Archive for art

Why My Low Regard for Lou Costello is Not Just “My Opinion”

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2017 by travsd

On the other hand, my high regard for the skill of Bud Abbott is a matter of record.

Having re-posted last year’s piece about “When Classic Comedy Died” yesterday and having gotten some of the usual expected chagrined replies, I offer this long-germinating blanket rebuttal.

What you get a lot when you write criticism is the age-old retort that “opinions are subjective” and “that it’s all just a matter of taste.” That is certainly a partial truth, and you’ll find my own defenses of that point of view in numerous writings of mine, including this one on Ed Wood and this one on John Waters. I don’t expect everyone to love these highly idiosyncratic film-makers as I do. I simply champion them and share my enjoyment with others. That said, I’ll also express what has come to be something of a heresy in America: all opinions are not equal. For someone who dares to call himself a professional critic, the weight of his opinion is partly a matter of instinct but also a matter of cultivation.

What does cultivation consist of? It consists of education. I don’t mean a university degree (I don’t possess one, although I did study criticism at the college level). I mean exposure — to as much relevant human culture as possible over as long a time as possible. In the case of comedy film that refers to the work of particular comedians (in their entirety), the work of particular directors and producers and writers and studios (in their entirety), the entire history of comedy film, the entire history of cinema…and THEN everything that’s relevant to THAT: the entire history of theatre, of visual art, of literature, of dance, of music…and THEN, because cinema is a form of cultural expression, everything that’s relevant to that, which essentially means a solid grounding in world history.  And, then, because you are writing as a critic, it also means reading widely the work of the greatest past critics in every artistic field. And, then, if you want to be a truly great critic of comedy, it doesn’t hurt to be an actual PRACTITIONER of comedy, to study and perform it and write it and make it, and to live and work among other professionals within its myriad forms, whether it’s stand-up, or clowning, or acting in Noel Coward. Beyond that, it is helpful to have had the experience of doing all these things over several decades.

To have to done all that is to have the ability to look at something and know –with great assurance — what is possible. I have a better than sketchy awareness of what has been accomplished over the past two millennia in western culture, so I can easily imagine what CAN be done. And thus I have an opinion about what OUGHT to be done. The usual response is a sort of chagrined, infantile, sputtering “How can you say that? How dare you say that?”  My answer is: Well, because I have seen this, this , this, and this. The feeble thing you champion is very sparing in virtues I know to exist and are fully within the ability of an artist to concoct, execute and share. You come to me with the scribblings and caterwauling of toddlers, the makework of yawning time-servers, and you say it is a classic and it is “great” and I tell you it’s not. What do I care what someone who knows less than me thinks? The Village Idiot may laugh at a dog on fire in the middle of the street; does that mean I have to be impressed and respect that opinion? I have been to the Himalayas, trekked through the Sahara, Sailed the Seven Seas. Those who haven’t can call a foothill “Everest”, but I won’t be fooled.

Some people who don’t read very well claimed that my take-down of Lou Costello in my book Chain of Fools was not supported. NOPE. The entire book draws a very careful picture of my idea of what an excellent comedian is and does, what the challenges are, what the criteria for excellence are. And then I go on to point out that Costello does not learn from the wisdom of the artists who had solved the same comedy problems 30 years earlier and does NOT follow in their footsteps. I don’t know that Costello even grappled with the problems, he just blew them off, probably wasn’t even aware that they existed. But they do. Expertise IS A THING. Knowledge and skill EXIST. We now live in a society where those attributes are so disrespected and shunted aside that a man (and I use the term loosely) with neither expertise or knowledge or any other virtue has assumed THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND. In the ideal world, pretenders aren’t even worth talking about. In the real world, they attain places of prominence and power and popularity all the time, and so they must be pointed out, exposed, confronted, ridiculed, and whatever else it takes to crack open whatever mass delusion has allowed them to pollute human culture.

I don’t care if you – or billions of people — “like Lou Costello” or “find him funny”. I’ve never said I don’t laugh at him, by the way, or that I didn’t “like” portions of the boring, ill-made movies he co-starred in. As I say in Chain of Fools, we all laugh at the contortions of idiots all the time in our lives. I am going to ride the subway later today. Inevitably, some real life characters out there are going to make me privately smile. But there are standards in any field. Having watched thousands of movies, read and seen hundreds of plays and novels, and performed myself for decades, my standards for comedy are extremely high. These include:

