Louis de Rougemont, or, A review of The Fabulist

27 Mar

En route to the Social History Society’s conference in Glasgow, I’ve been reading Ron Howard’s wonderful book, The Fabulist (2006), the true story of Louis de Rougemont, the ‘Greatest Liar on Earth’.

Peter Carey could easily have chosen Louis de Rougemont as his subject for My Life as a Fake in place of the creators of Ern Malley, or otherwise used him as the model for Herbert Badgery, the boastful trickster-protagonist of Illywhacker. The man reads as a character lifted straight from Carey’s back-catalogue.

De Rougemont was a Swiss man born Edward Grin c. 1847 who created a furore in London at the end of the century. He conducted an audacious swindle on the the readers of London’s World Wide Magazine – and, more incredibly, on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In a serialised memoir which appeared in World Wide Magazine in 1898, he claimed to have spent thirty years in the wilds of north-western Australia as the god or king of an Indigenous tribe.

For a few months, de Rougemont’s stories of cannibalism and flying wombats in the Kimberley were seriously believed by many in London. He was even invited to address the British Association of scientists on two occasions, speaking to packed auditoriums. What could be more fascinating than his story of marriage to an Indigenous woman who killed and ate her baby so that she had enough breast milk to suckle a sick de Rougemont back to health? Or of discovering the lost explorer Alfred Gibson just before he died?

For the Australian public, de Rougemont’s fame proved the preposterous gullibility of the British public. It had been incredulous at first at the rapturous reception given to stories of wombats flying in clouds from a small island and vast gold reefs in the desert. That incredulity turned to scorn after it was discovered that de Rougemont had lived for decades in Enmore, Sydney, having married a fancy-goods salesgirl in Newtown. He had even fathered four children with her whom he abandoned when he came to London. Before that, he had been responsible for blackbirding Indigenous Western Australian men – that is, kidnapping them and forcing them to work on his two-bit pearler – and was even wanted as an accomplice to the murder of one of these men in the mid-1870s.

The story of de Rougemont’s unmasking as well as his contemptible exploits in Australia is wonderfully told by Ron Howard. Beautifully measured, structured and researched, The Fabulist is well worth the read for anyone fascinated by arch imposters and literary hoaxers – or even just in search of a good read for a transcontinental haul.

Note: a play based on de Rougemont’s life showed at Primary Stages in NY in Feb 2009: Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).

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All the world’s a sporting field

17 Mar

Australians are forever being told that sport reigns supreme in their country, that the footie and cricket suck up so much energy that little is left for anything else. Theatre directors no doubt feel this acutely, aware that a  football match can pack out a stadium when their production is struggling to put bums on seats.

Back in the days when live performance was the thing, however – the whole 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th – this seemingly yawning distinction between theatre and sport didn’t exist.

As historian Richard Fotheringham puts it, until 1930 it makes sense to think of a single mass entertainment industry, embracing sporting, theatrical (later film) and catering interests. ‘Professional sport and professional theatre were characterised by a similar entrepreneurial instinct as to what would draw a crowd’, he says.

These days, when theatre audiences are full of Mercedes drivers and designer labels, it is hard to imagine the omnium-gatherum of humanity to be found in pre-1930 venues: factory workers, shop-girls, middling families, street-sellers, and the sorts of blokes who today would watch The Footy Show while downing XXXX beer.

In addition to these heterogeneous theatre crowds, there were also entrepreneurs by the baker’s dozen who invested in theatre and sport simultaneously. Take Hugh McIntosh, for example. He was the man who built the Rushcutter’s Bay stadium in Sydney (pictured above) in which he staged the 1908 world heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns. After that fight, McIntosh made a killing selling the film rights, which he promoted by having the fighters make cameo appearances on the vaudeville stage. From 1912, too, he ran the Tivoli vaudeville circuit and staged musical shows in legitimate theatres.

This seamless combo draws attention to the obviously theatrical elements in sport as we know it today. And it also alerts us in turn to the significance of theatre in the history of Western popular culture, whether in the land of The Footy Show or elsewhere.

Sources

Richard Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama (Cambridge & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

See also Richard Waterhouse, Private Pleasures, Public Leisure: A History of Australian Popular Culture Since 1788 (Sth Melbourne: Longman, 1995).

