Tag Archives: Dan Leno

More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’

21 Apr

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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.

Dan Leno, The King’s Jester: a review

20 Apr

He may have died in 1904 in a mental asylum at 43, but the Victorian music-hall comedian and pantomime dame, Dan Leno, lives on in an extraordinary travelling production about his life. It has often been lamented that no film of Leno’s acts were made, so that a sense of what allegedly made him ‘the funniest man on earth’ can only now be imagined from written reports and a few crackling recordings. In Tony Lidington’s extraordinary performance as Leno in Dan Leno: The King’s Jester, however, one finds the next-closest thing.

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Although he was the most highly-paid musical-hall performer of his generation, achieving celebrity at the same time that the London halls themselves reached the peak of their acclaim, Leno was a vulnerable and ultimately broken-down man. He came to success only after grinding years as a child performer and competitive clog-dancer on the gritty Victorian travelling-show circuit, with a drunken and probably violent father (and later, stepfather) blighting his early life. Leno was also a committed unionist who atttempted to take on the fat cats of the entertainment industry by setting up rival music halls of his own. They crushed the endeavour as ruthlessly as they exploited their performers in the years just before Leno’s breakdown.

No doubt in part because of these things, there was always something troubled and painful about Leno’s acts, infusing even the brightest of his comic routines. This observation was often made by those who attended his shows, and contributed to the compelling nature of his persona on stage. 

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This mix of melancholia and hilarity is also what makes Lidington’s performance so arresting. During Dan Leno, he performs a goodly number of the man’s most famous routines (‘Queen of My Heart’, ‘The Shopwalker’, a set-piece from one of his dame performances, and ‘The Hard-Boiled Egg and the Wasp’ among them). In each case, the acts are rendered as emotionally fraught, simultaneously funny and sad. They are also interspersed with a narrative about Leno’s life in a beautiful, eloquent, and tautly structured script which Lidington wrote himself on the basis of careful research.

Dan Leno: The King’s Jester is a collaboration between the Georgian Theatre Royal (Richmond) and Lidington’s own company, Promenade Productions. It isn’t at all a slick show – it’s built to be shown in anything from large halls to smallish rooms, with a basic-looking though cleverly-designed pack-away set. I saw it during a theatre-history conference at the University of Exeter last week; it is now in North Yorkshire and will continue touring until late May (see the tour schedule here).

Still, slick would be all wrong for this glimpse into Leno’s difficult and arguably glorious life. And given his origins as an itinerant performer, its own character as a travelling show is certainly apt. If you’re interested in the music hall or the history of stand-up comedy, and if you can see Dan Leno before it ends in late May, I really think you must.

(NB the above image comes from this web-page about Leno, and also appears in the V&A Museum’s theatre collections. Now I wonder where Charlie Chaplin got his sartorial sense from?)

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.

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Dan Leno as the panto dame, Widow Twankey (from http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk)

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).

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A harlequin-figure holding a slapstick, also from the V&A collection at http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk)

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.

References

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.

Clownish misogyny: Dan Leno and Thomas Lawrence

6 Mar

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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.

Refrain
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? 

References

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.