THE SEVEN LIVELY ARTS
The Damned Effrontery of the Two-A-Day
THE narrator of the following episode is Mr Percy Hammond of the New York Tribune; the stars are Montgomery and Stone; the Mr Mansfield is Richard himself again, the actor who played Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde better than Thomas E. Shea did:
"As the stars appeared in the last act in evening dress, Mr Mansfield turned to me and with venomous indignation said, 'That is damned effrontery!' It seemed to be Mr Mansfield's belief that mere dancers had no right to wear the vestments of refined society."
To me that is a very funny story and the humour of it has nothing to do with upon what meat has this our Caesar fed that he is grown so great. The eminence of Mansfield and the worthlessness of Montgomery and Stone may be assumed; the recrudescence of the mediaeval attitude toward strolling players, even if it be in the mind of another player, is also conceivable; snobbism is always conceivable and often interesting. The story is funny because it so perfectly illustrates the genteel tradition in America. (I am rather freely applying Mr Santayana's phrase, without any effort to do it justice.) Montgomery and Stone were in revue or extravaganza, and were therefore outcast; they didn't count as Art. Whereas Mr Mansfield played Shakespeare and high-school girls went to see him, and so
he was Art. The application to vaudeville is immediate, because vaudeville is considered on Broadway as the grave of artistic reputations. An actor of established prestige may venture into vaudeville; he usually makes his audience feel exactly how far he has condescended to appear before them and accept, even if he doesn't earn, a salary three times as great as usual; but the actor in the middle distance very well knows that if he goes into vaudeville he is digging his own grave, because there is a stigma attached to the two-a-day. Vaudeville players, in short, are not entitled to "the vestments of refined society." About every ten years the corrupt desire to be refined takes hold of vaudeville itself; but it dies out quickly and vaudeville remains simple and good.
It is in one of the stages of simple goodness now, and I propose to discuss it without reference to a possibly more noble past. I am well acquainted with the other method, which was founded, I believe, by Arthur Symons, and beautifully practised by him. To him we owe the peculiarly attractive attitude of sentimental reminiscence which, invented or borrowed by him, has become classic. It leads to excellent prose at times, and by showing that there was a golden age even in vaudeville sometimes creates the suspicion that vaudeville itself need not be all brass. But the attitude is unsatisfactory because it invokes, in dealing with the most immediate of the minor arts,
more than a share of the pathos of distance. Vaudeville is brightly coloured, zestful, with sharp outlines; and the classic attitude softens and blurs. It is required of you to name and describe the acts and numbers of a better day; one must say "musichall" or be slain in the passages of the Jordan; in America a reference to the commedia dell'arte is, as scientists say, indicated. Yet the time must come when it is possible to say, "Vaudeville is. Surely it could never have been worse than this-or for that matter, never better. Let us regard it as it is." The moment must come in the history of general culture when vaudeville can be taken without comparisons. That is, it happens, the only way I can take it, for in my youth I saw little of it and cared less. I recall a skit called Change Your Act or Go Back to the Woods; there were Fours and among them were Cohans; there was, I remember, The Man Who Made the Shah of Persia Laugh; once I saw an artist in pantomime. Yet I am not moved to beat my breast and begin Einst in meinen Jugendjahren. Nothing I have heard leads me to believe that there were better days in vaudeville than those which open benignant and wide over Joe Cook and Fanny Brice and the Six Brown Brothers, over the two Briants and Van and Schenck and the four Marxes and the Rath Brothers and the team of Williams and Wolfus; over Duffy and Sweeney and Johnny Dooley and Harry Watson, Jr., as Young Kid Battling
Dugan, and Messrs Moss and Frye, who ask how high is up.
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 dulness.
The whole of the material must be subsumed in the whole of the presentation, every page has to be written, every scene rendered, every square inch of the canvas must be painted, not daubed with paint. It is, of course, obvious, that the responsibility in this case is exactly that of the major arts. It is at least tenable that in this case, as in the major arts, the responsibilities are fulfilled.
And nothing could be more illuminating than the moments
in vaudeville when the tricky and the bogus appear. I face here willingly
the protest of intelligent men and women who have gone to vaudeville to
see or hear one turn and have sat through some of the dreariest aesthetic
dancing,' have heard the most painfully polite vocalism, have witnessed
"drama." If vaudeville requires half of what I have said, how do these
things get in and get by! Largely as a concession to debased public taste.
