1Shortly after 8:30 PM on the evening of December 26, 1946 Mildred Smith walked out on the stage of the Broadway Theater in New York, stood before the show curtain, and sang the prelude to the Broadway premiere of Beggar’s Holiday, Duke Ellington and John Latouche’s adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. At this point the song was relatively new to her because, until only a couple of weeks before this night, it had been performed by other people. First, the famous chanteuse and actress Libby Holman sang the song in the months leading to the show’s premiere. Holman’s rendition has been preserved on a rare bootleg recording made during some of the show’s early rehearsals, probably in October 1946 (D. Ellington, “Beggar’s Holiday”).
2With a deep, raspy, almost baritone voice and only a casual relationship to the notated pitches, Holman virtually spoke the song, a sultry performance style reminiscent of smoky jazz clubs and cabarets.
- 1 The first press release to mention that Libby Holman may be replaced was in the Daily News, Decemb (...)
3But by November 1946 her part in the show had been virtually eliminated, and by opening night she had been fired from the cast1. At some point, the song was reassigned to Alfred Drake, whose voice was already familiar to the New York crowd from his performance as Curly in the wildly successful original production and original cast album of Oklahoma!, both produced in 1943.
4Clear and resonant, Drake’s voice maneuvered the changes in register with little audible strain. His elongated phrases and shifts in timbre (such as the momentary suspension of vibrato on his delicate high notes) suggest the crooning style of pop singers from the late 1940s and 1950s.
- 2 That she sang this song on opening night is suggested by the opening night playbill (Smith, Series (...)
5However, on an unknown date before December 26, 1946, “In Between” had been reassigned again, this time to the relatively unknown singer Mildred Smith2 Her rendition of this song does not survive, but her voice has been preserved in a recording of another song from Beggar’s Holiday, “Brown Penny.”
6Her powerful resonance, her pronounced vibrato, and her clear mezzo-soprano timbre are reminiscent of opera.
7Given that her two predecessors sang in a more popular idiom, the choice of Smith for this song may seem counterintuitive. Of the three voices presented here, none highlights the gulf between high art and lowbrow as much as Smith’s. These recordings have puzzled subsequent commentators because the original cast recording seemed to waver between popular and classical idioms. For example, Howard Breitelbart, who served as music director and vocal arranger for the Smithsonian partial reconstruction of Beggar’s Holiday in 1992, described these recordings as “bizarre—soulful music being done very straight, with almost operatic qualities” (Harrington H1). Given this stylistic disjunction, why did the creative team eventually choose Smith to perform this song?
8What follows is an investigation of Smith’s voice: both how it sounded and how it may have been heard. I will refer to her voice in two distinct, yet closely related ways. First, I refer to it in a literal sense: as a sound object with a distinct source. Second, I refer to it in a more abstract sense as the vehicle for semantic content in speech, but which nonetheless remains distinct from any meaning that speech may hold. In this latter sense, the voice is not strictly meaningless, but rather imparts “meaning” without relying upon signification. Instead, the voice becomes meaningful via its “erotics,” its unique presence as sound that emphasizes the physical presence of the particular vocalist (Dolar 3-32, Cavarero 9-16). The creators of Beggar’s Holiday featured Smith’s voice in ways that highlighted the disjunction between her speech and its signification. In other words, they focused attention on the “grain” of the voice above its signifying qualities, thereby privileging her physical presence and the qualities of the sound that emitted from her (Barthes). I argue that Ellington and Latouche did this to play off a fraught relationship between sign and signified that had become increasingly controversial in the United States during World War II. This controversy was not only limited to aesthetics, but it also took on a strong political valence. Therefore, the choice of Smith and her voice did not simply indicate an aesthetic preference, but also a strategic maneuver that played off a politicized aesthetic discourse that arose in New York in the mid 1940s.
- 3 See for example, Zolotow 30; Grutzner, X3. A similar statement appeared a few months before the sh (...)
