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The term Vaudeville [ vɔd.vil ] denotes:

  • an early form of the French hit from the 15th century.
  • a Parisian theatrical genre with singing and instrumental accompaniment that peaked in popularity in the 1840s.
  • a genre of American (especially New York ) entertainment theater from around 1860, which was most popular around 1900.

These three meanings merge: Already vaudeville as a song genre in the 16th and 17th centuries. Century can be a characteristic of plays in which it is inserted. Vaudeville as a theater genre of the 19th century can still contain vaudevilles as songs in the old sense. And French vaudeville as a self-contained theater piece can, in the productions of the Music Halls after 1850, merge into that revue-like , loose sequence of music, dance and acrobatic numbers that characterizes American vaudeville.


The origin of the word is controversial. It may be a corruption of the "Vau de Vire", a valley in Normandy where Olivier Basselin , who was sometimes considered the inventor of vaudeville, composed drinking songs around the middle of the 15th century . Or it comes from the French verbs vauder (to turn) and virer (to transport, to transmit). Other interpretations lead it back to French "voix de ville" (voice of the city). The term vau (x) -de-vire is common in the 15th century, voix-de-ville appears mainly in the 16th century, while vaudeville prevails from the 17th century .

Vaudeville as a French hit

The vaudeville had been a kind of hit song in France and in French Canada since the 15th century, and it was sung by all classes, a pre-form of the chanson . New texts were always composed for familiar melodies ("timbres"), of which several thousand were in circulation. Even fables and grammar rules were turned into songs in this way. Often they were mocking songs. This term of the vaudeville can be paraphrased as follows: "Known melody remains, current text changes."

In this sense, vaudeville is a kind of French national genre, as Nicolas Boileau recorded in his Poetics ( Chant II , 1674): a satirical song that goes from mouth to mouth. The use of such songs in the theater has probably stimulated the newer word meanings, which can be deduced from some generic names. E.g. comédie en vaudevilles mélée de prose : Comedy from vaudevilles mixed with prose text .

Since the 16th century , vaudeville has been used as a musical term for a song or a choral movement with syllabic text setting without coloratura .

Vaudeville as a Parisian theater genre

Theatrical advertising from the time of the greatest popularity of the Parisian vaudeville in 1844

Vaudeville as a theater genre has its origins in the Parisian fair theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. Century and is there often associated with dance. Its authors are Alain-René Lesage and Alexis Piron . The simple form of a piece with songs that are sung to familiar melodies in the vaudeville manner merges into the musically more demanding Opéra comique , in which the chants are newly composed.

Around 1800, “Vaudeville” often meant a final chorus that the characters in a play sing together. The best-known example is the finale of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), in which the piece "Who can forget so much grace ..." expresses the moral of the game. Singing along with the audience also remained a characteristic of stage vaudeville well into the 19th century.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, vaudeville became a theatrical genre for commercial entertainment for a sub-bourgeois audience in the city. The Napoleonic theater decree 1807 defined the genre that was to be performed at the Théâtre du Vaudeville as "small pieces with inserted couplets to well-known melodies". Vaudevilles at that time were fashionable comedies with mostly everyday content and local allusions that contained short musical numbers. They were an integral part of the repertoire of the tabloid theater . The acts were frivolous, funny and satirical.

Depending on the more melodramatic or more comic coloring, a distinction was made between sub-genres such as Drame-Vaudeville, Comédie-Vaudeville or Folie-Vaudeville. In Paris there were several specialized vaudeville theaters in the mid-19th century, e. B. Théâtre du Gymnase , Théâtre du Vaudeville, Théâtre des Variétés , Théâtre du Palais-Royal . Among the countless authors, Germain Delavigne , Ludovic Halévy , Eugène Marin Labiche and later Georges Feydeau should be highlighted.

Augustin Eugène Scribe was particularly epoch-making in vaudeville poetry , who provided the Parisian theaters with plenty of vaudevilles and tried to prove the legitimacy of this genre in his inaugural address at the Académie française in 1836. One of his favorite vaudevilles was Yelva, the Russian orphan (1828). The operetta by Jacques Offenbach since the 1850s was based on the vaudeville and the music gave renewed emphasis. In the Spanish variant of the operetta, the Zarzuela , the vaudeville tradition of inserted well-known melodies was preserved into the 20th century. Around 1900 one then called a kind of Schwank as Vaudeville.

