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Why was the panto a non-show in America?

28 Mar

Not long ago I wrote a post about the cooch dance in early-twentieth century travelling shows, based on material from Robert Allen’s Horrible Prettiness. Allen recently visited the University of Queensland (where I am based). One thing he mentioned in passing then has stayed with me – this being how curious it is that pantomime never formed a part of the American popular theatre tradition.


Dan Leno as the panto dame, Widow Twankey (from

Mid-nineteenth century burlesque shows featured dame figures in America, just like the pantomime. These dames were men dressed up as cantankerous, be-wrinkled crones, who of course formed the butt of innumerable jokes during the course of a show. Given this cross-over, it is indeed odd (as Allen noted) that the pantomime never took off in America. It is even more odd given the similarities between aspects of blackface minstrelsy and pantomime harliquinades. Harlequins were black-masked figures who often engaged in ribald buffoonery very close to that of minstrel end-men and other American blackface clowns. (The very term ‘slapstick’, which played such a key part of American minstrel and vaudeville comedy, came from the stick which harlequins used to slap about other clownish fools on stage).


A harlequin-figure holding a slapstick, also from the V&A collection at

As yet I have no good ideas about why the pantomime remained such a distinctively English institution. Incidentally, however, I note that when I was looking over a Sydney magazine called Theatre yesterday, looking at the issues produced during the First World War, it struck me that pantomime reached an apogee of popularity in Australia during those war years.

In February 1915, for example, the Theatre included some reminiscences of Dan Leno from one of his colleagues, noting that Leno had been famous for his dame-roles in the London pantomimes at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Pantomime is drawing the biggest audiences of any entertainment in Australia at present’, the magazine declared – and went on to include reviews and picturees of the various pantomimes playing at the time. A month later, the magazine was reporting that hundreds of people were turned away every night when the George Willoughby pantomine, Babes in the Wood, was showing at the Adelphi in Sydney.

A feature of the pantomime in both England and Australia – at least from the late 19thC – was that it included cameos from the music halls and variety stage. Anyone comic singer who was big in variety theatre could do a star turn in the latest pantomime, belting out their latest hit or performing a skit only loosely related to the plot of the panto in question. During Babes in the Wood, for example, the American performer Joesphine Gassman appeared with her black piccaninnies in a brief cameo, having drawn great applause on the Australian Fuller vaudeville circuit some months previously.

The appearance of an American blackface act during an Australian pantomime is yet another example of the promiscuous intermingling of the popular theatrical forms. And it yet again brings to mind Allen’s question about the non-show of the panto in America. If anyone else has a notion of why this was the case (or else examples of American pantomimes), I would be keen to hear about it.


Theatre (Sydney).

By way of an aside, I note that Josephine Gassman is discussed in M Alison Kibler’s Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville, published by the same university press (University of North Caroline) carrying Allen’s Horrible Prettiness. Kibler says that Gassman’s routines (as a white woman in blackface, performing with black ‘piccaninnies’) was regarded as disgusting by many American critics in the very early 1900s (pp. 121-23). By 1914, however, she was receiving rapturous reviews for her Australian vaudeville act in Sydney’s Theatre.

The Georgia Minstrels in Queensland, 1878

16 Mar

Last Friday I was looking at Queensland’s reception of the Georgia Minstrels, an African-American minstrel troupe managed by the impresario, Charles B Hicks, who toured Australia in 1877-79. They were sensations for the first eighteenth months of their tour, performing to packed houses around the colonies (Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland) and attracting a certain celebrity.

When the Georgias arrived in Brisbane on the evening of 27 February 1878, a crowd gathered at the wharf to see them disembark. In their advance publicity, they had billed themselves as ‘The Great American Slave Troupe… Composed of Colored Men’. Evidently, then, there was a good degree of racial if not racist curiosity among the Brisbanites gawping at them as they hauled their belongings on-shore. (Perhaps people were interested in what the Georgias looked like sans make-up, as they blacked-up on stage in the same way that white minstrel performers did, covering their skin with burnt cork or greasepaint). And that curiosity of course played into their popularity in Brisbane, Toowomba, Warwick and Ipswich over the following weeks.


