Theater and the Popularity of the Deadpan Style
The national popularity of Mark Twain began in 1865, when his "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" was published and then repeatedly reprinted; what critics have called his "deadpan style" of performance, a humorous storytelling with no apparent consciousness of the humor, had reached its wide audience. In 1866 Twain began his highly successful lecturing, moving his deadpan to the podium in his talks on the Sandwich Islands, which further consolidated his popularity. Also in 1865 and 1866, Joseph Jefferson III played his first run as the star of Rip Van Winkle , transforming what had been a rather simple stage Dutchman into the best-known character in postbellum American theater. More specifically, Jefferson brought a variety-hall ethnic caricature into the play based on Washington Irving's story, and turned it into his fantastically successful, unconsciously humorous Rip. For the rest of the century, Joseph Jefferson and Mark Twain would be associated as two of the men "most celebrated in the country for entertaining others," as the Hartford Courant put it—two comedians, I will argue, whose styles struck common chords in American audiences.
I mean to join under the term deadpan style not only the platform, standup humor of Twain's "lectures," but also the unconscious humor of his characters from Simon Wheeler to Huck Finn, an unconscious humor also embodied in a range of stage performances, including Jefferson's. The defining trait is the uncertain dividing line in these deadpan styles between self-consciousness and unconsciousness, trick and self-revelation, impassiveness and idiocy, humor and pathos. These dualities, I will argue, not only connect these performances, diminishing the ostensible difference between Twain's sometimes acutely theatrical platform persona and Jefferson's apparently absorbed stage acting; they also had a social resonance that helps explain the simultaneous, fantastic popularity of Twain, Jeffer-
son, and other funny performers of uncertain consciousness in the later nineteenth century. Paul Baender, writing in 1963 of the "Jumping Frog" story, observed that Mark Twain never explained his taste for the deadpan style or suggested what its larger significance might be; Baender did not venture hypotheses about these matters either, and no one since then has addressed the "cultural work" of the deadpan style. My concern here will be with the reasons behind the postbellum, mass-cultural prominence of this style of performance, and particularly with the ways in which cultural and social divisions of these years were acted out in the ambiguities of the deadpan.
In both cases, Twain's and Jefferson's versions of the deadpan style, their mixes of humor and serious innocence, had traveled from minstrelsy and music hall to prominent and proper middle-class entertainments at the same time that "low" theater was being separated from "respectable" theater. In their hands, deadpan performance moved from entertainments mainly for men, burlesque shows that traded in derisive caricature, to performances praised for their realism. This move, of drawing on music-hall buffoons—such as foolishshrewd Yankees, dandy fops, comic blowhards—in order to create ludicrous characters with "depth," figures who (in the reviewers' cliché) elicited "laughter and tears," was made also by the other comedians who dominated the later nineteenth-century theater, including E. A. Sothern in Lord Dundreary , John E. Owens in Solon Shingle , and John T. Raymond as Colonel Sellers in Mark Twain's play of The Gilded Age . In Twain's work, this deadpan style shifted from caricature in his earlier journalism to Huckleberry Finn , a book whose "realism" has always been at issue. Deadpan traveled among, and mediated between, the divisions in theatrical entertainment that powerfully symbolized the strata in the newly developing hierarchies of taste. This migration, this heritage held in common by Twain and Jefferson, can give us a clue to the popularity of the performance style. Poised between music-hall caricature and burgeoning middleclass theatrical entertainments, oscillating between a deceitful deadpan and an unconscious humor, these related methods of performance exemplify the conception that popular entertainments carry contesting meanings and values—and that these embedded antagonisms, and their capacities for echoing differing experiences, are crucial for understanding the prominence of such entertainments. The mere fact that this kind of performance metamorphosed so that it
could aptly belong to differing audiences ought to warn us, of course, that there are no essential connections between a style or theatrical practice and a social group or cultural ideology. Yet this caveat cannot prevent us from discerning in a performance elements associated with classes and groups—elements that may resonate with the experiences of those groups and that may (even at the same time) serve to represent those groups to others.
The deadpan style in its various manifestations continued to echo its origins—working-class variety shows, the entertainments of male subcultures, and the status rituals and humiliation anxieties of those groups. But it grew to embody a quite different meaning as it became a privileged mode of psychological spectacle, "revealing" through states of unselfconsciousness a quiet subjectivity suited to a domestic drama, and thereby reaffirming a version of integral interiority and psychology against the disseminations of masking and calculated posing. The doubleness that always lurked in the deadpan stage style between an intentionally blank face and idiocy, or between cunning and naïveté, became weighted toward unconscious revelation rather than disguise as the illusionistic theater appropriated it from music hall. That is, the connections deadpan retained with variety-show caricature, while still resonating with the experience of that venue, also became for the new middle-class audience symbols of a worrisome, masculine, working-class subculture whose threat was defused as these signs became subordinate to the psychology of a character. Any single performance, of course, would yield many more meanings in its context than this basic dichotomy would suggest. But I would like to maintain this general opposition partly because the records of reception—theater reviews and memoirs—so persistently evaluate the performances in its terms and therefore limn a set of widespread interpretive conventions and a certain "horizon" of reception. Many of the performances considered here, indeed, became battlegrounds of taste, alternately denounced as minstrel-show comedy and praised as psychological realism, serving as occasions for the repetition and rehearsal of the terms that conventionally embodied anxiety over social and cultural division.
