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.