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American Vaudeville as Ritual

American Vaudeville as Ritual

Copyright Date: 1965
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    American Vaudeville as Ritual
    Book Description:

    This study affords an entirely new view of the nature of modern popular entertainment. American vaudeville is here regarded as the carefully elaborated ritual serving the different and paradoxical myth of the new urban folk. It demonstrates that the compulsive myth-making faculty in man is not limited to primitive ethnic groups or to serious art, that vaudeville cannot be dismissed as meaningless and irrelevant simply because it fits neither the criteria of formal criticsm or the familiar patterns of anthropological study.

    Using the methods for criticism developed by Susanne K. Langer and others, the author evaluates American vaudeville as a symbolic manifestation of basic values shared by the American people during the period 1885-1930. By examining vaudeville as folk ritual, the book reveals the unconscious symbolism basic to vaudeville-in its humor, magic, animal acts, music, and playlets, and also in the performers and the managers -- which gave form to the dominant American myth of success. This striking view of the new mass man as a folk and of his mythology rooted in the very empirical science devoted to dispelling myth has implications for the serious study of all forms of mass entertainment in America. The book is illustrated with a number of striking photographs.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5074-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Preface
    (pp. VII-XIV)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. XV-XVIII)
  4. ONE The Symbolism of Vaudeville
    (pp. 1-15)

    AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE by 1915 had reached its full maturity. From its infancy, thirty years before, it had grown with such amazing rapidity that even in 1900 it had dominated popular amusements in the more thickly populated areas of the United States. During the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, however, vaudeville had not only increased the number and size of its theatres in such metropolitan centers as New York, Buffalo, St. Louis, Dallas, Chicago, and San Francisco, but had spread its circuits throughout the land to the point where vaudeville was accessible to all but the more removed rural...

  5. TWO Evolution of a Ritual
    (pp. 16-37)

    AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE was shaped in the performances of the major circuits, and as such it was neither born whole nor imported from foreign shores. Its roots were only partially European, and its most evident sources were the itinerant amusements of the nineteenth century—the minstrel show, the circus, the troupes of traveling players who accommodated themselves to tents, show boats, opera houses, or town halls, whatever the particular stopping place provided. Vaudeville was itinerant amusement become stable and institutionalized in metropolitan centers. The players still traveled, but the circuits were no longer free and open. Beginning in the nineties, comprehensive...

  6. THREE The New Folk and Their Heroes
    (pp. 38-65)

    THE VAUDEVILLE AUDIENCE, amorphous as it was, would appear to defy characterization, but even without precise quantitative definition, it takes on at least the outlines of an identity. We know, for example, that the theaters were generally located near metropolitan shopping areas, and thus the audience must have included both city-dwellers and shoppers from the suburbs. We know that the device of the “continuous performance” was a singular success, and thus that vaudeville appealed to groups with leisure time even during the normal working day. We know that a typical vaudeville show contained a good deal of fluent verbal humor,...

  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  8. FOUR From Sin to Sociology
    (pp. 66-90)

    WERE THE VAUDEVILLE RITUAL a simple morality play, like the rags-to-riches versions of the Horatio Alger story that found their way onto the popular stage from time to time, problems of analysis would be all but eliminated. And if the vaudeville ritual were like primitive ritual, a straightforward outgrowth of traditional emotions toward the cycles of the seasons and of birth, growth, and death, the problems would be at least simplified. But vaudeville stood in the midst of a society in which few values were stable and in which simple stories of desire, like the dreams of success held by...

  9. FIVE The Mechanics of Fantasy
    (pp. 91-105)

    THE SYMBOL-MAKING ASPECTS of vaudeville had also an operational side. Seen from the wings by a detached observer, the performance itself must have seemed rigidly mechanical, for, as with role-players in most highly developed rituals, the vaudeville performers were intent upon the technique and regarded themselves—in their minutes before the curtain—as skilled craftsmen. Those phenomena upon the stage which acquired symbolic meaning in the imaginations of the audience were, as viewed from the wings, the products of a repetitive process based upon rather crude and stereotyped notions of human behavior. Yet this operational quality also encourages a comparison...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. SIX The New Humor
    (pp. 106-137)

    TOWARD THE CLOSE of the nineteenth century, Edward Harrigan, the realistic dramatist, was heard to complain: “There’s been a great change in the sense of humor in New York. I tell you it’s the Irish and Anglo-Germanic people who know how to laugh. The great influx of Latins and Slavs—who always want to laugh not with you but at you—has brought about a different kind of humor. It isn’t native, it isn’t New York. It’s Paris, or Vienna, or someplace.”¹ Such testimony that a change had taken place toward a sharper, more critical humor was to become a...

  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  13. SEVEN A Modern Totemism and Sorcery
    (pp. 138-164)

    AS OUR PREVIOUS DISCUSSION has pointed out, there is a fundamental distinction between the primitive rituals unearthed by anthropology in many corners of the globe and the ritual of the New Folk. Whereas primitive rituals have nearly always been expressions of a world view in which nature is dominated by unseen occult forces, the ritual of the New Folk celebrates success—the conquest by man, through science and technology, of a purely materialistic natural order. This is not to say that elements of the old magic were not assimilated into the modern ritual; to the contrary, they are applied to...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. EIGHT The Playlets
    (pp. 165-192)

    WHEN “DRAMA” ASSUMED an important place in vaudeville during the 1895-1896 season, mythic elements were added to the ritualistic aspects of vaudeville. So long as the show consisted of a superficially unrelated medley of acts, vaudeville had been under no compulsion to describe or explain or even consciously to organize into some coherent pattern its symbolic content; with the intrusion of what purported to be “limitations of life,” however, there was the possibility that vaudeville might have to place its various elements in some kind of overt, related order to accord more closely with the order of life. This was...

  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  17. NINE The Palaces
    (pp. 193-210)

    THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF March, 1894, two days before the opening performance at B. F. Keith’s New Theatre in Boston, two thousand invited guests, including “leading dignitaries of the State and city” as well as “representatives of the wealth and culture of New England,” inspected this luxurious building and admired, if one is to believe the publicity releases, its beauty, its comfort, and its safety.¹ Mrs. Ella Butler Evans reported in the Augusta (Georgia)Herald: “The age of luxury seems to have reached its ultima thule. The truth of this has never been impressed upon one so forcibly as in a...

  18. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  19. TEN The Patterns of Ritual Meaning
    (pp. 211-222)

    WHILE VAUDEVILLE AS RITUAL enacted for the New Folk the myth with which to meet the challenge of the Industrial Age, its lessons were not lost upon the entertainment forms which displaced it. As a symbol of the modern American’s search for commonality of vision, as an expression of the mechanical containment of vast energy and frantic rhythms, and as an invitation to the dazzling wonderland of comfort and convenience brought about by technology and capitalism, vaudeville took a permanent place in the popular imagination. Movies, radio, night clubs, musical comedies, and television would appropriate its values and purvey them...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 223-238)
  21. A Note on the Sources
    (pp. 239-242)
  22. Index
    (pp. 243-252)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)