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Bliss at the Wild West Show: When Joseph Campbell Met Buffalo Bill

In Hidden History, New York Individualists, Unexpected Effects of Culture on June 2, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Somewhere in the middle of the last century, the distinction between high and low culture passed into history under a tidal wave of modern communication.  The distinction may have done more harm than good anyway as art cannot be so neatly categorized.

Take for example, a very young Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who in 1910, met Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody, 1846-1917) at his Wild West Show in the old Madison Square Garden in New York.  This trip to what was considered a decidedly “low culture” event nonetheless introduced Campbell to a life of scholarship.   Nearing the end of his career, Buffalo Bill wanted to portray the culture and complexity of Native American life.  At the show, a ten-year old Campbell became enthralled with Native Americans and their culture.

There is no telling what a cultural event will do.

La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera this past winter reminded me of the connection between Buffalo Bill and Joseph Campbell.  The opera, based on a play by David Belasco,  was staged the same year of their meeting — 1910. It was the first opera commissioned by the Met.  The “old west” setting was exotic for urban opera audiences and the production was not received as well in Europe as it was in the United States.

The Met’s production rounded out the centenary celebration of La Fanciulla del West.


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