For more on Hugh McIntosh, see his online entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Image of the Johnson – Burns fight from State Library of NSW via Wikipedia Commons.

The Aussie ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

14 Mar

The first Australian performance of the song-and-dance act, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’, was in a burlesque at the Melbourne Opera House  (a venue in Bourke Street which later became the Tivoli) in mid-May 1892.

The artiste who performed it was the London ingénue, Alice Leamar, later to become famous for her racy music-hall number, ‘And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back’. Since Lottie Collins was planning to set off to America, Leamar had come to Oz in her stead with a company from George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Theatre.

The lyrics given for Leamar’s Australian performances of ‘Ta ra ra’ include a sixth verse which I have not come across elsewhere. They were published in the Australian Melodist, a songbook series containing the words of the latest theatrical songs. I include these lyrics in full below for the ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ fans out there.

The lyrics for ‘Ta-ra-ra’ give a vivid sense of how the verses set up the exultant gibberish of the chorus, allowing the song to jump happily between a knowing parody of demureness and a dervish of petticoats and limbs. In its characteristically cheeky prose, the Sydney Bulletin described Leamar’s performance of the chorus thus: ‘partly that of a spider getting enthusiastically off a hot stove and partly that of the native kangaroo… trying to break a record over a series of fences, and singing as she goes’.

A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
Never forward, never bold,
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing, I’m told,
That in your arms you’d like to hold!

Chorus
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.

I’m not extravagantly shy,
And when a nice young man is nigh
For his heart I have a try,
And faint away with tearful cry!
When the good young man, in haste,
Will support me round the waist;
I don’t come to, while thus embraced,
Till of my lips he steals a taste!

I’m a timid flower of innocence,
Pa says that I have no sense,
I’m one eternal big expense,
But men say that I’m just immense!
Ere my verses I conclude,
I’d like it known and understood,
Though free as air, I’m never rude –
I’m not bad, and not too good!

You should see me out with pa,
Prim, and most particular;
The young men say, ‘Ah, there you are!’
And pa says ‘That’s peculiar!’
‘It’s like their cheek!’, I say, and
Off again with pa I go-
He’s quite satisfied – although,
When his back’s turned – well, you know –

I’m a quiet girl, although
To skating rinks I sometimes go –
There is no harm in that, you know,
It gives a modest girl a show;
For when with giddiness you reel,
You hardly have the time to squeal,
When round your waist an arm will steal –
I say, girls, don’t it make you feel –

When in a train I chance to be,
It’s odd how men will sit next to me;
It cannot be my fault, you see,
If they presume to make too free.
I cannot tell the reason why,
I never make the least reply
But, ‘Oh, you should not!’, and ‘Oh, fie!’
Yet when the tunnels come – oh, my!

I feel I am so prim and staid
That on the shelf I may be laid;
It’s very hard, for I’m afraid
I’m not cut out for an old maid.
Still mother tells me not to fret,
I’ve heaps of time to marry yet,
And when I’m someone’s little pet
I won’t be bashful then – you bet!

Sources

Argus (Melbourne), 16 May 1892, 6.

Australian Melodist, no. 20 (Melbourne: n.d.), 6-8.

Bulletin (Sydney), 17 September 1892, 8

On Alice Leamar: Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London, 1976), 100.

‘London is the place for Miss Collins’: More on ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

11 Mar

Lottie Collins’ song and dance act ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ is often remembered in Britain today as the act which ushered in the Naughty Nineties. There are many accounts which speak of it as a Bacchanalian frenzy in which apparently nude legs and Liberty silk knickers were revealed.

Back when it appeared in 1891-2, however, opinions differed about its raunchiness. True, some of the men who saw Collins perform it at the music halls or the Gaiety Theatre on the West End were mesmerised by her high kicks on the boom in the chorus’ ‘boom-de-ay’.

There were others, however, who denied that there was anything sexually edgy about it. ‘Lottie Collins had the invaluable instinct of knowing how far to go without ever once over-stepping the border-line of propriety’, J. E. Crawford Flitch later claimed. George Bernard Shaw similarly emphasised her self-discipline in the act,  making her version less outre than others he’d seen.

