About the Author
PHILIP PURVIS is the director of music at d’Overbroeck’s, an independent school in Oxford. He researches identity politics in French music and culture of the twentieth century, contributing to on-going scholarly re-examination of the image of post-First World War Parisian modernism as relatively playful or even frivolous. Purvis is the editor of Masculinity in Opera and he is currently working on a book on music and war with Rachel Moore.
Hometown:Hawaii and San Francisco, California
Date of Birth:August 5, 1958
Place of Birth:Toledo, Ohio
Read an Excerpt
On Fairies (and Mothers)
Beatrice Lillie Sings
On February 3, 1952, the popular television host Ed Sullivan presented a special episode of his weeklyCBS variety show Toast of the Town (The Ed Sullivan Show). Entitled "The Beatrice Lillie Story" (season 5, episode 22), the program that night was an hour's homage to the Canadian-born actress and singer, proclaimed by Sullivan to be "the number one comedienne of international stage." In its structure the show was straightforward enough: a rose-tinted, flashback-filled biography followed by a series of Lillie's most famous comedy sketches and interspersed with tributes from other luminaries of stage and screen. The ambiance was altogether laudatory. But Miss Lillie's culminating number was her signature tune, "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden."
A clip of this performance is available online; most commonly, it includes a fascinating short conversation between Sullivan and Lillie, before the song commences. On its surface, the song's occasion was plain enough — there was no way the show could exclude her greatest hit. But on this broadcast the song was recontextualized as a sweet piece of family memorabilia: Sullivan rehearsed the tale of a (Northern) Irish father, a mother who sang, a sister who composed. He then turned to Lillie's recollections of childhood. The wording is quite sly:
SULLIVAN: When she was a little girl in Canada, in Toronto, she used to hear her mother do these operatic arias. And there was one that Bea, as a youngster, imitated. And I was wondering if I could get you to sing that for them tonight.
LILLIE: Oh yes, our old friend "Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden." My mother really did sing this! Also Galli-Curci, and Flagstad, and myself.
There are equivocations here worth exploring later, but on initial experience they tend to be swamped by the actual performance. Lillie, in her characteristic cloche hat and pearls, swoops about with an ostrich fan, mannered gestures, and melodramatic reactions underlining unbearable lyrics and vocal gyrations. (Miss Lillie's singing is an exaggerated version of operetta voice, comic singer division — much tamer than her performances on record.) The song itself is an astonishing artifact: a peculiar piece of seeming Edwardiana in which grown-up fantasies of what a hyperdreamy child might imagine are filtered through impossibly precious language to near-hallucinatory effect, and then encased in a sugary setting.
For all its extraordinary qualities, Lillie's performance of "Fairies" meets with a somewhat subdued reaction in this broadcast. The audience takes a while to begin laughing, and when they do, their reactions are distinctively patterned. Of the twelve moments of laughter during the song, only three can be related to details of the song or its vocal performance; everything else arises from Lillie's visual performance — mugging and gesturing. Perhaps the audience was at first stunned into reverence by Sullivan's high-minded-to-the-point-of-rigor-mortis manner and the invocation of "arias"? More likely, their ability to read the humor in Lillie's send-up failed thanks to the shifts of conventions of the previous several decades.
The problems of an aging star ... Lillie had been famous for years — her West End debut had been in 1914, and she had been celebrated by critics and other journalists in London and New York since the early 1920s. The transatlantic milieu in which Lillie shone was, moreover, vibrantly present in the Condé Nast periodicals such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New Yorker — all hugely significant in the construction of that congeries of fashion, louche upper-classness, entertainment, and avant-garderie that became known in the 1920s as "café society." As this flamboyant social world metamorphosed into post–World War II celebrity culture, its representative denizens became the tutelary deities of the newer performance styles, particularly those associated with television.
This meant that many famous characters of the 1920s had to clean up their acts in every sense. A peculiar kind of closet could develop around a figure such as Tallulah Bankhead, for instance. Notorious in her youth, the topic of many stories ceaselessly circulated in oral tradition ("Hello, I'm Tallulah. I'm bisexual. What do you do?"), Bankhead increasingly found work as a celebrity emcee and raconteuse, and constructed an elaborately neutralized persona to serve as her, well, televersion. Noël Coward did a similar thing when he created his cabaret act. Nearly everyone famous from those circles in the 1920s made repeated appearances on television. And their new selves for the new mass audience were all tamer.