Note well that all the culture elements in vaudeville, the dull and base
and truly vulgar ones, are importations. The dance appropriate to the vaudeville
stage is the stunt dance; its Proper music is ragtime or jazz; the playlet
which belongs to it (witness the success of A Slice of Life) is
burlesque. Yet like every other popular art in America, vaudeville is required,
by the tradition of gentility, to be cultural; and its dull defenders often
make it their boast that it does
give culture to the masses (the same sort of thing is heard in connexion with the music played at moving-picture houses) because among its native acts appear tableaux vivants out of Landseer or because a legitimate actor brings to the common herd scraps and snatches of Les Misérables. The process continues, regrettably, and extends to the spoiling of good vaudeville material. It isn't a loss of anything precious, except time which could be filled by something better, when Mr Lou Tellegen struts about on the variety stage; it is a defamation of something good in the major line and equally a loss of moments when the "Affairs of" Anatol are inexpertly and tastelessly produced "for vaudeville." But what shall we say of such a real disaster as the return of Miss Ethel Levey to vaudeville, still so rich in attraction that she plays four weeks at the Palace in New York, wholly spoiled for variety because she has had a triumph abroad and has become a "great actress" or is it "an artiste"? There was in Miss Levey something roughly elemental, something common and pure; whatever she did had broadness and sharpness both. Corrupted by her success abroad, she returns still magnificent, the voice still throbbing, the form heavy but dominant-yet no longer vaudeville. She has the grandeur of a star and appears in full stage with a grand piano and silk-shaded lamps and draperies and sings All by Myself with shocking bad sentimental acting, and gets all she can out
of Love's Old Sweet Song before the touch of her old spirit protests-and recites a dramatic monologue entitled Destiny! Now and again flashes of burlesque reveal her ancient flavour; but it is an axiom in vaudeville that you can't be good in it if you are too good for it.
I omit the people who aren't, simply, good enough; there are second-rate people in vaudeville as in everything else, and first-rate people of its second order. The part that is pure, I am convinced, is rarely matched on our other stages. Certainly not in the legitimate, nor in the serious artistic playhouse where knowing one's job perfectly and doing it simply and unpretentiously are the rarest things in the world. Revue and musical comedy require and often attain the pitch of technical accuracy which vaudeville sets as a standard, and these two forms draw heavily upon vaudeville for material and stars, whom they incorporate only in so far as the stars are not pure variety themselves. They are as much entitled to the jazz bands as any other stage, but to me a jazz band is not essentially variety, although it has a legitimate place there. That is why I reject Mr Walter Haviland's ranking of Ted Lewis as one of the greatest of vaudeville acts, for the great acts in vaudeville are those which could not be perfectly appreciated elsewhere. (The aesthetics of the question have been canvassed in Laokoön, I believe.) Johnny Dooley, who always breaks up the show in
musical comedy, is a real vaudeville player, and Jack Donahue, who was the sole attraction of an- other such piece, is always right, his fumbling for words is inspired, and so is his dancing, and altogether it is a completely realized act. Among the most popular of the big-time acts I am left cold by Van and Schenck, who are perpetually stopping short of perfection; their songs are funny, but not witty; their music is current, -no more; their rendition is always near enough right to be passed. The Four Marx Brothers do better in creating their special atmosphere of low comedy; the Six Brown Brothers are at the very top with their saxophones. It is an independent act, wholly self-contained, not nearly so appropriate in any other framework, except possibly a one-ring circus; it is a real variety turn where a jazz band is only half and half; and in the case of these performers everything they do is exquisite.
It isn't possible to describe the acts, nor even to suggest the distinctive quality of the head-liners. There are inexplicable things in vaudeville, things no rational explanation can touch, such as the persistence of sawing a woman in half, or the terrific impact of the singing of Belle Baker, who destroys you with Elie! Elie! Houdini is variety as all magicians are and all tricksters-the circus side of vaudeville, to be sure, and the sensational side. Here belong the acrobats; I have written elsewhere of the Rath
Brothers, who alone are in the spirit and tone of vaudeville, without any intrusion of the circus. At the present moment nearly everything in vaudeville which is best has a touch of parody; not infrequently it burlesques itself. Herbert Williams, of Williams and Wolfus, exaggerates wholly in the manner of a clown; his despairing cry for the "spotli-i-i-ght," his wail of unhappiness, with his appearance, his gesture, his shambling walk, make him a figure out of the commedia dell'arte-one of the few in vaudeville. Duffy and Sweeney are parodists of their métier; their whole fun is in their elaborate pretense of not caring to amuse the audience. Harry Watson, Jr., has taken out of burlesque the accentuated form, the built-up face, the wide and fatuous gesture peculiar to that type, and in his broken-down prize-fighter has created a real character with his jumping the rope "fi' thousand conseggitiv times" and "tell 'em what I did to Philadelphia Jack O'Brien." I am dragged into a catalogue of names, which I want to avoid; but I cannot omit the macabre Moving-Man's Dream of the Briants, the rustic studies of Chic Sale, the elaborate burlesque of melodrama by Charles Withers, and the exceptional mad magician of Frank Van Hoven. Van Hoven carries farther than anyone else the appearance of not knowing the audience is to be amused. He complains in a mutter of the presence of human beings, individually probably all right, but en masse . . . ! He leaves the stage and passes
out of the auditorium, bidding the audience amuse itself while he's gone. And his great finale, with a bowl of goldfish, a handkerchief in a trunk, a table covered with a cloth, an inflated paper bag, and a revolver shot-at the sound of which exactly nothing happens, is the last word in destroying the paraphernalia of the magician and all his works.