In the German-speaking area there was nothing to counter the number of French pieces and they were often translated for personal use, although the actions were usually more sentimental. A somewhat staid German equivalent of the vaudeville, not comparable in terms of the number of productions, was the Liederspiel . Carl Blum and Karl von Holtei tried their hand at this .

Films like Life is a Chanson (1997) show that the older vaudeville tradition of popular melodies integrated into a plot is still alive in France .

The US vaudeville

A simple vaudeville theater as the forerunner of the Nickelodeon in Buffalo


The US vaudeville as stage entertainment consisted of a fast-paced compilation of mixed numbers in the manner of a variety show . In contrast to French vaudeville, it did not have a self-contained plot, but a numbered program and tended towards a kind of circus on a small scale. The advantage of this was that there were no starting times for the audience to follow.

The name came less from the French comedies, which were then called Vaudeville, than from European theater names such as the Théâtre du Vaudeville Paris or the royal city Vaudeville Theater Berlin. The French name sounded elegant in the American and upgraded the show booths , in which the vaudeville programs often took place, to real theaters. It is possible that the audience singing along to well-known melodies (such as Peggy O'Neil ), which was still cultivated even in the Nickelodeons (cf. Barbershop ), is related to the name Vaudeville.

In Great Britain and France, this theater mix was more commonly referred to as a music hall . Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel emerged from it. The term "Vaudeville" got a rather disreputable character in London through the inclusion of strip shows and erotic dances (this in turn was called burlesque in America ).

The term vaudeville marked the introduction of so-called "big business" into the world of popular entertainment in the USA. Vaudeville chains fought for supremacy in the entertainment market. This resulted in a strict set of rules as to what could and could not be shown in the shows. They hired artists who traveled from one theater to another and were also not afraid to steal the best artists from one another. Due to the great competition, an enormous artistic quality developed. This form of theater was the technical basis for silent film comedy .


Vaudeville dancer Gertrude Hoffman (1885–1966) as Salome

Vaudeville in American terms began to gain popularity in the 1880s as industry grew in North America, and saw its decline from the 1920s with the advent of talkies , radio, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The two largest American vaudeville theater chains, Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Inc., merged in 1928 to form the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Corporation and one year later merged into the film company RKO Pictures , which converted all of these houses into cinemas.

One of the first theaters for vaudeville was opened in Manhattan in 1865 by the impresario Tony Pastor . A whole chain of theaters can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin Keith . Various artists performed in Vaudeville: musicians, comedians, magicians, animal dressers, acrobats and gymnasts, ventriloquists and many more. Among them were well-known people such as WC Fields , Buster Keaton , the Marx Brothers , Edgar Bergen with his doll Charlie McCarthy , Eddie Cantor and the " Three Stooges ", all of whom began their careers in the vaudeville theater. Even seasoned actors like Sarah Bernhardt sometimes supplemented their income by appearing in vaudeville shows.

An English vaudeville artist known in Germany is Freddie Frinton , whose television sketch Dinner for One is based on a vaudeville number. The name Automatic Vaudeville was common in the 1910s for silent film screenings, which often took place in the same theaters as the variety programs before. There were also mixed programs of vaudeville numbers and films. Today, Automatic Vaudeville is a fashionable term for experimental media art (and part of the name of various institutions such as Automatic Vaudeville Studios Montreal ).


  • Markus Bandur: Vaudeville [1990, 14 pages], in: Concise dictionary of musical terminology [loose-leaf edition], Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden, later Stuttgart, 1971–2006; CD-ROM, Stuttgart 2012
  • Herbert Schneider (Ed.): The Vaudeville. Functions of a multimedia phenomenon (= musicological publications. Vol. 7). Olms, Hildesheim et al. 1996, ISBN 3-487-10264-1 (Vaudeville as an early hit).
  • Lothar Matthes: Vaudeville. Investigation of the history and literary systematic location of a genre of success (= Studia Romanica. Volume 52). Winter, Heidelberg 1983, ISBN 3-533-03430-5 (Dissertation University of Düsseldorf 1981/1982, 244 pages, 24 cm, Vaudeville as a Parisian comedy).
  • Anthony Slide: The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Greenwood Press, Westport CT et al. 1994, ISBN 0-313-28027-4 (American vaudeville).
  • Pamela Brown Lavitt: Vaudeville. In: Dan Diner (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Jewish History and Culture (EJGK). Volume 6: Ta-Z. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2015, ISBN 978-3-476-02506-7 , pp. 240–243.

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