Blog Post for The Autry National Center’s production of Tales of the Old West. Sold out production April 3-6, 2013. Los Angeles, CA.
Set in wild and woolly Wyoming Territory, Tales of the Old West—adapted by Barbara Bragg from the award-winning short stories of her father, William F. Bragg, Jr.—faithfully portrays the hair-raising adventures and harrowing predicaments that Anglo, Native American, and African American men and women faced following the Civil War. The performance—with ten actors performing 25 roles in three acts—will lead audiences through the galleries and feature live music of the period in a manner reminiscent of tales told around a campfire. Production directed by Corey Madden with original new music by Bruno Louchouarn.
When is a tale true, or tall? In the Old West, myth and history were always blurred, two sides of the same spinning coin. Think no further than Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, sometimes featuring Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors, acting out cowboys and Indians for paying crowds before the Indians were even fully subdued. From the beginning the American West was both things, mythic history and historical myth- (in-the-) making: a terrain of experience and fantasy, at once physical and psychological; a stage for deadly serious action and for enacting individual, cultural, and national dreams. It was where post-Civil War America worked out a new national narrative of race, destiny, and violence, and renewed its myth of individual freedom, shimmering on the wide horizon of “empty” lands ripe for the taking.
The Bill Braggs, Senior and Junior, were exemplary Westerners—ranchers, soldiers, politicians, and writers of fiction and history, simultaneously curators and creators of Wyoming’s mythic history. Wyoming was of course the scene of some of the last Indian battles, and the last of the Plains and Rockies territories to succumb to statehood, in 1890. And where Buffalo Bill, returned from entertaining Kings and Kaisers across the Atlantic, minted a town of his very own—Cody, WY, five years later.
When is fiction literature, or history pulp? Even as it was being invented, the Western was genre—popular, lowbrow, pulp—full of exotic scenes and characters, violence, danger, thrills, and suspense. The audience member, or the reader, could be the hero, rescuing the girl, shooting the Indian, beating the Mexican, outsmarting the evil banker/rancher/miner/thief. The gunfight, the horse chase, and the shady, greedy frontier characters were renewed versions of ancient archetypes, set on a new, raucously colored American stage.
Every era needs its own pulp. Cheap entertainment for ordinary folks, that stirs the passions and doesn’t take too long to get to the climax. Shakespeare wrote a version of it. American pulp is said to date from 1896, when the first cheap magazine filled with exciting stories was steam-printed on thin paper. It’s no coincidence that three years before, at the Chicago World’s Fair, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the American frontier. Thereafter, most Americans would live in towns and cities, not on remote farms or ranches. But, following Turner, they believed even more fervently that it was the frontier that defined them as Americans. As the direct experience faded, the frontier became ever more important as vicarious experience. As the country became more homogenized and places became more like any other place, the regional flavor and specific exoticism of the West became ever more alluring. The West, so recently new, became Old.
If pulp fiction’s heyday ended in 1941, when the war effort hoovered up all the paper, it didn’t disappear. Far from it: pulp found new media and new relevance. From short stories to radio plays to dimestore paperback novels like Louis L’Amour’s. Genres multiplied: crime, horror, war, sci-fi, adventure, romance. The magazine became the comic book, and the hero became the superhero.
Pulp was first printed on paper because movies and then TV hadn’t been invented yet. The Western ruled the screen, as pulp entered its real golden age, transubstantiated into moving, talking images. Each era rewrote the scripts: The Lone Ranger, John Wayne. Then, for a more cynical age, Clint Eastwood’s mysterious stranger. Today, Quentin Tarrantino has rewritten the Western as a Southern, with Django Unchained. But it remains exemplary of the genre, with the same dramas of racial struggle, manly valor, romantic love, challenge to authority, horse chases, gunfights, and ignoble, and sometimes noble, death.
These tales of the Old West being put on stage at the Autry are also perfectly exemplary of the genre, containing every trope in the bag, deployed with wit and showmanship. They also show how the Western can open up for a new era, stretching its horizons for new dimensions of action and dreams. Bill Bragg, Jr’s tales are definitely 20th-century Westerns, allowing space on the wild frontier for other, multiple perspectives, those of people who hadn’t been included in Turner’s white male American saga: Indians, half-breeds, women, Mormons; even ravenous wolves are granted a sort of humanity. Bragg’s Old West is no longer simply a space for manly heroism, but is reinterpreted, in postwar existential fashion, as a place where good and evil are no longer fixed, clean categories, where unintended consequences and accidents push events out of any individual’s control, where bad things happen to good people. In Bragg’s West heroism only goes so far in guiding the story. The motive force is more like Greek fate, with its chains of happenstance and spiraling consequences, mostly death and the eventual continuation of the story.
And so, pulp lives on, even in fiction—some of it “literary,” but most of it in cracklingly successful lowbrow genres: young adult, sci-fi, ghosts, vampires. If today the screen is ruled by superheros and teenaged vampires, the Western still has an honored place. All of it testifies to the ongoing vitality of what some would classify as minor literature, of regionalism—the persistence of which demonstrates the persisting need for a history and mythos of places in America, and to the timeless allure of good stories, yarns, and tales, tall or true.