Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Dual Identity of Buster Keaton

The Marriage of Buster Keaton, a collage by Dalí sent to Lorca in a letter in early 1926

In their article “Dreaming in Pictures: The Childhood Origins of Buster Keaton’s Creativity,” Judith Sanders and Daniel Lieberfeld argue that Buster Keaton’s signature “stone face” as well as the prominent characters and themes in his films are related to a traumatic childhood. Not only does this article offer insight into the life of Buster Keaton, but it also highlights the ways in which performance and identity become blurred for this celebrity chosen by Lorca to explore the nature of dual identity.

Joseph Keaton had an incredibly unconventional childhood that exposed him to the both the amusements and hardships of vaudeville and was overshadowed by the physical abuse by his father both on and off-stage. Born on the road in 1895, Keaton was put on stage by age three and quickly rose to stardom. Rather than attend school, Keaton spent his youth practicing slapstick physical comedy routines with his father, that is, when he wasn’t getting into accidents: he got his nickname “Buster” falling down a flight of stairs (16). The injuries only grew worse as Keaton spent more time onstage participating in dangerous and abusive stunts about a father punishing his son. Keaton became known as “the Human Mop,” was thrown into walls and beaton with heavy objects (16). Though some were concerned for his safety, mostly the public just found Keaton and his father hilarious.

Keaton was already performing by age 3.

Keaton with his parents, age 4

Keaton’s alcoholic father did not limit his violent behavior to the stage, however, and during this time Keaton developed his signature “blank” face at the insistence of his father, a look which these critics believe was a representation of Keaton’s interior emotions and not simply a “blank pan or the puzzled puss” put on to get a bigger laugh (16). This question of how Keaton adopted this expression for the rest of his career suggests why Lorca was thinking about the comedian, like the mask, as a symbol of dual identity.

Other details about Keaton’s life and career also relate to this question of his identity, such as the way in which Keaton himself performs his own biography. While some critics believed that, “the [characters he played] took hold of Buster Keaton himself,” the authors of this article suggest that it was in fact the other way around and that Keaton’s characters and films became a creative outlet for his own troubling life experiences. For example, reflected in Keaton’s autobiography is the way in which he and his mother lived in constant denial of his father’s violent cruelty until Keaton was 21 when the two left their father and went to Los Angeles, suggesting that Keaton invented a much happier childhood for himself in his interviews and autobiography than he actually experienced (17). Another interesting overlap between Keaton’s life and work is the way in which the films he created and starred in himself possibly served as a way for Keaton to cope with his trauma by “[recreating] the physical dangers of his childhood, this time under circumstances of his own choosing” through his incredible stunts (18).

Brown Eyes and Friendless

The plots of Keaton’s films also address many of the issues he himself struggled with growing up, such as feeling unfairly and inexplicably punished as in Convict 13, proving his masculine identity to a cruel father in Steamboat Bill, Jr. and a psychological battle with “insecurity, inadequacy, and isolation” in The General and The Cameraman. (26). Keaton’s own favorite film and his biggest box-office success, Battling Butler, is also one of many films that enact a sort of “fantasy of revenge on a bullying parent” (26). In this way Buster Keaton serves as an appropriate case study for the tension between the identity of the performer and his character.

A sad looking Keaton surrounded by ladies.

Keaton in College, the film referenced by the Man with the White Feather Duster in Babarous Nights.

This article highlights several other interesting overlaps between Keaton’s life and work and our text. For example, in light of his traumatic childhood abuse, Keaton becomes an interesting example of another type of painful parent-child relationship that might mirror the relationship of the Maiden and the Mother in Barbarous Nights. It also becomes clear how many of the qualities of Lorca’s imagined Keaton character relate to his own performances. For example, many of Keaton’s films take place in the context dream or a nightmarish world, suggesting a surreal quality to Keaton’s own films. In addition, many critics suggest that it is Keaton’s technique for distancing himself from the audience and becoming emotionless and flat as he first appears in our play that makes his work comedic.

A forlorn Keaton in The Navigator

From his earliest performances, Keaton relied on the “mechanical quality of his rigidly controlled face” along with literally becoming objectified to his audience so that he no longer seemed human (26). Keaton also makes himself puppet-like in order to “limit the possibility of empathy” from the audience and create the amount of “insensitivity” necessary to invoke laughter (26). Ultimately this article offers unique insight into why Lorca may have been thinking about the figure of Buster Keaton in the way that he did, imagining him in terms of a dual identity that provokes serious questions about the relationship between the actor and his role as well as performance and identity and how the theatre can shed light on exactly what it means to be human.

Keaton in In the Good Old Summertime, 1949 (left) and The Railrodder, 1965 (right)

Works Cited:

Sanders, Judith and Daniel Lieberfeld. Film Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4. Summer, 1994. JSTOR. Web. 8-31-2010.

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