Friday, November 29, 2013

MINDFULNESS AND METHOD ACTING

Mindfulness and memory, or rather the act and state of remembering, are inextricably connected. When we practice mindfulness we remember what is present, we remember to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, and we remember in the present moment what has already happened. In other words, mindfulness is all about remembering the present ... that is, 'keeping' the present in mind. Put simply, mindfulness is remembering to be 'here' ... and to stay 'here' ... now.

Mindful awareness is a form of meta-cognition in which there is an awareness of awareness and an attention to intention. What is ‘awareness of awareness’? Well, mindfulness remembers awareness as well as the objects of awareness. When we practise mindfulness we are constantly reminding ourselves, not just to be aware, but also that we are now aware, that is, that we are already aware.

A lifelong student and chronicler of the performing arts, especially the musical theatre as well as the cinema, I have a fascination with so-called ‘method acting.’ Now, I hate that word ‘method,’ as well as the word ‘system’ coined by the progenitor of method acting, Constantin Stanislavski [pictured left]. Some of you will have heard the Zen story that goes like this. A disciple says to the master, ‘I have been four months with you, and you have still given me no method or technique.’ The master says, ‘A method? What on earth would you want a method for?’ The disciple says, ‘To attain inner freedom.’ The master roars with laughter, and then says, ‘You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of the trap called a method.’ Even Stanislavski wrote something similar about acting: ‘Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.’

So, my friends, I have a real aversion to all so-called ‘methods’, ‘systems’ and ‘techniques.’ Mindfulness, which takes meditation (awareness) and applies it to one’s whole day, indeed one’s whole life, has been described as the ‘method of no method.’ Now, when it comes to method acting, I have always sensed that attempts to substitute a ‘real-life’ emotion for that required in a particular scene has a strong element of artificiality about it, and even borders on the mechanical. Yet some of the world’s greatest actors have taken full advantage of the ‘method.’ To what extent their greatness is attributable to their use of the ‘method’ is perhaps a matter for further reflection and study. Many great actors have proudly confessed that they used no method at all.

Method acting is a number of things, one of which is that it is an eclectic but fairly systematic collection of techniques designed to assist the actor to ‘become,’ and even ‘live’ the character they’re playing. One such technique is sense memory, in which the actor remembers (recalls) by the five senses the sensory (that is, physical) impressions surrounding some emotional event experienced by the actor in their own life. This is largely done by concentrating on the various stimuli associated with the sensory impressions. Then there’s affective memory (otherwise known as ‘emotional memory’ and ‘emotional recall’), in which the actor calls on the memory of details from a situation with similar emotional import to the one the actor is being called upon to act out. The actor searches their memory for some parallel event before proceeding to create its ‘reliving.’ (This may or may not be therapeutically good for you. At the risk of being provocative, I don't think it did any good for Marilyn Monroe, and may even have harmed her. Method acting is not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for those with deep and unresolved psychiatric problems. That's my considered view. Take it or leave it.)

‘Acting isn't something you do,’ wrote Lee Strasberg [pictured right], the man who further developed Stanislavski’s system. ‘Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you're going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.’ I think that mindful living is like that. It is not so much something that you do. Rather, it is something that---occurs. Well, it occurs when you are alert, vigilant, open (even open-ended), patient, curious, flexible, interested, receptive (but detached), aware, and aware that you are aware. It is not, however, a matter of concentration (heaven forbid), and the attention required is described as being ‘bare,’ that is, it is just enough attention to ‘wake up’ to the present moment, to ‘stay awake’ (and 'here and now'), and to observe what is taking place---in other words, just enough attention to be able to discern, and remember to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, without discriminating or judging. I recall Stanislavski’s definition of ‘talent’ as being ‘nothing but a prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation.’ I like that. That’s bare attention.

Further, the awareness required is something you 'bring', effortlessly, and continuously, to each moment of the day. Awareness is also something 'in' which we 'live', in the sense of living in awareness of the present moment. I am talking about an awareness of all that the present moment 'contains' (thoughts, perceptions, assumptions, tendencies, memories, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc). Something Strasberg said about acting seems pertinent to the practice of mindfulness: ‘To give words meaning, you must first know the reality, the thoughts, sensations and experiences that the words stand for. If you don't understand the meaning of a line and why you say it, you may have missed the key to the scene.’

