Almost all the theatre memoirs I’ve been reading are by men. So many of them give a sense of a similar subjectivity: loud, jocular and glib, as if perpetually ready to slap someone on the back and make a show of meeting them in the street. These works exude a kind of soiled, knocked-about-a-bit but-ain’t-that-life sensibility, full of anecdotes evidently worn from use. The memoir of Australian variety comedian Bobby Watson, for example, is a little down-at-heel volume, published in 1926. You picture him as a geezer laughing beefily over a pint, wearing a crumpled shirt with sweat-stains beneath the arms. After a while, he grows tiresome through his determination to be thought a ‘wag’ and a ‘colourful bloke’.
Watson’s stories are mostly about blokes doing things together. When he was a boy, he and other game ‘uns decided to black their faces with burnt cork and busk as minstrels on a Sydney street-corner. One goldminer passing threw a morsel of gold, he said – scout’s honour – into their upturned cap. Much later on, he and a bunch of other variety performers played a trick on their friend Viktor the strongman, convincing him he had mesmeric powers. He later booked out a hall and tried to convince audiences to ‘eata the candle’ on stage. That sort of thing. Some of this is funny, but after a while you start wishing there more women in it, and less of this all-hail-well-met caper all the time.
One of the places I’ve found these memoirs is in a cache of material collected by an obscure Australian magician, William (?) Robbins, now at the State Library of New South Wales. Among other things he collected autobiographies by other magicians and popular performers. There’s work by the English conjurors David Devant, Harry Leat, one of the Maskelynes, and an out-and-out shyster called Van Hare, perhaps the most likeable of the lot, who showed boa constrictors, alligators, Bloomer-girls, conjurors, and ‘a wonderful dwarf, named the celebrated Miss Paten’, in the last half of the nineteenth century. There is a single memoir by a woman in the Robbins collection, a very curious little offering by an unfortunate lady born without arms or legs, and who was exhibited in a cage by P. T. Barnum (and others) for most of her life. That work is remarkable for its prim matter-of-factness, its quiet reportage of this show and that tour as if it were not so bad, really, to be gawped at continually, and have ladies pretend to faint upon beholding one’s visage, the better to fall into the arms of their male companions. No flashy stories or greasy anecdotes there at all.