Vaudeville Theory: Notes Towards A New Genre


Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

Presented as an Artist in Residence at Mildred’s Lane for the session on Alchemy, Summer 2012.  It is also available on


Prologue: What is Theory?

“Gray is the color of theory,” Villem Flusser

Theory, is a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking…The Greek word , theoria, θεωρία, meant “a looking at, viewing, beholding,” but in more technical contexts it came to refer to contemplative or speculative understandings of natural things, such as those of natural philosophers, as opposed to more practical ways of knowing things, like that of skilled orators or artisans.The word has been in use in English since at least the late 16th century. ¾wikipedia


The mention of “theory” often leads to rumblings, especially in the art world. But what exactly is theory? Often it is described as a thing that has come in and out of fashion as though the writings of Derrida or Deleuze are mere fads only fit for a specific time and place. But David Foster Wallace found theory important to his writing because it is one of the languages of our time. As his mother described him David Foster Wallace hoovered everything that surrounded him. As a child of the 80s and 90s, theory, as well as avant-garde and experimental film, was one of those many things that touched his life. In this he was not alone.  While hardly an everyman, DFW could not be said to be anything but of his times.

Wherever one stands in the divide that academia has made of it, theory is part of the new flesh that makes up contemporary art and writing. For some this is a bad and terrible thing, for others, it has been liberating and bracing. Even using the word “theory” as though it is some heavy material is part of the problem. Is it really a thing or, like literature and philosophy, merely another way of thinking and writing?  If defined in the latter sense, it does not seem to be something that needs to be batted away like some persistent and merciless fly but rather another being as full of pitfalls and promise as literature and philosophy are. At its best theory is creative thinking, at its worst, suffocating jargon-inflected repetition of ideas better explored in more attentive writing.  And here lies the problem. The issue has long been one of writing: theory that inspires instead of deadens knows how to write. The best theory does not employ language as some absent-minded sign-system that interferes with comprehension. Instead, language is its very tool; a delicate and hypersensitive one at that.  It is no accident that Derrida’s theories of deconstruction are about language and writing in the deepest, most profound sense; nor that he is a poetic and effective writer of great humor and nuance. [See: Goodeve, “Prolixity and Art, The Brooklyn Rail, March, 2013:

But this essay is neither a defense nor an indictment of theory’s place in our lives and classrooms. Instead it explores a specific kind of theory, one that travels the line between poetry, art, writing, and philosophy.  It is a form of critical theory but bred, jokingly, of vaudeville rather than the academy. It is about writing and performance and surrealist juxtaposition. It is not purely rational but shakes its belly like the monstrous UBU who might be one of the first vaudeville theorists.

Vaudeville theory is a way of writing essays as slapstick dialogues. It is also about using humor and performance for critical and theoretical effect. Some vaudeville theory is quite literally performative, other is discursive but delights in the use of metaphor and voice.

The term errupted as a joke, a quip I made in trying to explain my turn to dialogues instead of essays in my writing on Matthew Barney and Heide Hatry.  The phrase just fell out of my mouth,  «Well, it’s kind of vaudeville theory.»  I then realized there are others who do this:  Avital Ronell, Andrea Fraser, Donna Haraway, Yvonne Rainer, Pablo Helguera, and  the video artist Steve Fagin. And so, not sure if it can be given the name of an actual genre, I present it here within the context of alchemy: the transmutation of writing not into a stone but a chemical reaction.

We know theory’s roots are long, wide and complex. It goes back to the Greeks yet seems to be a discourse particular to the late twentieth century and after where it has become its own discipline. At its most basic, theory is the use of a systematic (or unsystematic) series of speculations, observations, suppositions, and abstractions to explore, define, or imagine ideas that extend beyond what has already been thought. In other words, theory must, by definition, set out something that is not yet known, otherwise why write it in the first place? Do we write theories of what we know? Not really. One assumes one is reading a new take when one turns to theory. It is why it is so disappointing when one reads theory that is merely retreading old ground. At it’s best one is drawing new conclusions based on research, experience, data. It takes imagination to write theory. Artists shouldn’t be made to feel hostile or alienated from it unless they include literature, philosophy and history in their hostility.