  1. Physical skill. Chaplin or Keaton or any of the great physical comedians of the silent era could take a pratfall (for example) with laser accurate precision. “You want me to fall? Where should I land? How should I land? You need a backflip? A nip-up? I can land with my ass in this bucket if you want.”  The level of skill is important because it allows us to draw a line between the artist’s intention and the execution. Did he do what he set out to do? This is fundamental for all criticism, and we are talking about criticism, are we not?  Costello has zero chops in this area. In this regard, he never deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great physical comedians. He is a great mass of imprecision. He simply lets fly and gravity does the rest. Costello is just randomly fooling around, like a dog or a chimp does onstage when it stops listening to its trainer. But he’s worse than that, because unlike the dog or the monkey, HE DOESN’T KNOW ANY TRICKS. Buster Keaton or Lupino Lane or Al St. John can do a no-hands somersault. What can Costello do? Don’t call him a “slapstick master” if he hasn’t mastered any slapstick!
  2. Acting ability. This is just as crucial in comedy as in drama, at least in any comedy with a plot. This isn’t necessarily an argument for verisimilitude or truth or believability, although in the best comedians even that can be quite funny. But a comedian’s performance, unless he intends to purposely be subversive, is ideally to serve the narrative by responding to plot developments as the character in the story would. As a clown, the responses can and should be exaggerated. But they must purposeful, not RANDOM. Costello’s reactions very rarely match what is called for in the script. Some can, and probably will, argue that he is being subversive. My question would be, to what end? OF COURSE, a case can be made for doing the wrong things the wrong way for the sake of comedy. Harry Langdon, the Marx Brothers? But I KNOW what they’re doing, I know HOW they are being subversive and defying our expectations. Costello makes faces, squirms, flinches, falls down, but not in ways that serve the story, not in ways that mirror human behavior or human experience, but simply as a selfish, scene stealing plea for attention — so it’s neither art, nor craft nor even a good show. He short circuits whatever’s going on, stops the movie cold, shuts out all his scene partners, and makes a direct demand to the audience that they laugh at his funny faces for the sake alone of THAT. By his actions he is telling us not to care about the story, nor even to care about the character he is playing. The only thing that matters, he tells us with his actions, is the gratification, of him, Lou Costello. He acts out like a kindergartner with A.D.D., with neither logic nor coherence NOR intentional illogic or incoherence. He’s just an idiot. Not a comedian PLAYING an idiot. I mean documentary footage of an ACTUAL idiot, fucking around. It’s about as rewarding as laughing at the Titticut Follies. It may be temporarily amusing, but I don’t see where I’m obligated to RESPECT that, let alone EXPRESS respect for that.

Attached to these evaluationary measurements, my reactions to Costello’s comedy are much less like “mere opinions” and much more like objectivity. I am literally MEASURING his films against those of much more skilled comedians (there are many of them). If you like him uncritically, I consider it much more likely that YOUR’S is a “mere opinion” — an unexamined reflex action, an outgrowth of an impression you first formed when you were about four years old. Naturally we love things we first encountered when we were young. Here is a list of mine. I don’t argue that they are all brilliant or classics or that they need to mean anything to anyone else. Some are quite bad; I just happen to love them. So let it be, for God’s Sake, with Lou Costello.

Right?  So this isn’t about “I don’t like Lou Costello.” There are very definite reasons why Lou Costello fails to fulfill his function as a movie comedian on just about every single level. People always come back with “Well, he makes me laugh”. Well he occasionally makes me laugh too, but so can a Youtube video of a pig splashing around in its own shit. That doesn’t cause me to respect him, or call him “one of the greats”, or call his fuckin’ terrible assembly line movies “classics”! Give me a fuckin’ break here!   It depends what you want out of a movie I guess. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a film that’s 70% filler, punctuated with sporadic comedy routines starring a comedian who can neither act nor take a decent pratfall nor even hit his mark. But hey if that’s good enough for you, be my guest! By this measure, I guess Johnny Knoxville is Grimaldi. 

Elise Cavanna: An Artist of Diverse Canvases

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Slapstick, VISUAL ART, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Elise Cavanna (Elise Seeds, 1902-1963).

Originally from Philadelphia, Cavanna took art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy before studying dance with Isadora Duncan. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 where she befriended both W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks, fortuitous connections in both cases. After appearing in her second and last Broadway show Morals (1925-26) with Mischa Auer, Wheeler Dryden, and Edward Van Sloan, she got a part in the Louise Brooks film Love ’em and Leave ’em (1926), and It’s the Old Army Game (1926) with both Fields and Brooks.

Fields relished Cavanna’s comic physicality. She was tall and thin, with crazy, long limbs, not worlds away from Charlotte Greenwood. He put her to great use in his classic shorts The Dentist (1932), The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933), and she also has a bit part in You’re Telling Me (1934). Her appearances in the Fields comedies is what she is best remembered for today.


Cavanna worked steadily throughout the 1930s, sometimes with minor speaking parts, more usually in bit roles. She is in short subjects with great comic stars like Ned Sparks and Walter Catlett, she has a small role in Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hips, Hips Hooray (1934), and she has a fairly decent part in I Met My Love Again (1938) with Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda. In 1939 she parted ways with the film business, although she did return on one occasion to take a walk-on in the movie Ziegfeld Follies (1945) for old times sake.

