio, “Pray tell me a story.” And thus Antonio began, “It was a dark and stormy night. Antonio and Bartholomew were sitting beside the fire. Said Antonio to Bartholomew, “Pray tell me a story.” And thus Bartholomew began, ‘It was a dark and stormy night … etc.'”

In 1987 a columnist in a Rutland, Vermont shared a message from a correspondent named Peggy who recalled hearing the tale when she was young: 8

Peggy also writes, “I’ve been interested in all the questions and answers about “Twas a dark and stormy night” and wonder if anyone knows this one, which was considered very funny when I was a little girl and heard it from my mother.

“‘Twas a dark and stormy night, and the men sat around the fire in the robbers’ camp. ‘Tell us a tale,’ the captain said, and one of the men began: ‘Twas a dark and stormy night, and the captain said…ad infinitum.”

In conclusion, the metafiction featuring Antonio was circulating by 1900. It appeared in the vaudeville act of Canfield and Carlton by 1902. QI conjectures that it originated with the vaudeville act, but there is considerable uncertainty. The comical story may have had a separate anonymous origin.

Image Notes: Illustration of a fractal flower from BarbaraALane at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(QI encountered this story while examining the origin of the phrase “shaggy dog story”. The topic of a recursive story was fascinating enough to initiate a separate exploration. Thanks to Stephen Goranson, Jonathan Lighter, and others who discussed the “shaggy dog story”.)

Update History: On November 11, 2019 the 1952 citation was added. On November 12, 2019 the 1954 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1900 March 19, The Buffalo Times, Hazel Machine Is Knocking It: Source of the Opposition to the Mayor’s Harbor Commission, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1900 January 8, Buffalo Evening News, The Lion’s Part, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1902 March 11, The Indianapolis Journal, News of the Theaters: The Vaudeville at the Grand, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1910 January 31, The Plattsmouth Journal, What’s the Joke, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Plattsmouth, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1922 May 22, Chicago Tribune, In the Wake of the News: This Wake Is Conducted by Harvey T. Woodruff, Quote Page 17, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1952 October, Western Folklore, Volume 11, Number 4, Section: Notes and Queries, Two Circular Formula Tales by William L. Alderson (Reed College), Start Page 288, Quote Page 288, Western States Folklore Society, California. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1954, Western Folklore, Volume 13, Number 2 and 3, Section: Notes and Queries, More Circular Tales by Ray B. Browne (University of California, Los Angeles), Start Page 130, Quote Page 132, Western States Folklore Society, California. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1987 December 13, Rutland Daily Herald, Section: Vermont Sunday Magazine, Ask Anne & Nan, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Rutland, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)