A Matter of Taste

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A word we don’t see much when it comes to constructing art, whether it’s an acting performance or a magic performance: taste. We talk a lot in magic about method, effect, and even presentation, but taste is something different. Our friend Andy over at The Jerx, is one of the few who talk about it, if not explicitly. In fact, almost every post of his is about taste. So what is taste, and why is it important?

It’s tempting to say about artistic taste, as Louis Armstrong said about jazz, that if you have to ask, you’ll never know.  But I’m here to try: Taste is about proportion, and the humanity underneath the artwork.

An acting story: when I was in my twenties I stage managed a number of Off- Off-Broadway productions. I loved watching the older veteran actors, how effortlessly they seemed to ply their craft. And I remember one older actor, Gene—maybe one day I’ll remember his last name, but no matter, I still remember his first name, Gene—had a scene in a play that I was stage managing that was very moving, a family drama where he was playing the father. With every rehearsal I was spellbound by his depth of feeling. And opening night, I looked on from the wings as I always did and watched Gene do that stunning scene. Only this time, he was not only emotional, but he was crying profusely throughout the scene. Real tears. I was so impressed. But when the scene was over, he stomped offstage angrily into the wings muttering, “Dammit! I let myself go too far!”

Taste.

He knew he was a good actor; he didn’t need to prove it. He had gone beyond the bounds of taste right then. Just as in real life, we don’t always spill our guts, sometimes the way to be true to a playwright is to hold back a little. The issue is this: how much do you call attention to your own power as an artist?

Taste.

Which is what is missing (necessarily, given the format) of every performer on an American Idol-type show. The performers are forced, like trained seals, in the three minutes they have, to reveal everything they have, all their power, all at once, stripped naked.

Even a burlesque stripper is more tasteful.

In magic, magicians are particularly susceptible to lapses in taste—and I don’t just mean their wardrobes.  There are two major ways that they violate good taste: first, if they attribute all the magical will to themselves, they look egotistical—this is something I’ve written about before; but second, for the most part, you look like an idiot if you’re dressed in a Merlin costume and maintain that your magic is real. This is really the problem that Andy addresses in almost all his posts. Nobody with half a brain or a beating heart can ever believe that the magician’s Linking Rings are the ocular proof that real magic exists. If the magician acts as if it does, if the magician insists that somehow it’s more than just a form of entertainment, it’s creepy.  The majority of actors playing magicians seem to believe that they must really deny that they are just actors.

Taste.

So how as a magician can one avoid seeming to be a jerk?

Understand that a play is play. And a magician’s performance is play. Play is a context that tells others how to frame the present interaction. There should always be what that fine magician Pop Haydn calls the wink behind the mask.  That is, the wink that says: I know you know that this is all BS, but we’re still having fun anyway, and I’m still going to fool you and amaze you. Without that wink—and one doesn’t want to be too obvious about the wink, or else that would be insulting to the spectator’s intelligence, as if s/he weren’t capable of knowing that the magician was winking—it’s no longer in the context of a game, but the context of a demonstration, and that is a hell of a lot more boring and uninteresting.

Let me try to connect these two strands: the wink and the holding back. They are both ways to say that there is a real person behind all of this, and that the mission here tonight is something larger than bringing attention to the performer.  For the actor, the mission is to tell the story; for the magician, it’s to play with the audience. If there’s no proportion, the mission can get overwhelmed and lost. How big to make the emotion, how big to make the wink, these are all matters of experimentation and matters of taste. But interestingly, the metric is not out in the audience; after all, people still go for Barbra Streisand. No, there is some internal aesthetic that tells one what the proper proportion must be.

Perx of The Jerx

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I’d like to recommend a magic blog to you: The Jerx. The Jerx, whose name and logo are a satirical tribute to Ted Annemann’s mentalism periodical, The Jinx (which in turn was a satirical tribute to the magic periodical, The Sphinx), is the reincarnation of the legendary Magic Circle Jerk blog that ran from 2003–2005. The main goal of the MCJ then was to bedevil and taunt the owners and staff of The Magic Cafe, a noble mission, good even onto itself. However, about three months ago, Andy, the one-named former proprietor of the MCJ, started a new daily magic blog, the aforementioned The Jerx. And even though once in a while it still ridicules The Magic Cafe, this time Andy has cast his net wider to include thinking deeply about what makes an audience enjoy a magic effect. It’s well worth reading every day.

In its new incarnation, The Jerx is still profane, funny, at times hopelessly adolescent, sexy, maybe at times sexist, and oh yes, more than occasionally tinged with genius.