I mentioned above that awareness of the kind required by mindfulness is not a matter of concentration, at least as that word is ordinarily construed. Rather, it is a matter of being fixed and focused on the action of the present moment---including when remembering in the present moment what has already happened (eg sensory elements of some past emotional event)---without concern that the experience we are remembering (recreating) will appear. This is also the essence of concentration as used in method acting, in that the actor concentrates on the sensory elements of the presently remembered emotional event without concern that the emotion the actor desires to produce will actually appear. As Lee Strasberg pointed out, it is not something you do, but something that happens or occurs. It’s the result of an effortless effort. Note those words.

One of the most famous method actors of all time, James Dean [pictured left], had this to say about acting: ‘An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.’ That’s the essence of living mindfully.


RELATED POSTS






Friday, November 22, 2013

WOMBS OF SUFFERING

Pleasures from external objects
Are wombs of suffering.
They have their beginnings and their ends;
No wise person seeks joy among them.
                                               Bhagavad Gita.

More and more people are giving up organized religion. As I often say in this blog, that is a very good thing in so many ways, for then those people are free to explore more enlightened, rational and less exploitative forms of spirituality. That is happening to some extent, but not as respects the majority of people---and that's a real pity.

I can speak only for the West, although I will say that I've witnessed this same phenomenon in Japan where I have spent some time. Interest and participation in organized religion wanes, only to be replaced by a new religion---consumerism. When I was growing up in Sydney, Australia, almost every kid in my street went to Sunday School on a Sunday morning. Then there was youth fellowship, CEBS, and other like activities. Not all my friends' parents went to church regularly, but many did. Few go down that route today. Instead, the family is much more likely to spent Sunday shopping---buying things. Well, at least they are more likely to be together---at least some of the time. Maybe.


Consumerism is, of course, good for the economy, even if it’s not so good for the planet. (Stupid neoclassical economics, with its malignant obsession with increasing economic growth each year!) However, whichever way you splice it, consumerism is bad for the ‘soul,’ for, as the Bhagavad Gita rightly points out, external objects are ‘wombs of suffering.’ They can never fill the void within. They are little, finite, transient things that do not last---especially these days, when most of the things we buy are, well, crap. It was the late American philosopher Eric Hoffer who said, 'You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy.' That's brilliant, and it gets to the heart of the problem, for we do indeed get caught up in a vicious circle of spending and borrowing, only to be followed by more spending and borrowing, and so on.

Wise people look within to meet their psycho-spiritual needs. Yes, Jesus was right when he said, 'For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also' (Mt 6:21). Of course, all truly wise people over the years have said that. (Note. 'Heart' means mind, and that to which, and by means of which, we direct our attention to some thing or another.) 

True religion binds people together---even people of different religious or spiritual traditions---and binds them all back to their ‘source.’ True religion empowers people---regardless of class, caste, race, gender, or station in life---to be the very best people they can be. True religion stands in objective contradistinction to consumerism, attachment, and materialism of all kinds. True religion brings joy and peace of mind---that is, spiritual 'goods.' That is the only sort of consumerism worth pursuing. 

Having said all that, I dare say few really care about what I have to say about the matter.

Now, where’s my shopping list? 'Coming, dear!'


RELATED POSTS

THE AMORAL SELF-INTEREST OF THE RULING UNELECTED PLUTOCRACY





Sunday, November 17, 2013

THERE IS NO PATH---EXCEPT THAT THERE STILL IS ONE

There is no ‘path.’ There is nowhere to ‘go.’ There is nothing to ‘believe.’ There is no one to ‘follow.’ And there is nothing to 'transcend'---except, perhaps, your own limited thinking, and the misbelief that you need some teacher, mediator, messiah, savior or guru in order to 'find' truth, salvation or enlightenment.

‘Truth’---that is, reality or life---‘is a pathless land,’ said J. Krishnamurti [pictured left], ‘and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. Why is that? Well, each one of us is always in direct and immediate contact with reality, both internal and external. A ‘path’ presupposes a separation or distance between point A and point B. 

For example, if you are in New York and you want to go to Chicago, whether by automobile, train or airplane, you must follow a certain path or route, the reason being that there is a separation between the two cities, and thus a distance to be travelled. However, when it comes to life itself, there is no separation or distance to be made the subject of a path or otherwise 'bridged' by some supposed mediator or savior.

The problem with most if not all organized religions is that they assume that there is such a separation or distance; hence, the need for some supposed mediator or savior. Each religion espouses a different path. For example, there is the ‘golden path’ of the Buddha. Then there’s Jesus who, so it is claimed, uttered those much misunderstood words, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6). I could go on. Are these paths one and the same? Yes and no.