By then, she was deep into a completely different life. In 1932 Cavanna married Merle Armitage, a man who was at the center of the arts scene in Los Angeles. Armitage was a collector, arts patron, book designer, writer, publisher, and administrator with the WPA. From the time of her marriage, Cavanna’s social set became artists as opposed to the movie colony. She began to paint again, and exhibited her work professionally. This is what she looked like in her other life:


For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Theatrical-Vaudeville Visions of Everett Shinn

Posted in Vaudeville etc., VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American realist painter Everett Shinn (1876-1953),member of both the Ashcan School and “The Eight”. I discovered this remarkable artist from my frequent rambles at the Brooklyn Museum, where he is particularly well represented. I like all his work, but what originally caught my eye (for what I hope will be obviously reasons) was his depictions of contemporary theatre, a major theme in his art. Many of his paintings capture stuff I had read and written about. Much of it depicts people, places and moments that have never been photographed. And such photographs that exist at the time are by definition much less vividly realized than these beautiful paintings. There is a terrific article about Shinn and his connection to the theatre on the Gustavus Quarterly website here. 

Now to some of his images:

The first one I saw that grabbed me and made me take note at the Brooklyn Museum was this, entitled Keith’s Union Square, painted ca. 1902-1906:




“The Vaudeville Act”, 1902-1903, Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University


"The Orchestra Pit: Old Proctor's Fifth Avenue Theater" (1906): Yale University Art Gallery

“The Orchestra Pit: Old Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theater” (1906): Yale University Art Gallery



Hippodrome, London, 1902


Concert Stage, 1905

Concert Stage, 1905


French Music Hall, 1917

French Music Hall, 1917

But there are scores of them — a guaranteed rabbit hole. I want to look at ALL of Everett Shinn’s art right now (his non-theatrical images are often just as breath taking.) Can’t fit it all in this blogpost. Can’t even fit it all in my brain!

For more on vaudeville and American theatrical historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Some Things I Saw Whilst Gallery Hopping Yesterday

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2016 by travsd

Yesterday, I happened to be rehearsing our new W.C. Fields show in the Chelsea area, which put me near the galleries! Having many errands to do, I managed to pop in and out of these arts spaces whilst I went about my busy day. Some of the things I saw:



This weekend will be the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panthers. It also happens to be my wedding weekend, so it occurs to me I’ll probably have other things on my mind, so I post this today. The Steven Kasher Gallery has two shows up relevant to that anniversary. The title of Power to the People: The Black Panthers in Photographs by Stephen Shames and Graphics by Emory Douglas is almost self explanatory. The latter refers to the layouts and covers of the Black Panther’s newspaper, which are exhibited on a wall across from Shames’ photos. In the adjacent gallery are some contemporary photos and text: Ruddy Roye: When Living is a Protest, a powerful reminder that much remains to be done to bring about racial equality. Both exhibitions will be on view through October 29. For another relevant post about the Panthers, see my June article about one play and two films about the controversial political organization. 









Next door at the Claire Oliver Gallery, I saw Judith Schaecter: A Life Ecstatic, an incredible series of light boxes made of stained glass and stainless steel, which seemed inspired by religious art, and yet not OF it. The images were more like the kinds of things you’d find in a naturalist’s or biologist’s text book : birds and fishes, infants (simultaneously evoking the Baby Jesus and a fetus), cross sections of skin with sweat glands, and the like, but all rendered like church windows or illuminated manuscripts. I found it interesting and beautiful. It is up through October 22.



At the Tagliatella Galleries I saw Brainwashed, a collection of paintings and other works by one “Mr. Brainwash”.  These were mildly amusing but facile mash-ups of familiar painting schools and quotations from recognized imagery, general thrusting together action painting, graffiti, and pop art, sometimes appropriating such obvious material as Warhol’s Marilyn or Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Both in concept and in execution these would need to go much further to justify their frivolity, though they are amusing and didn’t offend me — which can’t always be said. They’ll probably all sell for large amounts of money. Oh, and it’s “Sponsored by Stella Artois”. It’s up through October 16.



Then, over to Second Avenue, where at the historic Ottendorfer Library I looked in on The Bowery: Past, Present and Future on New York’s Oldest Thoroughfare, a very modest exhibition presented by my friends at the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.  If you happen to be in the neighborhood, pop in and you will be rewarded with charming old photographs and some interesting collages of historic people and places. While perfectly nice, it’s probably too modest in scale to warrant traveling a great distance to see. It will be on view through November 10.



Cornelia Street Cafe is not just a great restaurant and jazz venue, but they also have a nice little gallery in the front of their space, where my friend Jim Moore had an opening for his new exhibition of photos Finding Solitude last night. Jim’s best known (at least in my world) for his photos of the clown, variety and theatre scenes, but he has also traveled the world. These beautiful black and white photos are mostly of architectural beauty in Italy, France and New York, all evoking “quiet space” — well worth a look. And while you’re there, eat a meal! I love that place! It’s up through December 5.

Photographer Jim Moore

Photographer Jim Moore



Deborah Monlux


Moore and Hillary Chaplin



Lastly (this one is just a plug as I haven’t gotten there yet but hope to before it closes) there’s Molly Crabapple’s exhibition Annotated Muses at the Postmasters Gallery. It’s only up through October 15, so get there quickly!

