The old vaudeville comic W. C. Fields started as a juggler. For his best trick, he’d toss a silk hat (on the rim of which lay a lighted cigar) from his foot, balancing the hat on his nose as it fell, while he caught the cigar and went on smoking.
“Half the time I fail to do it on the first trial, but by means of a lot of little extra comedy turns following the failure, I usually succeed in making my audience believe my failure is intentional. Though my regular time is 21 minutes, I rarely get through in less than 25 minutes. The additional time is taken up with laughter.”
Like W.C. Fields, Will Rogers started talking to cover his screw-ups onstage. He was a good roper, but even a well-thrown lasso misses about a quarter of the time, and tangles around the thrower’s legs, which takes time to undo. Better have a good line in patter.
When I was in acting school one of my teachers said, with the usual penetrating glare of the maestro, “Of course you fail. It is the quality of the failure that is interesting.”
In the early thirties, vaudeville failed. The brightest lights in the world were snuffed out in a couple of years, without warning.
But vaudeville didn’t die—it transmogrified. People who’d raised their families in vaudeville were quick on their feet to move into the new forms that vaudeville spawned. Frances Gumm, the youngest of the Gumm Sisters, a sister-trio-harmony act like the Belle Auroras, went straight to the movies and became Judy Garland. (You can see her with her sisters below). Buster Keaton (the model for Nando Dent in The Little Shadows) left his knockabout family act and made a new career as a solo performer. The Marx Brothers (below) embraced the movies with all eight arms waving, and Will Rogers (above) carved out a varied career as a wit, with a syndicated newspaper column, radio appearances, and dozens of movies. And then there was television. The true manifestation of vaudeville’s ghost is the t.v. remote, which allows you to choose a cascade of entertainment in short snips, without leaving your seat.
“If vaudeville is dead, television is the box they put it in.” That was Larry Gelbart, who wrote the long-running comedy M*A*S*H—which might as well have been a vaudeville troupe (complete with wise-guy pair of comics, the Snively Whiplash melodrama villain, a bevy of nursely beauties, and the requisite female impersonator) stuck out on the road in amusingly bad circumstances.
They transmogrified, those old vaudevillians; those who didn’t stay flexible, who weren’t willing to find other forms for their art, went under.
When people shriek about the end of books and reading, I am slightly comforted by vaudeville’s renaissance in television, movies, performance festivals like the Fringe, even on YouTube. Just as we’re not using quill pens to write with any more, as the IBM Displaywriter was succeeded by the lovely Mac Airbook I’m now writing on, new ways of reading don’t mean the end of reading, they mean more reading, wider and more widely available. I believe the book, both as a beautiful artifact and a deeply-satisfying way to read, will remain—and, in glorious new forms like The Wasteland iPad app, will transmogrify and survive.
So will bookshops, the best place to find eccentric and like-minded people whose knowledge is greater than yours, who can push you to books you’d never have considered. I’m more sanguine for the survival of independent bookshops, if they can hang on by the skin of their teeth through this transition, than for the big-box stores like Barnes & Noble or Chapters, whose function is almost the same, but discount not as deep, as Amazon’s.
I’m coming to London in a couple of weeks, bringing my 16 year old daughter. I’ll show her the London I came to in 1984—when Orwell’s dire prognostications and the cabbagey smell of failure hung in the grey air. London was a hard city to be a stranger in, back then, dirty and grim and poor, at least for a struggling actor, with tantalizing gleams of unattainable beauty, like jewels in Bond Street shop windows. We’ll walk up Portobello Road and down Oxford Gardens to my old street, St Quintin’s Avenue—but I can’t really show her what London was like when I walked those streets sobbing or cursing or lost, and more alone than I’d ever be again. She’ll have to find her own city to go bust in, one of these days.
I failed to make a dent in the theatre in England—but what a good thing that turned out to be! While I was failing at auditions, I started talking to myself to bridge the empty time, and writing stories as I temped, and came upon the work I ought to be doing.
The act of imagining starts as a way to fill the empty hours or to avoid thinking of worries and bills, and burgeons into a world you can walk around in. Through failure I found that there is no better remedy for quotidian woe than a novel that’s built up some momentum. Those problems you have some hope of solving.
I like what William Dean Howells had to say in Harpers Magazine in 1903 about the transmogrification he desired for vaudeville, disdained as a low and trivial art-form. It’s the evolution I want for the novel:
I would like to see the vaudeville stunt fully developed… that lovely wild growth delicately nurtured into drama as limitless and lawless as life itself, owning no allegiance to plot, submitting to no rule or canon, but going gaily on to nothingness as human existence does, full of gleaming lights, and dark with inconsequent glooms, musical, merry, melancholy, mad, but never-ending as the race itself.
Thanks for inviting me to the Hive.