In a very profound sense, the paths taught by so-called experts---the priests, teachers, saviors and gurus---are not the true path. Did you hear that? They are not the true path. They represent other persons’ versions or ‘understanding’ of reality (that is, beliefs), and they are of little or no use to us. We don't need paths---at least not those sorts of path---and despite what some would have you believe, the various ‘paths’ of the world’s religions are not one and the same. There are great differences between them, and reason should tell us that they can’t all be right. Of course, it is quite possible that none of them, at least as conventionally understood, are right. Indeed, more and more people are coming to that understanding, which is one of the reasons why they are leaving the multifarious---or should I say nefarious---churches and temples in droves. A good thing, too, in my view. Once they're gone---the churches and temples, that is---a more enlightened and non-exploitative era of world spirituality will ensue---an era in which every person will be their own teacher and their own 'disciple' or pupil. After all, that's the way it ought to be, given the existence of that lack of separation and distance of which I've already spoken. Bring it on!


There is, however, a truth to be known---and lived---and it is this: you are forever one with all that is, all that happens, and all that presents itself as your consciousness and experience. You are life itself---well, at least a unique individualization or expression of life. Yes, you are part of life’s Self-expression, and life cannot other than be.

There is no path, yet there still is one. What path, you may ask? Listen to what Joy Mills, an eminent Theosophist and friend of mine, has to say about the matter: 'There is no way until our feet have trod it.' The path or way is whatever presents itself as your reality, that is, as your consciousness and experience. Your path or way to truth (reality, life) will always be different from mine, but in a very profound sense our paths are one and the same, for each of them is ... life unfolding itself from one moment to the next. 

Let me quote Jiddu Krishnamurti once more: ‘Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.’ Now, by ‘meditation’ Krishnamurti means, not concentration, but choiceless awareness of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. That, my friends, is both the means and the end, for the means and the end are one. It is the so-called ‘path,’ and it is also a non-path---for, at the risk of repeating myself, there is nowhere to go. Got that? There is nowhere to go. You are already 'there.' You are already on the 'other side.' It's a pathless way to a pathless land. Life, truth, reality, call it what you wish---it's all around us, under us, above us, beyond us (in more ways than one!), and in us as us.

Yes, there is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality. That is the plain and simple truth. Know that---and you will be free.





 





Friday, November 15, 2013

WHY THE TRADITIONAL CONCEPT OF GOD IS CONTRADICTORY

I hope to show in this post why the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea of God is inherently and irredeemably contradictory. 

Now, at the outset I need to make one thing perfectly clear. When we speak of the ‘traditional' idea of God we are referring to the supposed and presumed existence of a 'supernatural,' 'infinite' and 'immortal' personal or superpersonal being who is said to be all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-loving (omnibenevolent) and everywhere present (omnipresent), and who, at least according to the traditional interpretation of the Christian scriptures, is said to have taken human form uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ, who traditionally is said and held by Christians to be both fully human as well as fully divine. One more thing---this infinite God is said to be entirely separate from His [sic] finite creation, even though it is asserted that it is possible for us to 'know' this God.


Here’s one reason why the traditional theistic concept of God is inherently and irredeemably contradictory. In the course of this post I will give you some other reasons as well. If a supposedly supernatural God had an existence or presence before reality, that is, before the supposed creation of all that which is, then that God must be ‘unreal’, and therefore not God. Why? Because it is impossible to postulate a reality before it was present. That’s right. 

Christian apologists and other theists postulate the existence of some ‘atemporal’ reality, but that is a meaningless proposition. Why? Because action implies multiple states, and multiple states in turn require some form of time. Now, it is asserted that God exists ‘outside’ of all time, but the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is supposed to both think and create. ‘“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD’ (Is 55:8). ‘Your thoughts are of great worth to me, O God. How many there are!’ (Ps 139:17). ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1). ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things’ (Is 45:7). ‘That is Allah, your Lord; there is no deity except Him, the Creator of all things, so worship Him. And He is Disposer of all things’ (Qur’an 6:102). ‘Allah is Ever-Knowing, Ever-Wise’ (Qur’an 8:71).

How, please think about all this for a moment. Thinking and creating (making) things are both time-related activities. In other words, God is supposedly timeless but also causally efficacious, that is, God can affect material objects (the latter being a time-related concept).  However, the only truly timeless things that we know are abstract objects---for example, numbers and sets---and they have no causal properties. But, God is supposedly abstract as well as having causal properties. That is a contradiction, and nothing with a contradictory nature exists or can exist. So God---at least the traditional theistic God---cannot, and therefore does not, exist.

