Mash-ups, gender benders . . . Seen them all before

The hipsters who regard Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win as significant don’t realise that the song contest is just an antiseptic vestige of vaudeville

Blackface: vaudeville showed the inventions through which ordinary people navigated the new urban whirlpool of immigrant societies. Photograph: Transcendental Graphics/Getty

Blackface: vaudeville showed the inventions through which ordinary people navigated the new urban whirlpool of immigrant societies. Photograph: Transcendental Graphics/Getty

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

I’m looking at a stage photograph, taken around 1882, of an enormously popular Irish-American performer, Tony Hart, and his wife, Gertie Granville. Granville is dressed like a little girl, with tumbling blond ringlets, a doll and a flouncy white dress that shows off her legs to the knee – a sexually provocative pose in its time. Hart is standing over her, pointing in good-natured admonition. He wears a dark wig, a dress, a bodice and ribbons. And he is blacked up: his face and arms are painted black, with a white rim around his mouth. And some people think Conchita Wurst, the “bearded lady” who won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, is weird.

Hart, whose real name was Anthony J Cannon, was born in Massachusetts in 1855 to parents who had both been born on Clare Island, off the Co Mayo coast. He was no marginal freak but one of the United States’ most successful and highly paid performers of the late 19th century.

His professional partner was the phenomenal Edward Harrigan, whose working-class Irish comedies were central to the creation of American popular entertainment. Together they occupied the Theatre Comique on Broadway for all of nine years – a run that puts them in the same bracket as today’s megamusicals. They then moved to their very own Broadway theatre, called Harrigan and Hart’s, a plush affair with 1,200 seats. They attracted respectable audiences and serious critical attention: Harrigan was compared in print to Molière, Dickens and Goldoni.

Harrigan described Hart as the best impersonator of women that he ever knew on the stage. He recalled the impression of realism he created for audiences: “His success was tremendous. In Chicago the spectators would hardly believe that it was a boy in the role. Bill Pinkerton, the detective, came behind the scenes and studied him at close range in his make-up and swore that he was a woman.”

This suggests that Hart was not crudely parodying femininity but reproducing it. His sweet, “angelic” face and soprano voice supported an intriguing illusion.

But he went beyond that illusion. In Harrigan’s skits on Irish New York life, set around the fictional Mulligan family, Hart typically played two roles. One was the broth-of-a-boy role of the Mulligans’ charming son Tommy. But the other was the transvestite and blackface part of the Mulligans’ neighbour (and sometime servant) Rebecca Allup, a much-married, much-widowed African-American bookmaker. (Harrigan’s skits pitted the Irish, rather good naturedly, against both the blacks and the Germans, with all the resultant ethnic stereotypes played equally for laughs.) Initially, Hart played these characters in separate skits; later he played both in the same show. Because of Hart’s fame, the audience was very well aware that it was watching the same actor perform as a young Irish man and a middle-aged black woman.

Hart, in fact, had been playing black women since he was 15 and one of Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels – which included no women – in San Francisco. (His first big show-stopper was a three-hankie tear jerker called Put Me in My Little Bed, which he sang in the character of a little girl.)

Hart’s career is worth recalling because it challenges a smugness in contemporary popular culture: the idea that it is bolder, stranger, more outlandish than anything that went before. There is a tendency to believe that a bearded lady winning Eurovision marks some kind of shift – one that liberals embrace and conservatives deplore. But a shift from what? Only by a very narrow notion of how things used to be can self-conscious outlandishness be regarded as being even a little daring.

Eurovision, for example, has acquired an ironic hipness because it can be viewed as pure camp, which is to say as a spectacle that is aware of and comments on its own artificiality. But it is really a pale and antiseptic vestige of vaudeville – and vaudeville was much more self-aware, much more disruptive, a lot more sophisticated. The ordinary people who went to see a Harrigan and Hart show in the 1880s seemed to take great pleasure in seeing the same actors perform as Irish men, black women, even little girls. Would they have known what you were talking about if you threw terms like “performativity” and “transgression” at them? Probably not.

But they knew and revelled in what they were seeing. In the case of these shows they were seeing a huge range of social types – ethnic, gender and racial – being “constructed” before their eyes. Harrigan’s plays paraded a kaleidoscopic array of stereotypes: Irish, Jewish, African-American, Italian, German. But they showed them precisely as the inventions through which ordinary people navigated the new urban whirlpool of immigrant societies.

What’s more, they had a long afterlife back in Ireland – even in the 1960s Jimmy O’Dea was still cross-dressing as Mrs Biddy Mulligan – as her name suggests, a direct descendant of her Broadway namesakes.

The 21st century didn’t invent the mash-up, the gender bender, the delight in playing games with apparently fixed categories such as race. People have played those games whenever they could get away with it – which was a surprising amount of the time.

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