From theophrastus to william burroughs: the proto-history of the routine

James Diggle, in his edition of Theophrastus’s Characters, claims that the work should be translated as something like Behavioral Types or Distinctive Marks of Character. The metaphor, still working on a flat surface, was a drawing, or the portrait. But the drawing was of a general type – generated from out of Aristotle’s typology of vices, as well as the vices of other moralists of antiquity. It was the character-defining vice that concerned Theophrastus, who took the medical view of them as aberrations from the soul’s true state of health. A German classicist in the nineteenth century defined Theophrastus’s notion of character as “the sum of individual symptoms of an ethical concept.” [Immisch, 1898] This strikes the right note – one notices that the characters –the toady, the chatterbox, the oligarchic man, etc. are not characters in stories so much as they are lists of characteristics, one following the other, with the same kind of identifying zest that is put into enumerating the colors and songs of birds in a birdbook. The birds are lifted out of the forest and individuated, just as the characters are taken out of the city and individuated.

The social space in which this kind of individuation happens is comedy. Theophrastus, it is said, “would use all kinds of movements and gestures” in his lectures. “Once, when he was imitating a gourmet, he stuck his tongue out and licked his lips.” The modern American gets this, for we have seen it thousands of times on television, and we have done the same thing at parties and seen people who are good at doing this kind of thing. It is called a “routine”.

Where did routine come from? It is a burlesque/vaudeville word. The OED’s first citation for it as a stage term is from 1926, but that seems pretty late. Searching around in Google Books, I came upon Brett Page’s 1915 Writing for Vaudeville. Page footnotes the term routine, as though his readers may not have heard of it:

Routine – the entire monologue; but more often used to suggest its arrangement and construction. A monologue with its gags and points arranged in a certain order is one routine; a different routine is used when the gags or points are arranged in a different order. Thus routine means arrangement. The word is also used to describe the arrangement of other stage offerings – for instance, a dance: the same steps arranged in a different order make a new “dance routine”.

Page’s suggestion for writing the gags is uncannily like the compositional method in Theophrastus’s Characters – which has long puzzled scholars, who are not sure what the book was composed for.

“Have as many cards or slips of paper as you have points or gags. Write only one point or gag on one card or slip of paper. On the first card write “Introduction,” and always keep that card first in your hand. Then take up a card and read the point or gag on it as following the introduction, the second car as the second point or gag, and so on until you have arranged your monologue in an effective routine.”

“Then try another arrangement…”

The routine is the tentative narrative of the list – it emerges from the list, viewed as a form of compulsion. William Burroughs called the episodes in his novel Naked Lunch “routines,” for the book moves more around gags than around characters in the novelistic sense – and so joins up with the Theophrastian character, which was originally a gag, an ethical symptom.