Friday, June 19, 2020

Sunny Stalter-Pace's "Imitation Artist"

Sunny Stalter-Pace is the Hargis Associate Professor of American Literature at Auburn University. She is the author of Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York Subway.

Stalter-Pace applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Imitation Artist: Gertrude Hoffmann's Life in Vaudeville and Dance, and reported the following:
What’s on page 99 of Imitation Artist? A news story about Gertrude Hoffmann’s cubist dress and a review of her performance in Chicago that compares her vaudeville performance to modern abstract art. Here’s an extract of the review:

“She is ethereal, but it is ether with phosphorescent edges trailing in ugly green and with sibilant hushes around her wraith. She is ghostly past impressionisty.”

Page 99 gives an accurate representation of the whole biography for a couple of reasons. It uses a lot of primary sources from the early twentieth century to tell the story of Gertrude Hoffmann’s stage career. She was born in San Francisco and lived in New York City, but she regularly toured across the U.S., so the setting at this point in the book gives a good indication of that. (Her husband Max Hoffmann started writing songs while he lived in Chicago too.) Most importantly, it talks about Hoffmann as a figure who brings together popular culture and high art. Even if you know a lot about this period in American culture, you might not think that a fast-paced musical comedy would be compared to a painting by Pablo Picasso. But Hoffmann’s performances bring the lowbrow and the highbrow together in unexpected ways.

A weird side note about the cubist gown mentioned in the news story: I have no idea if it existed, and I suspect it didn’t. One of the challenges of writing about theater history has to do with its ephemerality: it’s there onstage, and then it’s gone. The evidence you have to work with might be video, or still photography, or a story – and there’s no guarantee that any piece of evidence is accurate by itself. I don’t know if Gertrude Hoffmann had a cubist dress, but I do know that enough people compared her to modern art that the comparison made sense to the American newspaper-reading public circa 1913, and I wanted to know why that was the case.
Learn more about Imitation Artist: Gertrude Hoffmann's Life in Vaudeville and Dance at the Northwestern University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue