Excerpt from Joel C. Hodson’s Lawrence of Arabia and American Culture: The Making of a Transatlantic Legend
THE MEANING OF THE LECTURES
“For all its campy embellishments and pandering to British audiences, “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia” was an unprecedented tour de force. It was originally an American media event, which in itself is a novelty because of the subject matter. Percy Burton, the British impresario who organized Thomas’s London performances, had first “to come to America to hear an American tell the story of a British exploit.” In kind and degree, the lecture was also unusual. It drew upon photographs and film footage, stage entertainment, music, and narration. By covering public events of current interest, such as Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem and the fall of Damascus, it resembled the contemporary newsreel by serving as both entertainment and reportage. One significant difference, however, was the veracity of the film footage Thomas and Chase used. Although manipulated, the films were not, as was often the case with early newsreels – especially those purporting to be war coverage – faked. Thomas’s claims to have seen Lawrence in action are not verifiable. Many of Chase’s pictures of Lawrence are posed still-life shots, and some were made in London. Nevertheless, most of the photographs and film footage used in the Allenby-Lawrence lecture were shot on location in the Near East, not staged in photography labs and studios as was common practice for newsreels of the war.
The Allenby-Lawrence lecture is historically noteworthy in several other ways. The narration, delivered in lecture format, may have been the first dramatic monologue to be employed with film. Thomas’s performance also uniquely encompassed the various forms of public entertainment available at the time. The lecture format Thomas used owed something to the tradition of the Chautauqua movement, a form of adult education that continued into the mid-1920s and in which Thomas had participated. But the publicist in Thomas reached further, adding proven elements of vaudeville, stage entertainment that could still be seen at the Palace Theatre in New York. There were no jugglers, baritones, mimes, or cat-and-dog acts, but Thomas did utilize veiled dancers, film footage of Sudanese minstrels, and, at times, incense and organ music. The opening musical number was a commercialized rendition of the Islamic call to prayer. The combination of these various media formats made his lecture the ultimate commercial entertainment of its time.”