Who Put The “Devil” In Vaudeville?

No Applause -- Just Throw Money, or the Book that Made Vaudveville Famous
Excerpt from No Applause — Just Throw Money (The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous)
by Trav S. D.

Old Scratch was the first hoofer.

Milton depicts the universe’s first slapstick moment in Paradise Lost. Not long after the world’s creation, Satan took a wicked pratfall, tumbling earthward out of his privileged digs in the celestial vault, compelling him to toil thereafter amongst all sorts of lame clowns who were made (like him) all too imperfectly in God’s image. Maw West said it best: “I’m No Angel.”

Despite numerous tragic attempts to create a utopia in our midst, mankind in its weakness finds itself perennially veering from the high road to the trough of low amusements. Historically, that ditch has been a pretty crowded place, full of strange and unlikely company: on the one hand, clowns, jugglers, singers of sweet love songs, and others of their ilk; on the other, tavern-keepers, card sharks, prostitutes, and their brother (and sister) criminals. From the beginning of the Christian era until quite recently, these two groups have always gone hand in hoof: Entertainment and Evil, a double act spawned in the mind of a maniac. Entertainment feeds us punch lines; Evil, with his slow burn, is the straight man. And the dirty-minded maniac? Let’s just call him “Reverend.”

Ludicrous though it may seem to us to place jugglers, singers, and dancers in a caste with “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” Christians (first Catholics and then Protestants) have done so for centuries. For moral support they need look no further than Saint Paul, who in his Epistle to the Ephesians (5:3–4) lumps “foolish talking” and “jesting” in with fornication, uncleanness, and covetousness. In his Epistle to the Galatians (5:21), “revellings” are in a class with “envyings,” “murders,” and “drunkenness.” It is a litmus test that would sully the reputation of an Osmond.

To us, for whom Marilyn Manson is old hat, and who undoubtedly know at least one grandparent who can sing all the words to “Sympathy for the Devil,” this is madness. Yet underneath the madness–at least initially–lay a method.

Theatrical performers, consciously or no, practice an art that began as a rite to honor the Greek god Dionysus, a deity principally associated with sexual abandon and intoxication. Aspects of the ceremony–even well after it had evolved into what we now call theater–were by most measures “obscene.”

The shadow of Dionysus still darkens our fragmentary memories of antiquity. Thanks largely to the cinema’s depictions of life under various caesars, the ancient world retains a distorted Bacchic patina. Say “Rome,” and images out of Caligula and Fellini’s Satyricon rage through the brain: children, and livestock. Great, fat, oily courtiers in togas recline on silk couches munching on pornographic pastries. Frolicking nymphs with grape leaves in their hair play leapfrog in the forest, pausing only to indulge their twin tastes in human sacrifice and lesbianism. Satyrs in outlandish codpieces swing their phalluses at one another, eventually coalescing into a great, heaving, perfumed, peach-colored daisy chain.

The early leaders of the Catholic Church apparently though such images so horrible they couldn’t stop thinking about them.

Come to think of it, neither can I.

Worldliness, materialism, sex, pleasure–all nicely integrated into the philosophies of the ancients–were now tarred with the broad brush of “evil.” To turn the pagan Europeans from their wicked ways, some scholars feel that Dionysus was purposely equated with “Satan.”

In decorative art and statuary, Dionysus and his cohorts (such as the demigod Pan) had been depicted as goatlike, possessing horns, hooves, and a tail, uncannily resembling what we now think of as the devil. Yet no such description of Satan exists in the bible. There he is depicted only as a fallen angel, a serpent, or something called Leviathan. How astute (not to mention diabolical) of the Church Fathers to associate the nature-worship of Europe’s oldest traditions with Evil Incarnate.

Fourteen or more centuries of official persecution of variety entertainers only make sense in this context–they have their roots in pagan antiquity. Among the first recorded variety performers were the Greek mimes, a motley lot who lumbered out of southern Italy during Greece’s Golden Age to juggle, perform acrobatics, dance, and perform comical sketches for the vastly more dignified Athenians. These were very different from our modern mimes, in their whiteface and berets, who walk against the wing and scream-in-an-ever-shrinking-box (those mimes are satanic).