Troll Museum Resurrection!

Posted in Art Stars, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd


Great fun last night at the Chinatown Soup gallery for the gala opening of the one-week re-appearance of Rev Jen’s Troll Museum. The Museum (which contains more trolls than you will find any place outside their natural Scandinavian stomping grounds) was formerly ensconced in Rev Jen’s pad, but both she and the trolls were evicted a few weeks ago. They need your support; an easy and pleasurable way to do it is to swing by the gallery on Lower Orchard Street and make a donation or buy some of Rev Jen’s art. Here’s some of what and whom we saw last night. All art is by the cosmically brilliant Rev Jen:


Old friend and long-time supporter CC John is the guy with the brewski. He took most of the photos and videos of my American Vaudeville Theatre’s earliest years














Porno Jim was there with his pooch in a bag, Bowie





Pay the toll to the troll!





IMG_1417 IMG_1418 IMG_1419 IMG_1420

Portrait of the Artist as Out of Con-TROLL. Though I’ve known and occasionally worked with her for going on 20 years these pictures we took last night are the only photos I know of that contain us both. We decided to make them count. ALL POWER TO THE REV!


Coney Island Comes to the Brooklyn Museum

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by travsd


Here’s irony for ya — the motive force behind Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, the major exhibition of Coney Island inspired art now ensconced at the Brooklyn Museum through March 13, proves not to be our local museum itself, but the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s been touring for the last several months, and now makes itself available to the tough but secretly sentimental audiences in Coney’s back yard. Tell the Warriors they can put away their brickbats — the new show is well worthy of America’s Playground.

The exhibition is exhaustive and instructively divided into historic periods: Down at Coney Isle: 1865-1894, The World’s Greatest Playground: 1895-1939, A Coney Island of the Mind: 1940-1962 and Requiem for a Dream: 1962-2008. One major positive aspect of the timeline is that it addresses a misconception inadvertently created by Ric Burns in his 1991 documentary film that Coney Island essentially ended (or began to decline) in 1911, the year that Dreamland, one of the three major amusement parks burned down. (I don’t have statistics in front of me, but I’m sure the attendance peak was in the 1940s. I’m sorry, but the attendance figures are the only yardstick that matter. There is no amusement professional who will EVER tell you anything different). On the other hand, to a minor extent it perpetuates the scurrilous canard that the closing of Astroland was the “end” of something. The only thing it was the ending of was Coney Island’s Shithole Period. Since the new version of Luna Park arrived in 2009, the place has been better and more exciting than at any time since I arrived here in 1987, and I go out there every season. But that misconception is so widespread, it’s going to be a job of work opening people’s eyes, and I wouldn’t expect this exhibition to be the platform for that.

At all events, the agenda here is art. Rarely in history has such a small patch of real estate inspired such a colorful and diverse lot of it. (A certain neighborhood in Bethlehem, perhaps?) This exhibition contains a nice cross section of the possibilities, over 140 works including paintings, photographs, quotations of texts by writers, posters, advertising ephemera, clips from motion pictures, and of course sideshow banners.

The exhibition’s first section is a reminder that the area once had a lot going for it as a natural landscape. William Merrit Chase’s 1886 Landscape near Coney Island depicts a bucolic scene with dunes, beach grass and a woman gathering berries — just like a real beach. A couple of genre paintings by Samuel S. Carr show the beach in transition, with just a hint of what is to come. Beach Scene (ca. 1879) captures a number of people on the beach dressed in what WE would consider formal clothes indeed. In the background is a group clustered around a puppet show. This is the era when the neighborhood was known primarily for hotels, but populist entertainment is already beginning to rear its head. Equally true of his Beach Scene with Acrobats, painted around the same time.

The sedate mood of the opening room quickly dissolves as you enter the next gallery. Here is an explosion of, well, everything. I don’t generally like to take snaps in the museum but I couldn’t resist this one…some piece of advertising art with caricatures of Mae West and Jimmy Durante:


Here’s a bunch of swell stuff I saw:

— Movie clips from The Gilded Lady (1935) Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), The Little Fugitive (1953), Coney Island USA (1951), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Weegee’s New York (1948, 1954), Annie Hall (1977), Enemies: A Love Story (1989), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000)and some footage by Edison and others, including the notorious film of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant.

— My favorite painting in the whole show, Leo McKay’s Steeplechase Park (1903-1906), a very large, bird’s eye panorama of the legendary amusement park. This alone was the worth the price of admission.

— Inevitably, several Reginald Marsh paintings and drawings. I don’t dig his work, but others do, and there’s no way you couldn’t include him in a show like this. To me, his depictions of humanity look like piles of dead zombies, and his pigments look like garbage water. Still, he was THERE and his paintings take you there, to such sights as the Wonderland Circus Sideshow, the Human Roulette Wheel, the Human Pool Tables, and a sideshow displaying Pip and Flip.