We are not a party of White Men with Blackened Faces.


are composed of




And are, therefore, the only exponents of the Native Humor of the Colored Man that have ever visited Australia.

The Georgias attracted a broad popular audience when they were in Queensland. They gave matinee performances towards the end of their tour, and entreated would-be patrons to bring along their children for a ‘thorough treat’. They also performed in the Botanic Gardens on a Saturday afternoon a couple of times. One of these occasions was for a celebration of St Patricks’ Day, however, which I imagine was a dog-whistle to the more rumbustious among their audiences, for an afternoon of al fresco revelry under the sign of Erin’s Isle green. And apropos of my previous post about larrikins’ attraction to blackface minstrelsy, there is an indication that a few larrikins were among their audiences in Ipswich:

‘Those in the back seats were unable [to hear] at times – through the noisy and disgraceful conduct of a number of ill-mannered youths – who seemed to have enteted the building for no other purpose than to make themselves obnoxious’.

Billy Kersands

(An image of famous African-American minstrel, Billy Kersands, who was managed by Charles B Hicks in the mid-1880s. He didn’t come to Australia with Hicks’ Georgia Minstrels, but a performer called Billy Wilson did, and the two seem to have had similar performance styles. Wilson’s Australian performances attracted a great deal of commentary about the way he used his mouth and its size, as did Kersands’ in America).


Brisbane Courier, 28 February and 4 March 1878.

Queensland Times (Ipswich), 16 April 1878.

Richard Waterhouse, ‘Antipodean Odyssey: Charles B Hicks and the New Georgia Minstrels in Australia, 1877-1880’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, v.72, no.1, June 1986: 19-39 (fabulous, closely-researched article).

The coster and the larrikin

16 Mar


Last post I wrote about the larrikin Bill in C J Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke (1915). Even though he had grown up a pugilist in a Melbourne slum, this Bill was famous for his romantic longings and penchant for reverie. (That’s his wedding scene from the 1919 Raymond Longford silent film based on Dennis’ poetry).

Dennis’s bloke Bill shows us that the Australian larrikin was able to be imagined in bewilderingly different ways by the early twentieth century. In 1870, Marcus Clarke had decided that the larrikin was much the same as Sam Hall, a rough music-hall character who went to the scaffold for murder, shouting ‘damn your eyes!’ at all society. In The Sentimental Bloke, however, the larrikin was a bovver-boy given over to a desire for domesticity. It was extraordinary that this sentimentalised view of the larrikin was possible, given that only a few decades before, larrikins were the subject of a moral panic in Australia over street youth and their gang-raping propensities. There was still concern about the degeneration of urban youth in the early twentieth-century, mind you, as well as the survival of early negative views of larrikinism. But these were no longer the only perspective available on Australian boys from the push.

The Australian larrikin’s progress from Sam Hall to Sentimental Bloke in C J Dennis’ poetry (and its filmic and theatrical spin-offs) almost exactly mirrors the characterisation of roughs in the English music hall. As historian Peter Bailey sees it, anyway, the quintessential music-hall character in mid-century England was none other than the murderous Sam Hall. The leading character in the 1860s and 1870s was the heavy swell: the plebeian Champagne Charlie who whooped it up in even higher style than his betters when out on the town. By the 1890s, however, the coster singer a la Albert Chevalier predominated, dressed in a pearlie-stitched velvet suit singing sweetly of “my old Dutch” (his wife; rhyming slang with Dutch fife). This shift in music-hall characterisation represented a movement, Bailey says, from class culture to mass culture – from popular resistance, through emulation of the upper class, to domestication.