The scene:

There is a rear screen projection behind the audience. On it is an image of THEORY who is speaking at a conference on French Theory in America. She comes to the edge of the stage to greet some friends who have come to hear her speak. Suddenly she falls, in a complete pratfall, off the stage. She gets up only to sit back down in her seat and find the panel has begun. Her shoulders shake with invisible laughter but her face is composed. You see, THEORY was just blinded by the lights.

Vaudeville Theory

Vaudeville theory is steeped in slapstick, humor, and irreverence. Like vaudeville, it is a mongrel, although playful and beaten up (like the young Buster Keaton, so named by Harry Houdini because he was thrown about so much as a child). It is usually funny but does not always have to be (like Beckett). It is not straight-forward and can be a sermon, a juggling act, a dancehall burlesque, a magic show. It is the blasphemous myth of the cyborg that Donna Haraway writes in 1984, as well as the deeply moving, wide-ranging, brilliant, and hysterical (in all senses) work of Avital Ronell, especially her books Crack Wars, Fighting Theory, and the path-breaking Telephone Book. It is the stand up cerebral critical comedy of Yvonne Rainer and Andrea Fraser. Gertrude Stein is in a way on the path of vaudeville theory in her writings on herself (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) and literature, as is Nietzsche’s aphoristic voice and Beckett’s unprecedented (except by vaudeville) dialogues. At times it is conscious, at others, like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, almost unconscious in its relation to critical theory.

It’s true precedent is Alfred Jarry. What else is Ubu Roi, so much so, another word for vaudeville theory might be “ubu-theory.”

Act Three Scene I

The palace. Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu.

PA UBU: In the name of my green snot, here I am King of the castle. I’ve already caught myself in an ulcer and they’re bringing me my big sombrero.
MA UBU: What’s it made of, Pa Ubu? It’s no use being Kings if we don’t watch our pennies.
PA UBU: Madam, my female, it’s made of sheepskin with a buckle and straps of dogskin.
MA UBU: Now, that’s beautiful. But it’s even more beautiful to be Kings.
PA UBU: Yup, you are right, Ma Ubu.
MA UBU: We owe a great deal to the King of Lithuania.
PA UBU: Who’s he?
MA UBU: Hah? Captain Sexcrement.
PA UBU: Ma Ubu, please don’t mention that buffoon to me. Now that I don’t need him any more, let his stomach growl it’s worst, he’ll never get his dukedom.
MA UBU: That’s a bad mistake, Pa Ubu. He’ll rebel against you.
PA UBU: Oh I really pity the little man. I worry about him as much as I worry about Buggerlas.
MA UBU: Huh! You’d think you’ve heard the last of Buggerlas?
PA UBU: Saber of finance, of course! What could that fourteen year old creep do to me?

¾Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi

Often vaudeville theorists come off as both artists and theorists (Avital Ronell has been and is also a performance artist). They are writers above and beyond anything else. Language is not a transparent hoop they use to hop back and forth, but a trampoline from which to bounce, a sword to swallow, precisely what the fire-eater spits out at the audience. It is as serious as mundane theory – a term I use in Samuel Delany’s formulation of mundane fiction vs. science fiction. And at its most ethical, vaudeville theory traffics in an affirmative criticality best articulated by Nietzsche’s distinction in Beyond Good and Evil.

It’s boundaries as you see are not clear, distinct and without contradiction. It started as a quip, a jokey reaction.

THEORY is now alone on stage. Her quip that she writes “vaudeville theory” has been challenged by an academy of watchers.

ACADEMY: Why precisely is this vaudeville theory?

[Alfred Jarry, dressed as Ubu, rides by on his bicycle. ]

THEORY: Like surrealism, which is its aging parent, vaudeville theory is both easy to identify and difficult to describe. Like situationism, it is about creativity and enactment [burps] added to the flow of criticism and analysis, or, as Debord saw it, intervention in the belly of the beast via social gesture and experiment.