The Jerx‘s operating assumption is that the single most important way for magicians to improve their magic is to focus on the audience’s experience; to this end Andy puts in a ridiculous (no, the correct!) amount of thought to scripting and performance. Andy’s descriptions of the elaborate set-ups he devotes to entertaining his friends and colleagues in everyday situations are downright inspiring, favoring effects that grow out of the organic relationships already present. If reading the description of his Borrowed Money Teleported to Paris effect doesn’t move you to scrap everything you’re doing in magic and start all over, then maybe you should apply to be a Grammar Host at The Magic Cafe. (And, no, I’m not going to link to that post. Dig and find it yourself, it’s worth the effort.)

What I like about Andy’s work especially is that he goes back and forth between theory and practical experiments to see if a proposed theory holds water. He experiments to see which of several hypotheses work out best for him in his world. By this method, he has found a fascinating corollary to the Whit Haydn theory of magic—that theory which states that the best magic is when the audience confronts the experience of the insoluble dilemma: There’s no such thing as magic / There’s no other answer to explain what just happened.

Andy, in one of his recent posts, provides a very nice extension of that theory. You should read the whole post, but the essence of it is this: A successful effect according to Haydn is one that puts an audience member onto the horns of that dilemma and provides no escape. But a big problem that Andy addresses is that spectators will try to dislodge themselves from those horns one way or another. If you give them no possibility of a method, they give up and surrender, falling on one side of the dilemma—which is okay, but not as good as keeping them dangling. If, on the other hand, you give them a believable implied method, even if its wrong, they’ll take comfort in that, and again dislodge themselves from those horns. But the most diabolical strategy is to give an implied method that on quick audience reflection cannot be true. It’s as if

“you’re in a sealed room with a little tiny door the size of a cereal box. You’re trapped, but there’s this thing that beckons you as if it’s an exit. Your rational mind knows it’s not. You know you’ll never fit through it, but you can’t help but keep returning to it and shoving a hand or a leg out and seeing if maybe there’s some way to work your way through. Rationally, you know it’s not the way out, but it’s the only thing that even suggests a way out, so your mind keeps returning to it.

And this is where Mr. Haydn and Andy would like their audiences to end up—endlessly going over each part of the trick over and over again, to take home and re-tell later to their friends and family. The most effective magic, in this view, is the magic that gives the spectator’s brain no rest.

You can read a lot of fancy books about magic detailing the latest tricks and the newest micro-variation of Triumph and Ambitious Card, but if doing and thinking about informal magic is something you enjoy, and you like starting each day with a laugh, The Jerx is required daily reading.

The Driving Instructor

The classic Bob Newhart piece done live, some 50 years after the release of his record The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which first contained the routine. Sorry for the abrupt ending, but at least it’s all there. Newhart’s timing is as impeccable as ever.

Thanks to YouTuber B. V. Dahlen

Attention, Attention, Attention

attentionA while back, I posted a photo of an intriguing street mural called “Wordscape” that I had come across while strolling in Brooklyn; at the time, I had no clue as to who the artist was, other than the name on the mural. Fortunately since then, I’ve been in phone contact with the artist, Don Porcella, who now lives in California. I had a great conversation with him, and in the near future I hope to post the audio of the interview here.

Until then, I just wanted to comment on one thing that Don said to me: when a person goes to a museum or gallery, the average time that the viewer interacts with a piece of art is just three to seven seconds—that’s it. The artist may have taken months or years bringing a project to fruition, but that three seconds could be the entire length of time that a viewer engages with the piece of art. So the artist’s  job, as Porcella sees it, is to somehow persuade or seduce a person to stay and engage and interact a little longer. He wants people to see through the surface, and then take the time to go a little deeper.

That resonated with me, because it seems as if in all the arts, there’s that obligation of baiting the hook for attention. It seems almost whorish. But the novelist is taught that the first few sentences have to grab, or no one’s going to read the rest; a musician has to have a musical hook that gets the audience humming or singing along; the old vaudeville maxim declared that “you gotta have a gimmick.” The great British actor Ralph Richardson once stated that the art of acting consisted of keeping the audience from coughing for two hours.

In magic, too, the first obligation is to get the audience’s attention. Indeed, it’s doubly important in magic: not only do magicians need your attention so that they can perform for you, they need first to receive your attention, so that later they can deceive your attention. There’s the story about a teacher of coin magic—I wish I could remember who it was!—who would stop his students’ rehearsals of coin sleights barely before they had begun. He would admonish them that they were attempting magic when they hadn’t even made eye contact with their spectators yet. Without engaging the audience’s attention, there is no hope of manipulating it.

