Last week, on Twitter, Alex Ross—amidst some wrangling with T. S. Eliot’s epochal 1922 poem The Waste Land—shared, as an aside, a link to the sheet music to “That Shakespearian Rag,” the 1912 number by composer Dave Stamper and lyricists Gene Buck and Herman Ruby that Eliot quotes in the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess.” It has become one of the work’s most well-known collisions of high and low: the background noise of commodification and materialism, perhaps, against which diminished spirits struggle to find meaning.
Novelty ragtime is like catnip to me, but, despite knowing about Eliot’s use of the piece (and despite long-standing affection for Salvatore Martirano’s avant-garde allusion), I had never actually seen the music. Interestingly, Eliot misquotes the lyrics. Compare the original—
That Shakespearian rag,
Most intelligent, very elegant,
—and the poem’s version—
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
Eliot’s changes—an extra syllable, some jumbled lines, the extra four O‘s lifted from Hamlet’s death scene in the First Folio—aren’t major surgery, but they suggest that he probably wasn’t looking at the sheet music, and was remembering the song from some other source. And I began to wonder what that source might be. (Higher-quality procrastination than my usual, at the very least.)
It turns out that Eliot’s Shakespearian Rag is a provocative little problem.
For one thing, almost all the extant scholarly mention and discussion of the quote is mildly inaccurate, and that’s because it’s almost all based on the same source: B. R. McElderry, Jr.’s short examination of “Eliot’s ‘Shakespeherian Rag'” in the Summer 1957 issue of the journal American Quarterly. Here’s the crux of McElderry’s excavations:
…”That Shakespearian Rag” was also a genuine hit, and thus a proper symbol of public taste at the period when Eliot was a graduate student at Harvard. The publishers of the song listed it fourth among ten titles in a Variety advertisement for July 19, 1912 (p. 25), adding this comment: “If you want a song that can be acted as well as sung send for this big surprise hit.” The song was featured again in advertisements of September 6 (p. 34), October 25 (p. 27), November 22 (p. 27) and December 20 (p. 80), twice as the first in the publisher’s list; On October 25 it was billed as “Roy Samuels’ big hit in Ziegfield’s Follies of 1912.”
McElderry’s citations are correct, with the exception of, in what are either transcription or editorial errors, misspelling the names of both Florenz Ziegfeld and his chosen plucked-from-the-chorus-line prospective star for 1912, Ray Samuels, in the last ad. (The original is on the right, via the Internet Archive.) Those who, in turn, have cited McElderry have usually characterized “That Shakespearian Rag” as just what the article implies: a song premiered as part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1912 that became a hit. From Ronald Schuchard’s study Eliot’s Dark Angel: “B. R. McElderry, Jr., first identified Eliot’s lines as being adapted from the 1912 hit song… written… for performance at the Ziegfeld Follies”; from Michael Coyle’s chapter “Doing tradition in different voices: Pastiche in The Waste Land” in The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land: “a popular song from Ziegfeld’s follies of 1912”; as footnoted in the recent Faber edition of Eliot’s complete poems: “chorus of That Shakespearian Rag (1912), which became a hit in Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies“; and so on.
But McElderry may have been too credulous in taking that Variety ad at face value. “That Shakespearian Rag” almost certainly was not written for Ziegfeld’s 1912 Follies, it almost certainly was not performed as part of the show, and it almost certainly was not a hit. The performer pictured on the cover of the sheet music, Carrie Reynolds, was never part of the Follies. Reviews of the show in both The New York Times and Variety mentioned other songs performed by Samuels, but not “That Shakespearian Rag”; the advertisements McElderry cited (which, incidentally, ceased abruptly after December 1912) represent nearly the entire published reference to the song prior to Eliot. If she ever did sing it, the song did not make a star of Ray Samuels: the 1912 edition was to prove her only Follies headlining credit, after which she disappeared into regional vaudeville. I wondered if Eliot knew the song from a recording; but, as far as I can tell, it was not recorded until at least the 1950s.
“That Shakespearian Rag” appears rather to have been an unsuccessful orphan, a song for which Buck, Ruby, and Stamper kept trying to find a home. Why and in what context Carrie Reynolds might have been intended to sing it is lost. The songwriters, who did contribute songs to Ziegfeld’s various Follies, tried to place it in the 1912 show, only to have it cut before opening night. Finding the right vehicle for Samuels was a problem for the show, it seems: while she garnered some critical praise for her performance of “I Should Worry and Get a Wrinkle,” by Vincent Bryan and Raymond Hubbell, her other two songs were less successful, and there is some evidence of her trying out new substitutions—none of them “Shakespearian”—throughout the show’s run. (Fun coincidence: Vincent Bryan was also co-author of “The Cubanola Glide,” which featured in early drafts of The Waste Land.) If “That Shakespearian Rag” became a hit by other means, it left remarkably little trace in the entertainment media of the time.
(It did, at least, get ripped off. Composer Leo Edwards had, in collaboration with lyricist Blanche Merrill, landed his own song in the 1912 Follies, a light bit of women’s-suffrage topicality called “In a Pretty Little White House of Our Own.” Edwards later joined lyricist Harold Atteridge to score The Passing Show of 1915—the Passing Shows being the Shubert organization’s imitation of Ziegfeld’s Follies—which featured a song listed in the playbill as “The Shakespearean Rag” (judiciously retitled “Billy Shakespeare” for publication). A vehicle for the popular brother act of Willie and Eugene Howard, Edwards’ rag received decidedly less-than-enthusiastic marks from critics—”Certainly the Shakespeare number might well be omitted,” sniffed the New York Sun—but the fact that none of the reviews noticed the song’s blatant debt to “That Shakespearian Rag” is further circumstantial testimony against the latter’s having been a hit.)