9Many of the critics who saw the opening night performance of Beggar’s Holiday left the theater confused: they had just seen a venerated classic of English drama reconceived as a musical comedy, and they had just heard a conspicuous mixture of operatic and jazz styles ranging from recitative to torch-song style arias to big-band style dance numbers. Adding to this confusion between popular and high-art styles was the show’s biracial cast, which was deployed in an unusual way. Although mixed-race casts were common on Broadway by the 1940s, African American and white performers tended to be assigned different roles: African American performers tended to play mostly lowbrow comic characters, while white performers could be cast in highbrow parts3 But in Beggar’s Holiday, there was no discernable difference between African American and white roles. As Richard Dier wrote in the Baltimore Afro-American: “You need go no further for proof that colored actors and actresses, if given roles on par with whites without racial identification, can handle them just as capably and effectively than in the gay and tuneful modern version of ‘Beggar’s Holiday’” (7; see also Chapman; D Ellington, Music is My Mistress 185; M. Ellington 97; Nicholson 269-71). Mildred Smith straddled the high / low divide in all three ways: her singing style had previously been recognized as operatic, as when she understudied an opera singer in the show St Louis Woman in early 1946; in addition to “In Between,” she sang a spoof of operatic recitative during the second act of Beggar’s Holiday; and she was an African American actress, playing ingénue to a white leading man.
10Because the musical so flagrantly overturned received conventions of highbrow and lowbrow styles, critics had trouble classifying the musical. Eric Bentley wrote in February 1947 for Harper’s Magazine:
I gather that Mr. Latouche began with an intelligent musical satire based on John Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera,’ that his overlords thought the job too ‘highbrow,’ and called in George Abbot to transform ‘art’ into ‘amusement.’ The result is incoherence. The play is neither one thing nor another. (213)
11Bentley’s review contained two salient points that recurred in the publicity surrounding this musical. The first was that high art and low amusement were hermetically distinct genres. The second was a subtle description of each genre’s semantic content: high-minded musical satire was “intelligent,” while a mixture of satire and comedy produced “incoherence.” Elliot Norton echoed this in his Boston Herald review:
Where John Gay found fun by deriding the corruption of the courts and rulers of his time, the present librettist, John LaTouche, seems to be jeering only at his own story. Let him do so, if he likes, providing it is funny. But what reason is there for using the ancient work as the basis unless he finds some parallel to shoot at?
12The ballistic imagery here is telling: the words of satire should take aim and hit their target—they should signify something. According to Norton, Beggar’s Holiday may have struck a jeering tone, but it signified nothing. This, however, was more than a critique. Affixing a generic label did more than classify a given work as high or low based on certain given criteria. Critics like Norton could also use these labels actively, even aggressively, to render an object “legible” or “incoherent.” In doing so, the critic was effectively prescribing a mode of signification to his or her audience, and signaling whether a piece was to be enjoyed or contemplated; seen or understood; heard or listened to.
13High satire and low musical comedy were not always so starkly separated from one another as Norton and Bentley suggested in their reviews. In fact, John Latouche’s own copy of the Beggar’s Opera contained an introductory essay written by William Eben Schultz in 1923. In it, he underlined the following passage: “If satire and burlesque were absent, the play, with its disreputable characters, might indeed be revolting. With both of these agencies present, it becomes picturesque and even attractive. The burlesque is not broadly comic; it is intellectual, and elusive without proper understanding” (204). This essay indicates that intellectual satire and “broadly comic” burlesque were not impenetrable, discrete genres at the time. Contrary to Norton’s and Bentley’s preferences, the blend of these two registers was one of the most appealing aspects of Gay’s ballad opera.
14However, between 1923 (when this introduction was written) and 1946 (when Beggar’s Holiday premiered) there were drastic changes in artistic rhetoric that made such generic mingling difficult. These changes began during World War II, when well-known writers such as Archibald MacLeish and Van Wyck Brooks argued that artists had a responsibility to wage an intellectual war against fascism. As Archibald MacLeish wrote:
What words cannot do as words because they can only speak, what rhythm and sound cannot do as rhythm and sound because they have no speech, poetry can do because its sound and its speech are a single incantation. . . . There is therefore, if poetry is an art, no religious rule, no critical dogma, which excludes from poetry the political experience of men. (86)
15With this charged rhetoric, MacLeish and his coterie championed political satire and condemned the work of writers like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein as “irresponsible.” MacLeish called instead for a political art that was ideologically engaged against fascism—and explicitly so (103-21). In other words, he championed art in which speech carried explicit signifying power.
