Larrikin theatricalities

24 Oct


So recently I finished a piece about larrikin culture, and its theatricality, in late-19thC Australia. Larrikins were renowned for loitering in the vestibules of colonial theatres, and afterwards packing into the galleries to amuse themselves at everyone else’s expense during a show. They were also among the mob at the back of smaller suburban venues of a Saturday night. Sometimes they hung about grabbing the top-hats of the dress-circle crowd, crushing them beneath their high-heeled boots. But larrikins also specialised in sartorial pretensions of their own – not just the fancy boots, but bell-bottomed trousers, coloured neck-ties, and jauntily-tilted hats. They walked with a swagger, set their faces with a leer; all in all, a  self-conscious mode of self-presentation. The same could be said of larrikin women, who dolled themselves up in flounced dresses and brazen face.

The theatricality of larrikin identity has  often been observed in accounts of them making a nuisance of themselves in colonial cities during the 1870-90s. But I haven’t read anything about the role played by popular theatre – about the way that larrikins used it as a resource upon it when styling their street persona. Hence my paper. It looks at the role of coon songs from American minstrel-shows, and coster swell songs from English music halls as inspiration for Australian larrikin culture. Who would have thought that blackface ‘coon’ characters would have had such an influence on what it seen now as such an ocker cultural identity? But it seems to me that this was the case. 

Larrikins and ‘coons’ were both reviled as savage and oversexed at the end of the century, for intimidating people in the street, for thieving and living the fast life. Little wonder, then, that dance-mad larrikins would have kicked up a storm to songs like I’m a Hot Thing or Darktown is out To-night, feeling a sense of gleeful recognition in the words and the toe-tappin’ beat:

Warm coons’ a-prancin’s, swell coons a-dancin’
Tough coons who’ll want to fight;
So, bring along your blazers,
Fetch out your razors, Darktown is out to-night.

3 Responses to “Larrikin theatricalities”

  1. Christopher Miles 7 January 2008 at 7:40 pm #

    I’m so glad I happened across this site; I’ve been doing a bit of research into the larrikin subculture for some fiction I’m writing. If I can find the time I’m going to make a trip to the State Library of Victoria to look into it in more detail. I’m not a researcher, so I’d be interested to know where to look for information.

    I have a feeling I’ll be peeping in here fairly regularly; it’s fascinating.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 7 January 2008 at 10:42 pm #

    Hey Christopher. Just checked out yr website. “A gothic horror gross-out comedy set in 1880s Melbourne”! I would definitely like to read that one. I will be posting more on larrikins shortly, as I’ve just been to Melbourne and spent a few days in the State Library. (Shame we couldn’t have met up).

    I think the best account by another historian of Melbourne larrikinism is Chris McConville’s chapter, “From Criminal Class to Underworld”, in an edited collection called Outcasts of Melbourne. But for the best raw material, you can’t go past the newspapers I’ve just been looking at on microfilm in the Newspapers section of the library: the Collingwood Mercury and the Fitzroy/Collingwood Observer, 1880. All their police court reportage gives you a direct window into the streetscape and oeuvre – not quite gothic horror, but close enough!

  3. Christopher Miles 7 January 2008 at 11:43 pm #

    That title rings a bell. I’m hoping the NLA newpspaer digitisation project will ( eventually extend to suburban newspapers like the one you mention, so I can browse them from the comfort of my internet connection. (Though it is fun winding those microfilms through the machine.)

    I’ve been toying with the idea of popping a sample chapter or two of Genie up on the website…

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