To be sure, this is all just housekeeping, honing a small measure of accuracy in a small corner of scholarship. And none of it need effect how the song functions in Eliot’s poem, of course. All of the sources I cited above—and many others—that take McElderry’s description as gospel make otherwise insightful and judicious interpretations of the “Rag”‘s appearance and significance.
But it does still leave the question: how did Eliot know the song? Fair warning: at this point (as often happens at some point when I write) we veer from archival minutiae to wild speculation. But let’s go there anyway, because we can, because it’s fun—and because one hypothetical vector for bringing “That Shakespearian Rag” to Eliot’s attention, as it turns out, involves a most interesting name.
Assuming (as I do) that the song never actually graced the 1912 Follies, “That Shakespearian Rag” finally saw footlight on January 5, 1913, on a bill at the Columbia Theater, performed by a vaudeville veteran named Felix Adler. Adler made a specialty of dialects, songs and routines utilizing exaggerated Yiddish, Irish, or Italian accents—and, given the song, some florid Elizabethan English, perhaps. (He later became an early director in the film industry, before going on to a long and fruitful career writing scripts for The Three Stooges.)
Adler scored a success, according to Variety, but, apparently, in spite of “That Shakespearian Rag” rather than because of it:
In the early part Felix Adler walked off with the hit. His “Shakespearean Rag” is too close to “The Dramatic Rag” to get him anything around, but the remainder of the material, with a few changes, won out hugely for him.
(“That Dramatic Rag,” by Nathaniel Ayer and Paul West, had been part of Let George Do It, a musical that had enjoyed a brief Broadway run the previous spring, although the song seems to have had some vaudeville traction as well.)
Here the conjecture begins. I have no idea if Eliot saw Adler at the Columbia in early 1913—but he certainly could have. I have no idea if Adler took his act on the road—he often toured, but I couldn’t find a mention of him performing in Boston during Eliot’s grad-school Harvard days—but he certainly might have. Adler was even known to have made appearances in London in the time after Eliot settled there, but whether Adler revived “That Shakespearian Rag” for any of those occasions is, to my knowledge, unrecorded—but what better novelty to trot out for an English audience?
But what really sticks out to me is the name: Felix Adler. Because there was another Felix Adler around at the time, a much more well-known Felix Adler, the German-born New Yorker who, after giving up rabbinical ambitions and becoming a professor at Cornell, founded the Society for Ethical Culture, the pioneering and especially famous version of humanism, an attempt to promote a system of religious morality that nevertheless existed outside of any religious creed or ritual.
The young Eliot’s connection to Ethical Culture, if any, are unknown, but one can make another circumstantial case for his awareness of it. St. Louis, where he grew up, was home to one of the first Ethical Culture societies outside of New York. (Percy Boynton, a popular English teacher at Smith Academy—the setting of one of the more formative stretches of Eliot’s schoolings—also frequently lectured at the Ethical Society of St. Louis.) Eliot arrived at Harvard for his undergraduate years in time to overlap with the early, short-lived Harvard Ethical Society. Even putting those contacts aside, the advance of secular humanism, and Adler’s Ethical Culture, would have been a topic hard to avoid in academic or intellectual circles. And certainly England, where Eliot permanently settled in 1914, had already birthed a number of homegrown humanist societies, and thus was fertile ground for Ethical Culture, to the point that (for a time, anyway) the movement became big enough to generate those inescapable symptoms of sectarian success, power struggles and rivalries.
In the years after the writing of The Waste Land, Eliot wrote a pair of essays—”The Humanism of Irving Babbitt” (1928) and “Second Thoughts on Humanism” (1929), both later collected—that criticized humanism with characteristic harsh diffidence. To Eliot, the idea of a religion without religion was not only absurd, but dangerous, shunting aside the certainty of tradition in favor of whatever fungible sophistry mankind would elevate in the place of dogma: literature, philosophy, what have you. “There was once an organization called the Ethical Culture Society, which held Sunday morning services,” Eliot writes, with head-shaking disbelief, the group epitomizing “the kind of liberal religion” that Eliot could not abide. “If you remove from the word ‘human’ all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man,” he warns, “you can view him finally as no more than an extremely clever, adaptable, and mischievous little animal.”
By the time of those essays, Eliot, born and raised Unitarian, had converted to the Anglican Church, and some of that zeal peeks around the edges of his criticisms of humanism. But Eliot had been eager to hold fast to moral tradition for some time. Which is why the case of the two Felixes is so intriguing. Go back to Eliot’s “Shakespearian Rag” in context:
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
The song intrudes like an oblique memory on an existential crisis. And the response is a plea for guidance: What shall I do? Which, of course, was the key question behind the entire Ethical Culture movement. Is that why Eliot remembered it at that point? Felix Adler, the vaudevillian, making a cheap burlesque of Hamlet’s death; Felix Adler, the humanist, making (in Eliot’s estimation) a cheap burlesque, in essence, of Christ’s—humanism’s elegant intelligence leading not to a viable tradition, but rather to something as shallow and ephemeral as a popular song.
Probably not, right? The argument, the chain of evidence, is too far-fetched, too sketchy. But that’s in the spirit of the poem, too. Threadbare connections are part of Eliot’s game in The Waste Land. It’s all hints and suggestions, references and clues, practically begging for exegesis—but no amount of poetic discipline or analytical ingenuity can ever pull it all together. Even the poem itself is implicated as one of the fleeting oracles it archives: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” Everything, it seems to say, is like “That Shakespearian Rag”: travesties of the tradition Eliot mourned, sung into the whirlwind, fixed only in faithless advertisements and passing mentions.