16Contrary to this view was that of a group of intellectuals made up of exiles working in New York City (such as Theodor Adorno), writers who were mostly educated at the City University of New York in the 1930s, and the contributors to the magazine Partisan Review. Foremost among them was Dwight MacDonald, who famously indicted Archibald MacLeish in his 1941 article “Kulturbolschewismus is Here.” MacDonald blasted MacLeish’s “attempt to impose on the writer from outside certain socio-political values, and to provide a rationalization for damning his work esthetically if it fails to conform to these social values. […] The recent growth of this tendency over here is an ominous sign of the drift toward totalitarianism. It is a matter of cultural life and death to resist this tendency, regardless of one’s specific political beliefs” (450-1). Instead, Macdonald championed a different kind of art, one that was famously described by art-critic Clement Greenberg in his article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” from 1939.
The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape—not its picture—is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself. (6)
17In effect, Greenberg sought to banish ideology from art by collapsing the distance that normally separated signifier and signified, as if to create an airtight seal between the two that would allow no ideology to seep in. It was drastic, even draconian: to purge art of propaganda he purged it of meaning altogether: art was to signify only itself; political satire was out. As scholars such as Serge Guilbaut have noted, it was this view that eventually became dominant and increasingly prestigious in New York City starting in the mid 1940s, when artists like as Jackson Pollock rose to prominence (Guilbaut 49-99).
18The Broadway musical saw similar changes. Before the 1940s, satirical plays and musicals were common, especially under the aegis of the Federal Theatre Project, which became known (and controversial) for two things: one, for its avant-garde theatrical experiments by such famous directors as John Houseman and Orson Welles; two, for its explicitly political subject matter, which was almost always left-wing (Carter 302; Clurman; Flanagan, especially “Men at Work”). In short, Broadway musicals of the 1930s were often avant-garde, populist, and popular, and this was not seen as a contradiction of terms. However, just as with visual art and writing, this kind of musical theater gave way to abstract formal rhetoric during the 1940s with the rise of the so-called “integrated musical,” a kind of musical that also tended to be apolitical. In other words, in aesthetic terms, by 1946 apolitical theater had become fashionable and prestigious, while Left had become gauche.
19Latouche and Ellington positioned themselves uneasily between the more politically explicit theater of the pre-War era and the abstract, formalist ideal that rose to prominence in New York during the mid 1940s. Almost the entire creative team for Beggar’s Holiday felt some connections to the avant-garde political theater of the 1930s because many of them began their careers with the Federal Theatre Project and other left-wing theaters. First, producer Perry Watkins began his career in the Negro Theater of the WPA. Second, Dale Wasserman, now known primarily for writing the libretto to Man of LaMancha, had worked with Katherine Dunham, an African American dancer who choreographed such left-wing political musicals as Pins and Needles (a revue assembled by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union). Third, the show’s director was John Houseman, and he had previously collaborated with Orson Welles on the infamous Project 891 and the wildly successful first season at Mercury Theater, both of which grew out of WPA initiatives in the 1930s. Fourth, John Latouche, the librettist, was widely known as the lyricist of the Ballad for Americans, a left-wing piece that achieved stunning popularity when performed by actor and activist Paul Robeson. Finally, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn had previously written the progressive Jump for Joy for Broadway in 1941.
- 4 Two press clippings, with unknown authors or sources, contain this phrase, dated September 12, 194 (...)
- 5 A notable precursor was Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), which was (...)
20Evidence of the Federal Theatre Project’s influence can be seen in the first draft of the show, which was explicitly labeled “a biting satire adapted to the American scene” in the press4. An early version of the musical’s final scene, for example, featured the condemned Macheath stepping outside the narrative frame to have a conversation with the show’s narrator. “You see how it is, Mac. Look at the lathered pack of mankind, hysterical, jittery, anxious—jumping this way and that, snapping and biting at whatever passes before their furious jaws… looking for a blame in this man’s color, a scapegoat in that man’s race, running frantically before the shadow of their illogical fear—trapped in the arid gulleys of their hatred… The deed has been done by all of us—the hates hated by all of us—the bombs released, the triggers pulled, the mines laid, the victims destroyed—by all of us. The one thing we equally share in this inequal world is guilt.” Macheath retorted, “But you are the guiltiest of all. […]” The narrator responded, “What have I done? [...] I just sat back and let things happen.” “And that is the greatest crime of all.” To which the narrator responded, looking out at the audience, “If that is true then we are all criminals” (Latouche, “First Draft” 2-3-11 – 2-3-12). As with many Federal Theatre Project shows of the 1930s, the political ideology was explicit in this early version of Beggar’s Holiday—perhaps overbearingly so, with its explicit reference to racism, World War II-era violence, and the atomic bomb. However, also reminiscent of 1930s political theater was the avant-garde technique by which this message was delivered. Beggar’s Holiday undermined the conventions that separate the paratextual narrator from the diegetic action. In hindsight, this is perhaps not the most radical of theatrical experiments, but it was certainly in the spirit of the Federal Theatre Project, and it was definitely unusual for a musical comedy at the time5.
