The Aristocracy of Freakdom: E.E. Cummings on Coney Island


Arts & Culture

Although it is true that the inhabitants of the U.S.A. have ample cause for pessimism, thanks to Bad Art, Bootleggery and 26,000 lesser degrees of Bunk, it is also true that said inhabitants are the fortunate possessors of a perfectly genuine panacea. Were not this so, throughout the breadth and length of our fair land mayhem would magnify itself to prodigious proportions, burglary would bulge to deadly dimensions, policemen would populate our most secret sanctuaries and such notable nodes of Kultur as New York City would leap en masse to the celestial regions. Unbelievable as it may appear, there might even come a day when not a single campanulate congressman went to sleep on duty and not a single authentic artist starved at his Corona. In short (and to put it very mildly) anything might happen.

But the panacea is genuine. Crime, accordingly, is kept within quite convenient bounds, murder is monotonously punished, unart and nonliquor exchange visiting cards and the dollar bill waves triumphant o’er the land of the free and the home of the slave—all of which is due to the existence of an otherwise not important island, whose modest name would seem to suggest nothing more obstreperous than the presence of rabbits. No wonder learned people state that we occupy an epoch of miracles!

At the outset, one thing should be understood: it is not owing to sociological, political, or even psychological predilections that the present and unlearned writer partakes of the cure in question. Quite the contrary. Like those millions of other so-called human beings who find relief for their woes, each and every year, at Coney Island, he occupies these miraculous premises with purely personal intentions—or, more explicitly, in order to have a good time. And a good time he has. Only when his last spendable dime has irretrievably disappeared and his face sadly is turned toward his dilatory domicile, does it so much as occur to your humble servant to plumb the significance of his recent experiences. Such being the case, there can be no reasonable doubt as to his intellectual honesty re the isle and its amusements, concerning which (for the benefit of all thoroughly unbenighted persons and an unhappy few who are not accustomed to lose their complexes on The Thunderbolt) he hereby begs to discourse.

The incredible temple of pity and terror, mirth and amazement, which is popularly known as Coney Island, really constitutes a perfectly unprecedented fusion of the circus and the theatre. It resembles the theatre, in that it fosters every known species of illusion. It suggests the circus, in that it puts us in touch with whatever is hair-raising, breath-taking and pore-opening. But Coney has a distinct drop on both theatre and circus. Whereas at the theatre we merely are deceived, at Coney we deceive ourselves. Whereas at the circus we are merely spectators of the impossible, at Coney we ourselves perform impossible feats—we turn all the heavenly somersaults imaginable and dare all the delirious dangers conceivable; and when, rushing at horrid velocity over irrevocable precipices, we beard the force of gravity in his lair, no acrobat, no lion tamer, can compete with us.

Be it further stated that humanity (and, by the way, there is such a thing) is most emphatically itself at Coney. Whoever, on a really hot day, has attempted to swim three strokes in Coney Island waters will be strongly inclined to believe that nowhere else in all of the round world is humanity quite so much itself. (We have reference to the noteworthy phenomenon that every Coney Island swimmer swims, not in the water, but in the populace.) Nor is this spontaneous itselfness, on the part of Coney Island humanity, merely aquatic. It is just as much terrestrial and just as much aerial. Anybody who, of a truly scorching Saturday afternoon, has been caught in a Coney Island jam will understand the terrestrial aspect, and anybody who has watched (let alone participated in) a Coney Island roller coaster will comprehend the aerial aspect, of humanity’s irreparable itselfness. But this means that the audience of Coney Island—as well as the performance given by that unmitigated circus-theatre—is unique.

Ask Freud, he knows.

Now to seek a formula for such a fundamental and glorious institution may appear, at first blush, presumptuous. Indeed, those of our readers who are dyed-in-the-wool Coney Island fans have doubtless resented our using the words “circus-theatre” to describe an (after all) indescribable phenomenon. We hasten to reassure them: Coney for us, as for themselves, is Coney and nothing else. But certain aspects of this miracle mesh, so to speak, with the theatre and with the circus; a fact which we consider strictly significant—not for Coney, but for art. We repeat: the essence of Coney Island’s “circus- heatre” consists in homogeneity. THE AUDIENCE IS THE PERFORMANCE, and vice versa. If this be formula, let us make the most of it.

Those readers who have inspected the International Theatre Exposition will realize that the worldwide “new movement” in the theatre is toward a similar goal. Two facts are gradually being recognized: first, that the circus is an authentic “theatric” phenomenon, and second, that the conventional “theatre” is a box of negligible tricks. The existing relationships between actor and audience and theatre have been discovered to be rotten at their very cores. All sorts of new “theaters” having been suggested, to remedy this thoroughly disgraceful state of affairs—disgraceful because, in the present writer’s own lingo, all genuine theater is a verb and not a noun—we ourselves have the extraordinary honor to suggest: Coney Island. And lest anybody consider this suggestion futuristic, we will quote from The Little Review the suggestion of Enrico Prampolini, entitled (among other things):


This novel theatrical construction, owing to its position, allows the enlargement of the visual angle of perspective beyond the horizon, displacing it on top and vice versa in a simultaneous interpenetration, towards a centrifugal irradiation of infinite visual and emotional angles of scenic action.

THE POLYDIMENSIONAL SCENIC SPACE, THE NEW FUTURISTIC CREATION for the theatre to come, opens new worlds for the magic and technique of the theatre.


And now, a few parting words as to the actual Coney Island, in which it is to be hoped that all readers of this essay will freely indulge at the very earliest opportunity.

Essentially it remains, as we have said, indescribable. At best, we may only suggest its invincible entirety indirectly, or through a haphazard enumeration of the more obvious elements—than which process, what would be more futile? How, by depicting a succession of spokes, may we hope to convey the speed or essence of a wheel which is revolving so rapidly as to be spoke-less? No indeed; the IS or Verb of Coney Island escapes any portraiture. A trillion smells; the tinkle and snap of shooting galleries; the magically sonorous exhortations of barkers and ballyhoomen; the thousands upon thousands of faces paralyzed by enchantment to mere eyeful disks, which strugglingly surge through dizzy gates of illusion; the metamorphosis of atmosphere into a stupendous pattern of electric colors, punctuated by a continuous whisking of leaning and cleaving ship-like shapes; the yearn and skid of toy cars crammed with screeching reality, wildly spiraling earthward or gliding out of ferocious depth into sumptuous height or whirling eccentrically in a brilliant flatness; occultly bulging, vividly painted banners inviting us to side shows, where strut and lurk those placid specimens of impossibility which comprise the extraordinary aristocracy of freakdom; the intricate clowning of enormous deceptions, of palaces which revolve, walls which collapse, surfaces which arch and drop and open to emit spurts of lividly bellowing steam—all these elements disappear in a homogeneously happening universe, surrounded by the rhythmic mutations of the ocean and circumscribed by the mightily oblivion-colored rush of the roller coaster.

From Vanity Fair, June 1926.

“Coney Island” reprinted from A Miscellany by E.E. Cummings. Copyright ©1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1942, 1945, 1946, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957, 1958 by E.E. Cummings. Copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Marion Morehouse Cummings. Copyright © 1974, 1977, 1982, 1986 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust.

Copyright © 1958, 1965 by George J. Firmage. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.