January 7, 2006

Dancing in the Dark.  By Caryl Phillips.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.  214pp (hardcover).  ISBN 1-4000-4396-4.  $23.95

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The Book Review Editor wanted to know why I thought ARSC Journal readers would be interested in a work of fiction.  First, I pointed out that some of the “reference” books I’ve been asked to review in the past were works of fiction (anybody remember a certain book purporting to contain “best seller” charts from the early 1900s?); and second, this one was a novel based on the life of a famous, and very real recording artist–Bert Williams.

Turns out it’s more than “based on.”  Caryl Phillips, an English professor at Yale, a well-known author of both fiction and non-fiction (see www.carylphillips.com), and an African-American, has meticulously researched Williams’s life, and the names, places and events depicted here are all quite real.  From Williams’s partner George Walker to their wives Lottie and Ada (later Aida), fellow entertainers Bob Cole and Ernest Hogan, Marshall’s Hotel (the New York gathering spot for black show folk), In Dahomey, Abyssinia, Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies, and a host of others, the names and scenes parading through these pages will seem real indeed to anyone familiar with Williams’s life.  There are even occasional real quotes from Variety and other newspapers, and dialogue and lyrics from his shows.

It’s a bit disconcerting to start reading an apparently accurate account of some event in Williams’s life then suddenly be privy to his innermost thoughts, and those of the people around him.  Worse yet, apparently accurate detail (e.g. what midtown theater he appeared in, how far uptown he lived) blends seamlessly into the unknowable (which corner of the bar he sat in, what he said to the bartender).  It leaves one asking, where does reality end and fiction begin?  The author advises us to take the whole book as fiction, but that is hard to do when there is so much real history woven into the narrative.

Dancing in the Dark is not a chronological recounting of Williams’s life.  It begins in the heady days of his hit show In Dahomey (1903), jumps back to his scruffling days on the West Coast when he first met future partner George Walker (1893), then leaps fitfully ahead to various episodes in his later career, from the great Williams and Walker shows of the early 1900s, to Walker’s decline and death in 1911, to Williams’s last show, Under the Bamboo Tree in 1922.  The Ziegfeld years (1910-1919) are mostly skipped over, and there is virtually no mention of his recording activities.

A great deal of the book is about the personal relationships between four people: Williams, his wife Lottie, Walker, and his wife Ada.  They first come together at a famous (and real) photo shoot for a tobacco company advertisement.  The two men, who by then are already well known, are paired with two young actresses, to whom they become attracted.  This scene is referred to time and time again, as their later lives unfold, mostly unhappily.  Walker turns out to be a glib, smart, but hedonistic dandy, whose sexual dalliances eventually prove his undoing.  There are in fact some pretty steamy scenes with his main squeeze, wild white actress Eva Tanguay, as they have passionate sex in his dressing room.  (I think we’ve passed into fictional speculation there.)  Williams, on the other hand, is an extraordinarily uptight, repressed, melancholy man.  Not only won’t he have sex with the showgirls, but not even with his frustrated wife, Lottie.  Phillips even hints, though he does not directly say, that Williams may be a closet homosexual.

Ada, no wilting flower herself, is of course angry and depressed at George’s unfaithfulness, while Lottie weeps silently, alone in her bed.  But the women are loyal.  In the end both tend like doting mothers to their dying husbands.

The main problem I have with this book, aside from its uncomfortable mixing of fact and fiction, is that it fails to give the slightest clue as to what made Williams such a brilliant comedian, and so successful.  How did he reach such heights, both with and without Walker?  It is simply not credible that someone who was so fabulously successful in show business (a world heavily dependent on personal relationships) was unable or unwilling to communicate with anyone around him, and bereft of any apparent sense of humor.  Perhaps something about his inner self is revealed in his long trail of creative works (songs, scripts, articles).  The author does not seem to notice the profound change that took place in Williams’s material over the years, from the pandering “coon songs” of the early days to the subtle, introspective, sometimes even profound character songs of the later years (most of which do not depend on racial stereotypes).  According to Phillips, Williams played the “coon” to the end of his years, and suffered mightily from the disgrace of it all.  His father was disgusted with him and black community leaders urged him to stop, yet he knew no other way.  That’s a very modern view, superimposing the author’s stereotypes and views of what is “right” upon another era, an era with different values and expectations.  Indeed, the author, who has previously written several books about slavery and says that he sees images of minstrelsy reflected in modern rap performance, seems more intent on using Williams as a vessel for his own views of the misery and pain of being black than in giving us any real insight into the actual man.

The book appears to take as its touchstone one of the most famous quotes about Williams, that of W.C. Fields, who appeared with the comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1910s.  Fields later wrote that Williams was “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.” To this the author adds a remarkable inability to communicate, with his father, with Lottie, even with his longtime partner George Walker.  Characters in this book are constantly sharing intimate moments by sitting silently with each other, thinking what they should say, then saying nothing.  Everyone is frustrated and miserable.

Bert Williams accomplished a great deal during his forty-seven years, against towering  odds, and left us with a rich legacy of songs and stories reflecting on the human condition.  Phillips, who is an excellent writer, provides a fascinating psychological study of what he, and those around him, might have been like.  But was Williams really as miserable and repressed as this?  He certainly didn’t suggest that was the case (“I have no grievance whatsoever against the world or the people in it,” he once said, “I’m having a grand time”).  The author is entitled to write books of fiction expressing his views of course, but this one, I think, does a disservice to Bert Williams.


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