21Yet John Latouche recognized that the postwar artistic climate in New York was drastically different in 1946 than it had been in the 1930s. Therefore, he decided to generalize his satire and hide his political targets: “no specific character will be satirized, as, let us say, John Gay satirized Walpole,” he wrote. “For each Walpole, we can find a dozen prototypes in the contemporary scene” (Latouche “Outline”). Likewise Duke Ellington had already used this strategy in writing his 1941 musical Jump for Joy. He said in connection with it, “I think a statement of social protest in the theatre should be made without saying it, and this calls for the real craftsman” (quoted in Lock 95). Moreover, Ellington’s 1943 Black, Brown, and Beige also made a generalized social critique in an even more abstract form, the musical suite. The subtitle of Black, Brown, and Beige was “A tone parallel to the history of the American Negro.” And surely it was no accident that the subtitle was only slightly modified for the Beggar’s Holiday: “A parallel in tempo with John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.”
22Following this strategy, Latouche and Ellington cut all of the politically explicit scenes by the time Beggar’s Holiday opened in New York. For example, in the new version of the final scene, the hooded and shackled character of Macheath was led to center stage where he took his place in an electric chair. In this version, there was no speech about bombs or mines, and when the executioner threw the switch, the jail was plunged into darkness. Macheath was dead. Suddenly, a carnivalesque flash burst forth from the chair, and the stage lights returned to reveal the show’s narrator sitting where Macheath’s corpse should have been. “I can’t go bumping off the hero,” he said, “not in a musical comedy.”
“Who is he, Daddy?” asked one of the witnesses.
“That’s the symbolism. That’s the highbrow stuff. . . it gives meaning, or something,” replied the show’s villain, Peachum, who then turned to the audience and said, “Get this—this is the novel twist!” The narrator suddenly ripped off a mask to reveal that he was, in fact, Macheath himself. “It’s ridiculous!” objected Peachum, “But it’s a happy ending,” Macheath retorted, and closed the evening by leading the cast in the high-spirited finale (Latouche “Beggar’s Holiday” 2-9-1 – 2-9-2).
23Where the earliest draft of Beggar’s Holiday contained explicit politics, there remained only a conspicuous reference to the divide between highbrow and lowbrow theatre in the final version, and this division was described in semiotic terms: on the one hand, highbrow theater could be “symbolic,” could have “meaning”; on the other hand, lowbrow theater (identified explicitly as “musical comedy”) must have a lieto fine and a rousing finale, even if it did not make literal sense. The finale, and other similar moments in the show, frustrated critics when they tried to label the show. As Eric Bentley wrote,
There was a nice irony about the ending. When the action reached the stage of total insignificance, an actor stepped forward and said: “That’s the symbolism. That’s the highbrow stuff. It gives meaning or something.” The curtain fell. I looked the actor up in the program and learned that he was a former lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art. (213)
24The operative word is “insignificance.” Bentley contested that the show claimed to be meaningful but literally signified nothing, and it frustrated him that a man who taught at the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be involved in such a piece—after all, this actor’s highbrow pedigree should have made him sympathetic to highbrow, formalist art instead of the coy hijinks of this musical.
25In short, Beggar’s Holiday seemed poised as if to express something, but thwarted any attempt to be “read.” In this vein, many critics sensed subterranean morals, but could not identify them. For example, one argued that the musical contained “winning ingredients that click except when the book becomes a trifle too assertive and overly involved” (Field). But he never stated what Beggar’s Holiday asserted. Another critic wrote: “Maybe there are morals or messages but if there are they’re kept hidden under a great deal of music with the unmistakable stamp of the one and only Duke Ellington,” again, suggesting that there may be some kind of ideological agenda to the musical that is never stated or suggested outright (Izzy 17). Lacking any explicit statement of ideology, we are left with the “unmistakable stamp” of Duke Ellington: his style, his voice, but not his words—“saying without saying,” as Ellington had put it.
