Last 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 whole genre of songs concerning domestic violence and masculine anger towards women which I had encountered in acts performed on the 1880-90s Australian variety stage.
The post, perhaps provocatively entitled ‘Clownish Misogyny’, attracted a number of comments by Leno aficionados. They objected to his act being singled out in this way. It was wrong, they said, to make Leno the poster-boy for music-hall songs about misogyny. Most of his repertoire was about men making fun of themselves, and when he played women it was with a pathos and a knowingness underlying the comic shtick which gave them an emotional complexity of their own.
I was amazed, given this exchange, to find Tony Lidington performing ‘Queen of My Heart’ in his performance, Dan Leno: The King’s Jester (reviewed in my last post). Having seen it, I can see that in many ways those commenting on the post were right. That song, at least, is more a painfully matter-of-fact commentary on the reality lived by battered women than a humorous attack upon them. And yes, it portrays the ‘heroine’ getting ready to give back as good as she got later in the night.
The joke, then, is on romantic sentimentality far more than the woman herself in the song. But still, there is something highly uncomfortable about it from this retrospective vantage. The notion that a woman being bashed about might be presented in comic mode in any sense is uncomfortable, however much of a pathetic undercurrent the performance possessed.
As Lidington presents it in Dan Leno, songs about the underside of lower working-class married life were a feature of Leno’s early routines in the London halls, as indeed they were of others’ routines at the time. Leno was steered away from this subject matter by the managers of the halls once he went big towards the end of the 1880s, however, when the business was aiming aggressively at a wider-than-working-class clientele.
‘Queen of My Heart’ may not have been representative of Leno’s entire oeuvre, then, but it was characteristic of a certain genre among his performances early in his music-hall career. The recordings he later made did not cover this period of his performing life, and so do not capture the tenor of those early songs.
Note: The above image is a picture of Leno as a panto dame by Stanley Cock, and was sourced from the About Postcards blog.