I’ve always wanted to read Gilbert Seldes‘s famous 1924 book The Seven Lively Arts (whose chapter on Krazy Kat was the first serious critical appraisal of comic strips) and am glad to discover it’s online, where I can dip into it at leisure, a chapter at a time. I’ve just read the chapter on vaudeville, “The Damned Effrontery of the Two-A-Day,” and I thought I’d quote here a section that summarizes something important about art of any kind:
I shall arrive in a moment at the question of refined vaudeville, a thing I dislike intensely; there is another sort of refinement in vaudeville which demands respect. It is the refinement of technique. It seems to me that the unerring taste of Fanny Brice’s impersonations is at least partly due to, and has been achieved through, the purely technical mastery she has developed; I am sure that the vaudeville stage makes such demands upon its artists that they are compelled to perfect everything. They have to do whatever they do swiftly, neatly, without lost motion; they must touch and leap aside; they dare not hold an audience more than a few minutes, at least not with the same stunt; they have to establish an immediate contact, set a current in motion, and exploit it to the last possible degree in the shortest space of time. They have to be always “in the picture,” for though the vaudeville stage seems to give them endless freedom and innumerable opportunities, it holds them to strict account; it permits no fumbling, and there are no reparable errors. The materials they use are trivial, yes; but the treatment must be accurate to a hair’s breadth; the wine they serve is light, it must fill the goblet to the very brim, and not a drop must spill over. There is no great second act to redeem a false entrance; no grand climacteric to make up for even a moment’s dulness. The whole of the material must be subsumed in the whole of the presentation, every page has to be written, every scene rendered, every square inch of the canvas must be painted, not daubed with paint. It is, of course, obvious, that the responsibility in this case is exactly that of the major arts. It is at least tenable that in this case, as in the major arts, the responsibilities are fulfilled.
And I would dearly love to have seen this guy:
I have committed myself to the statement that Joe Cook is perfect and am in no mood to withdraw it. As vaudeville he is perfect; I can see him in no other milieu because he lacks the gift—not needed in vaudeville, though useful there—of holding the audience in his hand. He is liked, not loved; his act is met with continuous chuckles, smiles, and laughter; seldom with guffaws. This is not necessarily to his credit; it means that he does one sort of thing, and does it extremely well. It happens to be just the thing for which vaudeville is made. As Ethel Levey is what most vaudeville players aspire to be, so Cook is what they ought to be. He is exactly right. Yet to give the quality of his rightness is difficult. To recognize it is easier.
He is versatile, but not in the manner of Sylvester Schaeffer. He is a master of parody and burlesque, yet not in the fashion of Charles Withers; his delicate impersonations have an ease and certainty far beyond the studies of Chic Sale. Essentially what distinguishes Joe Cook is that he is very wise and slightly mad, and his madness is not the “dippy” kind so admirably practised by Frank Van Hoven. It is structural. Mr Cook’s is probably the longest single act in vaudeville, and after it is over he saunters into one or more of the acts that follow his on the programme, as his fancy takes him.
His own starts as a running parody of old-time vaudeville, beginning with the musicians coming out of the pit, through the magician and the player of instruments to—but no one has ever discovered where it does go to. For after the card tricks… Mr Cook finds it necessary to explain to the audience in one of the most involved pieces of nonsense ever invented why he will not imitate four Hawaiians playing the ukulele. After that literally nothing matters. He might be with Alice in Wonderland or at a dada ballet or with the terribly logical clowns of Shakespeare. I think that Chaplin would savour his humours.
In an art which is hard and bright and tends to glitter rather than radiate, he has a gleam of poetry; but he is like the best of poets because there are no fuzzy edges, no blurred contours; he is exact and his precision is never cold. He holds conversations of an imbecile gravity: How are you? How are you? Fine, how’s yourself? Good. And you? Splendid. How’s your uncle? I haven’t got an uncle. Fine, how is he? He’s fine. How are you? He is amazingly inventive, creating new stunts, writing new lines, doing fresh business from week to week. His little bits are like witty epigrams in verse, where the thing done and the skill of the method coincide and pleasing separately please more by their fusion. His sense of the stage is equalled by but one man I have ever seen: George M. Cohan.