26If anything, Beggar’s Holiday is a protest against the stark division between highbrow and lowbrow art, a protest that Latouche and Ellington waged on a semiotic front. The musical blatantly evoked no instantly-recognizable style: by reviving Gay’s political satire with no explicit political target; by deploying an interracial cast with no distinction between the white and black actors; by reviving the theatrical conventions of the Federal Theatre Project, but with no left-wing political content—all of these disrupted the sharp distinction between highbrow formalism and lowbrow entertainment that critics such as MacDonald and Greenberg had tried to erect. Because Beggar’s Holiday hearkened back to left-wing theater of the 1930s, when musicals had combined a political message with a recognizable populist tone, it felt political and lowbrow. Yet there was no explicit populist political message. Instead, there were feints toward highbrow, avant-garde, formalist theater. In other words, there was significance without signification, political voice without political speech.
27Mildred Smith’s voice at the opening of the show likewise suggested this confused interpretive mode for Beggar’s Holiday. Not yet a character, not yet connected to any plot, not yet inhabiting a diegetic scene, she delivered her opening song directly to the audience. It signaled that the musical was not going to employ a naturalistic kind of performance; it suggested that the proscenium would be permeable, that genre, form, and theatricality itself would be thematized in ensuing production. In other words, Smith inhabited a paratextual theatrical space, and the lyrics she sang likewise emphasized liminality:
Between the twilight and nightfall
There’s a time that’s outside of time
When you feel yourself standing nowhere at all
And you watch the shadows lazily climb…
You’re a feather in the air, waiting for the breeze
You which way you’re gonna go--
You ain’t good or bad,
Nor sweet, nor mean
You’re just in between. (Duke Ellington “In Between”)
28Who did “you” refer to? Was it a character in the show, or did these words implicate the audience itself? Both the breaking of the theatrical frame and the unclear link between pronoun and antecedent drove a wedge between sign and object. It was a semiotic maneuver that was emblematic of avant-garde theater, which Ellington and Latouche repeatedly evoked throughout Beggar’s Holiday in the midst of an otherwise traditional, musical-comedy setting. And then there was Smith’s voice: in choosing to deploy her operatic sound in a jazz song, the writers were already suggesting a transgression of aesthetic boundaries—boundaries that had been drawn upon racial lines, with African Americans confined mostly to lowbrow roles; and also upon the very act of signification: highbrow art emphasized formalism while lowbrow art could signify and deliver “messages,” especially political ones. In other words, all the details of Beggar’s Holiday that explicitly drew attention to its form also invited the audience to “read between the lines,” so to speak. That Smith’s highbrow voice could be traced to an African American, while not outright political, was certainly suggestive.
29Years later Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer, would find this very lack of straightforwardness frustrating. “To my mind,” he wrote, “if Pop was ever wrong it was on occasions when he let the artistic character of his works obscure the statement being made, blunting its effect on the audience. Beggar’s Holiday was a case in point” (M. Ellington, 182). But Mercer Ellington wrote this in 1978, after the Civil Rights era when both the content and style of discourse about race had changed significantly. Duke Ellington’s own assessment was different. “[Beggar’s Holiday] was a long time ahead of its time so far as social significance was concerned,” he wrote. “Again it was a matter of saying things without saying them” (Music is My Mistress 185). In other words, for Duke Ellington in 1946, the voice alone was enough to make a radical statement.
30Others must have agreed, because although there were no real explicit political messages in Beggar’s Holiday, there were very real political consequences. By 1950, John Latouche would be listed as a Communist in the influential and infamous publication Red Channels, along with the stars of the show: Alfred Drake, Zero Mostel, and Avon Long. Long’s performance in Beggar’s Holiday was specifically cited as evidence for his Communist sympathies (American Business Consultants 48, 104, 113). Decades later, it was revealed that the FBI had been keeping files on Duke Ellington since 1938 (Cohen 194-5). And it was not for anything that any of them had said. They simply sounded like Communists.