Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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Burlesque 10

summer on August 13, 1850 the AthenaeiAm was opened by Dr.
Collyer and his model artists In their living tableaux.

The Doctor and his company had been driven from
their New York success by that same Philistinism which made
museums of all the new and popular music halls — a camouflage
of educational taxidermy, concealing a theatre somev^here in
the dark interior. This same uncritical spirit denounced the
polka as the "Hungarian camp dance, a step for boorish sol-
diers." In the Brooklyn Sagle for February 8, 1847, Walt
Whitman lent his hand to the flagellation:

"We don't like to make these sweeping assertions
in general,— but the habit of such places as the
Bovfery, the Chatham, and the Olympic theatres is
really beyond all tolerationj and if the New
York prints who give dramatic notices, were not
the slaves of the paid puff system, they surely
would sooner or later be 'dovm' on those miser-
able burlesques of the histrionic art."

In this same article, Vihitman goes on to deplore both the

English influence upon drama, and the star system. He ends

vath the plea:

"...some American it must be, and not moulded
in the opinions and long established ways of
the English stage, — if he should take high
ground, revolutionize the drama, and discard
much that is not fitted to present tastes and
to modern ideas, — engage and encourage American
talent. . .look above merely the gratification
of the vulgar and of those who love glittering
scenery — give us American plays too, matter
fitted to American opinions and institutions -
our belief is he would do the Republic service
and himself too, in the long ru.n.


; fX - -

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Burlesque 11

With a swarm of much less intelligent statements

than this one of V/hltraan echoing in his ears. Doctor Collyer

opened his show in San Francisco. His troupe of shapely

girls exliiblted (vvlth "classical accuracy" according to the

Evening Picayune ) their incarnations of cliche-paintings and

encylopedia sculpture. The Evening Picayune of August 30,1850,

very pleased with the show, stepped forward for Doctor Collyer:

"So far, however, as we can understand the de-
signs of the exliibitor, it is the farthest pos-
sible from his wish or intention to pander to
any raorbld curiosity or vicious imagination.
His purpose is to illustrate by living forms,
the works of some of the greatest masters in
sculpture and painting that over lived....

"l;Ye Txnder stand. . .that the Doctor has determined
to erect a new and spacious Kail, that shall
be amply coiTimodlous for his own representations,
and such as shall aff oixi conveniences, not now
to be had, for all other forms of rational en-
tertainment and arnusoment.

"We are happy to learn that the conductors of
the Museum and of the Circus, are about to imi-
tate the example set by Dr. Collyer, in giving
the proceeds of an evening's performance to the
fund, for the relief of distressed emigrants.
The amount realized and contributed by Dr. C-«
for the object was f*158.00."

The "new and spacious Hall," erected by Collyer on
Clay Street between Kearny and Montgomery, and called the
Adelphl, was opened October 17, 1850. The follov/ing adver-
tisement appeared in the Picayune for the November 14 per-
foraiance i

"Adelphl Theatre — Clay St. The performance will
commence this evening v;lth a representation of
ancient deities by the Model Artists. After
which the Maudit farally v;ill dance In costtome.
The Cossack Dance to conclude with The Combat
of the Mac. .. (Illegible) .

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Burlesque 12

''Private boxes, ii53, Parquette $2, Upper Tier ^1»
No smoking allpv;ed. An efficient police officer
in attendance,''

And so we find Doctor Gollyer intrenched in the life
of the tovm to the extent of delivering a lecture on choleraj
accompanied by the conspicuous publicizing of testimonial
letters from "the great Dr. Cooper of London, and confirmed
by Dr. Valentine Mott of '^ew York,''

In the meantime, the Iviodel ^^rtists were doing ex-
cellent spadework for the bLirlesque, The vociferously justi-
fied "living pictures" were, after all; a line-up of girls «
The arrested dynamics of these disclosed limbs were the pseu-
doclassic progenitors of the full-cast tableaux which lat-
er v/ere to punctuate the scenes of the burlesques. The good
doctor was trying to bridge nineteenth century prudery (with
its concomitant sentimentality for the old and classical)
and the popular demand. He was doing little more than pre-
senting burlesques without action or music. The prudes in
New York for a short time were victorious^ and Dr* Collyer
was forced to retire to immense popularity in San Francisco*
With clever solemnity and with a time-hallowed original as
alibi, he was giving the people what they v/anted,

