Saturday, January 2, 2010
Okay, I know what it means. Not that I've ever seen an actual vaudeville show, but it's referred to in countless movies and tributes to the American theatre ad nauseum. I like the song and dance, the jokes seem almost purposely tedious. Ba-da-boom.
So, no, that's not the ignorance I'm talking about in this case. What I'm referring to is a kind of lack of depth of vision, which I would say is a peculiarly American trait. Because, though we reach back to vaudeville, it turns out that vaudeville reaches back a good deal further than that.
Thanks to this interesting post I, am reading (at a very leisurely pace) From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultures by Jacques Barzun. And learned, in one of his countless throwaways that vaudeville, as "a storytelling song in many stanzas", was invented by the French in the sixteenth century.
A moment's thought would have revealed the word as French, but of course I never did take a moment's thought about it. Until now. Let's take a little closer look and see what can be learned about how a very old French word crossed the Atlantic and made a form of American theatre.
...Well, it's all quite fascinating, really. At least to me. There are actually two possibilities of the word, at least as it's been passed along to us: a corruption of the phrase voix de ville, or 'voice of the city'--which I assume would be referring to the city of France, Paris. The other option is that it is a corruption of Vau de Vire a Normandy valley noted for its distinctive songs. No, make that three--vaux de ville or 'worth of the city' was one other promulgated possibility when it first hit our shores.
Corruption, I think, would be the key here. Because apparently this word came into vogue here in the mid 1800's for two 'uplifting' reasons. First, the Frenchified name was meant to distinguish it from the working class shows billed under the name of 'variety', and second, it was supposed to be a kind entertainment that appealed to that great American ideal, 'self-betterment'.
From the Free Dictionary reference, it seems safe to assume that the actual word made its way into the country via New Orleans, where French was entirely legit, but then became part of a veneer of psuedo-sophistication for parts general.
As one Albert McLean suggests, the name was merely selected "for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility."
Now that's American.