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.


  1. The compilation film The Sound of Laughter apparently contains a clip of a 1930s routine by Joe Cook; a quick google should find you a site offering vhs tapes. (I haven’t seen it, so I can’t vouch for whether it’s a film of a stage performance or an excerpt from one of his few films). Frank Capra’s Rain or Shine is a film version of a Cook stage musical and includes some of his routines … there’s a lengthy description on

  2. It’s interesting that Seldes has this definition of “technical sufficiency” as common to all arts, from the seven liberal arts to the seven major arts to the seven lively arts. This definition attempts to erase the question of “high art” versus “low art,” as on page 3, when Seldes says that although slapstick had no pretensions to art, “people of culture” conceded that it was one. Directly before your quote, he terms the distinction between Shakespeare and vaudeville “snobbism” — i.e., vaudeville not only pretends to be an art, but is one.
    Pace Seldes, the question abides. In 2003, Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award — for his “technically sufficient” horror stories and novels. Is this the death of “snobbism?”

  3. Yeah, that’s what struck me as well. I think it’s one of those eternal tensions; it would be silly to say vaudeville is on the same level as Shakespeare, but it’s equally silly to dismiss the “minor arts” as not worthy of attention and not worth doing as well as possible. Of course, when Seldes wrote he was fighting an overwhelming tide of snobbism; today the tide runs the other way, and the danger is that people do not recognize what makes minor arts minor.

  4. When Shakespeare was alive, he was on (nearly) the same level as vaudeville and Jonson was his (near) Seldes. (Less enthusiastic. Maybe more like the NBF awarders.) The problem that none of us, Seldes-wannabes and Shakespeare-wannabes and Don-Marquis-wannabes alike, can really face is that it’s not up to us to decide.
    Cook, dang, who knows what he was like?; Chaplin seems no Shakespeare in the longish run, but Keaton now seems better than approved masters of either the Seldes-era mainstream or the Seldes-era Seldes, and Herriman, ah, Herriman I’d put up against any art anywhere anytime. But Herriman didn’t count on it. (And plenty of snobs still don’t get E. C. Segar.)
    Moral: Technical sufficiency is nothing to sneer at, being as it’s all anyone’s got to lean on. The best we can do is to do the best we can do and to try not to sound too foolish about it. Fuck pace; I’m with Seldes.

  5. W.C. Fields also came from vaudeville and was one of the greatest jugglers of the time.
    I saw a couple of his films again recently and they’re pretty weak as wholes. But his lines and the way he says them, and the situations, are hilarious.
    In one of the films he played the stereotypical hen-pecked husband with impudent, bratty kids. Bratty kids seem to be this nation’s strength. As I recall, Tocqueville and Crevecoeur both commented on them.

  6. David Quidnunc says

    I thought Seldes sounded familiar. I knew about his brother, George, and a little Googling turned up his niece, Marian — three really fascinating lives. Here’s some of what I found on the Web:
    “Gilbert Seldes began his career as an unabashed member of the cultural elite, Kammen writes. Educated at Harvard, he became the New York correspondent for T.S. Eliot’s Criterion in London and wrote one of the first American reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses for The Nation. When not socializing with the Fitzgeralds, Picassos, Joyces and Stravinskys, Seldes worked as managing editor of The Dial, the most influential literary magazine of its time.”
    His daughter, Marian Seldes, is an actress still appearing in movies and plays (she’s the college president in the current “Mona Lisa Smile” for instance).
    His brother, George, had a singular career as a journalist — in two of his many adventures, he had to flee Fascist Italy and was kicked out of the Soviet Union. He later became a “leftist gadfly” suspected of Communist sympathies but cleared by Sen. McCarthy’s committee. (He died in 1995 at the age of 105.) Ralph Nader and Nat Hentoff said they were inspired by his newsletter, “In Fact.”
    The film documentary “Tell the Truth and Run” describes his life and touches on the boyhoods of both George and Gilbert Seldes. Their father had a very progressive view of education, as I recall, but I can’t remember the particulars.
    A bit more on their childhoods:
    “[George was] Born in 1890 on a New Jersey agricultural commune made up of idealistic eastern European Jewish immigrants called Alliance, Seldes’ family would carve out a hardscrabble life selling grapes and strawberries. His father Serguis, the community’s post master, was an admirer of Emerson and Thoreau, as well as correspondent with the anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin and Tolstoy. Following his [George’s and Gilbert’s] mother’s death and the subsequent dissolution of Alliance, Serguis moved his sons to Pittsburgh. There he converted a covert heroin-dispensing den into a drug store. It was here that young George recalled meeting the likes of Emma Goldman and Maxim Gorky.”
    You can’t make this stuff up.