The performances seemingly had the capacity to affirm those elements of low comedy antagonistic to bourgeois forms. But they also could work to incorporate and contain irreverent burlesque, partly by integrating it into a psychological interior. Undoubtedly, too, in
traveling across cultural divides, the style helped soften the hard edges that will jut out from a social breach—thereby allaying some anxieties. As it moved from the devious pokerface to apparently guileless transparency, from the signs of calculation to those of sincerity, it mediated between representations of working-class disrespect and genteel respectability, and between representations of the male marketplace and the feminine home. And for a dominant culture whose values seemed under threat from the peoples and territories seemingly outside its precincts, the style served to resecure notions of an essential psychological self crucial to middle-class identity, in the same moment that older conceptions of "character" were fracturing. It raised the specter of a self fragmented by masks and markets, but revealed there a unified character of psychological depth. While it is important to retain a sensitivity to the style's variety of possible meanings and functions, and to keep an eye on its permutations from audience to audience and from one time and place to another, it is nonetheless possible and useful, then, to offer some generalizations about the import of the deadpan style in nineteenthcentury American culture.
In the blank face of the Yankee peddlers so familiar on the stage in the antebellum years, or in the impassiveness and languid drawl of Mose the Bowery b'hoy at midcentury—both of them stage figures important to Mark Twain—the deadpan obviously engaged social conditions that had made trickery and self-betrayal special concerns. The possible value of a deadpan, or a pokerface, to men in the cities and on the frontiers is easy enough to grasp, given the need to operate within a dynamic of concealment and exposure shaped by communities of strangers and men-on-the-make. The deadpan could on the one hand be a protection, a shield for the inexperience, ignorance, fear, or gullibility that if exposed rendered one an easy victim. It could on the other hand be a weapon, a tool of deceit that might enable one to win at poker, or to trick another, or to shame him. In eastern cities and western mining towns, where contact with masses of strangers meant both anxiety and opportunity, to have a face that "gave nothing away" allowed one to keep security and gain advantage. But if a deadpan had a practical benefit for some men in their exchanges, it also had a symbolic dimension, echoing the middleclass culture's worry about and fascination with the world ideologically excluded from genteel and domestic spheres, the world of swin-
dling and deceit. This deadpan figure—as a representative of unruly public territories, of the market, of the street—therefore had a profound resonance for the larger reaches of American culture.
In the male subcultural and working-class context out of which the deadpan style emerged, including the cities Twain visited in the 1850s and the mining towns he lived in during the 1860s, there existed a host of monologuists and comedians who, as it was frequently put, specialized in being funny without seemingly realizing it. As a theater reviewer in Nevada and California, Twain praised Fred Franks, who played comic parts and Yankees in melodramas, for his ability "to do humorous things with grave decorum and without seeming to know that they are funny"; he also admired the "masterly gravity" of the Irish caricatures Billy O'Neil performed in farcical afterpieces; and he promoted the monologues of Stephen Massett, a humorist in the vein of the stage Yankee, who was known similarly for the humor of his oblivious bumpkin persona, Jeems Pipes. Twain compared some of his own efforts at "uncouth burlesques" to the "incomprehensible" and "conflicting" tale telling of Billy Birch, a member of the San Francisco Minstrels who slowly drawled his stage monologues and dialogues in a quiet, lazy, lumbering way. These stage comedians provided a rich resource for the development of Mark Twain's own deadpan style. And Twain was perceived as one of them, with a special kinship to Artemus Ward, Twain's friend and the acknowledged master at that time of the deadpan style, and to Dan Setchell, whose "funny personations and extempore speeches," Twain wrote, made him the best comic actor the West Coast had seen. One of Twain's mentors, Charles Henry Webb, a writer of stage burlesque, declared that "to my mind Mark Twain and Dan Setchell are the Wild Humorists of the Pacific." Within this western locale, dominated by single men, the mockery of others and the release of anxieties about self-exposure set conditions for a comic performer's allure.
