Vaudeville. Vaudeville, from the height of its appeal to its demise (1870-1930) remained a mass entertainment firmly planted in the lowbrow. Beneath vaudeville was burlesque which occupied a narrow band that teetered towards pornography and back to decadence. But lowbrow is an ambiguous term within the American context; since for a European it symbolizes dislike that neglects the richness of American culture; you cannot evaluate American art by the standards of European modernism. In a vaudeville show you could have everything: from the puritanical to the licentious, from the patriotic to the anarchistic; from worshipers of wealth to humble egalitarians.Vaudeville personified the American idiom of violence between intractable forces: empathy and superiority, identification and alienation.Vaudeville tells a great deal about comedy, an ability of a culture to step outside itself in a nation that is not the hallowed melting pot or mosaic but one huge ethnic variety show crammed to the brim with an amalgam of dialects, manners and differing motives.
Vaudeville evolved from the minstrel show which drew much of its energy and appeal from the interaction of the wise-cracking, lowly end-men and the dignified, usually pompous, interlocutor. In this, it embodied the form of American comedy termed by Constance Rourke as the “Yankee fable,” the untrustworthy narrator whose protagonists were popular oracles, yet could have a dark, murky side with origins draped in some mystery, as seen in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man; the American who can constantly change identities and reinvent themselves. These marginalized but quick-witted figures speak up for the common man in encounters with their cultural or economic superiors. Its possible that American comedy arose from a new nation’s effort to create an identity for itself in to differentiate from a patronizing Old World, but the liberty to change identity and travel without restriction should not be underestimated. The British viewed their former colonial subjects as semi-savage buffoons. Americans admitted as much, but rejoined by giving that comic figure a con artist’s wit and a unique bravado and boldness.
Ultimately, comedy is about our needs, finding a place in the world, and how we cooperate or enter into conflict with people just as obsessed with our own own desires. Ed Folsom: (Ronald )Wallace’s general thesis is that American poetic humor is based on various appropriations of and conflations of the two ancient comic types, the eiron and the alazon. Following Constance Rourke, Wallace equates the selfdeprecating,
witty eiron with the American “Yankee” and the boastful, posing, bragging, foolish alazon with the “Kentuckian” or tall-tale backwoodsman. Emily Dickinson, with her “silence and frugality” becomes the Yankee poet, while Whitman with his “boast and blab” becomes the great poet of the backwoodsmen. With an undeveloped nod toward a third character (the minstrel), Wallace sets up a tradition of American poetic humor based on the two main types: “Backwoods humor made people feel big enough to deal with a terrifying new country; Yankee humor made
them feel small enough to view themselves in proper perspective” . He explores the subtle ways that each of these roles undermines itself, laughing at its own image while simultaneously using that image for positive results. Eventually Wallace demonstrates how our best poets use both the eiron and alazon in a charged dialogue; in Whitman’s poetry, Wallace proposes, the eiron is “an offstage voice to which Whitman
responds throughout the poem” , the voice of conventionality, reason, civilization, finally the voice of the implied reader whom Whitman (as ironist, satirist, and parodist) has to cajole, blast, and bluff out of deadening habits of mind: “The implied dramatic conflict between Whitman and the conventional reader helps structure the comedy” Read More:http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/wwqr/pdf/anc.00443.pdf
Many of the specialty acts, in fact, deliberately mocked artistic or intellectual pretensions: witness the proliferation of novelty turns in which classical melodies were performed on the musical saw, pushcart peddlers spun rags into beautiful pictures, and tramp comics delivered readings from Shakespeare. Although a few of burlesque’s more talented hits managed to move up successfully to vaudeville, none of vaudeville’s stars ever graduated into serious theatre. Some, like the headlining monologist George Fuller Golden, may have wished secretly to leave variety, but the public to whom he had become so familiar as the raconteur of the popular “Casey” stories would never permit him to assume a more self-fulfilling role. Golden himself was a lover of poetry and an avid reader of the classics. Like so many of West’s thwarted artist figures, he always regretted that to make a living he had to play the buffoon, or as he expressed it, “don the ass’s head.” Read More:http://www.compedit.com/michaels1.htm
Centrally, Vaudeville is a study of national character, society’s mirror that viewed us as compulsive, combustible performers and monologuists, continually dramatizing and mythologizing ourselves; always perfecting our personas ; turning our character or others into identifiable types and then translating these types into legends;then appropriating the legends into new composites.All while turning conflicts into wisecracks and traumas into farcical tall tales. Once Hollywood was established the American comedy accelerated its employment of fantasies of youthful conquest and power. A nation of comics is also linked to the notion of a society of triumph seeking egoists, and the jump from comedy and farce to the altar, marriage and capitalist, or money driven enterprise of family is not tenuous, but almost social engineering or permitted cultural spontaneity.