— Tons of great photos, by the likes of Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Edward J. Kelty, Harvey Stein, Bruce Davidson, and the aforementioned WeeGee

— sideshow banners advertising Shackles the Great, Quinto the Human Octopus, and (by our own Marie Roberts) the Congress of Curious People

— circus posters for Barnum and Bailey, and Bostock’s Great Water Arena

— Pieces of the old Spookarama ride

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo

— Paintings by Milton Avery, Ralph Fasanella, Red Grooms, Daze, and many others, including this one I really loved by Mort Kuntsler, showing another side of Coney Island:


I’m rarely tempted to buy exhibition catalogs, but I’m downright obligated to acquire this one, and I reckon you’ll feel the same.

Nearby this main exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum has installed two related shows of its own: Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection and Stephen Powers: Coney Island is Still Dreamland (to a Sea Gull).  If you’ve not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a while, now is a good time to go.

The Immortality of the Grotesque

Posted in African American Interest, Burlesk, Clown, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dime Museum and Side Show, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Human Anomalies (Freaks) with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2011 by travsd

Commissioned by The New York Theatre Review, 2010

(Copyright ©2010 byTravS.D. All Rights Reserved)

One late night I chanced to be walking along Tenth Avenue– on some wholesome errand, I assure you – when I came upon the predictable yet oddly unsettling sight of a streetwalker on the make for customers. Her uniform was the usual one: stockings, high-heels, lingerie, and heavy make-up. What unnerved your correspondent however was the strangely mechanical, detached nature with which she shook her hips and beckoned passing men. The effect, the disconnect, far from being sexual, reminded me more of a puppet, a robot, or an animated corpse. There was something actually quite horrible about it.

The odds are about 100% that this was a case of “phoning it in.” On the other hand, her behavior was entirely appropriate not only to the hour and the place and the situation, but to her “character”. The streetwalker, in her capacity as streetwalker, is not on the clock as herself. She is playing a crude, deeply warped IDEA (one might say a parody) of a woman. The entire performance, then, is about advertising (the actual product is of no concern to us here). Through the miracle of costume, make-up and performance, the actual woman is hidden; all that we perceive is the rather broad cartoon that she intends.

The streetwalker is somewhat tangential to a broader theatrical and anthropological phenomenon I want to discuss. I begin with her because she illustrates the primitive power and danger and universality of this phenomenon; and because seeing her was the “Newton’s Apple” of this essay (That the sight of the prostitute led me in pursuit of a chain of ideas about theatrical symbolism – and not sex-for-hire – will undoubtedly reassure some readers, while disappointing others).

If the mainstream of dramatic theatre is concerned with faithfully mimicking the details of ordinary human behavior, at the same time, there has always has existed an army of malcontents, performers unwilling to be nor to seem to be “real”. Extreme fantasists, they make it their calling to so distort their given physiognomies it seems at times as though they have dipped into the serum that turns Dr. Jeckyll into Mr. Hyde. It’s no exaggeration to say that I have been interested in this phenomenon since childhood, fueled by images that overwhelmed me in The Wizard of Oz, Captain Kangaroo and H.R. Puffnstuff. It’s what led me to an interest in experimental theatre, as well as vaudeville, circus, burlesque and related forms. It’s the liminal place where humor and disquiet meet, a common thread that loosely knots together the clown, the burlesque dancer, the drag queen, the blackface minstrel ** (and to a much lesser degree, other ethnic cartoons), the freak, and certain campy characters from Gothic horror. It is the realm we call The Grotesque.

The Grotesque in representational art – whether painting or sculpture or literature or theatre – refers to a quality of being simultaneously humorous and disturbing (and often disgusting). Artists it might be applied to are too numerous to mention but range from Aristophanes to Brueghel to Jonathan Swift to Terry Gilliam to Amy Sedaris. Why readers and audiences from time immemorial have appreciated art that simultaneously makes them laugh and recoil is a question as mysterious as the human response itself. But in the main suffice it to say that Grotesquery as a strategy has some sort of mysterious power, an allure.

As a term of aesthetic description it dates to the late Renaissance, when certain murals from the time of Nero came to light in excavations of an unfinished imperial palace. The chambers of the structure, now subterranean, were dubbed “grottoes” (i.e. caves), and thus was born the coinage we have used since. The murals featured ornate figures, part human, part animal or vegetable, and began to be mimicked by contemporary artists. Subsequently, the term was adapted to literature (this was the age of Rabelais after all) and still later, it became widely used to describe anything that was both gross or scary and productive of belly-laughs. (One notes that commedia dellarte too was born around the same time).

