The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes
ANYONE so minded can write an entirely false history of American civilization by setting down in parallel columns the vogues and rages which have overtaken us and Europe at the same time. The highly patriotic, but a bit undergraduate, habit of slanging your own country is always more effective if the facts about any other country are a little obscure, and, thanks to the cable and the efficacy of transatlantic mails, we now know virtually everything that isn't so, and virtually nothing that is important, about Europe. So it is quite possible for a critic to say that in literature the taste of Europe is far beyond ours, on the ground that Harold Bell Wright is the typical American author and Conrad and Anatole, France and Tolstoi the typical European. I mean that this is possible if a critic has never heard of the work of Nat Gould and William Le Queux in England, for instance.
The latest of these false parallels would be this: that while Europe was going in for the primitive sculpture of the African negro, America devoted itself and its theatres to musical shows composed and produced by the nonprimitive negroes of Harlem, New York.' The wail of the saxophone in Shuffle
Along had not yet died in my ears when a Serious Critic made moan in his journal that the authors of that piece were truckling to the white man's sense of superiority by exhibiting their own flesh and blood as a pack of cheats and scoundrels. What had im pressed me as a fairly awkward mechanism for introducing songs and dances was by him taken as a libel on a race; and forgetting the picaresque romance from the Odyssey to Get-Rich-QuickWallingford, forgetting that all peoples seem to take an abundant pleasure in exposing themselves as delightful rogues, he wept over this degradation. At about that time Mr Clive Bell, marking a reaction from the extreme vogue of African plastic, still ranked the sculptures produced by savage and semicivilized negroes as only a little below those of the two or three great periods of artistic production. Again it would seem that Europe had, in its effete way, stolen a march on us.
In effect the coloured shows were entertaining and
interesting to think about, whether they were good or bad, and most of them were pretty bad. As shows, that is. As shows in a country which really knows how to produce soul-satisfying eye-and-ear entertainment. They had certain attractive qualities, and i f they were in essence second rate, they were at least dynamic, while the first-rate thing in Europe was static. While Europe remained calm after the war we, hysterically, went in for an enormous increase of pace in the active arts of the theatre. I do no t know whether we are altogether the losers, and leave the question to others. I do know that for a moment these pieces seem to have overshadowed our (can I say?) native revues.
Of course, in America no one cares for revues except the unenlightened millions who pay to see them, so there is no one to rise and make lamentation over this state of affairs. For years we have laboured to perfect our revues-and the shuffling feet of a b arbarian summon up an evil jinn to banish them. The serene smoothness of manoeuvre which Mr Wayburn prepares for Mr Ziegfeld shrinks from the boards before the haphazard leaping of unstudied numbers; the sweet gravity of the dancers is forgotten for the b arbarous rhythm of any half dozen darkies with a sense of syncopation innate in them. Lavishness from Joseph Urban precariously maintains itself against the smudged back-drop and the overall; and over the prostrate and flowerlike and seductive
beauty of the chorus-girl, there steps and struts, magnificently struts, the high-yaller!
The comparatively sober truth is that the negro, cabaret in the theatre is only a diversion, a necessary and healthful variation from our norm. It has qualities seldom exquisite and always arresting; and these qualities, having slowly vanished from the re vue, have found themselves again in burlesque and in these exotics. And I think it highly probable that their only lasting effect will be to restore certain highly desirable things to revue and musical comedy. If there is any doubt of their goodness, anot her contrast will prove the point.
The one claim never made for the negro shows is that they are artistic. Set beside them, then, a professedly artistic revue, the Pinwheel, compounded of native and exotic effects. It had two or three interesting or exciting numbers; but the whole e ffect was one of dreariness. The pall of art was upon it; it died nightly. And Shuge Along, without art, but with tremendous vitality, not only lived through the night, but dragged provincial New Yorkers to a midnight show as well. Facing the other way, one beholds a straight fake, the untimely efforts of Messrs McIntyre and Heath, who served only to remind us that in time since overpast the real nigger show, as practised by Williams and Walker, existed, and that what we are seeing now is actually a continuation thereof, brought down from Harlem to Broadway.
Now it was fairly obvious that Shuge Along had been conceived as an entertainment for negroes; that is why it remained solid when it took Broadway, to the intense surprise of its producers. It was, in short, an exotic for us, but it wasn't an exoti c for themselves. Its honesty was its success, and its honesty put a certain stamp upon its successors. In all of them there is visible a regrettable tendency to imitate, at moments, the worst features of our usual musical comedy. But the major portion of each show is native, and so good.
They have all of them an appearance of unpremeditated violence which distinguishes them from the calculated and beautiful effects of Mr Ziegfeld or Mr John Murray Anderson. It goes much beyond the celebrated (and by this time faked) appearance of "enjoyin g themselves." They may never forgive me for it, but I really do not care whether the actors and actresses who amuse me are having a good time themselves. The theatre, for them, is a place for producing, not for enjoying sensations and effec ts; so the one thing I wish them is that when they are good they may have the purely moral pleasure of being good. It is the method that counts, and in the negro shows the method has been always the maximum pressure in song and dance, and the minimum of s ubtlety in the conversations and patter songs. The exceptions are not notable.
