Cover Photo: Photo of the author performing "The Star of Happiness",  courtesy of M. Leona Godin
Photo of the author performing "The Star of Happiness", courtesy of M. Leona Godin

How Helen Keller’s Vaudeville Stint Inspired Me as an Artist

The idea of exploitation seemed to me fraught with assumptions about what a blind person is supposed to do and be—assumptions that insist blind people be poets and prophets, saints or beggars, not lowbrow entertainers.

In 1771, a young Valentin Haüy, who would later open the first school for the blind and thus be remembered by history as “the father of the blind,” was strolling down a Paris street when he found himself at the Fair of St-Ovide, where a raucous crowd was jeering and cheering ten blind men. A detachment from Quinze-Vingts (the institute for blind since medieval times) were wearing dunce caps and asses’ ears and mock playing broken cellos and violas. Stands of music faced the audience, who were banging tankards and drunkenly dancing. A man of the Enlightenment, Haüy was horrified by the spectacle and, according to histories of the education of the blind such as Journey into Light, vowed to himself to “

I was in the basement of NYU’s Bobst library, in the little padded (soundproofed) cell, wherein I and other visually impaired and blind students had access to a computer with speech synthesizer, CCTV, and a giant Kurzweil scanner, when I first read Haüy’s encounter, which seemed to me dreadful and delightful in equal measures. What were those blind men thinking? It could not have been so bad, I thought, to entertain that raucous crowd. Perhaps it had provided an exciting change from dull hospice life. I think I was not alone in feeling conflicted. There seemed to be a guilty glee in the recounting of this origin story of the education of the blind. If it seemed to the authors to be exploitative, it was yet seldom left out, even if such spectacles strike our modern ears as painfully shameful.

  

I encountered Haüy and the blind “musicians” at the beginning of my grad school career, and the ideas it raised would eventually inspire my dissertation. On the other end of my PhD, when I was nearing the end of my struggle, I stumbled upon a book called The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, which impelled me to make one of my rare forays outside the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was around 2007, when getting (accessible) ebooks of new releases was not yet a thing, and so I was forced to scan it page by page.

I stopped short when I got to this dismissive yet completely astounding statement concerning Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan: “

It was fascinating to find the almost palpable disdain in a book that itself sought to chip away at the saintly blind edifice by revealing just how radical a thinker Keller was. Although The Radical Lives of Helen Keller painted a more nuanced and interesting portrait than any I’d read before, it seemed to want to distance Keller’s vaudeville stint from her leftist politics—she was outspoken in the woman s suffrage movement, fought for workers   rights, was a card-carrying socialist and one of the founding members of the NAACP.

  

*

By the time I learned that Keller performed on vaudeville, I’d already slipped off the grad school rails. I knew that the academic life was not for me. I’d started performing at open mics in New York City’s East Village and Lower East Side, trying my hand at everything from standup to storytelling, drums to the accordion. I performed my teaching duties by day and did performance art by night. Thus, it was not a stretch for me to imagine myself in Kellers place, nor when I thought back on it, in the place of the unknown blind men who so disturbed Haüy.

The idea of exploitation seemed to me fraught with assumptions about what a blind person is supposed to do and be—assumptions that insist blind people be poets and prophets, saints or beggars, not lowbrow entertainers. 

“It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention,” wrote Keller in Midstream, “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.” She assured her readers that she went into vaudeville of her own free will and for very practical reasons.

After the immense success of Keller’s first book The Story of My Life, published in 1903, when she was barely into her twenties, people clamored to get a look at her. For several years before World War I, Keller and Sullivan did the lecture circuit, supposedly a genteel and acceptable kind of performance. But they soon discovered it was grueling, not well paid, and had more than a dash of the Old West looseness about it.

I had been surprised to learn this, as I’d adopted a rosy-tinted image of Chautauquas from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he compares his silent lecture to those quaint entertainments. “

I wonder if he would have maintained his idealized view if he’d read Keller’s description of actually doing the Chautauqua circuit. “In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences,” wrote Keller in Midstream. “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 theater after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him.”