There are crude ways of getting attention and more subtle, artistic ways. Attention is deeper and longer lasting when the viewer makes that decision without coercion. But without attention there can be no art either on the part of the artist or the part of the viewer.

There is a classic Zen Buddhist story that goes like this:

A student goes to a Zen Master: “Master, will you please write for me the essence of Zen?” The Master immediately takes out a brush and writes the word “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Can you explain more?”
The master then writes: “Attention, Attention.”

The bewildered student says, “I don’t understand.”
The master writes: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

Fool Us: Penn and Teller

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Magicians Penn and Teller, who have been fooling us for forty years, last night premiered the first episode of the new season of their CW network television show, Fool Us. It’s packed full of magic (and commercials), but it’s certainly entertaining for both magicians and non-magicians alike.  The format of the show remains the same as in the past; that is, several  performers, often well-known magicians in the magic community, perform tricks for Penn and Teller and the live audience. The performers’ goal is to fool P&T about the methods used to accomplish the magic. Teller, in particular, has a vast knowledge of the history and methods of magic, so that’s not an easy proposition.

Now the fun part for the magic-savvy audience tuning in, is that P&T have seemingly painted themselves into a corner: for if they know how the trick is done, how do they prove to the performer that they know the method? They can’t just outright say the method, because that would violate one of the venerable tenets of magic: magicians may not expose how tricks are done without very good reason to do so. So the fun for the at-home magician is watching P&T speak in a coded language that makes it very apparent to the challenging performers that P&T have caught them out. The performers understand right away that they’ve been busted when they hear P&T say, as they did last night, that  “the trick took my breath away” or “we think we’re one ahead of you” and so on.  When the performers hear such comments, they metaphorically hang down their heads, signaling that they’ve been busted; they have to admit to the audience that indeed P&T know exactly how their tricks were done.

So, yes, it’s fun for magicians and hobbyists, it makes us feel like we’re smart and on the inside. In fact, most likely, we are consciously being pandered to. Because at least two of the effects on last night’s show would not have fooled anyone with even the most basic knowledge of magic. There is no way in hell that the performers could have actually thought that P&T wouldn’t know their methods. Really, without exaggerating, the methods of two of the magicians in last night’s show could be found in many children’s magic books. I guess it’s nice for the performers to get national exposure, I’m not knocking them for that, but really what were the producers of the show thinking when they selected them? I can only think that it was to increase the number of viewers who could feel like they, too, were in on the joke.

That said, there were some fine performances. The highlight of the show was Steve Brundage, a very  clever and engaging young man who does a signature routine with a Rubik’s Cube. He tosses a mixed cube behind his back, and when he catches it, the cube is restored to its solved state. A very pretty effect. But the kicker was when he appeared to have failed, only to reveal that the cube was now in precisely the same mixed state as another mixed cube sitting between Teller’s previously closed palms. P&T had no clue as to method, and over here, I’m certainly still scratching my head.

But truth be told, I don’t want to know. It would only disappoint me. Much better to live with that feeling of amazement.

To round out each of their episodes, P&T do a trick of their own, and last night it was the ancient mystery of the “Cellphone to Tilapia’s Entrails.” It’s a classic in the P&T repertoire, but it’s always fun to see them work.

There’s much discussion about the show in the magic community, and the more negative comments seem to center around two things: first, though P&T generally do not expose any magician’s tricks on the air (except their own), they have been known in past episodes to be particularly rough on those who claim to be mentalists. Unless you clearly mark yourself as a comedy mindreader, as the performer in last night’s episode did, you can expect to get skewered—and exposed—by P&T.

The second criticism of the show—which I think is a very fair one—is that by naming the show Fool Us, P&T are inviting potential magic audiences to look upon magic as only a puzzle to be solved. Now there’s much intellectual satisfaction in trying to solve a clever puzzle, there’s no doubt about that. But magic is so much more than “the method.” In fact, a clever method is no guarantee at all that the effect is any good. In magic we don’t care if the method is clever or not—it only has to fool the audience, not Penn and Teller. Strangely enough, there is no correlation between a method’s ingeniousness and how good a trick is. The puzzle is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the performance of strong magic. What a magician cares about is the overall impact that the magic will have on a spectator. If clever puzzles were all that were necessary and sufficient, then magicians could hand out copies of the Sunday Times Cryptic Crossword Puzzle and go home.

