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Vital Signs

Piltdown Man

Virginia Woolf once wrote that human nature suddenly changed in the year 1912.  Such things tend to be at the whim of later generations of critics, but there’s no doubt that the idea of an acceptable form of public entertainment underwent a rude shock in the years just before the outbreak of World War I.  In classical music, it was the era of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, while on a more kinetic note what the Times of London called “the rhythms of the jungle” enlivened that city’s West End stage, when a revue called Hullo Rag-time! bounced off the Vorticist-frescoed walls of the Hippodrome theater for the first of 451 sold-out performances.  “It was as if,” the author J.B. Priestley wrote, “we had been still living in the nineteenth century, and then suddenly found the twentieth glaring and screaming at us.  We were yanked into our own age, fascinating, jungle-haunted, monstrous.”  Later social historians have written of ragtime’s primitive rhythms and of its dancers’ mad gyrations as somehow symbolic of a restlessness and dislocation in Western society, if not as prophetic of the coming war.  Stanislavski and Craig’s seminal symbolist production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre also occurred in 1912.  Works by Marcel Duchamp,...

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