It's no surprise that Sullivan encouraged Lillie to cast her song as a tender parody of her mother, a childlike imitation of high-toned voice culture at the turn of the century; Lillie's own references to "Galli-Curci, Flagstad, and myself," while a sharp jab at singerly narcissism, also signal this historical continuity (it's worth remembering that aging divas were included in this grand televisual recycling as well). Lillie's song, in 1952, is all good nostalgic fun, then, a simple jest about antediluvian sopranos and their musical worlds. And underwriting this image is Sullivan's own signature brand of awkward, stodgy seriousness, tone deaf to anything that could be construed as risqué. In fact, the contrast between the stiff propriety of the host and the insouciance of the guest becomes part of the humor. At one point, Sullivan commends Lillie for never ever indulging in off-color humor, nothing "soiled ... or blue." Lillie, dominatrix empress of the double entendre, looks askance and drawls, "Wellllll ..." At least some of the audience laughs.
Under all that beplumed badinage, then, these notorious swells are just plain folks. We see this in "The Beatrice Lillie Story," presented on Toast of the Town. But the story is not entirely true. And much hangs on its particular inaccuracies.
To begin with the matter of her family — Lillie's mother (Lucy-Ann) and sister (Muriel) were "distinguished" and "famous" mostly by courtesy. They were both moderately successful musicians, though neither ever became nearly as well known as Beatrice. But in any case, the relationships of all three women around music were highly fraught. Lillie's "autobiography," Every Other Inch a Lady (1972) is as anodyne and unrevealing a tale as one might wish from a celebrity bio. In keeping with the revisionary "niceness" apparent on 1950s TV, the elegant license associated with performers such as Lillie is muted when it isn't explained away or suppressed entirely. But even in this auto-anti-biography, it is not difficult to locate a welter of bad feelings unresolved since childhood. Lucy-Ann comes off as a grandly humorless musician relentless in her quest to achieve fame while preserving her gentility. She also had ferocious, unappeasable ambitions for her daughters, but clearly favored her elder daughter Muriel — the "serious" musician — over Beatrice.
This leads to the next correction in our TV tale. It is highly unlikely that Lillie's mother sang this song. "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden" comes off as a piece of Victorian (or at most Edwardian) bric-a-brac, but the poem was first published in 1917 by Rose Amy Fyleman (1877–1957) in Punch magazine. The poem, which was wildly popular, was quickly set to music by Liza Lehmann (1862–1918), an English soprano and composer known especially for songs and operetta.
Lehmann, who retired from the stage after her marriage in 1894, nevertheless continued to give occasional concerts of her own songs, and even toured North America — including Toronto — in 1909–1910. But although it is plausible that the Lillies knew Lehmann's music and might well have attended her concerts, the song was produced too late to have been a childhood memory — by the time of its publication, Beatrice was thirteen and a veteran of the London stage.
Lillie's careful distortion of the specifics, however, has a point: to focus attention on the song's parodic relationship to earlier manners of performance as a question of generational rivalry. On one level, it's a Marx Brothers comedy in a Clytemnestra/Elektra register: Mother's grand aspirations are framed as pretentious delusions, a quest for ideals that fail in the face of inadequate technique and absent taste, a model of how easily art can be hijacked by self-regard. Daughter looks upon Mother's grandiose warbling, hears and sees hilarious folly. And now she shows the world. All of this is true, of course. And yet ...
"Fairies"? The song's lyrics are also easily explained away. Late Victorian England witnessed something of a fairy craze, culminating in the famous (and famously faked) Cottingley Fairy photographs published in 1920. Although adults — especially Theosophists — took fairies seriously, the majority of fairy-centered writing and art was aimed at children. Fyleman's poem, and Lehmann's setting of it, fall squarely within this tradition. Certainly the exquisitely cloying qualities of words and music demonstrate this.