There’s a lot to mull over in Bailey’s conclusion that coster singer of the 1890s represented the triumph of sentimental mass culture over the oppositional class culture of old. Since there are so many correspondences between the coster and the larrikin, this same argument might well also be applied in an Australian context. Nonetheless, I find it hard to accept the implicit judgment in the view that popular culture wrought a transition from an insurgent class identity to sentimentalised domesticity. Anyone brought up on feminist critique would surely blanch at the suggestion that representations of rough costers and larrikins are to be preferred over sentimental ones on the basis that the latter are inauthentic and that in any event sentimentality is undesirable. What Bailey is essentially doing via this argument is pitting a positive masculine notion of authentic toughness against a negative feminine one of overdone sentimentality – an old old trope by now. And this view can also be seen in Australian discussions of Dennis’ Bill. The Sam Hall-style larrikin is seen as a heroic figure, of sorts, while the Bloke-style one is considered an absurd fabrication, born of Dennis’ own middle-class fantasy.

I guess for my own purposes, what I am interested in why a sentimental vision of the larrikin gained such currency and popularity in the first decades of the twentieth century. I’m interested in explaining the shift from bad boy to sweet one rather than passing judgment about it. At the same time, I’m aware that the bad-boy vision didn’t disappear. In the 1920s, for example, the vaudeville comic Roy Rene gave his own spin to a raffish larrikin-figure on the popular stage. His Mo character was a Jewish boy from the slums of Woolloomooloo: frequently drunken, leery, and full of double entendres, a larrikin of a very different mould to Bill from Dennis’ poetry.

(Roy Rene as Mo)


The coexistence of these two larrikin figures suggests that there wasn’t some overall debasement of cultural attitudes in early twentieth century Australia, in which tastes otherwise attuned to the oppositional and carnivalesque turned instead to the sentimental. What seems to have happened is that the sentimental developed alongside a continuing interest in the raffish, anti-bourgeois larrikin type. Views of the larrikin diversified, in other words, rather than changing neatly from one thing to the other. So far as I know the same thing happened in England: the sentimental costers of Albert Chevalier still competed for room on the music-hall stage with more rebellious and gritty personae.

Ultimately, I suspect that recognising and interpreting the development in views of the larrikin/coster will require a less judgmental perspective on what was taking place in popular culture than the one offered by Bailey. It won’t be possible to explain the emergence of sentimental figures as part of an overall feminisation of Anglo culture. And nor will it be possible to simply equate mass culture with a syrupy domestic sensibility, imagined as something insincere and bad.


Peter Bailey, ‘Custom, capital and culture in the Victorian music hall’, in Robert D Strorch, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in 19thC England (London: Croom Helm, 1982): p. 198.

Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991) (on the denigration of sentimentality and mass culture as feminine).

Marcus Clarke, ‘Australian larrikins’, Australasian, 19 March 1870.

C J Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915).

Jonathan Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), pp. 198-218 (on Roy Rene as Mo).

Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mass culture as woman: modernism’s other’, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (London: Macmillan Press, 1986), pp. 65-81.

John Rickard, ‘Lovable larrikins and awful ockers’, Journal of Australian Studies 56 (1998): 78-85 (on sentimental visions of the early 20thC larrikin).

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.

Mother and Moonshine

10 Jan


The Australian Historical Association has its annual conference in Melbourne on 7-10 July this year. Called Locating History, it will explore the interconnections between history and place. Here’s the abstract for the paper I intend to write for it:

Mother and Moonshine: The Minstrel Home-Song in Australia

To a hostile reviewer for the Bulletin, the blackface minstrel show was all about “moonshine and mother”. Songs about mother languishing by the hearth as her sons roamed, or about the love of Kentucky, or Dixie, or Ireland, were a regular feature of the late nineteenth-century Australian minstrel show. Most often these nostalgic songs have been explained as a way to draw middle-class audiences to minstrelsy; a way of pandering to the cult of the home among the Victorian bourgeoisie. It is intriguing, however, that the popularity of sentimental minstrel-ballads continued into the twentieth century, at a time when middle-class men are said to have been renouncing domesticity, and the relationship between women and the home was similarly in the throes of change. Rowdy audience members also loved the hear-em-and-weep songs about home and mother on the Australian minstrel-show stage.