Flitch and Shaw were right. There was nothing in fact very risque about Collins’ ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’. It was not even as if she spent most of the famous chorus kicking up her legs Can-Can style. For much of it, she twirled or ran or even jumped about the stage in deliberate disregard of the beat. It was her frenetic repudiation of feminine demureness in this chorus, her energetic abandon of any attempt to appear composed, that made audiences so exult in ‘Ta-ra-ra’.

New York audiences appear to have been expecting something less amusingly frenetic and rather more Moulin Rouge when Collins arrived there in September 1892. ‘Ta-ra-ra’ had been frequently performed in the Big Apple by then – most notably, in a revival of the titillating burlesque, The Black Crook, at the Academy Theatre. Perhaps the dancers in this theatre had performed it in a more come-hither style. They had certainly led the reviewer for the New York Times, at any rate, to anticipate something different to what he encountered from Collins at the Standard Theatre on 17 September.

This so-called ‘ornament of the London music halls’, the Times reviewer sneered, was ‘a mature woman, who is not beautiful or graceful, [and] whose singing voice is not pleasing. … Her dancing is simply jumping, and very poor jumping at that’. The Black Crook version was infinitely to be preferred. In the absence of anything especially naughty or cutting-edge it appeared that New York was beyond this performer, he concluded tartly: ‘London is the place for Miss Collins’.

Sources

On Collins in New York: ‘More London Gayety’, New York Times, 20 September 1892, 4.

Flitch, J. E. Crawford, Modern Dancing and Dancers (London: 1911), 96-7.

For examples of accounts emphasising the risque character of Collins’ act, see: Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (London, 1913), 31; W. Macqueen-Pope, The Melodies Linger On: The Story of Music Hall (London, n.d.), pp. 337–8.

On Shaw: see Amy Koritz, ‘Moving Violations: Dance in the London Music Hall, 1890–1910’, Theatre Journal, 42.4 (1990), pp. 421–23.

Bailey, Peter, ‘Musical Comedy and the Rhetoric of the Girl’, in his Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge, 1998), 187.

Above image taken from this resource on music hall.

The naming of the ‘Hottentots’

4 Mar

In a recent post on Sara Baartman, the ‘Venus Hottentot’, I noted that she was regarded as neither black nor sexy by the European crowds who saw her exhibited in 1810.

As art historian Z. S. Strother shows, the key reason that Baartman was so fascinating to Europeans was not the fact that she was a hyper-voluptuous black woman, but rather because she was assumed to be a ‘creature without language or culture, without memory or consciousness’.

For centuries before Baartman was brought to London, her people, then called Hottentots, occupied a special place in the European imagination. Now known as the Khoikoi, they were then a nomadic nation who ranged across the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. Given how many ships stopped to water at the Cape, her people had more contact with Europeans than any other African population during the age of exploration by sea.

Composed of a lush series of popping and clicking sounds, the Khoikoi’s language was a matter of astonishment to the Europeans who encountered them. Most of the latter assumed that the click sounds were jabber, and that the people who spoke them were bereft of true language. The fact that they were given the name ‘Hottentot’ reflected this. The word is thought to have emerged from a compound of the Dutch verbs hateren (to stammer) and tateren (to stutter). The term hottentotism still apparently appears in English and French medical dictionaries to describe extreme stuttering. Hottentot is thus a highly pejorative label, conveying the once-popular European notion that the Khoikoi could not speak properly, or indeed really speak at all.

As Strother puts it, ‘language was central in 16th and 17th-century [European] thought because it marked the common frontier separating humanity from the beasts’. Given that the ‘Hottentots’ were regarded as without language, they were thus widely represented in Europe as ‘more like beasts than men’, and were distinguished from other native Africans.

When Baartman was brought to London in the early 18th-century, then, she was not seen as a representative of African or black womanhood, but rather of this specific race of not-quite-humans: the proverbial missing link between the human and animal realms.

Source

Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors (ed.), Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.

The Ballad of Backbone Joe

28 Feb

At Brisbane’s grandiosely-named ‘World Theatre Festival’ recently, I went to see The Suitcase Royale’s Ballad of Backbone Joe. It sounded perfect from the promotional blurb: an Aussie narrative set in an 1890s abattoir-cum-boxing emporium, full of rag-n-bone music and melodramatic intrigue.