But of course "fairy" means something else, too. And the use of "fairy" to refer to effeminate homosexual men was already established in English. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the use of "fairy" as a code for "inverts" as early as 1895, citing an American psychology journal that places the term among the queer subcultures of New York City. Given the dictionary's stodgy caution about the language of sexual subcultures, this use of the term was certainly both earlier and more widespread than their record indicates. Just as clearly, Lillie was well aware of this potential subtext — all of her most famous routines depended on archly playing on double entendres. And this awareness further contextualizes one of the striking moments in the TV performance, when, uttering the word "Ka-ween," she executes the classic pansy limp-wrist gesture.
One member of the audience laughs. One. This is television in the 1950s, after all. Deniability is crucial. If the young Liberace could sashay so outrageously through the decade without fear of reprisal, then less-gaudy performances of sexual dissidence were completely secure. The more unseemly connotations of "fairy" could be disregarded — and Ed Sullivan's comforting sobriety helped make it so. More help comes from comparing this rendition to Lillie's classic recording of the song in 1934.
THE FIRST "FAIRIES"
Lillie's rendition on Toast of the Town differs significantly from the first recording of "Fairies" she released. This isn't much of a surprise — given nearly two decades and a significant shift in medium, musical changes of many kinds would be likely. But some particulars are worth noting.
The spoken introduction of the recording, with its pear-shaped pomp, summons up a characteristic persona. Exaggerated accent (seriously, bællade), pacing, and pitch contour synergistically evoke self-satisfaction, pretense, and a vast sense of dignity barely cloaking the vanity of the singer. The comic role of the grandiose dowager was already an established stage trope in the late nineteenth century, and the singerly persona here is clearly a close cousin. Lillie's TV introduction was quite different, since it flowed directly from Sullivan's commentary. Maybe the old stereotype didn't read as well in the framework of 1950s TV; maybe, given the show's retrospective character, all the chit-chat about Mother seemed more narratively useful. In any case Lillie's change in manner on the screen makes her specific gestures of performance a little more abstract and less tied to a set of meaningful conventions.
It's worth considering what, exactly, is bad about this performance. For it must be bad — if the record's introduction promised anything, it was a looming aesthetic failure for our amusement. Technically, Lillie's performance is perhaps "not great." Her intonation is relatively secure but her vocal tone is wildly uneven, even allowing for the parlante delivery. All the same, her pitch and timbre are not so dreadful as to bring derision. The fun for adroit listeners comes from the performance's tastelessness, its inability to restrain itself. All sorts of singer tricks are invoked, and always excessively. And it is by such overexaggeration that we separate sheep and goats. The gratuitous delicacy of the pronunciation, the occasional added resonant "n," the unbalanced exclamatories, that ghastly long portamento ... Our language for describing these vocal intricacies is limited, but the effect of good breeding gone horribly, horribly wrong is captured in nearly every turn of sung and spoken phrase on the recording. It's often hard to separate parody from earnest failure, of course. Compare this with another "bad" performance in a similar vein, Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, singing "If I Were the King of the Forest" as he dreams of his incipient dignity. Many of the same singer tricks are employed by Lahr, once again to make a stateliness of comic inadequacy. It's true, in the Lion's case his incompetence is meant to be endearing — Lillie's grande dame might be something of a bore. But in each case, their deflation comes from over-the-topping the graces of cultivated performance practice. (And though we cannot compare body language, there are reasons to think that Lahr's poses and gestures would be perfectly in keeping with Lillie's 1934 performance as well.)
But the grande dame who is the ostensible persona of the singer is not the only persona on the recording. Lillie's comic performances were often marked by breaks of character, and there are several of them here: "and beetles — brrrrr!"; "Did you know that they could sit upon a moonbeam — did you?"; "the Ka-weeen"; "now this'll kill you ... I hope." Who is this? Well, it's Lillie herself, of course. (Unless it's the actual grande dame persona breaking what she takes to be the character she's portraying ... never mind.)