This paper is an attempt to come to terms with minstrels songs about home in a way which avoids a simplistic class-based interpretation of their appeal. In it, I explore what the continued appetite for these songs has to tell us about popular Australian attitudes to sentimentality, to nostalgia and to place at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Larrikin’s Hop & blackface minstrelsy

15 Nov





Well, my article on larrikins’ use of popular theatre to fashion their identity on colonial streets is to be published in Australasian Drama Studies sometime soonish, called “The Larrikin’s Hop”. The title comes from a larrikin song sung in blackface in the late 1880s and early 1890s, by Australian minstrel-vaudeville comic, Will Whitburn.


I’m now writing a piece for an American journal about larrkins’ relationship to blackface performance. To this end, I’m neck-deep in four wonderful works: Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), Shane and Graham White’s Stylin’ (1998), W T Lhamon Jnr’s Raising Cain (1998), and William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask (1999). For sheer style, these books are treats. Each abounds with the literary equivalent of the black/face masculine dash it describes. ‘This passage, in all its woozy syntax and headlong rush’, writes Lott at one point, describing how it feels to be taken on some of his own more virtuoso prose-flights. White historians might not be able to jump, it seems, but they sure as hell can kick up a syntactical shindig if they choose.  

Reading this American scholarship is prompting me to think about the reasons that blackface minstrelsy appealed to Australian larrikins, and how this was different (if at all) to its appeal to the white working-class in America. That blackface  appealed to disaffected youths in Australia, many of them from an Irish background, obviously has a lot to do with the way blackness and blackface operated symbolically throughout English-speaking western society. (On this point, Robert Nowatzki has written an interesting article about the appeal of blackface to Irish immigrants to America).

Even with this transnational logic at work, however, it is not possible to make everything said about the American minstrel-show applicable to Australia. Each of the historians I’ve just mentioned see minstrelsy as a way for white Americans to come to terms with abolition, with the consequent troubling presence of free blacks in public places, and the competition for work between black Americans and the white working-class. Obviously, Australia had its own history of violent struggle between Aboriginal people and white colonists. But there was not a daily confrontation and inter-relation between white and black in Australian cities as there was, say, in New York. Australian working-class resentment was directed primarily at Chinese labourers – a fact no doubt influencing minstrel efforts to distinguish representations of blackface from Asianness there.

The combined effect of these things meant there was not the same intensity in Australia to the dynamic Lott identifies in white Americans’ relationship to blackface. He speaks of white Americans’ voyeuristic fascination for black bodies, which built up a kind of Freudian charge from frequent contact in urban places. He also speaks of a white longing to mock and plunder black culture, to steal from it and hobble its power. Neither of these related forms of desire existed with the same forceful immediacy in Australia. As a result, the minstrel-show was never as socially threatening there.

Australian minstrelsy attracted a more diverse audience than its American or English counterparts: it still appealed to workingpeople and the ‘disorderly classes’, but it wasn’t confined to this constituency. Blackface could also be used more freely to signify other things in addition to race: anti-authoritarianism, sexual licence, the pleasures of display and violent release. And in particular, its style was available to Australian larrikins, open for adoption and combination with other influences (that of Irish and Cockney characters from English music-halls, for example) to become part of their own distinctive identity.

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.