[Andrea Fraser appears on stage with Yvonne Rainer. Both are dressed as extreme sport wrestlers — Fraser in a gold lamé thong, Rainer, a tuxedo made from newspaper. They wrestle. It ends with Rainer wearing Fraser’s thong on her head, while Fraser has a paper hat recombined out of Rainer’s tuxedo that covers her from head to foot.

They then stand hand in hand, take a bow and then Rainer chases Fraser, tearing the body size hat into tatters as they leave the stage. ]

ACADEMY: [the entire audience starts tapping it’s foot] “Creativity”! We can’t believe you are using that word?

THEORY: Well I am. [stamps floor like a child] What do you associate with vaudeville?

ACADEMY: An outdated form featuring dwarves on bikes, guys with hats and big ties acting out pratfalls, basically poor comedians and gimmicky magicians.

THEORY: Well, old is right. VT seeks to shock via acknowledging its lineage: drama, poetry, and performance. Plato’s Socrates, when he is being canny and poetic as in Phaedo, or The Symposium crossed with Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifestos, are part of the origin story. Oddly, although surrealist chance and juxtaposition play a large role, Breton’s manifesto does not. It is much too didactic and self-serious. Imagine instead Bataille’s Story of the Eye acted out by Buster Keaton, Mae West and Charlie Chaplin, with Anna Karina (Godard) as Marcelle.

ACADEMY: [Is mute.]

THEORY:  Did you know vaudeville was not just entertainment but was a platform for those who had something to say? Not only were there dancers followed by performing dogs, and maybe a slight burlesque, but there were speeches and presentations of ideas as well. Helen Keller appeared with Annie Sullivan in vaudeville.

ACADEMY: I had no idea.

THEORY: Sometimes you don’t.

ACADEMY: [withholding silence]

THEORY: [Giggles nervously and does a backflip.] Okay, so off the top of my head (her head opens) here are some traits. Vaudeville theory performs its ideas, it doesn’t just recount them. But it does not always have to be performed. Like this very text is not meant to be performed but read, as are the dialogues featured at the end of Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars.

ACADEMY: That deranged, degenerate book.

A PARROT NAMED IRMA flies onto the stage, lands on THEORY’S shoulder and dips its head inside her open head. When it comes out it has a needle and syringe in its mouth. It flies off stage reciting Baudelaire.

THEORY: Vaudeville theory is not always concerned with logic and an argument, or the narrative flow of the essay. Like vaudeville, it speaks in multiple voices — sometimes sober, often intoxicated, it is inattentive to disciplinary boundaries. It features dialogues that mix humor with ideas and at its most effective, cutting critical analysis. Take Yvonne Rainer for instance. While her dance already had the signs of slapstick aesthetic [RAINER comes onto the stage dressed in lyotard and Fraser’s thong vacuuming] THEORY has to shout over the noise of the vacuumher films really began to evolve into a combination of surrealist juxtapositions of a profound and humorous kind, aided by the anti-Oedipal power of her film editing.

Rainer finishes vacuuming and then pulls a couch out from backstage. She grabs THEORY’s arm and takes her to the couch then walks off-stage.

[THEORY lies down as though on a psychoanalyst’s couch.]

ACADEMY: Must vaudeville always be funny?

THEORY: As I said, no, for it is full of grit and thought. Just as vaudeville was laced with the pathos of the immigrant struggling to make it in a new America, so is vaudeville theory driven at times with anger, melancholy and the pain of the outsider.


[A mirror drops from the ceiling and the ACADEMY OF WATCHERS look at themselves. Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women starts to play on the rear screen projection until the end.]

THEORY: [Just talking in a free associative way] Maybe outsider is too strong. You know, different, or unconventional. A bit of a tweak on the powers that be? I don’t want to come off precious or pretentious. [Throws a pillow over her face.] I never know just what I am. [Her words are muted by the pillow.] Sometimes ideas just appear and aren’t relayed in a systematic way. Sometimes I am fragmented. Sometimes I am just an artist trafficking in irony, humor and modular structures.


THEORY: As opposed to expository or narrative. It’s the structure of the vaudeville routine. Blocks of acts that are not set in any thematic order.

ACADEMY: Clichés.

CAT NAMED ART appears onstage, clawing at the mirror. It breaks.