The conclusion of various theater historians, for example Richard Moody, that the stage Yankee from whom these deadpan performers descended was always a theatrical contrivance and never a vehicle of "psychological realism," or the generalization by Constance Rourke that the whole congregation of stage Yankees, minstrels, and backwoodsmen provided a theater of mask and disguise rather than emotional expression, will still serve to describe a group of Mark Twain's early unconsciously humorous characters. The "Sarrozay Letter
from 'the Unreliable,'" for example, and its revised version, "Inexplicable News from San Jose" wring their humor mainly from the drunken and rambling talk of "the Unreliable"—the low comic character Clemens supposedly modeled on Clement T. Rice of the Virginia City Union . Their mockery of a fellow newspaperman helps signal the appropriate interpretive frame—one of public kidding that demands skill in the caricature of the drunk's unconscious absurdities and befuddlement, one of presentation more than serious representation. The kind of caricature of drunks in music-hall variety shows, or perhaps also in the performance Twain saw by Billy O'Neil of a drunken Irishman, would not have aimed at fidelity. The scene of the variety show, with its permeable boundary between performer and audience, and its absence of any pretension to an illusionistic re-creation of an anterior scene, metaphorically characterizes Twain's written performance. A greater stress fell on the rendering itself, on the ritualistic exchange within the subculture, on recreation rather than re-creation. The main appeal of the piece undoubtedly lay in the skillful put-down of a peer, the engagement of a prominent anxiety about making a fool of oneself in public, and the transgressive affront to gentility of displaying public drunkenness.
This dimension of skillful performance, mimicry, and ritual, however, existed always on a variable continuum; the extant written responses even to music-hall deadpan monologuists often enough chose to praise their "pathos" and "expression" rather than their posing. Even the comic drunkenness could add to its silly slurring some moments of unconscious self-exposure, the possibility opened by inebriation's supposed easing of all care in self-presentation. Figuratively straddling the proscenium, neither forthrightly in front of illusionistic space nor fully within it, the most popular deadpan performers also straddled the line between burlesque and serious representation. And this doubleness registered and echoed changes occurring as the middle class resecured the theater for itself—changes that included a stronger demarcation between low comedy and "legitimate" theater and a sharper distinction between a raucously presentational theater and the spectatorship of realism.
In tracing Mark Twain's predecessors, William Burton is especially important in this regard because he clearly became a token in this conflict of cultures and tastes. Although Burton was best known for the burlesques he and John Brougham put on in the 1850s for their
mainly working-class audience at New York's Chambers Street Theatre, after his death in 1860 middle-class theater reviewers persistently remembered him for transcending burlesque caricature, for identifying with his characters, and for realistically representing pathos and "homely feeling." Whether or not Twain saw Burton himself in New York in 1853, Burton's famous role as the title character in The Toodles lay in the background of Twain's performance style; it was familiar enough nationally to generate imitators across the country, one of which Twain saw in St. Louis in 1853. Especially influential was the best-known scene in which Timothy Toodles, quite drunk and absorbed in his drunken thoughts, mumbles a confused and associative monologue while he acts out other stage business: trying to light his pipe and failing, trying to put on his thumbless glove, dropping it, and falling when he tries to pick it up, and so on. The critical clichés about "laughter and tears" and "humor and pathos," in this case, had special resonance in describing a performance poised between low variety and realism, public drunkenness and private revelation, male-only burlesque and a theater suited for the genteel. Burtoh's Toodles was especially important, I would argue, for taking the familiar buffoonery of a drunk act and imbuing it with the kind of unconscious revelation and continuity of an interior life that elicited empathic responses. Not, of course, a representation of integral "character" in the older nineteenth-century sense of an identity contained through self-control, fortitude, and sober habit, Burton's Toodles nonetheless depicted a continuous and transparent psychic interior that saved a weaker sense of a unified self—one more fluid than lapidary, a kind of self better suited to accommodate and defuse the attacks on bourgeois selfhood welling up from the precincts of low theater.
It was this kind of contradictory—and mediating—performance that accompanied Mark Twain to his first big national success, the 1865 publication of "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." In 1864 in Carson City, Nevada, Twain saw another performance of The Toodles , played by George Marsh of R. G. Marsh's Juvenile Comedians, who, Laurence Hutton recorded, acted "a miniature copy of Burton's Toodles." Twain at this time was also a fan of a somewhat similar role that Burton had made famous, Captain Ned Cuttle in Brougham's dramatization of Dickens's Dombey and Son , a role again that was said to combine humor and tenderness, though the humorous absorp-
tion was more in old-salt garrulity than in drunken maunderings. In 1865 Twain promoted and defended Dan Setchell's version of Cuttle, discounting the idea that it was not as well done as Burton's. Edgar M. Branch's argument that Setchell's performance constituted a background for "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" is exactly right, except that the theatrical context needs to be conceived more broadly, and we ought to use that context to help explain the popularity and significance of the "Jumping Frog" story.
