Of Banks and Mountebanks

The original Mountebanks logo

As I begin to “reassert my brand” in preparation for a huge new wave of theatrical activity, I thought it might be a good time to post an explanation of why I called my theatre company Mountebanks — and, indeed, what a Mountebank is.

Since childhood — early childhood — I have been driven by a vision. When I was as young as five years old I actually ran away from home, hoping to wind up like Dorothy with Professor Marvel, Huck Finn with the Duke and the Dauphin, Pinnochio with that weird Fox and Cat. The ultimate theatrical life for me would involve traveling with a crystal ball in a gypsy wagon, selling snake oil and telling fortunes even as I spout Shakespeare.

In the early 90s, after my years of formal theatrical education and apprenticeship were ended and I set about making a career plan, I naturally returned to this vision. Or rather, fate kept throwing it in my face to rediscover. In ’89 someone gave me a copy of Geek Love to read and I made my first trip to Coney Island. In the early 90s I started working in a bookstore, where I read P.T. Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs and became obsessed. In ’94 or so, a friend got me another job that would make use of my writing skills — in the development department of the Big Apple Circus. These experiences kept drawing me into that vision. But I know that it was there latently all along,  or I wouldn’t have been so receptive to these developments.

At the same time, in my young adulthood, I was having a sort of political awakening. After years of considering myself of the radical, working-class left, and admiring the intellectual edifices artists like Shaw, Brecht, Eisenstein and Meyerhold had constructed underneath and around their work, I became…a born again libertarian.

And like the prototypical neo-con, I went at it with the fervor of a true believer. When I had first arrived in New York, I had actually investigated the socialist and communist parties. But what I read in their newsletters turned me off immensely, as did the rantings of some of my professors and fellow students at NYU, which I attended in the early 90s. I am sympathetic to the common man, but that’s where the similarities between me and those people ended. At the same time I had all sorts of experiences that shaped a new philosophy for me:  I took an actual economics course; I worked in a bank as a receptionist and read the periodicals the bankers subscribed to; then I worked in that bookstore,  and read numerous tomes on political science (in addition to Struggles and Triumphs), and wound up eventually at the work of the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who struck me like a thunderbolt. (For a brief article on him and his ideas go here).

This, mind you, was during the height of the culture wars of the 1990s. I think, if anything, my main association with the left was that I considered artists like the other minorities in that great Rainbow Coalition and I wanted the government to support artists. But I realized after a few years that my art was really nothing like the kind of art the government was supporting. Indeed, a lot of the art the government supported seemed mediocre, grossly conventional, self-congratulatory and smug. I really wanted to be beholden to nobody. I wanted to be free. Isn’t this what an artist is supposed to want? To be free?

And so I hit on this idea of the Mountebank. For a definition, here’s a little section from my book No Applause: Just Throw Money:

…Performing his shows on moveable tables or “benches”, the mountebank (literally “mount the bench” in Italian—as in “climb up on this improvised stage”) was part businessman, part entertainer, making quack medicine his dodge. But he was also a showman, presenting a variety bill that might include clowning, slack-wire walking, juggling, conjuring, and feats of strength. The show was just bait, however. When the crowd reached critical mass, the mountebank would proceed with his real agenda: selling medicinal tonics, elixirs and powders and performing simple medical services, such as corn cutting.

The mountebank was the ancestor of the pitchman, the carnival barker, and the circus spieler, not to mention our entire modern model of entertainment programming presented by advertising sponsors…

Though such medicine shows (as they came to be known) have their origins in the Middle Ages, they persisted as late as the 20th century, and, have come to be thought of as characteristically American. This is the “snake oil” patent medicine salesman of song and story, once a fact of life in rural America, and most prominently embodied in the character devised by W.C. Fields. Such shows were to co-exist with and enrich vaudeville, sending forth such distinguished alumni as Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Eubie Blake, Jesse Lasky, and Harry Houdini.

The mountebank was the prototypical theatrical entrepreneur. His brother in charms was the ciarlatano (Italian for “babbler”), whose bag of tricks was a little bigger, embracing not only medical cures, but magic and fortune-telling as well. Gypsies (more properly known as Roma, a people believed to have immigrated to Europe from India), became associated with the latter line of work, which remains a staple at fairs, amusement parks, and carnivals to this day. The classic American charlatan is captured in the character of Professor Marvel from the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, with his crystal ball, his turban, and his dubious ability to see into the future.

Originally, I wanted to call my theatre “Mountebanks, Incorporated”. I thought it would be a really hysterical reference to “Murder, Inc.” But when I began to set myself up officially, I realized that it was a problematic to use that name when I wasn’t actually yet legally incorporated.

Also, at the time, there used to be a major corporation called “Beatrice”. For a while, at the end of commercials, you’d hear this woman’s voice say “We’re Beatrice.” (My buddy Matt Mania howled at one point, “Everybody’s fuckin’ Beatrice!”). So, another in-joke. I thought it would be funny to echo that slogan: “We’re Mountebanks.”

The intimation of semi-criminality appealed to me. Sounds roguish, dangerous ,risky.

But here’s what really clicked for me. “Banks”, as have just seen, means “benches”. Banks arose in these same late medieval marketplaces. It was the capital created by those moneylenders that soon thereafter made the RENAISSANCE possible. It is therefore CAPITALISM and NOT SOCIALISM that supports, encourages and fosters art. Whereas, in socialist and communist countries, an artist who displeases the government can be defunded at their whim, or in a worst case scenario, imprisoned or executed.

At any rate, I wrote a huge manifesto when I founded my theatre company Mountebanks in 1995. Like I said, I was a true believer. I was going to post some excerpts of that manifesto in this post but I just went back and re-read that stuff  and, while I still stand behind my ideas, the person who wrote the manifesto sounds like he’s OUT OF HIS FRIGGIN’ MIND. So fat chance!

Do I have criticisms of the market and its deleterious effects on our culture? I do indeed. I am now a more nuanced believer. I love small business and I hate big ones, like all good Americans should. And I certainly believe morality must always trump the profit motive. No one talks about it, but that’s the central crisis facing our nation at the moment: the battle for its soul. But let us save that for a future post.


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