The fourth of San Francisco's six great fires oc-
curred June 14, 1850, The meteoric renascence of the phoenix
city commenced again on a higher level j San Francisco, almost
as if by means of the conflagrations, was catching up with the East-
ern Seaboard, At the corner of Kearny and Washington Streets,


Burlesque ^.z,

facing Portsmouth Square, the third Jenny Llnd theatre was
persistently constructed out of the wreckage, and was opened
October 4,, 1851. At this theatre, March 17, 1852, was pre-
sented a burlesque by J, S. Coyne titled Pas de Fascination ;
Lola Montez,or A Countess for an Hour t This piece (first per-
formed in London In 1848) was really a one-act farce, A song
at the opening and several possibilities for dancing during
the progress of the action, are the only real marks of bur-
lesque. The contemporary designation of this farce as a bur-
lesque was no doubt based entirely upon its satirical char-

The list of players at this performance is, so far,
not available. But the text itself Is extant, and in a not
too deadly fashion. The characters included; Count Muffenuff
(Russian governor of Neveraskwehr ) , Kyboshki (Privy Counci-
lor), Sllckwltz (Treasiirer) , Major Kutsoff Galopsky (an Eq-
uerry), Tittlebatz (a Page), Michael Browsky (State Barber),
Grippenhoff (Chief of Police), Stlffenbach (Gentleman Usher),
Zephirlne Jollejambe (Lola Montez costumes ruby velvet rid-
ing dress, hat and feather j change to a peasant boy's cos-
tume), several covirt ladles, and then Katherine Kloper, a

The story briefly: Zephlrine, in flight from over-
assiduous Russian attention, abandons her carriage in Never-
askwehr, She induces Katherine to impersonate her at the
court until she will have had time to evade the police, Kath-
erine, the poor, simple clear-starcher learns a great deal at

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Burlesque 14

court and exhibits to a high degree the supposed characteris-
tics of the famous Lola. Michael, the state barber, who is
betrothed to Katherine, unmasks her during the intimacies of
a hairdressing; Zephirine, despite her ruse, is apprehended;
and Katherine, with a fine, high, homely philosophy, renounces
her quickl^' - acquired splendour and returns to the coarse-spun
simplicity of the song which opens the play;

"in pattens and ytuff, through the street I»m a

For nobody looks at the little clear-starcher .
I'm free as a bird; and I would not change

To ride like a duchess in ribbons and laces,''

As for the dancing, one stage direction reads:
''Katherine does Lola»s celebrated pas seul," Another: "iCath-
erlne dances a mock Cachuca, in which the governor, vifhose de-
light is unbovinded, joins | they finish by liatherine throwing
herself into an attitude on one leg, supported by the gover-
nor,'" There is the moment, too, when Katherine, before a
scandalized court, ogles the governor during a polka.

Lola Montez, hov/ever, often leaves the spotlight of

this farce for satire directed against the ladies of the

court and the govei-nment officials. After the sudden downpour

of gifts, Katherine ponders the open-sesame:

"This pu.rse was slipped into my hand with^a
mysterious hint about a government contract. This
beautiful shawl is the homage of a munificent
soap-boiler; and this diamond ring is connected
in some way with the leather monopoly.'*

The peak of the v;riting is reached in Michael's
desolation upon the discovery of Katherine 's momentary inter-
est in her nev^r position:

Biorlesque ^^

"'Tis too clear — I'm a betrayed and blighted bar-
ber '. How dare you look at me with that false
front'. Don't come near me — don't — I'm desperate
- I'm in a state of revolutionary excitement '. -
(in an exalted tone) I'll return home, and
slaughter myself and my four innocent bears '.*
I'll pile our agony upon the virtuous hearth-
stone, whose peace you have broken forever,
(with emotion) Oh, I&therine I I never thought
our love, as was, v;ould ever come to this, as
is. Farewell'. Parev/ell I perfidious maid, for-

ever i


The use of prose in Pas de Fascination points yet
again to the farcical nature of the piece; genuine burlesque
at this early stage was definitely metrical.

