Enter Eva Tanguay stage right.
She wears “a skimpy dress with pennies glued to it,” sings “a popular drinking song while dousing herself in champagne.” She is the self-proclaimed “girl who made vaudeville famous.” She’s the most popular act in the nation’s most popular form, though she admits to “having no actual stage skills.” She is “not beautiful,” cannot sing or dance, but is an exemplar of stage presence.
One hundred years later, nobody’s heard of her. Like most vaudeville acts, she disappeared, vaudeville being the last dominant American art form not captured on film or video.
In Vaudeville, a chapbook of elliptical reportage on an indefinable word, time, and style, writer Geoffrey Hilsabeck attempts to restage the unstageable show, a night watching vaudeville on the page constructed from scraps: “scratchy studio recordings” and “early Hollywood.” He calls his descriptions “a score without the means to make it into music.”
A silent physical comedy act, gesture by gesture: “Clown and Pantaloon enter and steal fruit from a fruit stand. Then they go into the tailor’s shop but the tailor chases them out, brandishing a hot iron, or goose.” Rendering action via the page strips away the laughs, but highlights physical comedy’s mechanic nature, a script of gesticulation, collar pulls and eyebrow raises. “Pantaloon indicates that he has an idea, and the two tiptoe into the undertaker’s shop and steal a coffin.”
In “Universals of Performance,” Herbert Blau says, “All performance moves between expectancy and observance, between attentiveness to what happens and astonishment at what appears.” Evenings of vaudeville were an expectancy/astonishment machine.
Samples from an evening’s run sheet: banjo player, monologue from Hamlet, “full-stage military number,” “a dancer called Fleury in a long cape” with “nipples painted to resemble large eyes.” Coherent theme and genre are un-vaudevillian.
Key to vaudeville is interruption. No one may finish. One song. One gimmick. Next.
Hilsabeck struggles to define vaudeville, the term itself a catch-all. He calls it “a mongrel feeling.”
It was originally an urban medium, “void de ville,” voice of the city, until promoter Tony Pastor wanted to expand his audience base, to export the medium to middle America. He scrapped the term vaudeville, dismissing it as too “sissy and Frenchified,” opting for a name that would “play in Peoria.” He rechristened it: variety.
Circus, stand-up, Broadway, B-movie, folk band, reality TV. On one stage.
I watch The Playhouse, a Buster Keaton film Hilsabeck discusses. Keaton buys a ticket for a theater production in which he plays every role. He plays every instrument in the pit orchestra. Each actor onstage. Keaton as the stagehand. Each audience member. A businessman. A duchess. At one point, a Keaton addresses “Mr. Brown,” two Keatons in blackface. This is played as a punchline.
Hilsabeck describes his project as a memoir, not his own, but of a version of America. He supplements lists and facts with a lyric grappling, a coming-to-terms. He contemplates a collective relationship to the past and “our various attempts to honor it, ignore it, pretend that it isn’t always about us.”
The vaudeville entries I read on Wikipedia and PBS.org say vaudeville was the first entertainment melting pot (it welcomed the minstrel show, it was the first time the Yiddish play format hit the mainstream), never mentioning that vaudeville treated nationality as novelty, its acts paid to perform racial stereotypes.
Hilsabeck describes Keaton sprinting on top of a train. Many American entertainers who “play in Peoria” have followed his lead: each iteration of James Bond, Charles Bronson, Tom Cruise, last summer’s The Lone Ranger, countless others, have sprinted on train tops after him, but who else with such sissy, Frenchified grace? Hilsabeck reimagines Keaton’s running as America running, America changing, Keaton as everyman, “our monotonous sublime…written across Buster’s blank face,” the ideals and haste of his country.
When someone dies, a family inherits objects, a home of tables and chairs, drawers and trinkets, out of tune pianos, wanted or unwanted. Hilsabeck lost his grandfather and gained his grandfather’s books, a collection stretching deep into the 19th century. They have led Hilsabeck not to back his grandfather, but to where “the grass grows stranger,” out into the “rotten voice” and “sweet mystery” of mainstream American pop culture, version 1.0.
Download Vaudeville for free at The Song Cave
Patrick Gaughan is a poet, performer and critic living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He contributes regularly to Blunderbuss, and has recent work in BOMB, Coldfront, The Conversant, and Diagram. He’s an ensemble player in the Connecticut River Valley Poets’ Theater. Find him on Twitter here.