But no, Our Magic (that is, stage conjuring) is a branch of the theatrical arts, albeit a very specialized one, and it’s subject to the theatre’s constraints and glories. In a magic performance, there are many other considerations that contribute to the overall effect and impact: acting, pacing, character, staging, music, lights, premise, participation, engagement, scripting, likability are all as important as “method” to the audience’s ultimate experiencing of a feeling of magic. And Fool Us, with it’s emphasis on puzzle-solving, neatly elides all those factors. “The method” is not the method. That’s the big secret. And watching Fool Us, you would never know that. You think you’re on the inside track, only you’re not. But you can be sure that P&T understand that as much as anybody. They show you their empty hands, while their other hands remain hidden. Clever boys, those rascals, Penn and Teller.

But Thy Eternal Summer Shall Not Fade

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The Fifth Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Slam took place a while back. I got to talk to the Producer of the Slam, Melinda Hall, and we had a great chat about the sonnets, their history, Shakespeare, Bill Gates, what it takes to survive as an artist in the world, and a knockout reading of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” by actor Richard Thomas. This was broadcast last Thursday on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NY. Click on the grey triangle to hear.

On Why We Should *Not* Suffer For Our Art

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“Do we need to suffer in order to make great art?”

This question was asked the other day. A student actor was disturbed about being in an acting class where the teacher was abusive. The teacher’s theory was that one needs to “break down the students” before they can learn how to be artists. This is not an uncommon theory among acting teachers. I suspect it is pervasive in other forms of art education as well—dance, music, studio art. The theory further posits that one must be hardened to the sufferings of the soul a life of art will inevitably entail.

Please, please, please, let’s dispel a few destructive, though popular myths.

Most artists suffer whether we want to or not. It’s a tough life. No use making it tougher. Certainly, it’s no use putting ourselves in a position where we will be abused by others. So one more time, life for an artist has enough suffering all ready built into it. Don’t be afraid that suffering will pass you by unless you actively put yourself into a miserable situation. You don’t need to seek it out. You’ll have your share of suffering, I promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, no need to worry on that score. So don’t allow yourself to be abused in order to experience “suffering.” Not by “teachers,” yourself, or anyone else. There are plenty of great teachers out there who are not abusive.

Is suffering good for art? Well, living is good for art, and so in that sense, we need to know what suffering is. But to dwell there? Then there will be so much else that you are not allowing yourself to feel. It’s giving yourself permission to lead an emotionally constricted life, experiencing the same suffering feeling over and over again.

Look at what Stanislavsky has to say about tension in An Actor Prepares. You can’t have a free body and voice while you’re lifting a piano. He says the very first prerequisite for effective acting is relaxation. Likewise, if you’re living with all kinds of tension and emotional anguish, you cannot give yourself with full availability to the material. Even if the material is about an emotionally suffering person, you must be free to express that artistically.  Otherwise, it’s just bad acting.

Stanislavsky talks over and over again about just how tenuous and delicate the thread of the creative state is, and how easily it can be broken. How protective of that thread we must be, exclaims Stanislavsky!

In studying the great actors, one thing always comes through in their work: the great relish they take in their role. Part of what an audience experiences when they watch great acting is the mask slipping ever-so-slightly to where the actor as a human being exists. The audience starts to think not just about the story, but about what a wonderful thing storytelling itself is. The audience members start to think about the malleability of human beings who can show such full empathy for others—human beings who inhabit their characters physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It holds out hope that there is a possibility of being understood by another.

Now an actor should never play that directly, that would just be egotism, but if an actor as a human being is, in fact, living that joy in the profession and the art, then some part of that is communicated to the audience, without the actor indicating it. That is a healing thing for the audience to feel. Art becomes worthwhile, and the audience goes home feeling more human, more connected.

And isn’t that what we are all aiming for?

Houdini’s Doppelganger

The great magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini, had a Doppelganger of sorts—his own younger brother, Theo, who performed under the name of Hardeen. Hardeen also did an escape act, duplicating many of Harry’s effects, and it has been said that Hardeen was the first to perform the straitjacket escape in full view of the audience.

A short time after Houdini’s death, Hardeen did some performances in Brooklyn off the back of a truck as a publicity stunt. Fortunately there was a movie camera there to record his version of one of Harry and Bess’s signature effects, “Metamorphosis.” You can view this wonderful trick—still performed by many illusionists today—by clicking on the video above. Filling the streets, there are lots of hats to be seen, but very few women. The background is the area near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. Hardeen was scheduled to play at the nearby Prospect Theater.

If anybody knows who the people are that are assisting Hardeen, I’d appreciate it if you could drop a comment here.

