AUTOMATIC VAUDEVILLE: Essays on Star Turns by John Lahr


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Fifteen largely disappointing essays--sketchy, obvious, un-challenging--by the author of Up Against the Fourth Wall and Astonish Me. About half of the pieces can be tied in to an overall theme: ""the restless emptiness of American individualism."" Thus, Stephen Sondheim's spiritually bankrupt musicals are ""chronicles in song of the society's growing decrepitude."" (The specific criticisms here are valid but familiar; the socio-cultural generalizations--considering the relatively tiny Sondheim audience--seem foolish.) Likewise, Woody Allen's ""conservative self-absorption is typical of his times""; Walt Whitman's ""emotional imperialism"" is seen--arguably yet simplistically--as the precursor of the Me Generation's narcissism. And there's a heavyhanded piece of mosaic/reportage on complacent, football-loving, success-obsessed Dallas--with its black ghetto and ""totally disenfranchised"" Chicanos. Elsewhere, Lahr's put-downs are just shrill or sanctimonious: a hate-letter to Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (""pretenders to the throne of High Culture""); a near-embarrassing survey of O'Neill--recognizing (along with everyone else) that Long Day's Journey is his best play by far. . . but declaring that the playwright should have become a better person instead of devoting his energy to literature. (""Yet the real act of bravery would have been to break the O'Neill neurotic pattern for living. . . ."") And the other entries offer an unsurprising view of Noel Coward (the ""insistence on the performing self comes out of a homosexual world where disguise is crucial for survival""); a limply nostalgic salute to Leiber & Stoller; a neat seven-page appreciation (with a personal anecdote) of Sam Shepard; and the reprinted introduction to Joe Orton's Complete Plays. Lahr's least impressive work by far: intelligent yet superficial, unstylish yet glib.

Pub Date: March 23rd, 1984
Publisher: Knopf