The songs and dances must be scored fff, a stretto,
and after that those diverging lines which indicate crescendo; the lines of violence never again approach each other in these numbers, and one has to wait for the appearance of a fairly silly sentimental song for a moment of quiet. The strange peop le who direct these shows and the responsive animals who sing and dance have with some success controverted the notion that it is in contrasts that the intelligent man has his greatest pleasure. One feels that the show is a continuous wild cry and an unin terrupted joyous rage, that the elan vital is inexhaustible and unbridled and enormously good.
The most skilful individual player has been Florence Mills; merely to watch her walk out upon the stage, with her long, free stride and her superb, shameless swing, is an aesthetic pleasure; she is a school and exemplar of carriage and deportment; two oth er actors I have seen so take a stage; Cohan by stage instinct, Marie Tempest by a cultivated genius. Florence Mills is almost the definition of the romantic "une force qui va,' but she remains an original, with little or nothing to give beyond her presence, her instinctive grace, and her baffling, seductive voice. Without that endowment, a small one in comparison with, say, Gilda Grey's, almost all the others give nothing but energy, and the trouble there is that if you have nothing but energy to give, you must give more than you can afford. The wild cry is a little too piercing at times, the postures and the pattings and
the leapings, all a little beyond the necessary measure. It remains simple; but simplicity, even if it isn't usually vulgar, can be a bit rough.
In the past few years the line of development of most of our revues and musical shows has been clearly marked; the bad old days were slowly forgotten and whatever was suggestive had to become subtle; and gradually, as the surface polish grew brighter, the suggestive humours underneath were forgotten; our revues became denatured in more senses than one. There is one risque' moment in the whole of a recent Follies, and that is one more than usual. The twittering about love and a kiss goes on; but the Great Reality of Sex is (quite properly, I am sure) forgotten. And in an encore stanza of He May Be Your Man, But He Comes to See Me-Sometimes, as sung at the Plantation, the whole conventionalized fabric of our popular love songs was flung aside and the gay reality exposed. This amorous frankness is part of a simple realism - a sophisticated realism couldn't occur in a musical show, unless in the manner of Offenbach's La Belle Helene. It is a fitting counterpart to the exaggerated p ostures, the slightly lubricious gestures and movements, of the dance. Another simplicity, and a very good one, is in such a song as that about a dog from Tennessee in Oh, Joy - a song which with that one quality, and against indifferent music and unexcep tional words, broke up the show.
Behind the frankness and the violence and the simplicity there is found the most important factor of all-the music. And behind that stands a figure exceedingly attractive and, in its tragedy, almost moving, that of the late Jim Europe. Of the music itself -of jazz and the use of spirituals and the whole question of our national music-this is clearly not the place to write. One wishes to mention a name or two: Shelton Brooks, least habile of pseudo-Balieffs, wrote long ago The Darktown Strutters' Ball, which ought not to be forgotten; Creamer and Layton composed all of Strut, Miss Lizzie, and therein appeared Sweet Angeline, as complex a piece of syncopation as Mr Berlin ever composed. What portion of Shuffle Along was composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake I do not know, but Sissle in action and Blake at the piano were wholly satisfying and expert. And all of these composers, and all of the jazz bands who play for them, have the ineffable advantage of being assur ed, in advance, of dancers who in fancy or straight dancing have the essential feelings for rhythm and broken rhythm in their bones.
And that interior response to syncopation Jim Europe had to the highest possible degree. He had been, before the war, the band leader at the Castles'; I am told by one who knows of such matters that his actual vogue was passing when the war came. He retur ned with the 369th U. S. Infantry "Hell-Fighters" Band and for a few Sunday nights in March,
1919, he packed the old Manhattan Opera House to the doors.
Say that what he played had nothing to do with music; say that to mention the name of a conductor in the same breath with his name is an atrocity of taste-- I cannot help believing that Jim Europe had the essential quality of music in him, and that, in hi s field, however far from any other it may have been, he was as great as Karl Muck in his. He did have contrast; it was out of the contracting stresses of a regular beat and a divergent that he created his effects. The hand kept perfect time, and his righ t knee, with a sharp and subtle little motion, stressed the acceleration or retard of the syncope. His dynamics were beautiful because he knew the value of noise and knew how to produce it and how to make it effective; he knew how to keep perfectly a runn ing commentary of wit over the masses of his sound; and the ease and smoothness of his own performance as conductor had all the qualities of greatness. He rebuked a drummer in his band for some infraction of discipline and was killed.
Whatever the negro show has to give to the perfected Broadway production has its sources fairly deep in the negro consciousness, and I put Jim Europe forth as its symbol because in him nearly all that is most precious came to the surface. He seemed sensit ive to the ecstasy and pathos of the spirituals as he was to the ecstasy and joy of jazz. He was,
as conductor, vigorous and unaffected and clean. In Shuffle Along, Messrs Sissle and Blake paid honour to his memory, but the unacknowledged debt of the others is greater. I am inclined to think that, if sterility does not set in for the more notab le Broadway product, it will be because something of what Jim Europe had to give has been quintessentialized by his successors and adopted.