Making Stalin Laugh

MIKHALTMANSolomon Mikhoels painted by Nathan Altman 1932

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David Schneider’s compelling new play, Making Stalin Laugh, tells of Stalin’s suppression of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, and the murder of its director, the beloved actor Solomon Mikhoels. The play is performed in Yiddish, Russian, and German, with English supertitles, You can hear my review of the fascinating play, and my interview of the excellent cast, by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Love and Theft: Minstrelsy in America

Looking back at yesterday’s post on Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’, got me thinking again about minstrelsy, and the relationship of Black entertainers to their (often) white audiences. Throughout American history, Black performers were frequently able to subvert and re-frame the meanings of their entertainments. Eric Lott’s seminal book, Love and Theft, inspired me two decades ago to do some serious study of the American minstrel show, and to investigate how the minstrel show’s conventions and subversions helped write the complex story of both race oppression and resistance. Here’s an article I wrote at that time that appeared in the December 1994 edition of the journal African American Review. I’m posting it here as it appeared then, without any update or correction.

The Ira Aldridge Troupe: early Black minstrelsy in Philadelphia

Minstrelsy before 1865 was a largely white-owned and white-performed phenomenon. There were, before 1865, few companies that had Black performers and that were Black-controlled. Robert Toll, in Blacking Up, lists only six such groups, none of which is known to have lasted more than a month. One troupe that is not on Toll’s list, and is not, as far as I know, documented elsewhere, is the Ira Aldridge Troupe, which played in Philadelphia at the Franklin Hall in Philadelphia in 1863.(1) An eyewitness account by a white reporter from the New York Clipper provides insights into the program of the company as well as the troupe’s reception by its largely Black audience (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70).

The Ira Aldridge Troupe is surely unique in the annals of minstrelsy, if only by virtue of its name, which reflects the pride and awareness the founders of the company must have had when they chose to title themselves after the Black actor who had left his homeland some 35 years before, never to return. Although long absent from the United States, Aldridge was not unknown here – his death in 1867 was reported on the front page of the Chicago Times (Marshall and Stock 334). However, during the Civil War, Aldridge’s name had a significance even larger than his acting abilities, for he had kept a close eye on the abolitionist movement in the United States, and was reported to have contributed half his earnings to the struggle for the liberation of Blacks. As an example of Aldridge’s immediate concern, when a Black family in Baltimore was captured after fleeing from slavery, Aldridge reportedly donated the money to buy the family’s freedom (Marshall and Stock 198). So it is perhaps understandable that, unlike most later Black minstrel companies, and in keeping with the dignity of its name, the Aldridge Troupe apparently did not do plantation material, although they were billed as a contraband troupe – that is, as fugitive slaves. Perhaps, too, because of their substantially Black audience, the troupe felt no need to “put on the mask.” In fact, although much of the material the group performed was standard fare, several of the company’s acts were downright subversive, as a description of the show will indicate.

Part I began with ballad singing by three members of the troupe – Miss S. Burton, Miss R. Clark, and Mr. C. Nixon. Burton sang “When the Cruel War is Over,” which, having sold over a million copies of sheet music, was the most popular sentimental song of the Civil War (Toll 110). The song describes a soldier’s farewell to his lady, the wounds he receives in battle, and his dying request for a last caress. This song, so popular with white minstrel troupes, was an example of the change in white minstrelsy that had been occurring at this time. As the war progressed, the sentimental songs telling of the destruction of Black slave families were replaced in white minstrelsy with songs telling of white suffering because of the war. In the hands of a Black performer, however, this song with its refrain “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely, Hopes and Fears how vain! / When this cruel war is over, Praying that we meet again!” must have had a different, special meaning for its Black Philadelphian audience. Since Philadelphia was one of the closest Northern cities to the slave South, it had become a major stopping point for fugitive slaves, and a frequent destination for the underground railroad, which was supported by many Black churches and secular groups in Philadelphia (Miller and Smith 570). The song’s not-so-encoded meaning clearly referred to fugitive slaves “meeting again” with their Black brothers and sisters still enslaved in the South. The imminent departure of the first troop of Black soldiers from Philadelphia added pertinence and poignancy: Soon there would be Black women seeing their true loves off to war (Du Bois 38). The Clipper reporter notes that the Black audience showed its appreciation, and Miss Burton sang an encore. However, much to the delight of the audience, but to the dismay of the reporter, Burton started to get “into a regular Methodist style, keeping up a movement with her body to the air of the song, collapsing at last into a regular camp meeting break down” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). There can be no doubt that the audience had identified itself in the song.