The Gold Rush decade was also the burnt-cork dec-
ade. A large part of the early evolution of American bur-
lesque took place behind a Jim Crow grin and against a back-
ground of back-bar murals. Bones and Tambo first marked the
confines of the proscenium which was to witness the transi-
tion from the sharp satire of early burlesque to the formless
expansion of musical revue splendor. The tradition of biir-
lesque and extravaganza was being crystallized in England by
such ^nr-iters as Burnand and Planche^; the tradition of the
minstrel show was taking shape in the American cities of the
Eastern Seaboard. For several years these two theatrical
forms were to converge often on the American stage. In San
Francisco, June 14, 1852, a blackface burlesque of Balfe's
much maligned Bohemian Girl was given at the Adelphi Theatre.

•5i- The reference to tie pet bears is undoubtedly another jxbe
directed bv the aiithor at Lola Montez's eccentricitxes. iiie
fact that she had a bear for a pet caused much comment ana

Burlesque 16

On July 29, 1853 Dion Boucicault's The Corslcan Brot hers ac-
quired the P. T. Barnum sideshow title of The Coarse-Haired
Brothers in another 'blackface burlesque given at the San
Francisco Hall. Macbeth , transformed in our ovm tirae "by an
all Negro cast in New York City Into a study of Haitian voo-
dooism, v/as given a burnt-cork lampooning in San Francisco in
1855» From 1850 to 1359, sixty-six titles of burlesque, ex-
travaganza, or musical farce appear on the regular bills of
the minstrel shows to which the whole population of the new
city was crowding.'"'

An advertisement in the Daily Herald for July 1,
1855 announces the first night of the "laughable burlesque"of
Domino Noir, or The Masquerade . This burlesque, with Auber's
The Black Domino for unfort-unate original, was performed by
the San Francisco Minstrels. Although the burlesque v/as played
hj such characters as '''a genuine dovm-Easter," "an opulent
pavmbroker," and a "lovesick colored girl, fond of i^rasic " ■ -
this main part of the program does not sound as interesting
as the epilogue v/hich was describee, as "Actors in a Quandary,
or Noisy and Barbarous Amusements." The characters for the
epilogue form an incredible cotorio; "Hamlot, Mose in Cali-
fornia, Irish Woman, Lady Macbeth, Bleeding Nun, and Othello."
A duet, "Old King Crow," a "Polka Quadrille," and a musical
finale are announced as "incidental to the burlesque." The
customers are assured "a perpetual feast of nectared sv/eets,
where no crude surfeit reigns."

'"- Sec J^Iono graph on Minstrelsy , Vol. XIII, this series.


i_, •;.: -i i .


•mdl'ioq a.'


tOo-wO ^ii


Burlesque 17

Of the burlesque opera Oh Hush, or The Virginia Cu -
pids , which the San Francisco Minstrels performed on July 6,
1855, the Daily Herald has preserved very little information.
We know that the character Gumbo Cuff was played by the fa-
mous minstrel, Sph Horn. Beyond that we have only this short
notice in The Herald for July 7:

"By particular request the burlesque of Oh Hush
will be repeated. The piece is full of rich
scenes illustrative of Nogro life, and one may
witness it without becoming tired of its humor
and characteristic songs and dances."

Scejit notice of another burlesque by the San Fran-
cisco Minstrels appears in the press of The Herald , Au-
gust 11, 1855:

"Mrs. Julia Collins taltos her first benefit at
the hall this evening. Mrs. Collins has suc-
ceeded beyond all expectation in adapting her-
self to the peculiarities of Negro delineation —
a line of character never attempted by a female.
Her accomplishments as an actress and vocalist
lose nothing of attraction, by the disguise of
her person. The burlesque on the opera of the Bo -
hemian Girl , which was received last night with
torrents of applause, will be repeated on the
occasion, with other perforroances."