But when you get down to it, in theatrical terms the concept must date to prehistory. Think of the ritual use of make-up and mask and costume, still used among tribal societies. Some speculate that the use of these techniques predates even cave paintings, bestowing power on the warrior, the rainmaker, the Priest and the Shaman. At this early stage in social evolution, terror only and not the bona fide Grotesque holds sway. In the culture of ancient Greece, however, the cathartic ordeal of Tragedy eventually gives way to the Old Attic Comedy. The power of Dionysus proves to be more ambiguous and poetic than previously imagined, as men learn that the horrors of war and other human idiocies can be laughed at as well as bemoaned. As the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and others morphs into the more realistic, episodic New Comedy, the irreverence and the scatology, the stereotype and the exaggeration remain. People continue to laugh, with hearty recognition, at the ugly. The concept flourishes in the Medieval era and even persists as a countermelody to the classicism of the Renaissance, as a quick contemplation of Shakespeare’s fools (and Hamlet’s comedy routine with a skull) will verify.

Kevin Kline as Falstaff, photograph by Richard Avedon

It’s in those muddy, largely unchronicled Medieval years that those specific theatrical categories I named above take root. What interests me as a scholar of vaudeville is how they were born and continued to flourish until about halfway through the 20th century, whereupon they were pushed to the margins in favor a new official voice that mandated a new vision of conformity, leaving no room for the older folk ways. But the old folkways refuse to die.

We’ll start with the broadest, most universally recognizable iteration of the Grotesque in action: the clown. That clowns are not merely garishly costumed comedians but rather full-fledged Grotesques can be attested to by the many people who are terrified of them. What the hell is a clown anyway? What in nature are they supposed to represent? If they are meant to exaggerate actual human features, the perpetrators have gone too far. No village idiot or fool has those overlong feet, the huge lips, the bulbous red nose. Clowns are in essence nightmarish monsters. If you woke up on an operating table and saw several of them staring down at you, you would not laugh, but scream. Yet, laugh we do — to the extent that most of our most popular comedians until well into the twentieth century, were essentially clowns. Artists like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ed Wynn, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton lived by the dictum that a comedian not only had to be funny, but strange, off-kilter, surreal.

This is especially evident to modern eyes in that sub-species of clown known as the blackface minstrel. Modern audiences contemplating the antics of Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor are apt to find them more disturbing than amusing, but I submit that that otherworldly, uncanny quality was always there. Do they look and act like any African American you’ve ever seen? There’s something else going on. As African American blackface artists like Bert Williams and Pigmeat Markham knew, their Grotesque makeup allowed for an alchemical journey to another plane, a dream realm where the painful questions of race had no literal bearing. It was outside the theatrical compact that society decided these capers were wrong, and (eventually) did something about it. But as Dale Cockrell points out in Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, the origins of blackface predate American slavery by centuries, and can be traced to mummers and Morris Dancers of Medieval Europe, whose sooty visages were clearly meant to evoke Old Nick far more than any blackamoor. The real motive power of the blackface minstrel was the power of the clown. Jean Genet rightly acknowledges that relationship in his subtitle to his play The Blacks: A Clown Show.


Similar to the misrepresentation of the black onstage is that of the woman, as personified by the twin categories of the burlesque dancer and the drag queen. That I have paired these two categories may seem odd at first, but a little reflection will uncover this seldom-observed fact: apart from the presence of a penis, these types of performer are two sides of the same coin, a parody of a male adolescent’s idea of “woman”. It is a vision completely sexualized, devoid of nuance, a telegraph. If such a “woman” came to your parents’ house for dinner, it would be the end of you, the “woman” or dinner – but it would be the end of something. Furthermore, the portrayal, even in the case of the burlesque dancer, is comic, a parody. (Hence, the nettlesome ambiguity of that word “burlesque”, which  can mean both a spoof and a girlie show). The musical and visual eye-winking double entendres employed by the girls are comical, as is the interactive, playful art of the tease. The Grotesquery comes in through the use of exaggeration (feather boas, dyed hair, face paint, shape-enhancing dresses, etc) and the disquieting, dangerous presence in the room of sex. A moment’s reflection of the persona of the world’s best known burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee will you remind you that such performers are at least in part humorists. The fact that she and others play their roles until well into old age will reinforce our theme of Grotesquery. (Think of the inevitable if ungenerous comment usually overheard when an elderly woman is seen wearing too much make-up: “She looks like a clown.”)

While Mae West didn’t tread the burlesque stage, she worked harder than any other to bring its aesthetic to vaudeville, Broadway and the Hollywood film. West is sort of a hub or fulcrum of several of the characters we’re discussing. As a child, one of her favorite performers was the blackface artiste Bert Williams, whose larger-than-life mask undoubtedly provided a sort of object lesson in “how it’s done”, an example she was later able to translate into a form that made sense for her. As Williams, a black, played a “black”, West, a woman, played a “woman”. And she did so to such a degree that plenty of people actually mistook for her a drag artist, an illusion no doubt helped along by the fact that she trafficked with drag performers, emulated them, and even produced a Broadway show about them called The Drag.