The next act was a farce called “The Irishman and the Stranger,” with a Mr. Brown playing a character called Pat O’Callahan and a Mr. Jones playing the Stranger. The Clipper reporter refers to it as a “truly laughable affair, the ‘Irish nagur’ mixing up a rich Irish brogue promiscuously with the sweet nigger accent” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). Perhaps the Aldridge Troupe’s audience got its biggest satisfaction, however, from the role reversal inherent in the piece: Since the beginning of minstrelsy, minstrels of Irish heritage such as Dan Bryant and Richard Hooley had been caricaturing Black men – now it was the turn of Black men to caricature the Irish. Tensions between the two groups were running particularly high during this period, a tension that was to culminate in occurrences such as the New York City and Boston draft riots less than a month later, during which primarily Irish rioters ran through the streets attacking Black people (Zinn 230-31). The previous twenty-five years in Philadelphia had seen a considerable deterioration of the political and economic position of Blacks: They had been completely disenfranchised by the Pennsylvania constitution in 1838, so that they could no longer vote, and by the 1850s they had lost their predominance in many semi-skilled and unskilled occupations to the Irish. What is more, despite increasing industrialization, Blacks were excluded from the factory jobs that the Irish immigrants filled (Hershberg 112, 117). So the Aldridge audience must have gotten special enjoyment from Brown’s representation of an Irishman so crude that his coat buttons were made of crackers.

Race and ethnicity were never far from the thoughts of the spectators even during the seemingly innocuous acrobatic act that followed. As Mr. J. Purnell stood on his head on top of a seven-foot pole, Black members of the audience shouted out with pride, “Ooh! Go way white man – look at ’em, look at ’em” and “Whar’s yer Pickayune Butlers now?”(2)

After some comic songs and dances, the troupe continued with a dramatic performance that brought race once more into focus. A thriller called “The Red Man of the Forest; or the Oath” starred Mr. P. Jones as the Red Man of the title, and Mr. S. P. Brown as the evil Duke Aphonza. Toward the end of the play, Red Man captures the (white) Duke; the actor playing the Duke, however, evidently had not “whitened up” for the part; and, as a result, when the Indian confronted him saying, “Let the pale face beware,” the house exploded in laughter and chatter, calling to the dark-skinned actor to dip his head in a barrel of flour. But one observer, at least, was able to see beyond the actor’s actual color. Voicing a hidden subtext of the piece, the theatregoer shouted out, “Go it, Injun – give dat pale face a smash in dat mouf of his’n.”

The hostility of some of the Black audience members toward whites should not be surprising, despite the reputation that Philadelphia had for abolitionist activity. For if Philadelphia was a center of anti-slavery activity, it was also a hotbed of discrimination. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia” (qtd. in Weigley 165). Black Philadelphians at the time were still barred from street cars, could not attend white elementary schools, were not allowed to attend any public high schools, and had been subject to the effects of so many riots during the 1840s that the growth rate of their population throughout that decade was a scant 0.36% (Du Bois 38, 40, 88).

Given this history, it is interesting to note that the audience was not completely Black. According to the Clipper account, while the hall was nearly filled with Black audience members, one bench in front, reserved for whites, was occupied by “a dozen or two of pale faces.” The Clipper reporter noted the clear difference in the behavior of the two segments of the audience:

The whites were orderly in their demeanor, always laughing in the right places, and applauding at the proper time; but the blacks behaved very bad, making all sorts of fun of the performers, and openly criticizing everything that was done. (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70)

Not even the infamously rowdy New York Bowery Theatre audiences were this bad according to the reporter: “A more incorrigible set of cusses we never saw; they beat our Bowery gods all to pieces” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). It is interesting to note the reporter’s presumption in judging the “right places” to laugh and applaud. However, the reporter’s bland assessment of the white audience does not impart much insight. There is no way of knowing, for example, whether the responses of the white audience were racist, since such responses presumably could be subsumed by the reporter under the category of “laughing in the right places.” But clearly the majority of the Black audience knew what was thought funny, and pertinent. In fact, the reporter admits that he could not make head or tail of the plot of “The Red Man of the Forest,” although he concedes the Blacks around him seemed to understand it thoroughly – even if, as he claims, each had a different version of the piece.