Their manager back in New York was “not interested in a lawsuit so far away,” and yet he still demanded his cut. “This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California.”

Keller insisted that the towns were not responsible but rather the lecture organizers who would avoid remuneration whenever possible. Yet, once when the two women held out and demanded pay before their lecture, “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.’”

When exploitation happened it was at the hands of the lecture circuit organizers, not those of vaudeville, who paid performers well, and protected them from adoring fans. “Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing,” Keller wrote. Additionally, vaudeville allowed them to stay in one place for a week, and they only had to do two twenty minute sets a day, whereas on the lecture circuit they were expected to travel constantly, and often they had to go directly to the podium from the train, without any time to rest or prepare. Also, the vaudeville theaters “protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.”

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The instant I learned that Keller performed on vaudeville, I knew I had to do something with it artistically. Not long after I finally finished my dissertation, I decided to put on a one-woman show. I named it The Star of Happiness, which I took from her theme song, supposedly written by the same man who wrote “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it,” wrote Keller. “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 developed one of my monologues from these words, but I’m afraid I never did them justice. I had not been the best actress I knew, merely the cheapest, or at least that’s what I joked. In fact, I was sort of picking up the thread of a dream that had been thwarted long ago.

When I was a kid, before the eye disease, I took lots of acting classes and had a little repertoire of monologues. I was maybe ten years old when I tried to pull off Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” My acting teacher attempted to dissuade me from a role that was so far from who I was. She was perhaps concerned with type, but I was excited about the darker emotions, about adult things. I also had a Dorothy Parker monologue that I thought was very witty—such a brave little drama nerd. At summer camp I performed monologues, and people clapped politely.

The last monologue I performed as a kid was in high school. I plucked a speech from Chaim Potok’s The Promise, one of the last books I read with my eyes. It was a struggle by then. I needed strong light, read very slowly, and could only do so for short periods. I played the kid who was having a psychological meltdown. “You were scary,” a friend told me.

It’s hard not to think about who or what I would have been had I not had an eye disease that made it impossible for me to read normal print from about age fifteen. Or, alternatively, if I'd had the eye disease, but had been born ten or twenty years later. How different life would have been, how much more possible to keep my dream alive of being an actor and playwright. Technology would have been there to catch the faltering letters and put them into sound. Or maybe this is an excuse—I could have learned braille, and indeed , but I never got very speedy. I could not have read scripts for auditions or rehearsals. Additionally, the dearth and typically conservative selection of titles available in braille were not encouraging.

So in some ways it’s no surprise that, as I wound up my grad school days, I decided to return to the stage. After decades of vision loss, it seemed high time to perform my disability, to give blindness a sexy black box treatment.

As it turned out, I enjoyed creating The Star of Happiness more than performing it. Although the run went well, I could not imagine performing the same play over and over again, or traveling from city to city on the theater fest circuit. Yet, performance still pulls at me. I think it is an important vehicle for blind people to get in front of a sighted audience, speaking for ourselves and defying stereotypes. Also, as with most learning experiences, it works both ways. As Keller put it, “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.”

*

Keller wanted first to be a writer, but as she wrote in her preface to The World I Live In, editors were not interested in anything other than her autobiography. “The editors are so kind that they are no doubt right in thinking that nothing I have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting. But until they give me opportunity to write about matters that are not-me, the world must go on uninstructed and unreformed, and I can only do my best with the one small subject upon which I am allowed to discourse.”

Those words, spoken by me in a tight spotlight closed Act One of The Star of Happiness, probably packed one of the biggest emotional punches of my show. Keller’s frustration at not being allowed to write of things beyond her own experience was viscerally felt by myself and the audience.

Though she was not often allowed to express her politics in print, she was pretty much given license to spout her communist views on vaudeville during the question and answer period. Here’s an example taken from Dorothy Herrmann’s biography:

M. Leona Godin is a writer, actor, and educator who is blind. She received her PhD in English Literature from NYU. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Playboy, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Quail Bell Magazine. She serves on the editorial review board of Newtown Literary and is the founding editor of Aromatica Poetica.