Rome, too, had its mimes; they begin to materialize in the Republic at about 300 B.C.. Roman mimes were closely associated with the Atellan farce, ancestor to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, the commedia dell’arte, the comic creations of Shakespeare and Moliere, and all slapstick straight through the vaudeville era. The fabula raciniata was a form of early variety that incorporated tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, tumblers, jugglers, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, dancers, operatic singers, and stilt-walkers. Tony Curtis proudly proclaimed himself among this performing clique in the 1960 film Spartacus: “I yam a magician and seengah of sawngs,” he announces in ancient Brooklynese.

Throughout Euro-American history, the descendants of those mimes persisted. During the Middle Ages, itinerant bands of jongleurs, minstrels, troubadours, and similar entertainers would tramp from village to village with their exhibitions of juggling, fire-eating, magic tricks, little songs, and bits of clowning. In Elizabethan England, they came in from the cold and were incorporated into the presentation of great works of dramatic literature as preludes and entr’actes. That tradition was perpetuated in America into the late nineteenth century, when, as one historian put it, “all shows were variety shows.”

Yet despite their deathless popularity in every land they roamed, these proto-vaudevillians always found public officials raid to ring down the curtain.

“The condition of faith and the laws of Christian discipline forbid among other sins of the world the pleasures of the public shows,” wrote Tertullian, a theologian of the second century A.D..

With a pitch like that, it’s a wonder he made any converts at all. Yet the animus against pagan-derived spectacle by the early followers of Christ is understandable: some of those spectacles had involved the consumption of Christians by the creatures we in the business call “big cats.” Siegfried and Roy meet The Faces of Death staged by Cecil B. DeMille. A “light show” mounted by Nero might consist of hundreds of Christians tied to stakes, coated with tar and set afire. In the Atellan farce an unfortunate Christian named Laureolus is recorded to have been crucified during the show’s climax and subsequently torn apart by wild animals. I repeat: this is in a farce. Not in a league with ritual murder, perhaps, but plenty appalling, was the attendant practice of presenting live sex acts as spectacle. In the case of slaves, many of whom were Christian, such performances would have been quite involuntary, and (for some, no doubt) a fate worse than death.

To enter another dangerous arena, drag, or female impersonation, has been a staple of theater since ancient times. This, too, had been a specialty of the Roman mimes, and one imagines a full range of possible transvestisms, from the silly and vulgar buffoonery associated with Milton Berle, all the way to the sort of feminine role-playing that takes place in maximum-security prisons. Ultimately, any lasting bad rep attached to drag would come from both kinds. Neither the shameless fool nor the sexual “deviant” had any place in the Christian order. By the early twentieth century, the feminine artistry of biological males like Julian Eltinge, Bert Savoy, Karyl Norman, and dozens of others would grace even the most conservative stages of America and Europe with little public furor. But they had a long road to walk (in high heels, no less) before they reached that coveted stage.

Fresh from the outrages of Rome, the rancor of early Church Fathers toward the theater is not surprising. But what of the lesser indictments that have haunted performers throughout history until the eve of our own era? What about the claims that the theater is a mere cesspool, a haven for prostitutes, con men, thieves, Satanists, ruffians, and drunkards?

“The participants of show business,” wrote columnist Earl Wilson, “are rumpots, nymphomaniacs, prostitutes, fakes, liars, cheaters, pimps, hopheads, forgers, sodomists, slobs, absconders—but halt. I understate it horribly.”

As late as 1904, clergymen L. M. Judy wrote in his treatise Questionable Amusements and Worthy Substitutes:

With drunkenness, gambling and dancing, theater-going dates from the beginning of history, and with these it is not only questionable in morals, but it is positively bad… There you find the man… who has lost all love for his home, the careless, the profane, the spendthrift, the drunkard, and the lowest prostitute of the street.

The startling fact that emerges from these blanket pronouncements is not the extremity of the views; on the contrary, their assessments are right on the button.

“Cluck, cluck, surely this is an exaggeration,” we sophisticated moderns are wont to respond. We laugh off such hyperbolic broadsides as the ravings of a lunatic. We hold this view because the past century has been a time of rehabilitation for the traveling player, not because the charges were ever discredited.

Tempting though it may be to scoff at the bugaboos of less enlightened times, these claims (despite their hysterical and intolerant tone) turn out to have been essentially true. Like Vivie in the Shaw play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, vaudeville turns out to be the respectable, bourgeois daughter of a common whore. More accurately, a dynasty of whores stretching back to the Queen of Sheba. The only question has ever been: Do you have a problem with whores?