The well-known Christian apologist William Lane Craig [pictured right], in his book Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2002), states that ‘outside of time, God is eternal; and with creation, God has entered time’.  Well, if Craig is right, it means that God must have changed, but God, so we are told, is supposedly immutable. Now, if God is not subject to time, having entered the natural world from ‘outside’ (whatever that means, for it is impossible to conceive of anything existing ‘outside’ the universe), God can no longer be said to be supernatural or infinite.  Why? Because it is impossible to speak meaningfully of the supposed infinite acting in the finite, the supposed non-temporal acting in time or entering into time.

Here’s another contradiction that cannot be resolved. I ask you this---why would a supposedly supernatural God (again, how can we conceive of anything being ‘supernatural’) bother to create a ‘natural’ universe, assuming for the moment that the universe was ‘created.’ Did God feel a lack of something? Did God want company, or something? If so, then God was not perfect in Himself/Herself/Itself. You see, so-called creationism and perfectionism---God is said to be both creator as well as a perfect being---are mutually exclusive.

Of course, there is no such thing as the 'universe.' That's right! You see, the word 'universe' is just that---a word. It simply means the sum 'total' of all there is, with the totality of all things being what is known as a 'closed system.' Each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so everything is explainable by reference to everything else. End of story. 

Hence, all theological talk of the supposed need for some 'first cause' is, well, nonsense. As the Scottish-Australian philosopher Professor John Anderson [pictured left] pointed out, 'there can be no contrivance of a "universe" or totality of things, because the contriver would have to be included in the totality of things.' (In any event, the entire notion of a supposed 'Being'---the 'contriver'---whose essential attributes [for example, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience] are non-empirical is unintelligible and inherently contradictory. In any event, why would a supposedly supernatural 'contriver' bother to 'create' a natural universe, assuming (once again) that it was created?

Here’s another inconsistency, assuming you're still 'with' me. God is supposedly blameless, yet there is the supposed reality of divine punishment, hell and eternal damnation. Those two ideas don’t sit comfortably together. I much prefer the Buddhist idea that we are punished by our 'sins,' not for them. Further, the existence of gratuitous evil and suffering in the world is incompatible with the notion of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Evil or suffering is gratuitous if, in the view of reasonable persons, the world would be improved by its absence. Now, an omnipotent God would be perfectly able to create human beings that were genuinely free but who never used their freewill to do evil, but only to do good. However, it is said, at least by Christian apologists, that God knowingly created human beings who, God knew in advance, would use their freewill to do evil. I am sorry, but such a God is then morally responsible for all the evil and suffering in the world that has in fact ensued. Why? Because, as I have said, if God is all-powerful, God could have created human beings that were genuinely free, but who only used their freewill to do good. For example, a recovering alcoholic, who wishes to stay sober, chooses not to drink, one day at a time. Yes, he or she could choose to drink, but they consistently choose to exercise their freewill not to drink. If human beings can do that, then surely any decent God, who was all-loving and all-powerful, would want to create people like that. 


In any event, the God of traditional theism is far from attractive. According to the Bible, God deliberately killed every living thing on earth (Gen 7:20-24), murdered innocent children (Ex 12:29), murdered over 50,000 people because they dared to look into the Ark (1 Sam 6:19), murdered infants and ripped fetuses from the womb (Hos 13:16), and supposedly commands the death penalty for adultery (Lev 20:10) and the murder of homosexuals (Lev 20:13)---and that's just for starters. Not a very nice person, to say the least. The God of the Qur’an can be just as unlovely. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, who is said (except by some stupid and ignorant Christian fundamentalists whose God hates 'fags' [see picture above]) to ‘hate the sin but love the sinner,’ Allah loves only the ‘good’: ‘Allah loves not transgressors’ (Qur'an 2:190); ‘He loves not creatures ungrateful or wicked’ (Qur'an 2:276); ‘Say: 'Obey Allah and His Apostle;' but if they turn back Allah loves not those who reject Faith’ (Qur'an 3:32); ‘Allah loves not those who do wrong’ (Qur'an 3:57, 140); ‘Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious’ (Qur'an 4:36); ‘Say, if ye love Allah, follow me; Allah will love and forgive you your sins’ (Qur'an 3:31). All I can say is, thank God for the great Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick who famously wrote, ‘Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a man can cherish.’ (I once spoke those words of Fosdick at a debate at the Sydney Town Hall at which Dr William Lane Craig was present. However, the organiser of the debate, St Barnabas Anglican Church, Broadway, Sydney, shamefully edited out those words from my speech in the video tape of the proceedings. The truth hurts.)