Rowdy as they come

21 Aug

Here I was thinking that the modernisation of popular theatre in Australia meant the disappearance of rowdy audience practices. But even in the twentieth century, audiences at Harry Clay’s vaudeville shows were rowdy as they come. ‘Should the audience react unfavourably – usually by roaring their disgust until the whole building shook’, a performer recalled, ‘the artist was given his pay and sent on his way’. There were brickies at North Sydney’s Coliseum who spent the whole time ‘bellowing or shouting their disapproval and delight’, and coalmining audiences on the Hunter Valley circuit who did much the same. Audiences at the Newtown Bridge Theatre were fiercer yet. ‘There would scarcely be a night when our strong-arm squad would not have to quell a fracas’, remembered a regular cast member. ‘Many are the teeth I’ve seen splattered around the floor in the old days’.

(This material comes from Clay Djubal’s evocative work on Harry Clay, in this case his paper ‘From minstrel tenor to vaudeville showman: Harry Clay, “a friend of the Australian perfomer”, Australasian Drama Studies, 34 (April 1999): 10-24).

Patrick Joyce on the Manchester free-and-easy

18 Aug

Patrick Joyce’s The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism in the City is a curiously impermeable thing. I keep picking it up and beginning to read, and then somehow my mind slips off it – none of what I’m glancing over sticks, and I put it down again. His line of inquiry seems obtuse to me: he says that he’s interested in investigating governmentality in the nineteenth-century city. All I can think when I hear that is ‘so why should I be interested? And are you really interested yourself?’ The text doesn’t have the polemic energy which animates other Joyce works I’ve read and found so valuable (Visions of the People and Democratic Subjects).

According to one reviewer of The Rule of Freedom, Joyce’s aim is to ‘understand how, in the physical context of the nineteenth-century city, new types of persons, temporalities, spaces, and practices were molded that rejected older forms of unapologetic coercion and led individuals to acquiesce voluntarily in a new regime of ordering and discipline they came to associate with the experience of being free’. Okay, so that helps. The book in itself is the story of the paradox of urban liberalism: the fact that it sought escape from an overtly authoritarian society, but that the freedom it created can only be talked about in relative terms, in inverted commas, and a sardonic tone of voice. Perhaps that is why the book doesn’t grab me. What, after all, has been more dispiriting and paralysing than that Foucauldian idea that freedom and governance go hand in hand, that ‘freedom’ (said sardonically) is the best thing one might hope for?  And there is also something discombulating about the book’s material, as it jumps wildly from discussions of maps and statistics-gathering by urban liberals, to the building of sewerage and rubbish-removal infrastructure, to the experience of individuals walking about in the city. As that reviewer also says: ‘as with many recent exercises in poststructualist history, there is a notable absence of actual people in Joyce’s book. For all his celebration of the contingent and the local, his analysis is often disappointingly abstract’.

The one point where The Rule of Freedom grabs me is in the chapter wonderfully and grandiloquently-entitled  ‘The Republic of the Streets’. In it, he discusses Manchester’s street-singers, and also its ‘free-and-easies’ in the late nineteenth century: pubs where musical entertainment and cheap food was offered. In London, the free-and-easies were replaced by commercial music halls in the 1850s and especially the 1860-70s, but this transition never happened in Manchester. The free-and-easies continued to pit professional, semi-professional and amateur singers alongside each other, and their audiences generally prioritised drink and sociability over the musical acts themselves. Audience members faced each other rather than the stage or the performers, and throughout each act they continued to talk and move about. ‘There was none of the decorum, or the fixed attention, of the commercial music hall, where the performer was separated from the audience’. And all the drinking, talking, eating, smoking and noisy singing gave the free-and-easy ‘a sort of sensual overload…, something akin to being in the streets of the city, or to the fair’.

Up until now, most of what I’ve been reading and saying about late 19thC popular culture has concerned the development of highly commercialised cultural industries, with the professional performers and expectations of ‘fixed attention’ from audience members that came with them. Now here is this reminder that what happens in the metropolis isn’t necessarily what happens elsewhere, and that modernisation was always uneven.

 (Note for self: find Philomen Eva’s ‘Popular song and social identity in Victorian Manchester’, PhD, University of Manchester, 1996).