Well, my article on larrikins’ use of popular theatre to fashion their identity on colonial streets is to be published in Australasian Drama Studies sometime soonish, called “The Larrikin’s Hop”. The title comes from a larrikin song sung in blackface in the late 1880s and early 1890s, by Australian minstrel-vaudeville comic, Will Whitburn.
I’m now writing a piece for an American journal about larrkins’ relationship to blackface performance. To this end, I’m neck-deep in four wonderful works: Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), Shane and Graham White’s Stylin’ (1998), W T Lhamon Jnr’s Raising Cain (1998), and William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask (1999). For sheer style, these books are treats. Each abounds with the literary equivalent of the black/face masculine dash it describes. ‘This passage, in all its woozy syntax and headlong rush’, writes Lott at one point, describing how it feels to be taken on some of his own more virtuoso prose-flights. White historians might not be able to jump, it seems, but they sure as hell can kick up a syntactical shindig if they choose.
Reading this American scholarship is prompting me to think about the reasons that blackface minstrelsy appealed to Australian larrikins, and how this was different (if at all) to its appeal to the white working-class in America. That blackface appealed to disaffected youths in Australia, many of them from an Irish background, obviously has a lot to do with the way blackness and blackface operated symbolically throughout English-speaking western society. (On this point, Robert Nowatzki has written an interesting article about the appeal of blackface to Irish immigrants to America).
Even with this transnational logic at work, however, it is not possible to make everything said about the American minstrel-show applicable to Australia. Each of the historians I’ve just mentioned see minstrelsy as a way for white Americans to come to terms with abolition, with the consequent troubling presence of free blacks in public places, and the competition for work between black Americans and the white working-class. Obviously, Australia had its own history of violent struggle between Aboriginal people and white colonists. But there was not a daily confrontation and inter-relation between white and black in Australian cities as there was, say, in New York. Australian working-class resentment was directed primarily at Chinese labourers – a fact no doubt influencing minstrel efforts to distinguish representations of blackface from Asianness there.
The combined effect of these things meant there was not the same intensity in Australia to the dynamic Lott identifies in white Americans’ relationship to blackface. He speaks of white Americans’ voyeuristic fascination for black bodies, which built up a kind of Freudian charge from frequent contact in urban places. He also speaks of a white longing to mock and plunder black culture, to steal from it and hobble its power. Neither of these related forms of desire existed with the same forceful immediacy in Australia. As a result, the minstrel-show was never as socially threatening there.
Australian minstrelsy attracted a more diverse audience than its American or English counterparts: it still appealed to workingpeople and the ‘disorderly classes’, but it wasn’t confined to this constituency. Blackface could also be used more freely to signify other things in addition to race: anti-authoritarianism, sexual licence, the pleasures of display and violent release. And in particular, its style was available to Australian larrikins, open for adoption and combination with other influences (that of Irish and Cockney characters from English music-halls, for example) to become part of their own distinctive identity.