What may be distinctly American is its continuing obsession with ethnic and racial comedy. It may have begun with Yankees and the Native peoples, then devoured and regurgitated every group that found its way here from every corner of the globe; a battle of hegemony, standardization, homogenization against an equal drive for diversity and group identity.
Jody Rosen ( Slate):Tanguay’s breakthrough came in 1904, in the musical comedy The Sambo Girl. Playing the lead “brownface” role, she stole the show with a new song, a lurching mid-tempo ballad by songwriters Jean Lennox and Harry O. Sutton. The tune was not written expressly for Tanguay, but it may as well have been. For the rest of her career, she merely enlarged on the character-sketch in “I Don’t Care”: a madcap woman on the verge, trampling the conventions of demure femininity, polite society, and musical theater. “They say I’m crazy and got no sense/ But I don’t care,” Tanguay sang. “They may or may not mean offense/ I care less.” Read More:http://www.slate.com/id/2236658/pagenum/2
The song was broadly comic but shocking nonetheless in 1904, when Victorian notions of female propriety prevailed. Blasting out “I Don’t Care,” Tanguay gave voice to an anarchic feminism that claimed the old stigma of female “hysteria” as a badge of honor—the Victorian neurasthenic recast as a liberated, libidinous 20th-century wild-woman:
I don’t care, I don’t care
What they may think of me
I’m happy go lucky
Men say that I’m plucky
I’m happy and carefree
I don’t care, I don’t care
If I should get the mean and stony stare
And no one can faze me
By calling me crazy
‘Cause I don’t care
The effect was heightened by Tanguay’s outré appearance and performance style. She had a pudgy face and reddish-blond hair that stretched upward in a snarled pile. (She sometimes dumped bottles of champagne over her head onstage.) She was of average height and a bit lumpy, but athletic; she squeezed herself into gaudy costumes that flaunted her buxom figure and powerfully muscled legs. She delivered her songs while executing dervishlike dances, complete with limb-flailing, leg kicks, breast-shaking, and violent tosses of the head; often, she seemed to be simulating orgasm. Tanguay suffered severe cramps from her performances—backstage, she instructed prop directors to unknot her calves by beating them with barrel staves. She told reporters that her goal was “to move so fast and whirl so madly that no one would be able to see my bare legs.”
Then there was Tanguay’s voice. She sang in a slurred screech punctuated by yaps and cackles, ricocheting seemingly at random between her upper and lower registers. Beneath the hiss of the 87-year-old “I Don’t Care” recording, you can hear the maniac’s grin that Tanguay wore when she sang.Read More:http://www.slate.com/id/2236658/pagenum/2
Gilbert Seldes:I shall arrive in a moment at the question of refined vaudeville, a thing I dislike intensely; there is another sort of refinement in vaudeville which demands respect. It is the refinement of technique. It seems to me that the unerring taste of Fanny Brice’s impersonations is at least partly due to, and has been achieved through, the purely technical mastery she has developed; I am sure that the vaudeville stage makes such demands upon its artists that they are compelled to perfect everything. They have to do whatever they do swiftly, neatly, without lost motion; they must touch and leap aside; they dare not hold an audience more than a few minutes, at least not with the same stunt; they have to establish an immediate contact, set a current in motion, and exploit it to the last possible degree in the shortest space of time. They have to be always “in the picture,” for though the vaudeville stage seems to give them endless freedom and innumerable opportunities, it-holds them to strict account; it permits no fumbling, and there are no reparable errors. The materials they use are trivial, yes; but the treatment must be accurate to a hair’s breadth; the wine they serve is light, it must fill the goblet to the very brim, and not a drop must spill over. There is no great second act to redeem a false entrance; no grand climacteric to make up for even a moment’s dullness. Read More:http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/Seldes/damned.html