Throughout most of human history, ladies (and gentlemen) of the evening have been a featured amenity at nearly all theaters. In Rome, the world’s oldest profession had developed into a fine art. There are three dozen words in Latin for as many types of prostitute. Four of them (cymbal players, singing girls, harpists, and mimes) have names that also qualify them for the Roman equivalent of the vaudeville stage. The Roman circuses and amphitheaters were handily equipped with special little enclaves called fornices where men could visit a sex worker during intermission. They were sort of like a concession stand, or those guys at the ball games (“Get yer red hots! Get ’em while they’re red, get ’em while they’e hot! And when we say hot, we mean hot!”). In medieval times, jongleuresses and lady minstrels entertained the populace, but also doubled as damsels-for-hire. Edward II himself was entertained by several of these charmers, who, with names like “Pearl-in-the-Egg” and “Maude Makejoy,” were doubtless fingering more than lute frets.

According to British historian Fergus Linnane’s book London: The Wicked City, Elizabethan theaters were patrolled by girls called “orange sellers,” who sold oranges, and were only too glad to peel it off. The Restoration stage gave us the actress-courtesan who accepted lavish gifts, jewels, dresses, an apartment–a living, basically–in exchange for being some admirer’s girlfriend. One of the most famous actresses of the age, Nell Gwynn, even became the consort to Charles II. That this should be so is not surprising. Surely it’s not nuclear physics to conclude that some of the men in the audience, inflamed by the beauties on stage, hearts thumping, minds racing, would fall all over themselves in a mad scramble back to the dressing room with boxes of chocolates, bundles of roses, bottles of champagne, wallets full of cash, family heirlooms, and probably deeds to property, in order to quiet the howling, libidinous demons inside them. Don’t ask me why. I guess that’s just how God made us.

Whether or not an actress was actually a prostitute was immaterial. By the late nineteenth century virtually none of them were, but the association remained. This is due to a peculiar phenomenon that still rears its ugly head, what specialist in rape law call “blaming the victim.” Because the woman inspires lustful thoughts in a man (whether she purposes to do so or not) she becomes the source of the evil. It’s rather like the wold blaming the sheep for looking delicious. So we find women becoming the Daughters of Eve, the Whores of Babylon, the Jezebels, the Delilahs and Salomes. To parade themselves in front of an audience is a brazen act of provocation inspired by Satan himself. Yes, as we shall see, at vaudeville’s peak, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Salome would be very much in demand.

Esmerelda in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the archetype of the nascent medieval variety artist: she dances, plays a tambourine, tells jokes, and performs a routine with a trained goat. That dance–the Middle Eastern, sexy Gypsy dance–proves the character’s undoing. Ecstatic or “primitive” dancing in medieval and Reformation times was associated with witchcraft because it was believed that the dancer bewitched the male spectator by arousing impure thoughts. The anonymous pamphlet A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (1673) describes such a dance as “diabolical… they take one another by the arms and raise each other from the ground, then shake their heads to and fro like Anticks, and turn themselves as if they were mad.” Hanging, stoning, burning, and drowning were the penalties for such behavior. But in the twentieth century, vaudeville dancers would teach America to shimmy, shake, cakewalk, and Toddle the Tolado.

Similarly reviled were the minstrels, or professional singers of secular love songs. In the Middle Ages, minstrels were particularly execrated by religious authorities, for they went about filling people’s heads with seductive thoughts. As the medieval mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg wrote: “The miserable minstrel who with pride can arouse sinful vanity / weeps more tears in hell than there is water in the sea.”

To bring the matter closer to home, think of most of the famous singers of the past century. Is there any doubt that the vast majority of them have made more than their fair share of “conquests”? Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles amongst them must have dispatched over a thousand women, plenty of them strangers, most of them one-night stands, all of them somebody’s daughter. This wasn’t invented yesterday. The guy with the guitar always gets the chicks, even when the guitar is a mandolin and the love song is “Greensleeves.”

One of these strolling Lotharios is most germane to our story, for (as tradition has it) he gave vaudeville its name. Some say the word is a corruption of val de vire, or vau de vire, meaning the vally of the Vire River, which is in Normandy, where a troubadour named Oliver Basselin made certain drinking songs popular in the fifteenth century. Thus was vaudeville, like the theater itself, born in a bottle. Imagine the setting: a wayside inn full of drunken, dirty peasants, Falstaff, Nym, and Pistol, feeling up the wenches and making lewd jokes. This would be the variety-arts setting for at least the next three centuries. But while the word “vaudeville” was coined in the Middle Ages, there will be much water (and more alcohol) under the bridge before we arrive at the unlikely destination known as American vaudeville.

