The Play World: Helen Keller Writes About Vaudeville

[“The Play World” is Chapter 13 of Midstream: My Later Life, 1929, in which Keller describes her experience of vaudeville and the circumstances that led her to it. I lightly edited and hyperlinked it from a scan of the original.]

Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920. Helen is seated before a table, facing left. Behind her is a row of many robes and gowns. On the table appears to be makeup, and her left hand, resting on the edge of the table holds a brush. Her right hand is holding a powder puff to her right cheek. Her head is tossed back slightly and she is smiling broadly as though enjoying playing to the camera.
Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920

THE picture was not a financial success. My sense of pride mutinies against my confession; but we are the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than we went into it, and I am sorry to say, this condition is not always confined to ourselves.

 

We returned to our home in Forest Hills and for two years lived quietly. But we were faced with the necessity of earning more money. The funds my friends had provided for my support would cease with my death, and if I died before my teacher, she would be left almost destitute. The income I had I could live on, but I could not save anything.

 

In the winter of 1920 we went into vaudeville and remained until the spring of 1924. That does not mean that we worked continually during all four years. We appeared for short periods in and around New York, in New England, and in Canada. In 1921 and 1922 we went from coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention, and I had letters from friends in Europe remonstrating with me about ”the deplorable theatrical exhibition” into which I had allowed myself to be dragged. Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me. Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing. Besides, the work was easier in an essential respect-we usually stayed in one place a week, instead of having to travel constantly from town to town and speak so soon after our arrival that we had no time for rest or preparation. We were on the stage only twenty minutes in the afternoon and evening, and the rules of the theatre usually protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.

In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences. Our lecture contract required that we collect the money before we went on the platform, but that was seldom possible and we disliked to imply distrust by demanding payment. In Seattle we gave two lectures to appreciative Audiences, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The local manager told us he would not be able to pay us our share, which was a thousand dollars, until after the evening performance. He did not appear in the theatre after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him. Our manager was not interested in a lawsuit so far away, and we were obliged to pay him a percentage whether we were paid or not; so he suffered no loss on our account.

This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California. In no case was the town responsible; it was the fault of the local manager. Once when we did demand payment and refused to appear when it was not made, the audience became indignant, and the next morning the newspapers came out with a great headline, ”Helen Keller refused to speak unless she held the money in her hand.” We decided never to put ourselves in that position again. Once when we spoke at Allerton, Iowa, a crowd came to hear us, and our share of the proceeds-we were to go fifty-fifty with the manager-was over seven hundred dollars. It was amusing to see how reluctant the men in charge were to pay it. In Vancouver we had so much larger audience than the local manager expected that he paid us twice as much as the contract called for.

My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre; but I enjoyed it keenly. At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same ”bill” with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.

I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should relate ”the strength and riches of their state”-the powder, the patches and masks, the ribbons, jewels, and livery[]Abraham Cowley]; and if I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me. The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotion, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.

Some of the theatres where we went were beautiful, and most of them comfortable. Mr. Albee, who is at the head of the organization,   is a man of singular   ability   and   kindness   of   heart,   and he concerns himself earnestly with everything that promotes the welfare of the actors and the efficiency of their work. Very few of them are permitted to come into his presence, but his good will radiates through his staff from one end of the system to the other. We found most of our managers courteous, and some of them were beloved. I shall always be grateful to my personal manager, Mr. Harry Weber, who never failed us in service and loyalty. Mr. Albee is interested not only in the functioning of his mammoth machine, but also in the human cogs and wheels that make it go. Not one of these small ceaselessly moving parts gets out of order but he knows it, and makes every effort to repair it, whatever the cause or the cost. He has kept individuals in shows who are blind or deaf or crippled, but whose handicap is cleverly concealed from the public. An important branch   of   his   humanitarian   work   is the National Vaudeville Association [National Vaudeville Artists], which has ten thousand members. Each membership carries with it a paid-up insurance policy of a thousand dollars, and in Cases of illness, idleness, or other misfortune, everyone is sure to receive financial aid, no matter in what Part of the world he may be. The Association, maintains a sanitarium for tubercular members, and there are health camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other places.

The audiences always made us feel their interest and friendliness. Sometimes many of them were foreigners, and could not understand what we said, but their applause and sympathy were gratifying. After my teacher had explained how I was taught, I made my entrance and gave a brief talk, at the end of which the audience was allowed to ask questions. Some of them were very funny. Can you tell the time of day without a watch? Have you ever thought of getting married? Have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you think business is looking up? Am I going on a trip? Why has a cow two stomachs? How much is too many? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think it is a blessing to be poor? Do you dream? There were hundreds of them.

I am always intensely conscious of my audience. Before I say a word I feel its breath as it comes in little pulsations to my face. I sense its appreciation or indifference. I found vaudeville audiences especially easy to speak before. They were much more demonstrative than most others, and showed instantly when they were pleased. One of the queerest experiences I ever had was the first time I spoke from a pulpit. The audience seemed so quiet and the reading desk was so high I felt as if I were speaking to them over a wall. A similar experience came when I spoke over the radio. I felt as if I were speaking to ghosts. There were no life vibrations-no shuffling feet, no sound of applause, no odour of tobacco or cosmetics, only a blankness into which my words floated. I never had that bewildered feeling before a vaudeville audience.

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Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

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The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

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