The traditional argument in the criticism of Twain's story, over whether Simon Wheeler is being a trickster or an innocent, manipulative or unselfconscious, is fundamental to my point. James Cox's assertion that Wheeler is guileless, "so absorbed in his own story" that he is practically unaware of his audience—an argument against the various interpreters who see a sly pose of simplicity used to get the better of a city slicker—puts Wheeler's storytelling in helpful theatrical terms. For it is precisely a contrast between absorption and theatricality (to borrow an organizing opposition from Michael Fried) that is at work here. Wheeler certainly looks as if he is fully absorbed, first in a somatic and nearly somnolent state of regressive, bodily comfort while "dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove" (282), and second in his story and in the associative processes of memory. Such unconsciousness and absorption might certify the "earnestness and sincerity" the narrator discerns in Wheeler. Nonetheless, a genealogy of rustic cunning and devilment would inevitably attach to this piece, a story Twain later called a "villainous backwoods sketch." On the one hand, the frame narrator takes the stance of a detached spectator watching a psychological spectacle, as the associative, digressive, prelogical patterns of Wheeler's consciousness seemingly unfold, and Wheeler's apparent obliviousness to his listener nearly gives the sense of setting up a theatrical fourth wall to peer through. Yet there always hovers the suggestion, given the pokerface swindles and gambling betrayals in Wheeler's stories, that Wheeler's monologue is a conscious game rather than an unconscious self-revelation.
I do not mean to reduce the meaning of Twain's sketch to the ambiguity in it between solitary rumination and public dissimulation. Nor do I want to discount the inevitably multiple and diverse appeals of such a popular performance by overstressing the cultural service it may have performed in conjuring up tensions between in-
teriors and exteriors, cozy hearths and public barrooms, guileless self-revelations and vulgar entertainments. But the patterns of response to the performers I have mentioned, and to Mark Twain's own performances, suggest that some of the most persistent terms through which reviewers, at least, received such acts turned on oppositions between humor and pathos, theatricality and absorption, trickery and sincerity. Whatever the complexities in significance, the meanings activated by reviewers dwelled on questions of representation—whether the act had a serious dimension, whether it inspired belief or not. Because these performances took place at a time of profound cultural change, when the theater graphically epitomized efforts to establish distinctions in taste partly by separating burlesque from illusion, these terms accrue both heightened significance and inevitability. Deadpan performance figured as a transitional form; although any popular performance arguably exists as a cultural battleground where competing ideological forces wrestle, the form of deadpan performance comprised both low humor and high pathos, both music-hall vulgarity and domestic sentiment, and therefore constituted a special terrain for conflict.
This conflict over popular culture emerges even more clearly in Mark Twain's deadpan lecturing and the responses to it. When Constance Rourke asserted that Twain's lecturing "was not truly lecturing at all but the old, spacious form of the theatrical monologue," she meant, properly, to link Twain's performances to stage Yankees and minstrels. As several historians have pointed out, this kind of development—the importing of theatrical comedy, humorous monologuists, dramatic readers, and so on, into the previously staid lyceum lecture course—was new, coinciding with Twain's ascendance in popular consciousness. Promoters and booking agents (especially James Redpath, Twain's manager in the late 1860s and the 1870s) countermanded the previous assumptions about public lecturing and made it a cause of sharp controversy, eliciting criticism from a variety of cultural guardians who deplored the appearance of "showmen," "humbugs and charlatans," and "clowns" behind the podium. Especially noteworthy was an attack by Josiah G. Holland, first editor of Scribner's Monthly and a speaker on the lyceum circuit himself. Seemingly directed especially at Mark Twain, who wrote a never-sent rejoinder, Holland's denunciation of lecturing "jesters" and "buffoons" asserted that they had "no higher mission than the
stage clown and negro-minstrel" and had therefore a "degrading influence on the public taste."
The theater itself, and theatrical metaphors, had special currency in the battle over public taste and in the maintenance of cultural distinctions. Because Mark Twain situated himself on the border between the low and high, comparing his performances to the theater could cut both ways, serving even to impart respectability. Twain's platform humor was said, for example, to be above "the coarse and stale jests of the endman in the burnt-cork fraternity"; his audience was characterized in another instance as having only a few representatives of "the rowdy or 'fast' element congenial to negro minstrel exhibitions." In any case, his performances made viewers think of stage shows, define cultural divides in terms of them, and take their sides. The terms of genteel evaluation often linked lower levels of class and taste not merely to minstrelsy and music hall, but also to theater itself, to whose level the instructional and edifying lecture was not supposed to descend. Nonetheless, a division endemic to the theater—between serious illusion and burlesque—surfaced continually in Twain's performances and in responses to them. For example, Twain again and again would provide what reviewers called "word pictures"—of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, or of Lake Tahoe in Nevada—in a serious manner, as if he too were transported by the representation, only to "break the spell," as one reviewer put it, by pretending to forget a word, applauding himself, directing the audience to applaud, or commenting snidely on his skill at "harnessing adjectives together."