Now, if the existence of certain state of affairs is logically incompatible with the purported existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God, or if it is intrinsically improbable that those states of affairs would subsist in a universe with such a God and more probable than not that they would subsist in a universe without such a God, then there are more than good grounds for believing that such a God does not exist.

Here’s another contradiction or dilemma.  (I could give you many, many more, but that's for another day---and post.) Does God have a body? If so, where can we locate that body? You see, if God does not have a body, the alleged properties attributed to God (for example, that God is powerful, loving, good, and just) are totally misleading. Why? Because all such predicates apply to bodies whose behaviours are publicly observable. They do not apply to so-called ‘disembodied minds.’

In this post I have tried to use logic. Now, when I debate Christian apologists, they invariably assert that God is ‘above’ logic. That cannot be the case. God---or at least any concept of God---cannot be ‘above’ logic, whatever ‘above’ means. You see, the assertion that God is above logic is not an a priori proposition. Where is the theist’s proof for this assertion? In fact, the theist, although rejecting the applicability of logic, is still applying logic, albeit wrongly, in their arguments for the existence of God. The theist is tying themselves into a knot of their own making. What, I ask you, is the point of reasoning about God if the principal tool of reason---logic---is inapplicable. Never forget this---logic is about things, not thought. Logic is about how things are related to other things. In logic it is always a case of … what is. As philosopher John Anderson pointed out many times, there is only one order or level of reality such that a single logic applies to all things and how they are related to each other. There can be nothing ‘above’ or ‘below’ the proposition---not even God. If anything were above logic we simply could not trust our senses. That’s right---if God is above logic there can be no interpretation or logical extrapolation of God’s word, nor could there be any system of apologetics. For example, the various arguments for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity would immediately and totally collapse.

The theist is often a hypocrite. Theists do in fact use logic when expedient, that is, when it suits their purposes. Take, for example, the law of contradiction (that is, that anything with a contradictory nature cannot exist). The theist affirms that God cannot contradict Himself [sic]. Thus, God cannot create a rock that He [sic] can’t lift. God cannot create a round square. God cannot make the immoral moral. God may be all-powerful, says the theist, but God is still constrained by logic. If that were not the case, then there would be nothing to stop God from creating a rock so heavy that God could not lift it and then in the next moment lift it. 

In short, a God ‘above’ logic doesn’t make any sense---not that a God subject to logic does either, as I’ve tried to show. Be that as it may, the idea of a God ‘above’ logic is inconsistent with the very attributes that go to make up the traditional theistic concept of God. Reason and observation tell us that nothing can be done by anything, including God, that is not otherwise part of God’s capabilities.

Assuming, for the moment that the traditional God of theism does in fact exist, that God would not be above logic nor below it. As with morality or goodness, reason would have to be seen as part of the very nature of God. Yes, any sensible concept of God would have to accept that God does not ‘submit’ to logic nor arbitrarily ‘create’ logic. Reason would have to be seen to be part of God’s nature. A sensible believer would also have to accept that God cannot contradict His/Her/Its own nature.

Are there more sensible concepts of ‘God’? Indeed, there are. Here is a previous post of mine that may be of interest to thinking---as opposed to believing---people.


RELATED POSTS


MINDFULNESS AND THE TOTALITY OF ALL THINGS




Friday, November 8, 2013

STRIVE ON WITH MINDFULNESS

In his final admonition to his disciples, the Buddha had this to say:

‘Subject to change are all component things. Strive on with mindfulness.’

As I’ve often said, mindfulness takes meditation---the practice of being knowingly fully present in the now---and applies it to one’s whole day, indeed one’s whole life. Mindfulness is not something one does for a certain specified period of time each day, although there is value in doing that as well. It is not something that relies upon or even presupposes so-called ‘supernatural’ views of reality. It is not something the goal of which is to ascend to some so-called ‘transcendental’ state or level of existence. It is not about concentration or stilling the mind. It is not about believing 'this' or 'that'---as if the holding of certain beliefs would make any difference in your life. Rather, it is about being fully awake, whilst exercising constant vigilance.

The Buddha spoke of ‘right’ mindfulness---‘right’ in the sense of avoiding misdirected attention, ‘right’ in the sense of not allowing oneself to be deflected or moved from one’s post of wakefulness and watchfulness, and ‘right’ in the sense of avoiding the tendency to pause, stop, judge, and analyse the moment-to-moment content of our experience.

