Some time ago now I wrote about the blokish persona I kept encountering in theatre memoirs of the late-nineteenth century: ‘loud, jocular and blib, as if perpetually ready to slap someone on the back and make a show of meeting in the street’. This morning I’ve been reading the memoirs of the Australian actor, Billy Molony, wonderfully entitled Memoirs of an Abominable Showman (1968). What strikes me most is the fact that the all-hail-well-met persona had such longevity for theatrical men.
On paper, Molony is a dead ringer for Bobby Watson or Augustus Baker Peirce or Simon Hickey, all of whom were principally involved in popular theatre some decades before he was, and whose memoirs I have also read over the past few months. What I said earlier about Watson applies equally to Molony: he too exudes a kind of soiled, knocked-about-a-bit but-ain’t-that-life sensibility, full of anecdotes one imagines delivered with a wink and a wheezy laugh. Molony further resembles accounts of Harry Clay, an Australian vaudeville manager in the early 1900s, who first made his name as a tenor in travelling minstrel-shows in the 1870s.
According to his biographer (Clay Djubal, a distant relative), the word most often used to describe Harry Clay was ‘genial’. Clay was renowned for his practical jokes, prodigality of invective and handiness with his fists. Most of all, though, he was known for his generosity and friendliness – in short, his geniality.
This term, genial, a rather quaint word now, was widely used in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to describe men with a common touch. In Australia, it was a precursor to a phrase like ‘all-round good bloke’ (or something like that). The labour leader, William Guthrie Spence, a contemporary of Harry Clay, was also repetitively described as genial (I’ve written an article about him which will appear in the Journal of Australian Studies this month). It was this quality which made Spence such a good negotiator as a unionist, and a skilled stacker-of-branches as a Labor MP.
Given the currency of the term genial to describe a certain sort of all-hail-well-met fellow, it would be interesting to investigate its significance for understandings of masculinity in Clay and Spence’s lifetime.