Although reviewers persistently complained about the uncertainty in Twain's lecturing between earnestness and burlesque, that uncertainty obviously was part of Twain's allure. James Cox's remark about Twain's deadpan is pertinent: that the anxious question of "Is—is he humorous? " and the final turn that puts the joke on us are "not a loss but a gain of pleasure." But in the later nineteenth century that pivot swung between the respectable and the vulgar at a time when a great deal rode on defining the distinction; the cultural capital of an upwardly mobile theatergoer could multiply or go bust depending on where the line of taste was drawn. The pleasures of being entertainingly taken in, or of being uncertainly poised between belief and laughter, must have come partly from treating playfully the uneasiness about the sociocultural division echoed there. The idea that jokes "function" to release social tensions may too strongly
imply that culture must work to stabilize social systems, or at least provide imaginary relief; that is, in looking for the comforting, this understanding of humor ignores the pleasures of vertigo, and in looking for versions of equilibrium, it discounts the immediacy of conflict. However, my point about Mark Twain is that, while his performances need not have "functioned" to imaginarily and symbolically ease social tensions—for, obviously, they consistently occasioned conflict—they had the capacity to do so. On the one hand, they echoed the existence and concerns of somewhat marginalized male subcultures; on the other, they did provide an equilibrium that suited more pervasive values. In particular, as we shall see, Twain's deadpan style provided a strong vehicle for easing minds in the northern middle class, one that enwrapped within a representation of a psychological interior the disseminations of burlesque.
In his best-known confessions about lecturing, Twain characterized his platform performances as skillful manipulations full of calculated humorous "effects"—for example, his use of the pause as the foremost "gun" in his "battery of artifice." He might almost lead us to think that his performances exemplified joking effects and theatrical excess. But we must remember that his artifice primarily involved the mimicry of "the stammering amateur" and the "imitation of confusion," as Paul Fatout puts it. Twain impersonated a vacant-minded, rambling, drawling, incoherent bumpkin. As Twain told manager James Redpath, "I rely for my effects on a simulated unconsciousness and intense absurdity." The effects, in other words, issued from miming the effectless. He would walk on stage seemingly absorbed in thought, then startledly notice the audience—and there was the joke. But if apparent absorption was put in the service of effect, effect could also be subordinated to absorption. The seeming somnolence, laziness, drunkenness, and indolence that reporters noted in his drawling, his shuffle, and his lounging brought many of them to characterize his lectures as untheatrical, undramatic, moderate, quiet, subdued. Ultimately the elements of effect, artifice, mimicry, burlesque, and variety could be viewed as embedded within an unselfconscious drawl and a bodily absorption, lessening the sense of vulgarity or theatricality, and heightening the sense of an artlessly unveiled self.
Body and voice served as unifiers in Twain's performances, working against the centrifugal force of comic masks and effects and serving as signs and expressions of a stable, continuous self. Although ac-
knowledging Twain's sometimes abrupt or incoherent shifting from serious description to joke, or from anecdote to anecdote, critics would also remark on the continuously even "manner" or "tenor" of his voice as a means of making his lecture a "whole." Such characterizations also suit Twain's well-known conception of a lecture as a unifying "narrative-plank" into which he could insert serious or humorous "plugs." They suit even better his semifacetious "plan" for a "Patent Adjustable Speech," which would consist of a set of anecdotes, not related to each other or to the supposed topic of the speech. As long as the speaker embedded the anecdotes "in the midst of a lot of rambling and incoherent talk," "filling the air" with "a straight and uninterrupted stream of irrelevancies," the audience would not notice the discontinuities. Apparent unity, continuity, and coherence—in both the speech and the speaker—emanated from the everrolling voice. The security of a continuous self rooted in voice and bodily manner, and the sense that it was being expressed despite the joking masks, flowed over the low jokes, the burlesque, the joshing.
The envelopment of vulgar burlesque and comic effects within a continuous "psychology" can perhaps be most easily grasped in its more extreme versions—the popular stage acting of Joseph Jefferson III, E. A. Sothern, and other such stars of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Reaching the heights of their success as theaters finally attracted large portions of the middle class, these actors refashioned variety-show caricatures into representations of psychology. They played characters absorbed in subdued states of reverie, confusion, absentmindedness, and drunkenness. In reaction against the older acting of "points" for "effect," and in accord with newer goals of depicting subtle gradations in interior states and expression, they aimed for a continuous registration of inner life and a "unified" economy of emotions and consciousness, a "consistency in characterization" and a "unity in conception" (to use the critical terms commonly applied). Combing low variety of its "coarseness," moving caricature behind the proscenium and subjecting it to the conventions of illusionistic space—particularly the ban on acknowledging the audience in any way—these actors fashioned a humorous performance that could be watched quietly and politely, that echoed its roots, but did so faintly enough so that the distressing incursions of vulgarity were palliated. And their performances provided models and analogues for Mark Twain's.
