"Camp rests on innocence. That means Camp discloses
innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Time to fix that, then, starting with this appearance on Ed Sullivan of "The Funniest Woman in the World," Beatrice Lillie.
One of the foundations of her art comes up in the as-usual rather awkward banter between Ed Sullivan and his star guest: the fact that while she made her fortune stretching ever further her almost mystic ability to make people laugh, Lillie started out, under the guidance of her formidable mother, trying to be a serious concert-party entertainer. When she first sang songs like this, on the platforms of a hundred Canadian lodge nights and ladies' luncheons, they were meant to reduce the sentimental audience to tears.
In the end, they did so, but not quite in the way the songwriters might have intended.
Today, when so much of pop culture is based on parody and exaggeration, it's hard to understand just how revelatory acts like Lillie's were when they first blossomed, often in the transatlantic revues that became a vogue in London and New York after the First War. Audiences devoured the chance to laugh at old pieties, to savor double entrendres constructed out of the discarded values of the Edwardian and Victorian past, and to collectively enjoy a sense of sheer naughtiness that must have been tremendously liberating.
By the time, several decades later, that Lillie is plying her art for a mass-market American audience at the dawn of the Eisenhower era (this Sullivan appearance dates to '52), she's added further layers of distance onto her performance, and the naughtiness comes in part from never acknowledging the gulf between those in her audience (on the coasts, in little enclaves, in a certain saloon or two in every town) who get all too well the import of "fairies" or her little fillip of the wrist on "Ka-ween!" and those out there in the great gray-flannel, Middle Western masses who are simply enjoying the funny lady with her feather fan ("I heard that!"). That she could pander so successfully - so sincerely - to both is part of her genius: she is able, to paraphrase Sontag, simultaneously to disclose innocence (wide-eyed, apparently guileless) and to corrupt it.
That's harder than it looks. A few - Madeline Kahn at times, Andrea Martin more regularly, Carol Burnett on a very good night - have come close, but in her own way, all these decades later, Bea Lillie still rules the roost. Goodnight, Lady Peel, wherever you are...