In his wonderful book The Spectrum of Buddhism: Writings of Piyadassi, the Venerable Mahathera Piyadassi [pictured left], who was one of Sri Lanka’s greatest monks and Buddhist scholars, writes that ‘this right mindfulness should be applied to each and every act one does.’ He goes on to say:

‘In all his movements the meditator is expected to be mindful. Whether he walks, stands or sits, whether he speaks, keeps silent, eats, drinks or answers the calls of nature---in these and in all other activities he should be mindful and wide awake. “Mindfulness, O monks, I declare, is essential in all things everywhere.”’

Strive on with mindfulness. 





Friday, November 1, 2013

MINDFULNESS, BURLESQUE COMEDY AND MONOMANIA

One of my life-long interests (academic and otherwise) has been burlesque---especially the ‘old school,’ ‘golden age,’ classical type of American burlesque with, yes, a moderate amount of striptease---provided it is more ‘tease’ than ‘strip’---as well as, most importantly, baggy pants comedy that goes to the right degree of anarchic bawdiness and surreal silliness.

Famed ecdysiast (that is, stripper) Ann Corio [pictured left], who was sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen of Burlesque,’ once said---indeed, she said it many times---that burlesque without the comedy and the comics was, well, not burlesque at all. I tend to agree. Modern-day burlesque, for the most part, is little more than no-holds-barred, bare-faced (and bare everything else) striptease, the sole aim of which is erotic stimulation. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m no prude.) Gone are the comics---with only a few exceptions. Go back to the start of last century, and the burlesque comic was the acknowledged star of the show. Of that there was no doubt. Even the strippers were conscripted into the blackout sketches as walk-ons or in more substantial roles. For example, the one and only Gypsy Rose Lee, in her later years, proudly recalled playing small comedic roles in such sketches as ‘Floogle Street’ (see below) and the Kafkaesque ‘Pay the Two Dollars’ (the latter written by Billy K Wells [burlesque’s most proficient writer] and comic Willie Howard, based on an idea by Finley Peter Dunne, Jr), two of my favourite ‘bits.’

Vaudeville had its ‘circuits,’ and burlesque had its ‘wheels.’ Both had their comedians or comics. Some of the great burlesque comedians in the United States of America were Abbott and Costello [pictured right], The Three Stooges, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita (both of whom, in their later years, were also members, one [DeRita] after the other [Besser], of The Three Stooges [as ‘Joe,’ and ‘Curly-Joe,’ respectively], with DeRita having also worked in burlesque with both Bud Abbott and Red Skelton), Gallagher and Shean (Al Shean being the uncle of The Marx Brothers), Will RogersW C Fields, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Joe Weber and Lew Fields, Sid Fields, Joe E Brown, Ed Wynn, Murray Leonard, Leon Errol, Smith and Dale, Harry Zoup Welsh, Bert Lahr, Rags Ragland, Buster Keaton, Joe Penner, Red Buttons, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Jack Albertson, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas, Phil Silvers, Joey Faye, Herbie FayeJoe E Ross, Morey Amsterdam, Robert Alda, and even Bob Hope (who I saw perform in Sydney, Australia on two different occasions). They were all giants of both physical and verbal comedy---and I have laughed at them all. (‘Poor you,’ I hear some readers saying, or at least thinking. Others will be saying, ‘Who the hell are those people?’ All I can say in reply is, ‘You crazy, youuuuu!’ [with more than a little nod to the late Joe Besser].)

Now, in his wonderful book The Best Burlesque Sketches the late Ralph Allen wrote:

… The Burlesque show appeals to our inner passion for anarchy. It appeals also to our desire to renounce the painful effort of intelligence and behave as creatures of instinct not of will. …

The structure of a typical burlesque scene is a critique of common sense. And a critique also of sentiment. Pathos, of course, is another form of moral restraint, and Burlesque delighted in making fun of it.

Advertisement, Empire Theatre, Newark, New Jersey

Spot on. Burlesque presents a proletarian and egalitarian world-view, free from inhibitions and restraints of all kinds, be they social, cultural, political, moral or religious. You see, nothing, absolutely nothing, was too serious or sacred not to be mocked, belittled, ridiculed, or satirised in burlesque---and that included such things as love, lust, sex, marriage, religion, and even mental illness (shock, horror!). Yes, some of the most famous burlesque skits portrayed some form of insanity or monomania in full flight, generally accompanied with animalistic acts of violence and other grotesqueries of an almost ‘cartoon’ and hyper-realistic (if not surrealistic) kind. Monomania is not a term that is widely used in psychology and psychiatry these days, but it refers to some form or other of partial (or temporary) insanity conceived as a single pathological and obsessive preoccupation---be it emotional or intellectual---in an otherwise sound mind.