Exactly who were the audience members? We have a few clues to go on. Franklin Hall was not a legitimate theatre, since contemporary advertisements imply that it was being used as a dance hall at times.(3) It was located on Spruce Street, just off of Second Street, in the heart of the Fifth Ward of Philadelphia in the Southwark district. The Fifth Ward accommodated the largest concentration of Blacks in Philadelphia at the time – according to the 1860 census, 5,229 Blacks out of a total ward population of 24,792. Although this ratio may not seem great when compared to say, the modern-day Harlem of New York City, it must be remembered that in 1860 there were only 22,185 Blacks in Philadelphia out of a total population of 565,529, for a proportion of only 4% (Weigley 159). So a theatre located in the Fifth Ward could easily attract a predominately Black audience. The neighboring Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Wards were also populated with relatively high percentages of Black inhabitants, so it is reasonable to believe that the theatre may have drawn audiences from these wards as well.

The presence of some two dozen whites at Franklin Hall can be explained by the 80 percent white population of the Fifth Ward. The Clipper reporter recounts that one of the acts was interrupted by a young Black boy who had “espied the white trash” and called out “Three cheers for the Shiffler hose!” (“Negro Minstrelsy” 70). Clearly the reporter’s characterization of the whites as “white trash” allows us to place them as working-class, but the reference to the “Shiffler hose” allows an even more narrow identification. The Shiffler Hose was one of the ubiquitous volunteer fire companies so popular in urban centers during the mid-nineteenth century. These fire companies functioned more like gangs than service organizations. There were intense turf wars among the companies, sometimes involving beatings, firearms, arson, even murder. Some companies like the Moyamensing Hose made alliances with notorious gangs such as the Killers. The fire companies not only fought over turf but were often divided along ethnic and political lines as well. The Shiffler Hose was infamous for its violent anti-Catholic sentiments.(4) The young boy in the theatre, however, was evidently incorrect in his identification, because as soon as he called out, someone else responded, “Shet up yer mouf! Dem’s de Wiccacoe fellas – free cheers for de Wiccy.” The Weccacoe Hose company, one of the Shiffler company’s most hated enemies, was aligned with a gang called the Bouncers; they were Democrats and mainly Irish Catholics, in contrast to the Shiffler’s American Republican Party allegiance and “nativist” American composition.(5) The headquarters of the Weccacoe was at Catherine and Front Streets, less than a mile away from Franklin Hall. Clearly the Black members of the audience were familiar with the faces of the “Wiccy,” and had interacted with them outside the theatre. The Irish of the Fifth Ward, like the Blacks, constituted a significant but less than majority proportion of the ethnic composition of the ward: 4,381, or 18 percent, were Irish. This was a relatively high concentration of Irish for the city, since no ward was more than 28 percent Irish. Thus, both the Blacks and the Irish of the Fifth Ward found themselves to be large minorities outnumbered by the larger nativist population of the ward (Warner 139). Eric Lott, in his recent book Love and Theft, suggests that, despite the constant conflicts between Irish and Black throughout the country, the shared class niche also resulted in interracial friendships and even marriages (Lott 95).

Another thing that the volunteer firemen had in common with the Blacks in the neighborhood was a lack of property. Although in 1850 one-third to one-half of the property in the nearby districts of Moyamensing and Gray’s Ferry were owned by Irishmen (Clark 137), the journeymen who made up the membership of the volunteer fire companies “owned no real property” (Laurie 76). As for the Blacks, an 1848 census showed only 28 homeowners in the entire district of Southwark (Du Bois 288). So despite the fierce racial antagonisms prevalent between the Irish and the Blacks, the firemen of Southwark and the Black theatregoers did share some common class concerns, and perhaps it was this aspect of commonality, along with their geographic proximity, that allowed them to attend the low-priced performance together. The fact that the whites sat at a bench reserved for them in the front of the theatre may have been sufficient acknowledgment of white-skin privilege to satisfy their racial standards. Their privileged position signaled that, though the audience was filled with Blacks and the performers were Black, this was still Wiccy turf.

We can see, then, how each part of the minstrel audience made its own meaning out of the performance, in collaboration with the performers and other members of the audience. As with white minstrelsy, readings of the racial subtext by the audience were an important part of the experience. The history of minstrelsy is also the history of the piracy and distortion of Black culture by whites. The Ira Aldridge Troupe attempted to pirate that piracy, and, in collaboration with its audience, turn minstrelsy to its own ends. In an ironic twist, the reporter for the Clipper had a final suggestion for white performers. Speaking of the Aldridge Troupe, he invited his readers to plunder this newest manifestation of Black culture once more. In an enthusiastic endorsement, the reporter proclaimed that “we should like some of our [white] minstrel friends to see one of these performances. They would profit by it.” And indeed, as history shows, they did.