At the turn of the century, Laurence Hutton wrote that E. A. Sothern's Lord Dundreary "is no doubt better known in England and America than any other character on the stage or in fiction." Mark Twain gave some weight to that presently unbelievable assertion, remembering in his autobiography that when he first saw Sothern as Dundreary, probably in the late 1860s or early 1870s, it was "the funniest thing I had ever seen on the stage." An eccentric, foppishly dressed Englishman with a lisp and a stammer, Sothern's Dundreary was criticized for being a stage type. Sothern himself, however, claimed "earnestness, intensity, and thorough identification" with his part—meaning, in this case, complete absorption in Dundreary's states of befuddlement. And the weight of critical opinion praised Sothern's enactments of Dundreary's disorganized consciousness. A split hair in his whiskers, or a search for his trousers pocket, would sidetrack and absorb Dundreary, making him forget his own line of talk and the presence and talk of all others. These moments, as well as other instances of distraction, association, digression, "confusions of intellect" and "collisions of trains of thought," while they were received as comedy, were psychologized until they could also be taken as revelations of "a genuine and convincing personality." "Even his extreme eccentricities," one critic wrote, "were soon accepted as innate, unconscious sincerities, not as conscious affectations." The comic artifices that otherwise might have signified caricature garnered the aura that implied expression, individuality, revelation, and a self.
But the greatest success at seemingly unconscious humor through the portrayal of bewilderment and stupefaction belonged to Joseph Jefferson's acting of Rip Van Winkle. Jefferson, as I mentioned earlier, first became famous for playing the unconsciously humorous Rip in the years that Twain's "Jumping Frog" story and his lecturing captured widespread attention. And the descriptions of Jefferson's Rip are remarkably like those of the storytelling Smiley and the lecturing Twain. As he first appeared in the play, the "lazy, goodnatured, dissipated, good-for-nothing Dutchman" lounged about, speaking in a "low" and "gentle" voice, and seemingly immersed in bodily comfort and pleasure—partly the product of drunkenness. He would talk "half to himself" and become "plunged in thought." In his conversation with others he would "[lose] the thread of his discourse." Rip even told stories, in a rambling and drunken way, in-
cluding one about a bull who pitched him over a fence, which resembles the manner and implied incident of Jim Blaine's drunkenly told and maundering "Story of the Old Ram" in Roughing It , a story that became one of Twain's platform favorites. Jefferson specialized in representing a lazily unfolding consciousness which, far from a set of comic "turns," attained what Howells called a "unified characterization" that "naturally appealed to the realistic sensibility."
He took what had been a caricatured Dutchman—a shrewdbut-foolish Yankee-like variety-stage figure with an overlay of Dutch dialect and mannerisms—and placed it in the space of illusion. "He has that seeming unconsciousness of his audience which is the peculiar possession of actors of the first class," according to one reviewer. His acting appeared completely real, the critic of The Nation wrote in 1869, "as if there were no footlights, no audience, no orchestra, no scenery, no prompter. He seems unaware of his audience's presence. He is thoroughly filled with his part." The centripetal enclosing of this illusionistic space continued with a focus on Rip and his interior. The portrayal of Rip especially after his awakening from his twentyyear sleep was characterized as "an extremely refined psychological exhibition." Jefferson was said to use facial expressions effectively as a means of showing Rip's bewilderment and his efforts to "reassemble his ideas and memories," "to reconcile incongruities," and "to join the past to the present, and to comprehend his prolonged slumber." Jefferson himself said his aim was to show "the condition of [Rip's] mind," and the stage directions of the play stressed Rip's wonderment and puzzlement, his tendency to drift off into dream and reverie.
The issues that the story of Rip Van Winkle always dealt with, especially the tension between a male world of drink and recreation and a domesticated home, were amplified in Jefferson's performance—this time, however, with the signals of raucous male theater subordinated to the values of pathos and sentiment, just as caricature was subordinated to the expression of the interior. "There is much humor in all of this," one reviewer wrote, "but it is of a subdued kind, and tenderly blended with pathos." Rip's imbecility, another wrote, "would excite only ridicule and laughter in the hands of an artist less gifted"; but Jefferson accomplished a "transparency" in representation "that, now, is entirely changed from what it used to be in the old days" of low comedy. He managed "to elevate a prosaic type of
good-natured indolence into an ideal of poetical freedom." Jefferson's performance became an occasion for distinguishing between higher and lower cultures. Cleansed of vulgarity, erasing its kinship to minstrelsy and variety comedy, "without a suspicion of the least pandering to degraded tastes," Jefferson's acting was even said "to work a refining influence upon the stage and upon the tastes of the dramatic public." Here was a deadpan style with a difference, an unconscious humor distanced enough from its origins really to require a different name.