Take, for example, the famous burlesque chestnut known as ‘Floogle [sometimes spelled ‘Flugel,’ 'Flugle' or ‘Fleugel’] Street’ (and also known as ‘Which Way is Floogle [ditto] Street?’). A variant of it, as performed in the Abbott and Costello film In Society, is ‘Bagel Street’ (which is also known as ‘Susquehanna Hat Company’). In the A&C version, every time the words ‘Bagel Street’ or ‘Susquehanna Hat Company’ are spoken by the hapless patsy Lou Costello (who is trying to deliver a carton of straw hats to the Susquehanna Hat Company [or, in some versions, the Paskuniak Hat Company] located on that street), some third person in the form of a passerby---and there are several such passersby in the course of the routine---goes into a monomaniacal rage or frenzy. (The background to this routine is interesting, involving a strike at a hat factory, and a person who is hired as a strikebreaker without knowing it. He’s the one delivering the hats to the hat company, only to be confronted by a number of very angry strikers---the poor schlemiel. The story was reworked in burlesque for comic effect.) Anyway, here is one version of the immortal sketch, this one taken from In Society:


It has been noted that quintessential burlesque sketches such as ‘Floogle Street’ feature other thematic displays---some of them being tasteless and quite politically incorrect these days---for example, displays or at least suggestions of such things as nymphomania (hypersexuality), necrophilia, tic douloureux (trigeminal neuralgia), and cleft palate. Some of these can be seen in the A&C version above. It seems that the secret of burlesque is this---the more tasteless the better. There is no place for any pity, pathos or sentimentality in burlesque comedy. Those emotions are full of moral pretence, and burlesque has no time for moralising of any kind.

There is a very similar monomaniacal motif in that other great burlesque rough-house but word-heavy routine known as ‘Niagara Falls’ (which is also known as ‘Slowly I Turned,’ ‘Slowly I Turn,’ ‘The Stranger with a Kind Face,’ ‘Pokomoko,’ and ‘Martha’). I have read that Joey Faye was the author of both ‘Floogle Street’ and ‘Niagara Falls,’ but several others have laid claim to the authorship of the latter, including Harry Steppe (who was a former burlesque partner of Bud Abbott, before the latter teamed up with Lou Costello) and Samuel Goldman, and I have also read that Billy K Wells wrote ‘Floogle Street’ in 1918 (which is probably the case). Having said that, most, if not all, of these classic well-travelled  and widely copied routines routines were the work of a number of people over time, with later comedians adding their own peculiar shtick to the work of others. In this sketch the comic meets a down-and-outer (the straight man) whose life---and sanity---have been ruined by his unfaithful wife. The down-and-outer goes into an absolute frenzy just at the mention of the words ‘Niagara Falls,’ being the place where he caught his wife and the guy who stole her from him ...

‘Niagara Falls! Slow-w-ly I turned. Step by step---inch by inch---I crept upon him. And when I got close enough I grabbed him by the throat---and I choked him--- (
Beats up on COMIC.) ---and I hit him and strangled and bit and kicked and--- (COMIC is on the floor---STRAIGHT MAN suddenly comes out of it.) Oh! What are you doing down there?’
Here, then, is a near-seamless presentation of one version of this time-honoured standard routine, masterfully performed by the great Sid Fields (who wrote a version of the routine that has been performed by many great performers over the years) and the hapless patsy Lou Costello:


For those who are interested, here’s another version of the routine, done by TV greats Lucille Ball and Phil Silvers with great timing and precision. And this post would not be complete without a passing reference to the surreal ‘Crazy House’ (also known as the ‘Nut House’) sketch, in which our comic anti-hero checks himself into a 'clinic' to get some rest, only to be confronted and humiliated by the increasingly zany and anarchic antics of a series of grotesque walk-ons and their various bizarre and intrusive set-ups. (In its original form, an applicant for a job in a mental hospital is mistaken for one of the inmates.) This brilliant old warhorse also reveals old-time burlesque’s fascination with insanity, mental asylums, ‘rest homes,’ and so-called ‘crazy people.’ Remember, these were very early days for psychiatry, which was yet to be recognised as a separate medical specialty in its own right. (In many hospitals, the mental health needs of patients were attended to by neurologists.) Oh, there’s also this version of ‘Crazy House’ presented by Ann Corio. It’s very faithful to the way it was usually done in the burlesque houses of yesteryear:

Steel Pier (Atlantic City, New Jersey) handbill from 1938.
Note that the two famous comedy teams The Three Stooges
and Abbott and Costello were appearing in different stage shows
at the Steel Pier at the same time.