To exacerbate the tension, burlesque and drag artists seem awfully close in conception to two other, non-performing figures, the hooker and the transvestite, characters who have existed around the fringes of theatres since there have been theatres and who catapult us from the realm of make-believe to the uncomfortably real. While, as we observed in the opening paragraphs, hookers do give a kind of performance, it is strictly about the sex, and lacks the humor as well as the barrier of the footlights. But because burlesque and drag artists evoke these related creatures of the demimonde, they summon forth real demons. And, as with my 10th Avenue specimen, they can occasionally be what scholar Philip Tomson calls “unintentional Grotesques”.

Walking a similar line between the theatrical and the actual is the performing freak. Contemplated on a purely aesthetic level (as with gaffed freaks or theatrical creations like the Hunchback of Notre Dame), this category falls into a slightly expanded definition of the Grotesque, one that comes to us chiefly from Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his study on Rabelais. Bakhtin’s Grotesque expands upon the merely humorous to embrace the joyful and the celebratory, as rooted in the physical body, a quality he dubs “Carnivalesque.” Like the fictional Hunchback himself, gross and “scarce half made up”, we elevate such characters into Lords of Misrule, and give them sway over us, parodies of our usual heroes and princes – perhaps because (Christ-like) they resemble us more than our actual leaders tend to. We enter a problematic new realm however when the freaks in question are actual “wonders of nature”. Names like General Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, Johnny Eck and the Hilton Sisters have entered our lore as great stars of yesteryear, no less than names like Booth or Kean. But the bona fide freaks present us with a problem. Viewed as spectacle with a certain detachment, they entertain us. Yet after even a small amount of reflection, their exploitation offends our moral sensibilities (if we have any). Still, one wonders if the difference here isn’t one of degree than one of kind. Blackface and the objectification of women offend these very same sensibilities, and in many cases the perpetrators, like the performing freak, are born, not made.

Not to be omitted from our catalogue of the comically monstrous are the principle comic “monsters” (although they usually are): ham actors from Gothic horror who make us laugh even as they give us the creeps – matinee anti-heroes like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, and Vincent Price. Heirs apparent to Lon Chaney and the creatures of German expressionism, these ostensibly straight actors gained a certain self-awareness over the years, and learned to make us giggle even as they sought to put a chill up our spine. Capes, gold-tipped walking sticks, pale skin, the stove pipe hat of the undertaker are the typical accoutrements of these sorts of Grotesques, ambassadors of spooky fun.

If you have been picturing the artists we have been describing in black and white, there is a logical reason for why that may be so. Long about the mid 20th century, mainstream audiences seemed to lose their taste for traditional Grotesquerie, turning away from certain stock types in favor of ones more prosaic and “recognizable”. This is an unprecedented  development. The characters we have been discussing had been around for centuries, some as long as millennia. But the reasons for this “mass extinction” are not hard to locate given the unprecedented changes affecting the society-at-large at the same time. One, theatre in general suffered a major set back after the phonograph, radio and cinema came into being, siphoning off audiences for all sorts of live entertainment. Attendance at live theatre had been universal and frequent. Overnight, that evaporated. By the mid-20th century only an elite minority attended the theatre. For the most part, their taste was not for the primitive caperings of the kind of painted clowns we have been describing. These audiences sought instead serious dramas and wholesome musical comedies. [While a case can be made that the Southern Gothic plays of Tennessee Williams do indeed contain Grotesques, his is obviously a subtler, more naturalistic method, outside the scope of the specific physical phenomenon we are discussing – aside from a very special recent interpretation we will return to]. Audiences, even cinematic audiences, became deconditioned to older theatrical styles, and they died out. On the movie screen, the old face paint, and the big clownish characters struck younger audiences as artifice. Gradually, concessions were made. Groucho Marx ceased to paint on a greasepaint moustache and grew a real one. Chaplin abandoned his tramp. For a time, the reigning king of comedy was Bob Hope, who established a new template (one that obtains to this day): the comedian as healthy, normal American guy. This is not to say, obviously, that clowns died out. Rather, they became marginalized. Whereas artists like Joseph Grimaldi had been among the most important performing artists of their day, and as recently as the 1830 the Marx Bros. had been on the cover of Time, now clowns were relegated to the fringes: circuses, children’s entertainment and the avant-garde.

Simultaneously, moral attitudes began to change. Burlesque, which had always lived in a sort on uneasy truce with respectable society, was officially banned by the 1930s. Such efforts are always Quixotic, however. Sex and theatre had gone hand in hand for thousands of years. The best any reformer can do is change what form it takes. As with the earlier prohibition of alcohol, which resulted only in the illicit popularity of much harder, more virulent and unhealthy rotgut, the banning of legitimate burlesque meant only its degradation from a popular art form to a sleazy, backroom ritual of sex for sex’s sake, absent the richer joys of creative performance.

Fortunately, this was not be the case with performing freaks, although their absence from the scene does have to do with the death of yet another live performing art form: the side show. No doubt, moral repugnance did play a role in the extinction of exploiters of freaks, but the choice had to have been made that much easier by the dearth of venues. Likewise, while stereotype itself exists even to the present day, blackface (which nearly every American comedian and singer had resorted to until the early 20th century) was finished by the Second World War, to be replaced by the more positive physiognymies of the likes of Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers.