THEORY: [A bit taken aback] What are you doing here? Trying to upstage me?

THE CAT NAMED ART [coughs.] Not always and not enough.

THEORY: I mean I’m always trying to ride along with you. Nietzsche danced, Rousseau composed. They are artists as well as philosophes.

CAT NAMED ART: Where does philosophy end and theory begin, or theory begin and philosophy end?

THEORY: They cross, as we know from Derrida, who is referred to both as a theorist and a philosopher. It’s been over fifty years since the explosion of French continental theory. I grew up as a writer and intellectual during the theory-soaked 80s, and have been made quite wary of the bad deployment of theory in academia and the art world.

[A PITBULL jumps on the couch, cuddles on her lap and nuzzles. THE CAT NAMED ART joins them on the couch.]

ACADEMY: Is it a genre?

THEORY: No. Let us not call it a genre or a movement, but, like film noir and Paul Shrader’s famous depiction, it is neither genre nor movement but more a tone, a force that recalls the convulsive beauty of Breton’s surrealism as well as Bataille’s transgressive philosophy.

CAT NAMED ART: But they hated one another.

THEORY: The juxtaposition of just such enemies is precisely what vaudeville theory is about. It has no traffic with hierarchies of power and command. It likes to laugh at itself and others but is also deadly serious —to cop a phrase from another vaudeville theorist: Donna Haraway in her «Manifesto for Cyborgs.» So it cries just as much as it shouts. It is playful without being frivolous and creative to its core. Hugo Ball would like it as a form of what he called “creative unlearning.” Its enemy is thought that forgets to thank and think itself, that forgets writing is the one place where art and theory merge and coalesce.

CAT NAMED ART : Give me some specifics. You are being too general.

THEORY: 64 Any of Andrea Fraser’s talks and performances It performs its ideas, not just recounts them. Language is its material, ideas its fuel. It is not always concerned with argument but seeks to raise questions as well as draw unlikely things together. The best example, as I said, is the dialogue that ends Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars, but the whole book is an example of theory as other, which in a way is what vaudeville is: the other of the America Dream, the other of cinema, the other of the slick, the mainstream, the triumphant. In Fighting Theory Ronell discusses her life’s work as concerned with the left-over, the marginal, the waste of philosophy.

ACADEMY: Stupidity!

[THE CAT NAMED ART and PITBULL transform into Cheshire cat grins. ]

In unison: Precisely!

Vaudeville theory is also rooted in the marginalized discourse of the different, the alternative, the not-always heard. It is why so many women seems to be vaudeville theorists. Steve Fagin jumps out «Or a Jew.» followed by Pablo Helguera «or a Mexican!»

Cries arise from the audience, «Good god!» as red clouds of embarassment emit from the crowd to engulf the stage. Oout of the red mist the PITBULL’s body returns, as does THE CAT NAMED ART. The PITBULL grows a second head. One licks THEORY, the other THE CAT NAMED ART. Helgera and Fagin dance in circles.

CAT NAMED ART:  [Giggles]

THEORY. At its most effective it is cutting critical analysis allergic to repetition without difference. In other words, it has a tingle of that word I myself do not ever use: originality –

ACADEMY: There you go again. [Helgera and Fagin run off stage.]

THEORY: I know I’m supposed to be embarassed to use such a word but what I mean is singularity. It is somehow primal and primary in that paraphrasing is enemy number one. Vaudeville theory is better quoted then summed up and is itself full of quotes. It cannot be other than itself. It is an occasion. An event.

Yvonne Rainer comes out with Avital Ronell and set up two blackboards facing one another. They push the couch where THEORY, THE CAT NAMED ART, and the TWO-HEADED PITBULL are sitting on off-stage. Andrea Fraser steps out from the wings arm in arm with Pablo Helgera and Steve Fagin. The three begin to fight over the blackboards. Fraser cracks them on the head, they fall. Ronell, Fraser, and Rainer lie down next to them. Out comes THEORY, THE CAT NAMED ART, and the TWO-HEADED PITBULL.

All rest in a pile as operatic music fills the theater. The curtain comes down.

No applause is heard from the audience.


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