I have committed myself to the statement that Joe Cook is perfect and am in no mood to withdraw it. As vaudeville he is perfect; I can see him in no other milieu because he lacks the gift-not needed in vaudeville, though useful there-of holding the audience in his hand. He is liked, not loved; his act is met with continuous chuckles, smiles, and laughter; seldom with guffaws. This is not necessarily to his credit; it means that he does one sort of thing, and does it extremely well. It happens to be just the thing for which vaudeville is made. As Ethel Levey is what most vaudeville players aspire to be, so Cook is what they ought to be. He is exactly right. Yet to give the quality of his rightness is difficult. To recognize it is easier.
He is versatile, but not in the manner of Sylvester Schaeffer. He is a master of parody and burlesque, yet not in the fashion of Charles Withers; his delicate impersonations have an ease and certainty far beyond the studies of Chic Sale. Essentially what distinguishes Joe Cook is that he is very wise and slightly mad, and his madness is not the "dippy" kind
so admirably practised by Frank Van Hoven. It is structural. Mr Cook's is probably the longest single act in vaudeville, and after it is over he saunters into one or more of the acts that follow his on the programme, as his fancy takes him.
His own starts as a running parody of old-time vaudeville, beginning with the musicians coming out of the pit, through the magician and the player of instruments to-but no one has ever discovered where it does go to. For after the card tricks-the ace of spades is asked for and, as he remarks af ter five minutes of agonized fumbling behind his back, the ace of spades is asked for and practically at a moment's notice the ace of spades is produced; and it never is-Mr Cook finds it necessary to explain to the audience in one of the most involved pieces of nonsense ever invented why he will not imitate four Hawaiians playing the ukulele. After that literally nothing matters. He might be with Alice in Wonderland or at a dada ballet or with the terribly logical clowns of Shakespeare. I think that Chaplin would savour his humours.
In an art which is hard and bright and tends to glitter rather than radiate, he has a gleam of poetry; but he is like the best of poets because there are no fuzzy edges, no blurred contours; he is exact and his precision is never cold. He holds conversations of an imbecile gravity: How are you? How are you? Fine, how's yourself? Good. And you? Splendid.
How's your uncle? I haven't got an uncle. Fine, how is he? He's fine. How are you? He is amazingly inventive, creating new stunts, writing new lines, doing fresh business from week to week. His little bits are like witty epigrams in verse, where the thing done and the skill of the method coincide and pleasing separately please more by their fusion. His sense of the stage is equalled by but one man I have ever seen: George M. Cohan.
of it, much to their surprise. And then, without Ed Wynn and the list, the attempt; for the Forty-niners were cheerfully setting out to be a company of Americans stranded in Russia, giving the Russians to understand what the folk and popular arts of America were. Months earlier the thing had been perfectly done, as a game, in the No-Siree, a wholly amateur single performance which was without doubt the gayest evening of the year in New York. (The tribute is not exactly wrung from me, for friends of mine were concerned in it; it was the high moment of the Algonquin Circle and they should have disbanded the following morning. Since I was not an adherent of the group, my advice was not asked; I do not know whether it still exists, has passed to further triumphs, or has repeated the Forty-niners.) Put on professionally, high class vaudeville showed all the weaknesses of the commercial kind, and had a dulness of its own. The Dance of the Small-town Mayors was exactly right, but most of the parodies were outdated, the burlesques were too voulus, the strain too great. There was lacking that technical proficiency which is essential to vaudeville, and the adjustment of means to material was sloppy. One fell back on Balieff and discovered, as the exoticism wore off, that he too had his weak points. Sentimental songs in however beautiful voices, the choreographics of figures come to life from Copenhagen plate however accurately the footfall coincided with Anitra's Dance, and a
number of other things suggested that in Russia, too, refinement could corrupt and stultify. There remained elements we could not match: we hadn't encouraged our legitimate stage sufficiently to be justified in expecting cubist settings in vaudeville; nor when we heard American folk music (and its contemporary form in ragtime) did we so earnestly applaud as to keep them fresh in variety shows. Balieff never was "variety," and we asked of variety that it be like him; we missed the meaning of Balieff as surely as we appreciated the fun. For he was a lesson not to vaudeville, but to us, to those of us who left vaudeville in the hands of the least cultivated audiences. We have asked nothing of vaudeville simply because we haven't suspected what it had to give. Yet week after week at the Palace Theatre in New York there have been bills equal in entertainment to the average Balieff programme; there has been evident an expertness in technique, a skill in construction, a naturalness of execution, a soundness of sense and judgement, which ought to have appealed to all who had taste and discrimination. The people who do go there have something, at least; and lack snobbism generally. If the audiences of the Theatre Guild and the Neighborhood Playhouse were to add themselves to their number, were to accept what is given and be receptive to something more, it could not hurt vaudeville. Because like everything else variety must grow, and there is no
reason why it should shut itself off from the direction of civilized life. It can exist very well without the Theatre Guild audience; I wonder whether that audience can exist as well without variety.