Practical criticism: you betcha

Okay, last week we used our critical specs to peer at the poor saps on Wall Street and in the City of London. Did it make us feel better about the financial crisis? Did it heck. But if it's tragedy tomorrow, it's comedy tonight. Yup, it's time to think about Sarah Palin.

Alone among the leading figures from the presidential campaign, Palin cuts an unequivocally comic figure. The wink, the catchphrases, the back-combing, all shimmer on the verge of caricature. Whether flailing like a frightened rabbit in interview or strutting her confident stuff from the platform, Pailin's gestures and inflections refuse gravitas. The crooked arm and pointing finger with which she seals her points add a musical-comedy ker-ching! Even the well-attested stories of corruption, hypocrisy and gimlet ambition which surround are so blatant that they only enhance the impression. This is politics as the small-town graft of The Front Page, not the ponderous machine of Stuff Happens.

But where does this, ahem, maverick figure come from, dramatically speaking? Looking for a madcap middle-aged woman? Well, in the classic canon, there's Restoration comedy. Late 17th-century theatre was a locus of fashion, sex and sharp wits. Anyone deemed not to cut it - too old, too bumpkin, too homely - was a target for satire. Particularly vulnerable to mockery are women of mature years who consider themselves still in the mating game or who dare to cross wits with young men about town. Palin is some kind of descendent of Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World and similar self-deluded dames (the names tell the story: Lady Gimcrack, Lady Bountiful). 100 years later, Sheridan's Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals shares Palin's marvellously tangential relationship with rational language: 'They are also building schools for the Afghan children so that there is hope and opportunity for our neighbouring country of Afghanistan.' Amusement often nudges into misogyny, as it has with responses to Palin.

Second genre is, naturally, the musical. Palin could walk right into Mame or Hello Dolly, winking with kooky determination and leading the chorus in 'We need a little Christmas.' Focus on the deranged determination and resistance to embarrassment, and she could be Rose, the terrifying stage mother from Gypsy. But perhaps her true home is vaudeville - Palin worked so hard to reduce her campaign shtick to some few bullet points, mannerisms and catchphrases that she's her own comic turn. No wonder Tina Fey got her down so quickly, or that she makes a perfect cartoon parrot. If she's still peddling the same act on world stages four years from now, of course, the joke may wear thin...

What's caught your attention in the Palin schtik? How do you read that blend of moves, words and costume that we call performance? Sharpen your critical pencils and let me know.

October 28, 2008 12:26 PM | | Comments (3) |


Scintillating stuff, Vera. And you're so right - burlesque is a far better call than vaudeville. Palin has worked her weird brand of wholesome hotness since the nomination, and the strict-but-saucy tailoring and hairdo just add to the effect. Frankly, I see a post-November future in road versions of musicals - not just Gypsy, but the cheeky guest spot of Mama Morton in Chicago ('When you're good to mama, mama's good to you...' Wink!). After all, by now she surely knows just how she plays in Peoria.

And, um, Sarah! Good that you could find time to join us. On the subject of Palin-speak, can't resist James Wood's description in the New Yorker (October 13) of 'that strange, ghostly drifting through the haziest phrases, as if she were cruelly condemned to search endlessly for her linguistic home: "I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you."'

Have heard that my way of talkin’ is good means of stirrin’ up support among rural voters, obscurin’ issues, and, in general, winnin’ election. Have compiled list of most effective Palin-isms and their English translations so as to increase use of most useful expressions in future speeches.

Love yah!
The Secret Diary of Sarah Palin

if we're thinking gypsy, palin's ambition is when-does-it-get-to-be-rose's-turn; in seeing her rose-hood, you're making the spot-on connection with rosalind russell's rose in the movie, who had a hard core of rosalind russelldom going all the way back to hildy johnson screwball; the upmarket tailored jackets make the visual link. but palin's physical body presentation and attitude, boy is that an attitude, is more like if you gotta bump it, bump it with a trumpet -- you gotta have a gimmick if you want to be a success. burlesque! vaudeville patter was sharper, more pointed than palin's, even the fanny brice kind that was based on immigrant bumpkinhood and its transliterations between languages that didn't, as it were, speak each other's language. in vaudeville, there was such a relish for language and pronunciation, for verbal surreality -- that's why vaudeville performers, and even more their scriptwriters, made such an easy transition to radio. you couldn't imagine palin on radio, could you? the wink, the elbows, and especially the outflung, upflung arms were the show gestures— the "style" as they called them — that burlesque borrowed from 19th century circus. now imagine palin in fleshings -- primitive leotards -- with a pelmet of drapery instead of a skirt, and ostrich feathers in the beehive. the blatant showboating of the barnum world, plus the mock-sexuality, with winks, of the burlesque tableaux. gets worse, doesn't it?

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on October 28, 2008 12:26 PM.

Story time was the previous entry in this blog.

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