The simultaneous emergence of Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle and Mark Twain's lecturing persona helps to underscore their kinship, the similar conditions and traditions from which they emerged, and the analogous cultural operations they performed. Even though Twain's "performances" took place in print and at the podium, they were similarly rooted in low-culture caricature, and they made the same trip as Jefferson's Rip to the national stage. The connection, however, can be more surely secured by noting the influence Jefferson's and Sothern's performances exerted over Twain's one successful play, Colonel Sellers (1874)—a work that deserves a more central place in accounts of Twain's writing. The play was a transformation of The Gilded Age that focused on Colonel Sellers, much in the same way that Sothern transformed Our American Cousin into Lord Dundreary , and Owens enlarged the Yankee character in The People's Lawyer into Solon Shingle . And though Twain denigrated it as "simply a setting for the one character, Col. Sellers," a framework "to hang Col. Sellers on, & maybe even damn him," its success, and the money it drew in, led him to fantasize that Colonel Sellers would run "twenty years ... like Jo [sic ] Jefferson's 'Rip Van Winkle' and John E. Owens' 'Solon Shingle.'"
The cultural importance of Colonel Sellers ought to be reiterated. Howells immediately declared, in his 1875 review in the Atlantic Monthly , that John T. Raymond's performance put him among the "realistic actors" he most admired, including Sothern and Jefferson. Like Jefferson as Rip or Sothern as Dundreary, Raymond as Sellers was said to be "the most popular comedian on the American stage," or at least "one of the most popular men in the profession," an actor who, in this role, "attained the greatest vogue that any comedian of his day has known." If Jefferson and Sothern derived humor from their characters' absorption in befuddlement, Raymond, somewhat
differently, exploited Sellers's absorption in his visions and garrulity—though a key scene in which Sellers gets drunk on his patentmedicine "eye-water" surely recalled Jefferson as the befuddled and drunken Rip, and Burton as the befuddled and drunken Toodles. Ultimately, Raymond's portrayal of Sellers hit a special chord, for reviewers saw a doubleness in Sellers that matched a doubleness in the acting. Sellers, in the common summary, combined traits of the visionary projector and the swindling exploiter, of the sincere southern gentleman and the con man, but his chicanery was cancelled because he apparently believed in it. As Brander Matthews said of Sellers on stage, he "is as honest as may be and as sincere, and he deceives himself quite as much as he deceives his neighbor." The quality of believing in one's lies characterized Raymond's performance, too, the reviewers insisted. A "genuine and steady earnestness" pervaded the performance, and, the New York Times suggested, Raymond himself seemed to believe in Sellers's projects, so that both Sellers's listeners and the theater audience were deceived into belief.
The doubleness in Sellers between manipulating dissimulator and earnest believer, in other words, corresponded to the doubleness in Raymond's performance between actor and realistic embodiment. A similar resonance, of course, had existed in some degree in all versions of the deadpan style; even the early Yankee performances made cunning and revelation central to both character and enactment. In the commentary on Sellers, however, the vocabulary that surrounded deadpan characters and performers was especially persistent and explicit. Some reviewers, including the Times reviewer, saw Raymond's performance as "sympathetic as well as comical," the "eccentricities of speech and manner" rendered with so much earnestness, and so little self-consciousness, that the performance was both "far closer to the truth of nature" and "far more entertaining than Lord Dundreary ." Sellers's "wildest exentricities [sic ]" were subsumed into a believable character. Other critics took the doubleness as occasion to rehearse the conflict over taste, so that Raymond was sometimes denigrated as a representative of "the broader phases of American humor" or of "noisy comedy," a comedy of "technical skill" and raucous "by-play" that lacked the subtleties of tasteful theater. Conversely, he was sometimes praised for a full identification with his role, or rather for such a congruence between his own "sanguine" personality and Sellers's that it was "difficult to tell
where art ceases and where nature commences." This quality brought reviewers to characterize Raymond's performance as "of a better and higher type than any humorous part now upon the stage."
Raymond's performance of Sellers helps to clarify the cultural tensions invoked by the oppositions used in theatrical discourse to place and evaluate deadpan performance. "Technical skill," raucous jokes, and caricatures, joined to Sellers's predilection for speculation and patent-medicine salesmanship, would call into play the two territories that, in Victorian ideology, held the greatest symbolic threat to the bourgeois home: working-class male entertainments and the male marketplace. The actor's identification with the character, the unconscious display of psychological spectacle, and pathos, joined to Sellers's sincere belief in his projecting visions and the earnestness of his meandering monologues, would induce associations valuable to middle-class domesticity: interiority, transparency in self-revelation, tender emotion. Mark Twain thought of Sellers in these terms, and criticized Raymond several times for overplaying the humorous "half" of the character, with the result that "the pathos is knocked clear out of the thing." Sellers, in Twain's conception, was "a pathetic and beautiful spirit," whose "big, foolish, unselfish heart" was beyond Raymond's grasp. But, again, the powerful significance of this performance of Sellers lay in the point of contention, in the terms brought into conjunction: humor and pathos, heterogeneous comic eccentricities and psychological unity, low comedy and high realism. And if these terms occasioned and reflected contention, they could also be the opportunity for reassurances. Brander Matthews, for example, asserted that Sellers's excesses, in the hands of Raymond, "were rounded into a harmonious whole, and the character itself was shown to be simple and strong behind all its eccentricities."
