4. Burlesque v. Irony

Black Spring: Burlesk

In Black Spring's "Burlesk," Miller emphasizes burlesque's capacity to level, to collapse and gather together on one stage before one audience, the heights and depths of the social order and of human experience. To his "cleanest, fastest show ever produced in the Western Hemisphere," Miller issues a uniform invitation to high "Pharisees" and lowly "Kallikaks" (the pseudonymous New Jersey family whose "hereditary" poverty, criminality, and "feeblemindedness" were grist for Henry Goddard's sociological eugenics).[4] To all equally, he promises a "renovation" of the "guts" through laughter, a resurrection without death and without ascension. The novelist's star attraction is Clio, the goddess and muse of history, reduced from Olympian heights to "Cleo," the stripper, an embodiment of Tropic of Cancer's "cosmos--on the flat": "On the meridian of time there is no injustice; there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and beauty"--"it is the world dying, shedding the skin of time."[5] On burlesque's meridian of time, speed is of the essence: the comedic master of ceremonies leaps from contradiction to contradiction in a rapid succession of acts, with quick wit making light of everything and everyone, including himself, lest the "cleanest, fastest show" founder in a static opposition of purity and filth.

Just such a static opposition, demanding choice between purity or filth, Heaven or Hell, resurrection or everlasting death, is the forte of revivalist "theater." From his days with New Thought lecturer Benjamin Fay Mills, Miller well understood the intimate antagonism between burlesque and revivalist theater, rival forms of popular entertainment capable of drawing the same audience on the same day: "If I had a beer and a ham sandwich what a friend I would have in Jesus! Anyway, the curtain is rising. Shakespeare was right--the show is the thing!"[6] In "Burlesk," Miller mixes the language of burlesque and revivalism to present his own choice, not between high and low (burlesque and revivalism are both "low brow" forms of theater), but between the temporal and the "extra-temporal." Celebrating a transient, tactile History in the here and now, in cool recognition that Clio denies choice to all but the quick witted, Miller turns to burlesque, seeking to give new meaning to the "cleanest, fastest show." To escape, to "get away clean," you have to be fast. Throughout his Paris narratives Miller directs the leveling power of American burlesque humor against the "extra-temporal" structures of American Romanticism and New Critical modernism, relying upon the pace of his associational leaps--from topic to topic, diction to diction, and contradiction to contradiction--to forestall any subjective, visionary, ironic, or metaphoric reification of his narrative "detour":

Because why? Because America is the grandest country God ever made and if you don't like this country you can get the hell out of it and go back where you came from. There isn't a thing in the world America won't do for you if you ask for it like a man. You can sit in the electric chair and while the juice is being turned on you can read about your own execution; you can look at a picture of yourself sitting in the electric chair while you are waiting to be executed.
A continuous performance from morning till midnight. The fastest, cleanest show on earth. So clean, so fast, it makes you desperate and lonely.[7]

In the language of burlesque, Miller claims the reality of twentieth-century America as the authority for his novelistic strategy. His "escape" from the aesthetics of his adversaries is an escape into the representation of a "cosmos--on the flat" where art insinuates no contemplative difference, no qualitative distinction, between itself and life--"while the juice is being turned on you can read about your own execution." In such a "cosmos" the only legitimate art is the art of unceasing movement, the art of "not being there."

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