Notes

1. It is hard to verify whether the Aldridge Troupe was a professional, rather than an amateur, company given the vagaries of making a living in show business, especially for Blacks, during this period. However, a few factors point strongly in the direction of professional intention. First, the fact that a white reporter from New York City was present indicates a larger than local fame; second, the complexity of some of the acts, especially the acrobatics, indicates a performance that was not just thrown together overnight, but required long hours of practice; third, Harry Craig, who is reported as being the head of the troupe’s orchestral trio, is listed in the 1860 edition of Cohen’s Philadelphia, Pa. City Directory as being a musician by trade. Finally, the presence of a mixed Black and white audience indicates that the performance probably was not sponsored by a church or fraternal organization.

2. The mention of “Pickayune Butler” probably refers to John “Picayune” Butler, one of the very few nationally known Black entertainers of the period. He was famous for his banjo playing and introduced a popular song called “Picayune Butler’s Come to Town” (Southern). Another intriguing, though less likely, possible reference is to Pierce Butler, a wealthy white slaveowner, once married to the famous actress Fanny Kemble, who took up residence among the elite of Philadelphia. During the outbreak of the War, Butler went south to oversee his Georgia plantation, and while there probably took an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. On his return to Philadelphia in August of 1862, he was arrested by federal authorities without benefit of habeas corpus for his pro-slavery sentiments (Dusinberre 128).

3. See, for example, the Public Ledger for 21 May 1863.

4. For a fascinating account of the volunteer fire companies of Philadelphia, see Laurie (71-87).

5. Of course, what Philadelphians called nativist American does not refer to American Indians but rather to those Protestants descended from English immigrants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were strongly opposed to the waves of nineteenth-century immigration.

Works Cited

Clark, Dennis J. “The Philadelphia Irish: Persistent Presence.” Davis and Hailer 135-54.

Davis, Allan F., and Mark H. Haller, ads. The Peoples of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1973.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro. 1899. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967.

Dusinberre, William. Civil War Issues in Philadelphia 1856-1865. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1965.

Hershberg, Theodore. “Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia.” Davis and Hailer 111-34.

Laurie, Bruce. “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s.” Davis and Hailer 71-87.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1958.

Miller, Randall M., and John David Smith, eds. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport: Greenwood, 1988.

“Negro Minstrelsy.” New York Clipper 13 June 1863: 70.

Southern, Eileen, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Westport: Greenwood, 1982.

Toll, Robert. Blacking Up. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.

Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Private City. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1968.

Weigley, Russell F. “A Peaceful City: Public Order in Philadelphia from Consolidation through the Civil War.” Davis and Hailer 155-74.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980. New York: Harper, 1990.

And Now A (Listener-Sponsored) Word From Our (Non-Commercial) Sponsor

The problem: WBAI-99.5 FM in NYC, the radio station I work for, is a listener-sponsored, non-commercial radio station. In order to raise operating funds, we, like many other non-profit media outlets, hold on-air fund raisers wherein we give the listeners “thank-you gifts” as a reward for their donations. Some of those gifts are  tickets to movies, plays, lectures, etc. The problem is that tickets are very perishable—if listeners don’t grab them by the event date, the tickets become worthless.

So how can we encourage more listeners to go to our website to buy tickets?  One solution the station was able to use was the promo above I made. It was really fun to put this together. It took me less than an hour using Audacity, an open-source computer editing tool. Click on the grey triangle to hear the results.

Magic Saves the Day

Lots of magicians do the trick I’m doing in this video, but I really enjoy the presentation that I’ve worked out here with my colleague Jacob Lefco. I think it makes it a lot more fun and logical when you have a reason for tearing the newspaper up and making the magic happen.

This was performed yesterday at a high school talent show. The acoustics in the auditorium are less than stellar, but I think you can still get the idea fine, anyway. The students were a very enthusiastic crowd, as you can tell, and they are all new immigrants to the United States, so their English vocabulary for the most part is limited; that’s another reason why I tried to play it with a minimum of words on my part.

Hope you enjoy it.

Abbott and Costello Meet Shakespeare

Sometimes you’re in a restaurant, and there’s something on the menu that you know you just have to have, because it includes not only one, but two things you love, like Surf and Turf, or Strawberry Shortcake with Chocolate Ice Cream. Well, I felt that same kind of pleasure on stumbling across the above video. Two of my favorite things in the world, Shakespeare and Who’s on First are mashed up and beautifully scripted and acted by NJ actors David Foubert and Jay Leibowitz. Enjoy! And save me a slice of that Key Lime Pecan Pie with Whipped Cream . . .