Of the blackface burlesque Conrad and Medora by
William Brough, which opened at Maguire*s Opera House on Sep-
tember 17, 1859, the Bulletin has this to say:

"The burlesque (of Conrad and Medora ) is the
old Corsair, produced by Mrs. V\/ood here: but
with several new pieces of music introduced."

This is an instance of a "legitimate" drama becom-
ing a burlesque by the addition of a vocalized ballet. The

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Burlesque 18

drama referred to is Corsair, or 'Hie Little Fairy at the Bot -
tom of the Sea , by E, G, Holland, produced at Magulre's Opera
House early in 1858, It cannot be said that Holland's drama
was the undeniable, rock-bottom original for the take-off of
the later burlesque; for the genealogy of a burlesque is very
much like a Greek palimpsest, or more simply, an onion. And,
further complication, when the parentage has been traced in
one direction to the last obscure, deep-buried notation, a
fresh, startling parentage crops up in another direction en-
tirely. Burlesques v;ere very eclectic jobs. The climax of
Conrad and Medora , for Instance, was a rousing ensemble to
the tune of "Home Sweet Home.'' Medora, abducted (or saved)
from a slave market (in Turkey, not Alabama), finds deep-sea
oblivion In the arms of her abductor, the black-mustached cor-
sair, Conrad. Submarina, Serena, and the other Sea-sprites
dance about the happy vision which ominously resolves into a
cheerful pictuj?e of deadly respectability:


Madam, I've heard of fast young men in town,

Desperate dogs, by marriage settled down -

Men, who for years would not go home till morning,

Pound the domestic tea-table adorning;

Smokers, I've heard, have put their pipes out — nay,

I've even heard of latch-keys thrown away.

Can love do this, and yet be unavailing

To cure a paltry pirate's little falling?

Let Conrad only get a loving wife.

And on my word, he'll lead another life.


You will retire from Corsair trade;

Marry and live respectably,


I've long been woary of the life I lead;


o\^ elastic cr.:
'::.-. vs':'. ?0v


Burlesque 19

So I'll reform,


This is indeed felicityi

Turn steady, and go in for domesticity;
Stand for churchwarden, and the vestry sit on,
Aye, and pay rates and taxes like a Briton,

We have no record as to what the British taxes be-
came in the California production; we can be svire that the
line was localized in some sharp political manner, Blrbanto,
the leader of the rebellious Corsairs, a Lucifer of nine-
teenth century dimensions, minces no words, as the spokesman
for the forces of evil, when their old leader, Conrad, first
shows signs of his virtuous collapse;


,♦, we've stood him long enough:

A spoony, pining, sentimental muff:

He's not at all ray notion of a Corsair, -

I like black worsted curls and beard of horsehair:

The good old heavy style of melodram.

More like the individual I am.

Yet the band love him: well, it is but right

To own he is the very deuce to fight

ViTaen he begins. No matter 1 we shall see

Wiich they prefer to lead them — him or me I

The miner down out of the hills in the Gold Rush de-
cade had bought some new boots and a fine wool shirt, With the
odor and swagger of barber shop re juvenation,he had sauntered
up to the bar of the Bella Union; nothing on his hands but
time and a pouch of concentrated pa^-^-dirt. The town was his.
The drink in the glass sparkled with unbelievable magic
after the tin cup and bottle of the camp in the hills.
And the French restaurant around the corner had been almost
intolerably comfortable, the meal a trifle elaborate, and