It's maybe Lillie herself inasmuch as there can ever be a Lillie herself, of course. Breaking character make things explicit. This is a performance of a performance, at the very least; if we take our fictional grande dame to be performing in the character she finds appropriate for the occasion, it's arguably a performance of a performance of a performance; on the other end, if we remember that Lillie's own persona as a performer does not coincide with other possible Lillies herself, then it's maybe a performance of a performance of a performance of a performance ... you get the point.
The layering of performances and personae accomplishes two important things. First, it ironizes or perspectivizes all the performances entailed in the representational complex: all are partial, no single one can be reliably privileged. The song's range of meanings sits mostly in the subjunctive mood. Second, the oblique connections and resonances that result from the intertwined attitudes invite audiences into one or another sort of interpretive conspiracy, playing along with Lillie. They stand as instances of multiple coding, and like all such instances, are particularly available and attractive to audiences who experience one or another sort of representational ban. Like Lillie's friends the Fairies. And so we come to camp.
ON CAMP AND CONSEQUENCES
The term camp may be taken as a rubric under which an assortment of complex attitudes and responses to art objects and performances are grouped. These nearly always entail one or another form of parody, and questions of failed performance and social error are central. Camp attitudes fundamentally like things and praise them because of their defects rather than in spite of them. By long tradition it was a term circulating among queer circles, but a particular construction of camp was introduced to the mainstream intellectual world by Susan Sontag among others in the 1960s. In his novel The World in the Evening, Christopher Isherwood, perhaps Sontag's most perceptive source for the term, had presented a notion of camp that distinguished between "low" and "high" forms. The "low," according to one of the novel's characters, was apparent in the spectacle of "a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich." The "high," however, was about grand display: "You see, true High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Music & Camp"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
List of Tables & Figures
Christopher Moore & Philip Purvis, Introduction
PART I: THE SACCHARINE & THE SACRED
Chapter 1: Mitchel Morris, On Fairies (and Mothers): Beatrice Lillie Sings
Chapter 2: Lloyd Whitesell, The Uses of Extravagance in the Hollywood Musical
Chapter 3: Stephen Pysnik, Musical Camp: Conrad Salinger and the Performance of Queerness in The Pirate
Chapter 4: Ivan Raykoff, The Camp Sincerity of Christmas Carols
Chapter 5: Christopher Moore, Camping the Sacred: Homosexuality and Religion in the Works of Poulenc and Bernstein
PART II: FLAMING LIPS & FLAMING HIPS
Chapter 6: Freya Jarman, Watch my Lips: The Limits of Camp in Lip-syncing Scenes
Chapter 7: Sam Baltimore, Camping Out: Queer Communities and Public Singalongs
Chapter 8: Francesca T. Royster, “The Booty Don’t Lie” and other Camp Truths in the Performances of Janelle Monáe
PART III: GENDER & GENITALS
Chapter 9: Peter Franklin, Strauss as the Pervert? Gendered Subjectivity, Ambiguous Meaning
Chapter 10: Philip Purvis, Poulenc’s (Sub)urban Camp: L’Embarquement pour Cythère
Chapter 11: Raymond Knapp, The Straight Bookends to Camp’s Gay Golden Age: From Gilbert and Sullivan to Roger Vadim and Mel Brooks
Chapter 12: Lori Burns & Marc Lafrance, The Dark Side of Camp: Making Sense of Violence against Men in Christina Aguilera’s “Your Body”
What People are Saying About This
“This welcome anthology opens the field through a rich variety of contexts, methods and perspectives, with a number of essays destined to become ‘camp classics.’”
“From lip-syncing to queer sing-alongs, Gilbert and Sullivan to Poulenc, Johann Strauss to Janelle Monaé, this resplendent romp through music’s camp hotbed illumines the expressive, social, and political stakes of style.”
"This welcome anthology opens the field through a rich variety of contexts, methods and perspectives, with a number of essays destined to become 'camp classics.'" Caryl Flinn, University of Michigan
"From lip-syncing to queer sing-alongs, Gilbert and Sullivan to Poulenc, Johann Strauss to Janelle Monaé, this resplendent romp through music's camp hotbed illumines the expressive, social, and political stakes of style." Nadine Hubbs, author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music