From the Archives: Word with a Past- Vaudeville

Over the last week I’ve spent some time thinking about vaudeville, cabaret, and music halls. I was about to plunge down a research rabbit-hole in service of one throw-away sentence, but historian and writer friend Sunny Stalter-Pace pulled me back from edge. (Sunny is currently working on a book a group biography called Backstage at the Hippodrome: The Show People Behind New York City’s Most Spectacular Playhouse. If that sort of thing is your bottle of sarsaparilla, you would enjoy her research blog.)

All of which reminded me of the one thing I already knew about vaudeville, from a post first published in 2014.


Sandow Trocadero VaudevillesIn 1648, revolution broke out in the streets of Paris. Known at the time as the Fronde ,* it was in many ways a rehearsal for the French Revolution(s) that would follow. Barricades went up in the streets. Aristocrats were pulled out of their carriages and shot at. Militias paraded in the public squares. There were threats of pulling down the Bastille.

More important for the purposes of this blog post, the Fronde was fought in the media as well as in the streets. Printed placards were put up in public places and distributed door-to-door. Small notices, called billets (tickets), were strewn around the city streets. Peddlers sold political pamphlets on street corners like newspapers.** And satirical political songs, known as vaudevilles, became popular.

A contraction of the the phrase voix de ville (the voice of the town), vaudevilles were well named. Writers took popular tunes and wrote new lyrics to them about current events. Singers were paid to roam the streets and sing the latest tunes. Rich and poor alike would hum them as they went about their day. The songs became so popular that collections of greatest hits were compiled.

In eighteenth century France, vaudevilles became a way to get around restrictions on the theater. Theaters presented vaudevilles in conjunction with pantomime and comic sketches. Tap shoes optional.

* Slingshot, a name with a David and Goliath feel appropriate for a revolution that was, at base, about privilege.
** Almost a historical reference in its own right.

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