Clownish misogyny: Dan Leno and Thomas Lawrence

6 Mar


Dan Leno is often said to have been the greatest comedian of the English music-hall. In the 1880s, he was renowned as “The Funniest Man on Earth”, an indication of the parochial sense of superiority fostered by the Anglo halls. One of his most well-known acts was as a gossiping old woman, and in the 1890s he reprised this style of humour in a series of dame roles for the pantomimes.

While Leno may be celebrated now as one of the key stand-up comics of the era, much of his humour was stridently misogynistic. Here’s a little taste of the kind of caustic anti-woman sentiment he peddled in his songs. It comes from I’m Waiting For Him Tonight, a ‘comic parody’ on Queen of My Heart, which was performed in Australia sometime in the 1880-90s, and of course also in the English halls. No doubt Leno was dressed up as yet another ugly woman for the part, in which he sang:

I scalded myself while a-frying,
A nice piece of steak, rather off,
My fat-headed baby was crying –
She’s bad with a nice whooping-cough.

The steak it got burnt to a cinder,
Which made my old man very wild;
Then he threw all the lot through the winder,
And smashed me on the nose with the child,

And my nose began a-bleeding,
As it never bled before;
While his mercy I was pleading
He was trying to dislocate my jaw.

He punched me without any warning,
And made his poor wife such a fright;
He knocked corners off me this morning,
But I’m waiting for him tonight.

Now, Leno’s comic style was said to be one in which pathos intermingled with humour, so perhaps he invested this supposedly funny song with a kind of grim melancholy which worked against its otherwise egregious misogyny. Even if this was the case, however, battered or otherwise dilapidated women were regularly made the butt of jokes in music-hall, minstrel, and circus entertainment in this period.

Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone make this same observation in their commentary on the repertoire of English clown, Thomas Lawrence, who performed in the 1860s and 1870s. Lawrence kept a gagbook for his acts, they tell us, which was rife with ‘hostility towards women’. His jokes repeatedly trashed sentimental attitudes, and they portrayed women all-but-ubiquitously ‘as oppressors and haridans, deceitful temptresses who trap a man by their sexual promise and then turn into grotesque, hated bodies and predatory money-grubbers’.

What were the women in circus and music-hall audiences doing when they heard jokes of this kind, I wonder? Did they laugh with a certain wry bitterness at Leno’s act? Did they shudder at the flesh-hating ugliness of Lawrence’s wheezes, or did they manage, somehow, to find them funny? 


Image of Dan Leno above is from the V&A Collection and appears on their PeoplePlay website.

Lyrics from I’m Waiting For Him Tonight appear in The Australian Melodist, no. 18, pp.6-7.

Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone, The Victorian Clown (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), p. 152.

8 Responses to “Clownish misogyny: Dan Leno and Thomas Lawrence”

  1. E Potts 4 June 2008 at 9:42 am #

    Interesting but suggest you actually listen to Leno’s recordings, most of which chronicle everyday lower middle class life and apart from Mrs Kelly & The Husband involve rather gullible & pathetic men. The obvious pathos and sympathy with which he depicts characters is evident even in such poor recordings. If you actually look at images of his dames in some cases they are glamorous not ugly women! I am a woman myself & find misyogny abhorrent but I find obvious selectivity annoying & more balanced & detailed research would not go amiss!

  2. Melissa Bellanta 4 June 2008 at 10:45 pm #

    Well sorry to annoy you, E Potts, but my main aim here was to comment on the tradition of songs and jokes about battered women in English popular theatre. The fact that Leno also sang about gullible men doesn’t mean that he didn’t take part in this misogynistic tradition when he performed ‘I’m Waiting For Him To-night’.

    As I said, though, there was every chance that Leno injected this song with a pathos that undercut its otherwise ugly comedy. The recordings you’ve referred to certainly add further evidence to this idea.

  3. tasterella 2 November 2008 at 2:16 pm #

    I was looking for images of Dan Leno after reading the book by Ackroyd..have you read it?
    ‘Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem’. Certainly in the book he is not misogynistic at all.

  4. Barry Anthony 4 April 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    I have studied over one hundred songs performed by Leno and have to say that this number is not really typical of his act. Firstly, and almost unique in his repertoire, its a parody. And as a parody its sends up an archly sentimental original by using crude and violent language. Leno’s recording emphasises the joke by being performed in a mock concert style of singing. Bear in mind that the wife in this song is also violent. Contemporary accounts explain that she was waiting for her husband to return home with the intention of battering him with a brick and a chopper. Leno’s many female character studies were usually well observed and sympathetic – men were more frequently shown to be pompous or gullible. Violence against women was often found in music hall humour, but, although Leno portrayed the war between the sexes, he was the most even handed of Victorian comedians.

    • Melissa Bellanta 6 April 2009 at 9:23 pm #

      Thanks, Barry.

      I wouldn’t say that the fact that a song is a parody makes any difference to the basic point – the mockery of ‘feminine’ styles of singing was part of the point. But from the comments I’ve received thus far, it definitely appears that in highlighting the violence against women in many a music hall song I picked the wrong man to make an example of… I was reading many lyrics from songbooks of minstrel and variety acts performed on Australian stages at the time that I wrote that post, and was overwhelmed by the nastiness of some of the content, and evidently I would have done better to use a different song and performer to make the point.


  5. Melissa Bellanta 21 April 2009 at 7:58 am #

    Tasterella – no, I haven’t read Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, but intend to do so. I’ve heard that it is based very closely on a celebratory biography of Leno (The Funniest Man on Earth, written by a conservative MP), so wouldn’t expect any close commentary on gender issues to be featured in it. But I should wait and see before passing judgment, shouldn’t I?

  6. nicola james 7 August 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    It’s difficult to retrospectively impose contemporary notions of correctness on a different historical period. Objectivity is the key: you have to look at where 19th century music hall came from (commedia dell’arte etc) and how its was appropriated – that might give you some idea of the prevailing social context in Leno’s time.

    Ackroyd BTW is generally good on Victorian London.


  1. More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’ « The Vapour Trail - 21 April 2009

    […] year I wrote a post about Dan Leno’s act ‘Queen of My Heart’, in which he played a bashed wife in a parody of romantic song. Really, the post was about the […]

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