Believe it or not, the original meaning of “to entertain” was “to hold together.” But, when you come to think of it, that isn’t so far from what it still means today. People are held together by watching the same show, enjoying the same songs or jokes, admiring the same performers, feeling the same emotions engendered by the same drama. Or, when it comes to entertaining guests at home, there is of course nothing like a table full of good food to draw people together.
But fashions of entertainment do change, thanks partly to changes in technology. It was once possible to enjoy cruelty and violence only by witnessing it in person, in such displays as gladiatorial combat, or various staged fights between humans and animals, or animals pitted against each other. Now, movies and other media, on big and little screens, can give us artificially enacted, but very realistic, murder and mayhem, which we can take comfort in knowing that nobody actually gets hurt – not even the animals.
Then too, real explosions, fires, volcanic eruptions, and other disasters are also fun to watch, so long as neither you yourself, nor anybody you know or care about, is harmed. But that line is getting harder to draw. Everything that happens somewhere potentially affects everybody and everything everywhere else.
I myself used to think of watching the News as a form of entertainment – until too much of it got too close to home. Now, looking back, those times seem like the Good Old Days.
We may be on safer ground with more limited forms of entertainment – the metaphorical types of battle we call competitive sports, or even the games and puzzles you play by yourself, or with a few friends.
Speaking of puzzles – mysteries of all kinds are a major source of entertainment, from crime novels to magic shows. Sometimes the pleasure comes in being permanently mystified. But often there can be no satisfaction unless there are answers, if only “in the back of the book.”
Over the centuries, different kinds of presentations have had their appeal, and then lost it, to be replaced by something new. In America, for many years there was a very standardized kind of theatrical production called a “Minstrel Show,” which invariably involved white people performing in “blackface,” depicting the lives and culture of current and former slaves, in a kind of appealing fantasy. Then came “Vaudeville,” which was ethnically more diverse, and offered a wider variety of “acts” and performers, including many who became “stars” and celebrities in subsequent media.
Everything changed with the coming of movies – and yet – incredible as it’s always seemed to me – although sound recording already existed, for an amazing 30 years, movies remained “silent” – until the advent of “talkies” in the late 1920s. For some reason, silent films never even developed the idea of “subtitles,” which are so common today in making “foreign” films accessible to speakers of other languages. Instead, the text had to appear separately, between the action-scenes, against a blank background.
The next phenomenal development was a new medium of communication called Radio, which was, in a way, the opposite of silent movies, because it was sound-only. But it was easily portable and transmissible, and could reach virtually everybody everywhere, even in their cars. While talkies had made performers’ voices important to audiences, radio made them vital – and made personal appearance of no importance at all. So, a whole generation grew up listening to disembodied voices.
But then came another big change — something called “television” (along the same linguistic lines as “tele-graph” and “tele-phone”), which would have invaded our homes much sooner, had it not been for the long delay caused by World War II.
And now, of course, we have computers, which are capable, in various ways, of replacing all previous media, visually, aurally, intellectually and emotionally.
But meanwhile, what has become of Entertainment? Numerous prizes are given annually for being the “best” in different categories of Cinema, Theater, Music, etc. – but none, that I know of, for being the most entertaining – not even for being the funniest, or most inspiring, or saddening, or gladdening. You may say that these are simply matters of personal judgement – but so are most group choices, from the Oscars to the Presidency.
This may help to explain why Hollywood developed a “Star System,” to rank performers by their box-office appeal. After all, there is ultimately no Court more Supreme than The Public.