This was the age of the photograph, the age of method acting. The clamor from the audience was for ever-greater authenticity and realism. Even horror films, a seeming last refuge for the Grotesque if ever there was one, eventually dropped the traditional Gothic trappings in favor of frankly unimaginative tales about serial killing slashers at summer camps and the like.  The ostensibly market-driven trend toward realism is ironic, because for millennia, the genesis for these many types of Grotesques had always been Folkish: of, by and for the common people. Now such folk traditions were indeed being kept alive, but generally by scholars and those with a taste for the arcane and esoteric. (I’ll always remember my confused consternation when, in my professional dishwashing days, I was castigated for listening to Leadbelly by a black coworker: “Turn off that white boy shit!”)

Be that as it may, “high culture” became the birthplace of a new era in the life of these ancient theatrical folkways. The Absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet became springboards for this new phase. By the 1960s,New York and San Franciscowere homes for hundreds of avant-garde theatre companies and New Vaudeville circuses. Clowning, busking, street theatre and protest all became aligned in that age of creative and political ferment. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was in the vanguard throughout the era; at one point they even staged a controversial minstrel show. The gay rights movement gave the long underground drag scene and its camp aesthetic a new visibility. Charles Ludlam’s concept of the Ridiculous brought the pure theatricality of clown, freak show, and drag a dignity, political significance and acceptance that these forms had often been denied. Rock and roll and New Vaudeville were also closely allied.  Perhaps the biggest boost the Grotesque has enjoyed in mainstream culture in the past half century occurred in the 1970s in the form of Glam and heavy metal rock. Artists like David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, Ozzie Osbourne and Kiss brought a high degree of showmanship to their costumed extravaganzas, adding an element of glamour not present since the vaudeville days.

By the 1990s, theatre and circus schools in the US and Europe were turning out thousands of graduates. Herb Gardner once wrote a play with the extravagant title A Thousand Clowns. Now there were a thousand clowns – and more – in cities across America. And not just children’s birthday party clowns, trained in centuries old traditions, schooled in commedia, clowns with that most dangerous of all things: a philosophy. In New York, Coney Island USA and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus gave a shot in the formerly discredited arm of show business known as sideshow.  Not only were fire eaters and sword swallowers back in business, but so were many bona fide wonders of nature like “little person” Koko the Killer Klown and London-based “flid baby” Matt Fraser. At the same time, in Los Angeles and New York (and now all major U.S. cities) New Burlesque started to explode, to the extent that there are now entire schools of strip-tease, entire festivals devoted to the art form. Surely, it is no accident that New Burlesque’s most famous exponent Deeta Von Teese is the once and future consort of Goth singer Marilyn Manson. If the 21st century has a power couple of the Grotesque, surely this is it.

The theatrical Grotesque reaches its ultima thule in the style known as bouffon. This style of playing originates in modern times with clown guru Jacques Lecoq of the L’Ecole International de Theatre Jacues Lecoq and makes its way to the western hemisphere through Toronto-based clown-teacher Sue Morrison, whose best known American acolyte is perhaps Eric Davis, a.k.a Red Bastard. Bouffon, so the story goes, has medieval roots, and represents a subversive inversion of the usual clown-to-audience relationship. The bouffon is a freak, an antic, angry outsider who exposes the audience’s ugliest impulses. In Bouffon Glass Menajoree, directed by Davis and starring the bouffon power trio of Audrey Crabtree, Lynn Berg and Aimee Lee German, Tennessee Williams’ already grotesque cast of characters becomes a springboard for an assault on everything we take for granted. The players, a hunchback, an obese woman and a mental patient travesty a seemingly sacrosanct masterwork from the American canon in a perverse effort to get a rise out of its complacent audience. Astoundingly, their audiences love to be abused.

Why? Why now, why then, whey ever? Your correspondent often wracks his brain about such questions, questions to which we can generate no answer from our vantage point inside the petrie dish of historical experiment. In the end, one can only observe and speculate. On the one hand, some people (some performers) want to be at once self-abnegating and defiantly outré. They seem to become obsessed and taken over by satyrs, and its been that way since the beginning time. On the other hand, other people (some audiences), are morbidly drawn to watch these potentially dangerous creatures, who tickle us but also have the potential to draw blood. Again, why? In my view, human beings, a rather new and strange species evolutionarily speaking, have not changed much at all over the millennia. Shave us, clean us up, tether us to electronic devices, but we are still rather superstitious apes. Scratch the surface of Civilized Man and you will find something wild, something primitive, a creature who embraces the night and all of its chaos. At present, the audience for clown, burlesque and so forth tends to be well-heeled audiences in major cities drawn to anything new, different and strange (little realizing how old and subconsciously familiar it actually is.) And the rest of the population? They attend their own Grotesque theatre. It’s called the WWE.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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