The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

St. Burlesque, Circus, Clowns, and Acrobats

(pages 289-305) 


THIS is a footnote in the interest of justice more than anything else. The general scheme of this book is that it is to be an outline, for each of its major chapters is devoted to a subject about which a book ought to be written-but not by me. In such an outline there is no specified allotment of space, and I have written most on the lively arts in which I myself take the liveliest pleasure. Burlesque is not of these-and I confess to enjoying it most in the person of those artists who come out of it into revue, or vaudeville, or any other framework with which I am familiar and which I admire. I can understand an enthusiast feeling the same way about them as I feel about revue and vaudeville players who try to enter the legitimate stage that they are corrupted by a desire to be refined. The great virtues of burlesque as I (insufficiently) know it are its complete lack of sentimentality in the treatment of emotion and its treatment of appearance. The harsh ugliness of the usual burlesque make-up is interesting- I have seen sinister, even macabre, figures upon its stage-and the dancing, which has no social refinement, occasionally develops angular positions and lines of exciting effect. I find the better part of burlesque elsewhere, notably in clowns. And instead of trying to be fair to a medium I do not know well, nor care too much about, I have put in a picture which I greatly  


admire and which probably is more to the point than anything I could write. I shall try to find a picture for the circus, too. Because the circus is a mixed matter and some of it is superb. The jeux icariens I have never seen except in France: they are really exquisite. They are usually performed by a whole family. The training is exceedingly arduous, must be begun in childhood, and the art is dying out. In this act the essential thing is the use of human bodies as maniable material. The small boy I saw rolled himself into a tight round ball and was caught on the upturned feet of his father, flat on his back, and tossed to another grownup in the same position, the little rolled-up body spinning like a ball through the air. The beauty of the movements, the accuracy and the finesse of the exploitation of energy, delighted. Trained elephants, however, haven't exactly this quality; and trained seals, agreeable to watch because they are graceful and supple of body, lack something. I have seen a diabolo player who was beautiful to follow, and a juggler who placed two billiard cues end to end on his forehead, threw a ball and caught it at the top of the cues, then dislodged the ball and put it into play with three others. This extraordinary mixture of good and dull things, this lack of character, makes the circus easy to like and useless to think about. The special atmosphere of the circus, the sounds and sights, and smells, are, of course, another matter.  

Cirque Medrano. By Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Two of its actual features justify speculation: acrobats and clowns. The American vaudeville player can say nothing worse of an audience than "they like the acrobats. "When they hang by their teeth I cannot respect them; the development of any part of the human body is interesting, no doubt, and I do not wish to insist that there must be an aesthetic interest in every act. But I feel about them as the Chinese philosopher felt about horse-racing: that it is a well-established fact that one horse can beat another, and the proof is superfluous. But there are trapeze workers whose technique is a joy to see and who exploit all the possible turns, leaps, somersaults in air, so that one is pleased and dazzled. I do not wonder that painters in every age have found them lovely subject. But a lady balanced on one leg of trapeze bar, smoking a cigarette, fanning herself, not holding on to anything-means exactly nothing to me unless it is accomplished with some other quality than nerve. I am sure she will never fall and do not care to be present when she does.  

Clowns are different. Even those poor nameless ones who dash in between major acts and with noise and toy balloons divert little children, have some quality. They partake of our tradition about masks, they can't help having background. Everything exaggerated and ugly in burlesque is here put to the uses of laughter; even the dullest has some gaiety in make-up, in a mechanical contrivance, ingait or ges-  


ture. Marceline helping the attendants with Powers' Elephants at the Hippodrome, so busy, so in the way, so unconscious of hindering, always created a little world around himself. Grock is incredible in the faultlessness of his method; as musical-eccentric he surpasses all other clowns, and his simple attitude before chairs and pianos and the other complications of life is a study in creativeness. I have written elsewhere of Fortunello and Cirillino, also great clowns; and they complete this sketchy footnote, since for the greatest clowns I have ever seen, nothing short of a separate title will suffice.' I A footnote to a footnote is preposterous. Perhaps the very excess of its obscurity will give it prominence and render faint justice to the old NewYork Hippodrome. It is a fine example of handling of material, and of adjustment, spoiled occasionally by too much very loud singing and a bit of art. It is part of New York's small-townness; but it is so vast in its proportions that it can never acquire the personal following of a small one-ring circus like the Medrano in Paris. I adore the Hippodrome when it is a succession of acts: the trained crow and Ferry who plays music on a fence and the amazing mechanical and electrical effects. Joe Jackson, one of the greatest of clowns, played there, too, and had ample scope. I like also the complete annihilation of personality in the chorus. When you see three hundred girls doing the same thing it becomes a problem in mass-I recall one instance when it was a mass of white backs with black lines indicating the probable existence of clothes-the whole thing was quite unhuman. And one great scene in which, I believe, the whole of the personnel participated: there were, it seemed, hundreds of tumblers and scores of clowns, and a whole toyshop in excited action. Oddly enough, one finds that the weakness the Hipis in its humour; there is plenty of it, but it is not concentrated, and there is no specific Hippodrome "style." What it will become under the new Keith rigime remains to be seen.  


By E. E. Cummings(Courtesy of The Dial)
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