  7. There he converted a covert heroin-dispensing den into a drug store.
    English is a strange language, isn’t it? Thanks for that quick course in Seldesiana; I had been vaguely thinking “Gilbert is the other one,” but I didn’t know what his relationship to George (one of my journalistic heroes) was. Now I’m wondering about the name Seldes; it’s not in any of my family-name books. A little googling turned up a page with the following sentence: “A lone Jewish soldier from Duluth, Minnesota, Alex Lurye, found himself in a small German town called Seldes.” But I can find no other reference to the town. Still, if we accept that as accurate, then it’s a typical Eastern European toponym-based Jewish name.

  8. This will go far afield. In a different context I had already read the story you linked to about the Jews from Seldes who escaped to Duluth. The rest of what I know about the Jews of Duluth follows:
    Bob Dylan, whose family came from Odessa, had family connections in Duluth, one of whom (oddly enough) I communicated with a few days ago. Incidentally, coming from Hibbing, Bobby Zimmerman really was pretty much a hillbilly. Not a nice suburban Jew. (Trivia: he briefly played with Bobby Vee’s band in Moorhead.)
    On the other hand, the following site reports that Duluth, though it has a synagogue, is now virtually without Jews:
    Since there in fact was a synagogue there, I think that her message is really that she had never spent much time entirely surrounded by people much different than her. Her remarks about visiting Israel bear that out.
    WARNING: ethnic stereotyping of Scandinavian-Americans.

  9. WARNING: ethnic stereotyping of Scandinavian-Americans
    You want ethnic stereotyping of Scandinavian-Americans? I’m half-Norwegian, and I’ve often heard “A Svede ain’t nothin but a Norvegian vit ‘is brains knocked out.” (But then, I’m sure the Svedes say the same in reverse.)

  10. Two Swedes, two Norwegians, two Danes, and two Finns were stranded on a desert island. When the rescue ship came a year later, the Norwegians were drunk, the Finns were fighting, the Danes were planning a small export business, and the Swedes were waiting to be introduced.

  11. Do you know why Sweden has a higher average intelligence than Norway?
    Sweden has more Finns.

  12. Did you hear about the Norwegian who loved his wife so much he almost told her?

  13. zizka, after I finished laughing I repeated it to my wife, who’s also had experience of the Norwegish soul, and we agreed that (as my dear departed aunt used to say) there was more truth than poetry to it.

  14. Some Shakespeare is vaudeville.
    Then there’s Waiting for Godot….

  15. Hey, I’m half Norwegian too!

  16. Sweden has more Finns.
    The former governor of Georgia, Herman Talmadge, was asked what he thought about the emigration from his state to the neighboring state of Florida.
    “I think it’s a good thing. It improves the average IQ in both states,” said he.

  17. From Asimov’s third memoir, I, Asimov:

    Thus, Timothy Seldes succeeded [Walter Bradbury] as my editor. He was tall, thin, and had a craggy face that was quite attractive and that seemed always to wear a half smile. He always affected gruffness and would address me as “Asimov” with a growl, but that didn’t fool me at all. In fact, he was so friendly I would bait him. Having carefully gotten him to admit that Gilbert Seldes, the writer, was his father, George Seldes, the writer, was his uncle, and Marian Seldes, the actress, was his sister, I said, with wide-eyed innocence, “How does it feel, Tim, to be the only member of the family without talent?”

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