It is no accident, I believe, that Mark Twain began Huckleberry Finn in 1876, not long after the success of Colonel Sellers , and returned to the novel in 1883, around the time he worked on another play about Sellers—Colonel Sellers as a Scientist , an unsuccessful collaboration with Howells. Twain's sense, derived from the success of the first Sellers play, of his own gift for creating character and unconsciously humorous monologue, rather than plot, was once again fully realized in Huck's storytelling. Even more significant, Huck reproduces the cultural and ideological stakes I have outlined in deadpan performance. Mark Twain fashioned Huck, a "liminal" adolescent and a
representative of hordes of young men newly free of village and family guidance, into a vehicle for worrying the categories the northern middle class used to order its territory—the public and the private, market and hearth, the crowds in the street and the genteel home. Far from being a rogue fully outside of the safe precincts, however, Huck, with Jim, re-creates a home on the raft, a place of tenderness, sincerity, intimate disclosure, and domestic tranquility. Huck's character embodies the contradictions between behavior for crowds and private revelation, lies and sincerity, "masculine" impassivity and "female" expression.
These central dimensions to Huck's character have important implications for his storytelling. A boy with an impulse to dissimulate but a propensity for self-betrayal, and an unconsciously humorous narrator with effects of low comedy embedded in a rolling and self-absorbed monologue, Huck reproduces, both in his selfrepresentation and in the act of representing, the dynamic of the deadpan style crucial to its popularity. But Twain's Huck, perhaps the subtlest rendering of the style, also serves to teach us about deadpan performance. For example, the significance of the prominent bodily self-absorption of the deadpan comics—in somnolence, laziness, or drunkenness—becomes clearer in Huck's case, and its own duality surfaces.
Huck's striking absorption in his bodily states—sleeping, eating, dozing, "lazing"—serves, as with Jefferson's Rip and Sothern's Dundreary, to corroborate the unselfconsciousness that in turn helps certify the immediacy of their self-revelations. His predilection to immerse himself in private bodily comforts echoes his similar immersion in memory and in easygoing storytelling; his apparent unconcern in each case for the outside world, including the world of audiences, lessens any sense of artistry or dissimulation. But if this private, bodily self-engrossment seems to collude with the psychological revelation of his storytelling—both of them enhancing Huck's dimension of personal consciousness and domestic intimacy—we also have to remember that Huck's absorptions have a value of excess and irresponsibility. Dozing on the raft is a self-indulgence made possible by escape from Widow Douglas's, by an evasion of the feminine, of "home."
Huck's combination of intimate revelation and rebellious self-indulgence helps to explain the prominence of drunken states in
deadpan performance. An apparent guarantee of unselfconscious revelation, drunkenness also signified male excess. A state, in the cases of Rip or Toodles, that allowed an audience to peer into a mind whose self-censorship had been eased, it also signaled unbridled male pleasure. In this light, any of the self-absorbed states represented in deadpan performance were two-faced. Intimate, self-revelatory embodiments of individual consciousness that seemed to suit the personal domains not only of the feminine home but also of the newly enclosed space of theatrical illusion, they also invoked a disorderly indulgence that violated the order associated with the domestic sphere and the box set of the middle-class theater. They raised the specter of the tavern and the minstrel hall.
The blank face, the unconscious humor, the bodily absorption—all of these dimensions of deadpan performance replayed contesting cultural values. Each raised an anxiety about self-exposure, with its imperative to conceal, and an anxiety about dissimulation, with its requirement of sincerity. Each rehearsed the ideological categories that sorted out the American cultural and social terrain, invoking on the one hand a territory of swindlers and jokers, contests of humiliation and dominance, and theaters of vulgar masking and ridicule, and on the other hand safer spaces of domestic tranquility, psychological integrity and depth, and transparency of expression. These categories resonated with divisions of class, gender, and taste. Because the various versions of deadpan performance conjured up these worrisome divisions, this style of unconscious humor secured its gigantic place in late-nineteenth-century popular entertainment. A supple form, it could be put to various uses for its various audiences. If, in the hands of Twain, Jefferson, Sothern, and the other mass-cultural stars, the vulgar mimicry and disrespect of the deadpan seemed ultimately to embed itself in proper unities of character and psychology, thereby smoothing the cultural riffs invoked, laughter was still possible. The example of Mark Twain demonstrates both the powerful consolidation of middle-class self-consciousness in the 1860s and the pockets of trouble and difference that resounded in the deadpan style.