All of these absurd, but very funny, burlesque sketches have one thing in common. Well, they have many things in common, but this one is very important to the achievement of the overall humour, namely, that there is, in both form and content, an ever-escalating sense of unreality. The sketch builds and builds in silliness, and you get swept along with it all. You see, for all the anarchic and uninhibited silliness, good burlesque comedy has a certain logic about it---an internal order, structure, and overall coherence. It is never static, but always dynamic. It is a living thing … and it is a work of art. That is how I and many others see it. I never get tired of watching these skits over and over again. They are so very clever---and funny---and they hold a mirror up to life, enabling us to become aware of life’s ‘as-it-is-ness’ … in all of its gross absurdity.

Billy Minsky's Republic Theatre, 42nd Street, New York City

Now, what has all this burlesque comedy stuff got to do with mindfulness, you may be asking? Well, as I see it, we are all a bit monomaniacal. ‘Speak for yourself, Ellis-Jones!’ Well, I am---and whether you like it or not I am also speaking for you … and you … and you. You see, we all get ourselves into a state---or our minds tend to get fixated on some more-or-less automatic reflex thought, idea, emotion, or memory---that goes into flight when the right trigger presents itself. ‘Snap’ … and there’s the reaction. It’s like this. We experience a ‘sensation’ of some sort or other, which may be physical or mental (including, of course, emotional). If we react to that sensation with ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’---that is, with craving, attachment or aversion---that is karma. The word karma means 'action'---in this case mental action in the form of a mindless, involuntary reaction to some input. The result? Pain, suffering, distress, frenzy … and even temporary insanity! However, if, on the other hand, we simply allow ourselves to be dispassionately and choicelessly aware of the sensation, then there is no ‘cause’ to produce any pain, suffering or distress. In other words, no reaction, no cause … and no effect.

The important thing, as I see it, is to take the cause-and-effect process back one step earlier. In much self-help literature, the primary emphasis is on avoiding negative thinking, and instead thinking positively, and the like, the rationale being that negative thoughts lead to negative results, whereas positive thoughts will inevitably lead to positive results---an obvious but debatable proposition. However, if we go back a step, and when something happens we simply do not allow a reaction (eg liking or disliking) to arise in the first place. In other words, we simply let the sensation (input) be. Then there will be no opportunity for any negative thought to arise at all. That is the way the so-called 'law' of karma really works. That is the way to mindfully ‘work’ the law of cause and effect (or 'sowing and reaping'). 

So, how best can we prevent or avoid that mindless, involuntary, seemingly automatic, even unconscious, reaction to some input (whether internal or external)

Well, cognitive behavioural therapy can assist, as can other forms of psychotherapy as well as mental cultivation of various kinds. Mindfulness can be particularly helpful, because it teaches us to ‘watch,’ ‘observe,’ and ‘wait.’ Instead of reacting like some sort of automaton we learn to simply be aware---choicelessly. Yes, it takes time, and much practice, but we can teach ourselves to put some ‘space’ or ‘distance’ between the observing person each of us and the event---internal or external---that, but for a mindful mind, results in a reaction.

Burlesque is a mindset and an attitude---and a way of looking at life, with directness and immediacy. So is mindfulness.

‘Slow-w-ly I turned. Step by step---inch by inch.’ Well, put some slow-w-ness---that is, watchfulness---into the turning of your mind … from one moment to the next. It will work wonders in your life.


Important Note---and Grateful Acknowledgments

Images of Lucille Ball are licensed by Desilu, too, LLC. Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing. All Rights Reserved. The licensable images of Abbott and Costello, the routine ‘Who's on First’ and other routines and materials of and by Abbott and Costello are controlled material of the Estates of the Late Bud Abbott and the Late Lou Costello. All rights reserved. The various clips (courtesy YouTube) are presented here for entertainment, nonprofit and non-commercial purposes only. There is no intention to infringe copyright or any other controlled material. This post, and the blog site itself, are solely for informational and educational purposes that are entirely non-profit and non-commercial in nature, intent and actuality.


RELATED POSTS