Efforts to keep sex off the stage could sometimes backfire. The medieval English had banned women from the stage for fear of encouraging indecent displays. The female roles were all played by young boys in girlish costume. The result was that by Elizabethan times you had the unsettling situation of innocent children playing sensuous female roles like Juliet and Cleopatra, their hair long, their cheeks rouged, and their little eyelashes batting coquettishly. Ironically, an effort to suppress sexuality resulted in something uncomfortably skirting perversion. In this, perhaps, the Elizabethan theater had something in common with prisons, seminaries, English boarding schools, and the navy. Whether or not suspicions of pederasty had any real foundation, though, they added to the theater’s stigmatization in some quarters. In 1629, the poet Francis Lenton labeled boy drag one of the “tempting baits of Hell / Which drew more youth unto the damned cell / Of furious lust.” But we’ll leave this tangent for the friends and enemies of NAMBLA to debate.

As that unregenerate sinner Oscar Wilde taught us, theater is, at bottom, the fine art of lying. Putting on a costume and claiming to be someone entirely different is a form of misrepresentation, or “false witness.” As the temptation must have been great for the beautiful actress to capitalize on her advantages, so too must it have been for the artful, shape-shifting actor to cross the line from thespian to confidence man.

In medieval times, one sort of traveling entertainer embodied both sides of this wooden nickel. Performing his shows on moveable tables or “benches,” the mountebank (literally “mount the bench” in Italian–as in “climb up on this improvised stage”) was part businessman, part entertainer, making quack medicine his dodge. But he was also a showman, presenting a variety bill that might include clowning, slack-wire walking, juggling, conjuring, and feats of strength. The show was just bait, however. When the crowd reached critical mass, the mountebank would proceed with his real agenda: selling medicinal tonics, elixirs, and powders and performing simple medical services, such as corn cutting.

The mountebank was the ancestor of the pitchman, the carnival banker, and the circus spieler, not to mention our entire modern model of entertainment programming presented by advertising sponsors. Shakespeare “conjures” an unflattering image of a mountebank in The Comedy of Errors:

…one Pinch; a hungry, lean-faced villain;
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler, and a fortune-teller;
A living-dead man. This pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer;
And, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as ’twere out-facing me,
Cries out, I was posses’d.

Though such medicine shows (as they came to be known) have their origin in the Middle Ages, they persisted into the twentieth century and have come to be thought of as characteristically American. This is the “snake oil” patent medicine salesman of song and story, once a fact of life in rural America, and most prominently embodied in the character devised by W. C. Fields. Such shows were to coexist with and enrich vaudeville, sending forth such distinguished alumni as Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Eubie Blake, Jesse Lasky, Fred Stone, and Harry Houdini.

The mountebank was the prototypical theatrical entrepreneur. His brother in charms was the ciarlatano (Italian for “babbler”), whose bag of tricks was a little bigger, embracing not only medical cures, but magic and fortune-telling as well. Gypsies (more properly known as Roma, a people believed to have migrated to Europe from India), became associated with the latter line of work, which remains a staple at fairs, amusement parks, and carnivals to this day. The classic American charlatan is captured in the character of Professor Marvel from the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, with his crystal ball, his turban, and his dubious ability to see into the future.

Unfortunately, mountebanks and charlatans have not faired well in the marketplace of history. Look the words up in the dictionary if you want to know how high their stock is these days. They are held in so little esteem that the terms have lose all theatrical association for the wider public and are now roughly synonymous with “crook.” Of course, some f that discredit has been earned. Mediums, astrologers, and doctors with false credentials have been known to perpetrate swindles, These arts seem to fill some awkward middle ground between show business, on the one hand, and science and established religion, on the other. Because of the power wielded by the latter institutions in our society, laws against fortune-telling remain on the books practically everywhere. Yet, in America at least, those laws are rarely enforced, perhaps because life without magic–even pretend magic–is too cruel to contemplate. And just as television shows like Crossing Over and The Psychic Friends Network have held millions in their grip in recent times, vaudeville was rife with mind readers, mentalists, and second-sight artists. A need to believe in them is always there.

