This all-hail-well-met caper

19 Oct


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.

2 Responses to “This all-hail-well-met caper”

  1. Dr. Pete 21 October 2007 at 3:57 am #

    Its funny you have moved from vaudeville to circus in the search of a womens perspective on the whole place and time. I takes me to (I’m afraid to admit) a television show called “Carnivale”. The mystic good/evil overtones aside, I’m told it portrays a fairly accurate view of the depression era traveling show around towns God-forsaken, USA. While I’m certainly not advocating said show as a verbatim history, the concept of female equality (if not governance) it shows in interesting given the time period. I wonder how that links into entertainers life as you have studied it, esp with regards to the performer in P.T. Barnum’s circus you mention. Whilst not Australian history per se, given them parallel developments of said cultures it may prove insightful.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 21 October 2007 at 6:04 am #

    Ah, someone else has mentioned Carnivale to me, and for some reason I’d forgotten about that until now. Point taken, I’ll ferret it out. And given that so many of these sideshow/ vaudeville acts were part of an international circuit, touring North America and then England, India, Australasia etc, it does really make sense to think of cross-cultural parallels. Many thanks – M

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