The Big Idea: Robert Jackson Bennett
What does YouTube have to do with the vaudeville theaters that used to pepper the United States — and what do either have to do with Art (yes, with a capital “A”)? These are excellent questions, and in the course of writing The Troupe, Shirley Jackson Prize-winner (and current Edgar and Philip K Dick award nominee) Robert Jackson Bennett attempted to answer these questions to his own satisfaction. Will he answer them to yours? Read below and find out.
ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT:
I was once asked exactly what class of zombies I’d chosen to feature in one of my novels. I found it a very difficult question to answer because I had no idea I’d put in any zombies in the story at all. I am still not quite sure what that person meant: I imagine they simply wished to read a zombie story, and were prepared to interpret whichever book they happened to pick up as exactly that.
This oddity recalls to mind another story, this one of a friend’s aunt: the friend was very artistic, often digressing about certain painters at great length, but the aunt always bowed out of the conversation, because she “just didn’t like art.” She never had, she said. It was just one of the things she never “got.”
It was several years later that the aunt discovered she was largely colorblind. How someone can go through life without any awareness of this is beyond me, but it would certainly explain why she’d never cottoned on to Degas.
Art is weird. You are never really sure if what you are interpreting was intentionally put there by the creator, or if you are putting it there yourself.
But I suppose one could say the same thing about the world. We carry invisible filters around our eyes that dictate what we see, and how. Two people witnessing the same incident can come away with completely different conclusions. Is how one interprets a work of art any different from how one interprets the world itself?
This idea sat in my head, and it bubbled, and it percolated. And one day I started thinking of the world like a story. No, not just a story – a performance. Maybe a song, stretching on and on and on. And we, like any reader, like any audience member, try to interpret it, wondering, “Why? Why this? What was the intent behind this? Who wrote this, who sang this, and why?”
That was how The Troupe started. A song in the dark, and a hidden singer, and the whole world wondering about the nature of this song.
So I imagined a troupe of traveling performers, doing their bit and entertaining the low-brow in the most low-brow of fashions. And I knew I wanted their performances to have something fundamental about them, something primordial, as if their style of performance was the progenitor of all forms of entertainment today.
Which, of course, led me straight to vaudeville.
Within vaudeville are the building blocks of all American entertainment. Stretching from the late 19th century right up to the advent of motion pictures, vaudeville was the most accessible, most colorful, most surreal, and the most utterly dominant form of entertainment in America. It was, in its barest essence, a circuit of theaters running along the railways, and all of these theaters were managed by an overarching booking office: the booking office plumbed the depths of the world of entertainment, and tapped a lucky few to travel the circuits; and it chose which of these acts traveled which parts of the circuit, and which theaters they performed at, and where they sat on the bill (for the theater bill was a holy text, a preeminent emblem indicating exactly how important you were, and which sort of act you were, and how much of a crowd you’d get).
There were two main circuits: the Keith-Albee in the East, and the Orpheum in the West. Chicago was the dividing line. If you were booked on either of these circuits, you were undeniably Big Time.
These circuits were so huge, so successful, that the entertainment they showcased set the mold for all American entertainment right up until today. We would not have sketch comedy or standup or musicals without vaudeville – no Saturday Night Live, no Louis CK, no Glee. But we would also not have Youtube, or Bugs Bunny, or a whole hell of a lot of the movies – for the people who first made the movies, and decided what the movies were and what they would do, were people who’d learned and honed their trade in vaudeville.
Vaudeville is in our artistic DNA. Though it appears dead, its standards still resonate, and to some extent it decides what we like and what we don’t like – our past, in many ways, continues to dictate our present.
So it was perfect for my troupe. But that still left the song, and the hidden singer.
Since I’d been thinking about art so much, it made me think a bit about truth. Because when you sit down to read, or watch a movie, or look at a painting, sure, sometimes you just want to be entertained, and have an hour or so filled up in a fairly enjoyable fashion. But other times you want something more. You want for your art to have a little piece of something true in it. You want to see a flash of something in a book or movie or a picture, and think, “Yes, that’s it. That’s how things are. That’s how things really are.”
So I decided that maybe during one of the troupe’s songs, there is a flash of truth… but it is of a truth so great, so powerful, and so tremendous that anyone who saw it came away changed. Yet that change would also be so fundamental that they didn’t even understand that it had happened.
Maybe during their jokes and songs and capering, one of the performers revealed a little splinter of the Eternal. And after seeing such a thing, your life can never be the same.
The Troupe is about a lot of things: on one hand, it’s about vaudeville, and a quest, and heroes and villains and bravado and redemption. But it’s also about figuring out the world, about figuring out yourself, about the elusive nature of truth. It’s about entertainment, and the fine line between the audience and the artist. It’s about growing up, and learning what acceptance and peace really mean.
Perhaps I wished to turn the world into a stage, and hang curtains around it, so we could better view it, and laugh or hurl a rotten tomato or two. With a dab of facepaint and the tinkling of a piano, perhaps we could come to understand the performance that all of us are forced to act in.