That didn’t stop the authorities in less tolerant times, however, from trying to associate these people with the man downstairs. To make matters worse, the Romany word for “god” is devel, an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that must have led to some misunderstandings worthy of Abbot and Costello. Yet to be fair, the connection between magic and the guy with horns is an old one, and one probably only ever denied under threat of an Inquisitor’s thumbscrew.

Only recently have magicians, for example, written off their sleight of hand as a question of mere dexterity. Pagan priests were the first magicians, a devious but socially expedient arrangement that may well go back to Neanderthal times. The writings of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Jews are full of the doings of such characters who kept their flocks in line for fun and profit. Remember your Exodus. When Moses turns his rod into a serpent, what do Pharaoh’s priests do? They turn their rods into serpents. When he turns the Nile into blood, what do the priests do? They turn their little bowls of water into “blood.” Presto change-o! Miracles, in antiquity, were part of the apparatus of the state, much as a well-rehearsed press conference is today.

In the monotheistic order, however, magic, like the art of the actor, became verboten, inside the church and out. Catholicism, for example, relies on the subtler effects produced by music, poetry, wine, and incense to summon the spirit during its ceremonies–absent are the whistles, shadows, smoke, sparklers, mirrors, and black thread employed by pagan priests to make god appear, whether he wanted to or not. In medieval times, magic and its allied arts (e.g., mind reading, fortune-telling, hypnotism, and ventriloquism) went underground and became a dark cohort of alchemy, necromancy, and all manner of mountebankery. The conical-hatted wizard with stars and moons on his robe emerges from behind the curtain, inspiring Faust, Merlin, Gandalf, and Cookie Jarvis. Echoes of this former devilishness survived in the conjuring field until quite recently. Think of the archetypal magician, with his pointy goatee and mustache, his dark brow, his big, sweeping cape, magic wand, puffs of smoke, flashes of fire, and all of those Kabalistic words that have since become silly to us, but were once meant to call up demons from hell: Hocus Pocus! Ali-kazam! Abracadabra! Yet throughout most of the Christian era, such association with His Satanic Majesty, however great the financial rewards, has meant risking imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of the authorities. As late as the 1780s, Cagliostro, who’d been the toast of Paris with his illusions, was sentenced to life in prison by the Inquisition; he perished within a year. A little over a century later, the vaudevillian Harry Houdini would escape from dozens of such jails and gain fame and fortune doing it.

Yet throughout most of the Christian era, the practitioner of magic needed to keep his bags packed. Another nickname for the Roma people is “Travelers.” They lived right in the wagons that were their crucial mode of escape. But the Roma weren’t the only travelers. Plenty of others hit the road, too, compelled by nothing more than the perverse imp inside them, that incessant siren song that made the plow and the spinning wheel seem a fate worse than death. Just as in the sideshow world there are many self-made freaks, in the wider performing arts, there are many self-made outsiders.. Yet even they to a certain extent were hand-picked by fate. Where is there a home for the butter-fingered farm boy who daydreams and drops all his tools? The peasant with an IQ of 160? The village idiot? The queer? The village trollop in a culture where allure was regarded as temptation and thus a hated product of Satan (cursed, as we still say, with a beautiful body)? For such people, the Island of Misfit Toys is the only logical destination.

Ironically these nonconformists were trapped in a no-win situation. Forced by circumstances to keep moving, they were then often treated with fear and suspicion for being strangers. They were outsiders by definition, and remained so within living memory. Before the age of broadcasting, travel was the only way a performer could make his living. Once the townspeople have seen your show and tossed their pennies, it’s time to move on. Like a farmer rotating his fields, when one area was fallow, you’ve have to work another.

Yet since the dawn of civilization, civilization has been equated with stability. We like “pillars” of society and good “solid” citizens. We are distrustful of someone who “runs around.” The person who comes and goes as he pleases is said to do so “like a thief in the night.” Throughout most of Western history, one said “actor” the way one said “hobo.” To become an actor was to throw your life away, leave your family (usually with a good deal of rancor), and live on the road. When you consider that Robin Hood, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger were also itinerant and that the definition of “highwayman” is “robber,” it’s no surprise that traveling performers were lumped in with more nefarious drifters. A 1545 English law expressed this association succinctly, grouping “players” together with “ruffians, vagabonds, masterless men and evil-disposed persons.” In the 1940 Walt Disney film Pinocchio the title character is waylaid on the way to school by two evil creatures who teach him to sing “Heigh diddle dee-dee, the actor’s life for me.” The next thing you know, Pinocchio is smoking cigars and playing pool on Pleasure Island and literally making an ass of himself. Outsiders steal your laundry off the line. They sell you miracle cures that turn out to be turpentine, leaving nothing but a smoldering campfire as a customer-service desk. They entice your children, especially your daughters, down the primrose path. They leave no forwarding address.

