Thomas Wolfe on the Topic of Vaudeville

‘Tis well to remember sometimes in this forum that not everyone loved vaudeville back in the day. Some were too elitist, “Victorian”, or bigoted — any number of things. I hit an interesting passage while reading Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River last night. The Great Southern Author writes of his early months in Boston and Cambridge while attending Harvard. This transplantation was the great theme of Wolfe’s life. It echoes the journey made by own father, one of the reasons I am drawn to Wolfe’s writing. There was considerable culture clash. Thus, I came across this passage:

“…Later he would go out on the sparsely peopled Sunday streets, turning finally, as a last resort, into Washington Street, where the moving-picture palaces and cheap vaudeville houses were filled with their Sunday Irish custom.

Sometimes, he went in, but as one weary act succeeded the other, and the empty brutal laughter of the people echoed in his ears, seeming to him forced and dishonest, as if people laughed at the ghosts of mirth, the rotten husks of stale wit, the sordidness, hopelessness, and sterility of their lives oppressed him hideously. On the stage he would see the comedian again display his red neck-tie with a leer, and hear the people laugh about it; he would hear again that someone was a big piece of cheese, and listen to them roar; he would observe again the pert and cheap young comedian with nothing to offer waste time portentously, talk in a low voice with the orchestra leader; and the only thing he liked would be the strength and the balance of the acrobats”

It is especially interesting to note that the young man was majoring in play-writing at the time. Doubly interesting to note that after several years and several plays, the alienated, solitary and verbose young man realized that fiction, not theatre, was his true metier (with the considerable help of the producers who would not produce his lengthy theatrical efforts). I also note that Wolfe frequently uses the word “cheap” as an epithet, revealing a certain amount of class bias. Some (the poor, for instance) might regard cheap entertainment as an unqualified good.  And lastly — and significantly — it is important to note that Wolfe DID like SOMETHING on the bill: the acrobats. And that is the whole point of vaudeville, art, and life. Nobody every said you had to like all of it.

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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