Given that I am currently on the trail of Larry Foley, the legendary Australian bare-knuckle fighter-turned-boxer, said to have fought as a larrikin in the Rocks in the 1870s, I could hardly believe my luck. And what more promising name for a three-piece with theatrical leanings than The Suitcase Royale?

Action-shot from The Suitcase Royale’s site

The music, let me say, is really great – a cross between Nick Cave’s The Murder Ballads and the gloriously ratbaggish Melbourne band, Waiting for Guinness. I loved the Royale trio’s seedy-cheeky air and the lead’s gravelly voice, redolent of old suits and dark nights and spilled beer. I would certainly go to see them play a gig, and will sometime, if I get the chance. Sadly, however, one cannot say the same thing about the theatrical merits of The Ballad of Backbone Joe.

It was egregiously false advertising, for a start, to say that this offering is ‘set in the 1890s’ or (as the band’s website puts it) ‘the roaring carnival days of pre-war Australia’. The Ballad in fact possesses not an ounce of actual historical references, let alone verisimilitude. It revels in its historical shonkiness, in fact, making much of its wild anachronisms. One passes from a character peeking through plastic venetian blinds to another singing a pastiche of an early jazz song, from a fellow dialling on a 1970s telephone to the projection of grainy black-and-white photographs of boxers back in an indeterminate day. Worse than this so far as I was concerned, however, was the fact that the plot and acting was just as full of wild disjunctions –  the stuff of an undergraduate arts revue.

A word of advice, boys: if you are going to advertise a piece on the basis of its historicity, then do some actual historical research. (God knows it’s not very hard via Wikipedia and Google Books these days). Oh, and The Ballad of Backbone Joe needs some serious script development – otherwise, stick to the fab. gravelly shtick with the songs.

The anti-erotic Venus

25 Feb

Some time ago now I referred to someone else’s post about Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, in a History Carnival. Since then, I have been surprised at how many people have come mistakenly to The Vapour Trail in search of information about her.

The numbers of people desperately seeking Sara suggests the extent to which the Hottentot Venus has become a poster-girl for black sexuality and its exploitation in Western society.

This is a point made by American art historian,  Z. S. Strother, in a brilliant essay called ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, the first part of which I paraphrase here.

Sara (or Saartjie) Baartman was a Khoikoi woman from South Africa who was exhibited in London and Paris in 1810 under the sobriquet ‘the Hottentot Venus’. She suffered from steatopygia, or enlargement of the buttocks, and came from the tribe then known  in Europe as the Hottentots. Gawping multitudes came to see her in London: so many, in fact, that she was later made the subject of a Parisian vaudeville play and examined by Georges Cuvier at the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle.

Interest in Baartman has been re-ignited in recent decades. This is largely on account of  her appearance in 1980s discussions of the construction of sexuality in science and medicine: most notably, those of Stephen Jay Gould (1982) and Sander Gilman (1985). She was also made the star character in a play debuting in New York in 1996: Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks.

In Parks’ Venus, Baartman was described as the obsessive love-object of Georges Cuvier. She was also depicted in more-or-less lubricious fashion, with a padded rear and breasts emphasising her curves. It was largely as a result of these works that Baartman was placed back into the glare of public curiosity, becoming all-but-inseparable from discussions of black women’s sexuality.

Ironically, however, Baartman’s contemporaries in London and Paris classed her as neither black nor sexy. Her success at the time was a result of ‘her status as a figure of the anti-erotic, which allowed her to cross from the “freak show” to the pseudo-educational ethnographic shows’.

It was chiefly as a creature thought to be without language, culture, memory or consciousness, Strother tells us, that Baartman was interesting to a European audience. As such a figure she could never ‘threaten the viewer with the sexual power of a “Venus'”‘. There was thus supposed to be a snide humour about giving her this label, on a par with white colonists’ sniggering references to their black servants as dukes or kings.

Perhaps, then, the Hottentot Venus’ revival in popular consciousness tells us far more about the obsession with black sexuality in our own age than that in Europe in the early nineteenth century.

Sources

S. L. Gilman, ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late 19th-C Art, Medicine & Literature’, Critical Inqurity, 12.1 (1985): 204-42.

S. J. Gould, ‘The Hottentot Venus’, Natural History, 91.9 (1983): 20-27.

Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors, ed., Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.