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Lecture: "Beggar’s Holiday" and the Aesthetics of Postwar Civil Rights

  • duke ellington
  • Duke Ellington

The Music Department is pleased to announce a guest lecture by Dr. James O'Leary (Oberlin College and Conservatory). This event is co-sponsored by Africana Studies, American Studies, and Theatre, Dance and Film, with support from the Humanities Speakers Fund.
 
“Saying without Saying”: Duke Ellington’s "Beggar’s Holiday" (1946) and the Aesthetics of Postwar Civil Rights
 
6 p.m., Thursday, March 6
The Brooks College House Great Room
 
  • john gay
  • John Gay

“That’s the symbolism. That’s the highbrow stuff. It gives meaning or something.” These are the final, flippant words of "Beggar’s Holiday," Duke Ellington and John Latouche’s 1946 jazz adaptation of John Gay’s "Beggar’s Opera." Although this show contained no overt political advocacy, contemporary critics nonetheless sensed an underlying partisan message. What was so controversial? I argue that "Beggar’s Holiday" deployed stagecraft associated with the Federal Theater Project and left-leaning Broadway musicals from the 1930s and adapted it to an apolitical post-war Broadway aesthetic. The result was a musical that may have lacked overt political speech, but nevertheless sounded communist to contemporary critics. In creating this aesthetic of “saying without saying,” Ellington and his collaborators forged a protest aesthetic for the early Civil Rights movement in the 1940s, a style that no longer seems political to us today.