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Burlesque 20

the cutlery somewhat complicated. And now while life in the
all-night houses accelerated, there was the safe, economical
relaxation of the theatre; more than likely a blackface bur-
lesque. On February 3, 1856, it was Damon and Pythias> or The
Executioners Outwitted , which recalled to the miner a night
in the summer of 1855 when he had witnessed the undignified
appearance of La Gazza Ladra as Cats in the Larder , In June
1856, the play would be Forty Winks, or a Darky in Diffs . In
1859, the alluring title would assume the cynicism of Medea ,
or The Best of Mothers , Or, for the exacerbating lack of wom-
en in San Francisco at this time, there was the consolation
of such a burlesque as Married and Buried , It was a great
night, although the miner returned to the Bella Union and
lost the rest of his cash in a few desperate flings at the
wheel. But he would return, several months later, "heeled"
again, — and the barber shop lotion would be as refreshing,
and the drinks as sparkling, and the food as fancy, and the
play even more diverting,

Straight burlesque in the English tradition, with-
out the addition of a burn-cork setting, also gained momentum
in this same period, 1850-1859, Abcrx Hassan, or Hunt after
Happiness , the biirlesque performed at Maguire's Opera House,
September 24, 1859, is honestly described as a "semi-original
fairy extravaganza in rhyme." Francis Talfourd, the author,
gives us no source for the ''unoriginal" half of the burlesque;

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Burlesque 21

it is the vague, much exploited background of the Arabian
Nights . The burlesque writers themselves owe no debt to the
characterization or subtlety of the oriental tales; the debt
was entirely that of the costume designer. This romanticized
Orient is but one more of the many heavy curtains between the
nineteenth century and reality. An extravaganza or burlesque
needed color; silk and tinsel were beautiful; ''exotic'' con-
tours were exciting. The English were a little weary of the
too native star on the forehead of Queen Mab;the internation-
al conglomeration of deracinated folklore came on the scene.

The splendor of the bm-'lesque extravaganzas origi-
nated in the superficial sheen and texture of decayed myth.
The burlesques had something to say; they were critical. But
the words were angled through a spectacular facade of suspi-
cious design. The musical colossi of the twenties, present-
day descendants of the old burlesque, abandoned the -underly-
ing framework completely; a meaningless flash of frantic
and competitive expenditure was all that remained.

The critical framework however, still protruded
angularly through the fantastic pastiche of Abon Hassan ,
After the leads in the play are listed, the mob is spoken
of as "lots of other people, who 'like the air, are rarely heard
save when they speak in thunder,'"' Pour courtiers appear be-
fore Abon in scene VIII:

1st COURTIER: With your permission

We offer to your notice a petition
Prom people who want bread.

2nd COURTIER: Prom those who make iti

3nd COURTIER: Prom those who grow the cornl

4th COURTIER: Prom those who bake iti





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1st COURTIER; Prom those who pay the tax imposed

upon 'em J
ALL: Complaining all of rank Injustice

done 'eml
ABON: ("bewildered) What does it all mean?
GIAPPAR: Sire, beyond a doubt

'Tls what is called pressure from

without .
ABON: Flour's the right thing to make a

G-IAFFAR; The farmers. Sire, say but a loss

they reap.
ABON: They hold it dearly — make them sell

it cheap,
GIAPPAR: Tlio bakers. Sire, want bread and

make much of it.
ABON: Declare it death to sell at a profit i
GIAPPAR: The bakers. Sire, no money have to

ABON: Tell them the staff of life we'll

give av/ay,
And for the nation's food the state

shall payl
GIAPPAR: But how to carry out your gracious

ABON: Why, tax the people for their own

'Tis fair that those who pay for

food should eat.
And, if the eaters pay, why both

ends meet.

GIAPPAR: The people. Sire, accept v/ith accla-
The cheap bread - but, object to the
ABON: Ungrateful slaves] Hang all who

dare complain.
GIAPPAR: There'll bo none left, then. Sire to

tax again.
ABON: What's to bo done? It seems my last
cLgs 1x*o
Has boon a case of frying pan and fire :
In short, to the humiliating pass
I'm brought, of owning that I've boon
an ass]

Tho tension of Abon Hassan's Hxmt after Happiness was re-
lieved often by incidental music. Ono of the songs was
■''The Other Side of Jordan." One of tho musical interludes was
a burlesqued scene from II Trovatore .


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Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 2 of 29)