Vagrancy and vagabondage were therefore serious crimes. In1572 English law provided that all fencers, exhibitors of trained bears, players, or minstrels not specifically under the patronage of a nobleman be “grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about.” Variations of this law (albeit with diminishing severity) remained on the books until 1824.

“I must admit that there was some justification for the actor’s unsavory social reputation,” wrote Groucho Marx. “Most of us stole a little—harmless little things like hotel towels and small rugs. There were a few actors who would swipe anything they could stuff in a trunk.” Groucho came from several generations of show folk whose roots were in France and Germany. With little effort one can project such petty thievery among troupers backward across the centuries.

A well known portrait of the American version of these ne’er-do-wells is provided by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn:

DUKE: What’s your line–mainly?
DAUPHIN: Jour printer by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theater actor–tragedy, you know; take a turn to mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing–geography school for a change; sling a lecture sometimes–oh, I do lots of things–mostly anything that comes handy, so it ain’t work. What’s your lay?
DUKE: I’ve done considerable in the doctoring way in my time. Layin’ on o’ hands is my best holt–for cancer and paralysis, and sich things; and I k’n tell a fortune pretty good when I got somebody to find out the facts for me. Preachin’s my line, too, and workin’ camp meetin’s, and missionaryin’ around.

After a typically heinous performance, the Duke and Dauphin exit the staged tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail.

And yet I spy another crime in that fictional but realistic episode, one potentially far worse than that of our artless flimflam men. As some have commented, the lynch mob can be seen as a ghastly form of theater. Observers of the phenomenon have referred to its “carnival” or “festival” atmosphere. Spontaneous eruptions of civil unrest and mob violence often take theatrical forms, erupt in and around theaters, or have been harnessed by the authorities to serve as spectacles within the theater. The earliest religious ceremonies among tribal peoples often involved human sacrifice. In The Bacchae of Euripides, women possessed by Dionysus during his rites went off into the mountains together to get drunk on wine, dance, and tear live animals apart. Ritual reenactments of murder lay at the heart of every tragedy.

The Imperial Romans recognized this human propensity for blood sport and exploited it by extracting entertainment from their public executions. But more often such mob activity arises spontaneously, requiring no official encouragement. Seldom do such eruptions result in deaths… more often they serve as a simple (if enthusiastic) critique of those in power and often with more hilarity than hysteria.

By definition, comedy is subversive. It is about defying expectations, turning things upside down, doing things wrong. It is antiauthoritarian. Note how, no matter how much pleasure comedy gives us, we don’t speak of going to heaven but rather that “it’s funny as hell.” Many of us especially prize humor that is irreverent. But irreverence in a theocracy is risky business, as any Catholic-school wiseass knows from the welts on his forearm. Imagine that the entire universe is a Catholic school and instead of a ruler, the nun has a cat-o’-nine-tails.

The authorities attempting to Christianize Europe after the fall of Rome had a problem. They were trying to impose their values on a society steeped in centuries of pagan history prior to the spread of the Gospels. Among the hardest habits to break were the ancient holiday traditions, as witnessed by the mysterious intrusion of Christmas trees and Easter eggs in purportedly Christian celebrations. In point of fact the decorated trees and eggs had been cherished pagan symbols for millennia–Christmas and Easter were the Johnny-come-latelies. Christian festivals were scheduled so as to correspond to the old pagan calendar and to co-opt existing folk practices. One such festival was Saturnalia. Held annually in late December, the Roman Saturnalia gave license for a brief return to the “Golden Age of Saturn,” an annual experiment in democracy when slaves were treated like kings and all underlings were given deferential treatment by their superiors. As we all know, kings behave like pigs. During Saturnalia, everyone else did too, and thousands of people from every walk of life were allowed to run amok through the streets.


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