People must be entertained

November 26, 2009 — Comment

Written by Hazel Waters

We publish below a talk on ‘Early 19th century theatre and racial attitudes’ given by Dr Hazel Waters at the Museum of London, Docklands on 19 November.

We’re sitting here in a former sugar warehouse in what was once one of the busiest commercial ports in the world, with a network of massive and forbidding docks, where goods came in huge quantities from every corner of the globe to be bought, sold, traded, distributed, fuelling the manufactories and the industries, the banks and the insurance houses; where, as that most remarkable social commentator Henry Mayhew described it in mid-century, there came: ‘hoys laden with straw and coasting goods, black-looking colliers and Russian brigs … in a dense mass together … beside the wharf in front of these lay lug-boats and sloops filled with square cases of wine … bales of hemp, barrels of porter, and crates of hardware swung from the cranes, and were lowered into the boats or lifted out of the sloops and the “foreign brigs” below … as you … looked down the endless vista of masts that crowded each side of the river, you could not help feeling how every power known to man was used to bring and diffuse the riches of every part of the world over this little island.’

The building of the Docks in the early years of the nineteenth century set in motion unprecedented growth in London’s population – from just under one million in 1801 to triple that by the time Mayhew was writing. The commerce of this voracious, trading empire sucked in a huge, highly differentiated labour force, concentrated in the East End, to do all the work that this catherine wheel of enterprise spun out: from the sempstresses and slop sellers, the scavengers and night-soil men, the crossing sweepers and mudlarks, to the lodging house keepers, the lighter men and wherry men, the bakers and the builders, the dock labourers and warehousemen, the inn keepers and laundresses, the pickpockets and carpenters, the ship wrights, sail-makers and instrument makers.

Now, as the circus-owner Sleery said, in Hard Times, ‘people must be entertained’. And they were. The main form of popular entertainment was the theatre; at this time, for upwards of the first half of the century, it was not the sole province of an elite, not a sedate middle-class activity, but a lively, cheap, rumbustious experience, dedicated not so much to the improvement of the mind as to highly coloured – and highly varied – entertainment of all descriptions. Bills were long, and changed frequently; copyright protection was nonexistent, so themes, plots, plays were pirated and parodied, dashed off in a few days – you’ll all remember Nicholas Nickleby’s stint as resident dramatist to Vincent Crummles. There were performing dogs, performing lions, performing elephants – one thespian pachyderm performed in a ‘serio-comic ballet’ titled ‘Cassim and Alcazir, or the grateful elephant’. That was at the Pavilion theatre, in Whitechapel.

Because of the expansion of London to the East, and the growth of its working-class population also led to was the building of numerous theatres in the East End, some on a very grand scale. There was the Standard in Shoreditch, the Grecian and the Britannia in Hoxton, the Garrick in Leman Street, the Pavilion in Whitechapel. And while there was considerable overlap in repertoire with the more upmarket theatres in the West End, and overlap in audience composition – in a very highly class stratified society like nineteenth-century England, the theatre was one medium that was accessible to and spanned almost all sections of society (apart from those too abysmally poor even to afford half-price admission, and those with a religious, evangelical objection to theatrical performance); as I say while there was considerable overlap in repertoire, nonetheless, a certain distinctiveness emerges about the type of plays performed in these local East End and Thames-side theatres – such as the Surrey and the Coburg.

It was a repertoire that reflected back, often in a very lurid and wildly distorted way, some of that teeming riverside life and concerns.

Now let’s ‘cut the cackle and get to the osses’ as they used to say at Astley’s circus. For this was a repertoire that also tapped in to a very long and flexible tradition of Black representation that can be traced back to the sixteenth century, with plays in which the stereotype of the ‘evil Moor’ swaggered and threatened on to the stage. He had a love of evil, cruelty and licentiousness for its own sake – Shakespeare’s Othello was his antonym, the stereotype in reverse if you like, his Aaron in Titus Andronicus an exploration of it. That was one stream of images; another sprang into being in the mid- to late seventeenth century, as both the trade in enslaved Africans increased in scale and profitability, and the debate over the rights and wrongs of such practices intensified. Here the Black character was often based on the figure of Oroonoko, from Southerne’s very popular play of that title, first performed in 1695. This, in its turn, was based on Aphra Behn’s novel about an African prince tricked into slavery who attempts revolt and revenge against his enslavers and dies a terrible, brutal death. The salient characteristics this figure passed on to his successors (in varying degrees) were a doomed desire for bloody revenge, an appeal to the injustice of his situation and a passionate nature, formed, it was said, by the African sun. The nobility of his nature, as seen in Southerne, however, soon became degraded. There were, too, numbers of captured and enslaved Africans who, dramatically speaking, owed their liberty to English intervention and self-congratulatory notions of English freedom. One such was Gambia in Thomas Morton’s 1816 play The Slave. Gambia, after being liberated – he had fought on the colonists’ and slave-owners’ side against an indigenous revolt – actually then sells himself back into slavery to release his master from debt. And there was a stream of comic Black representation, whose most famous early example was the bolshy Black slave Mungo in Bickerstaffe’s The Padlock, who gets drunk and damns his master to his face. This figure, too, became degraded and robbed of serious content over time; specifically when the great comic impersonator Charles Mathews visited America in the early 1820s to get new material for his act and incorporated what he called ‘black fun’ into it, most notably a gross parody of a Black actor. That was one stage, then, in 1836, came the dramatic advent of the American comic actor T. D. Rice’s Jim Crow blackface act.

Put this long-lived and potent mix of imagery into the theatrical context of melodrama, with its emphasis on fixed stereotyped patterns of behaviour – a villain always acts and speaks like a villain, a heroine is always faithful, brave and true, a good old man is always good and wise, a landlord is always grasping, pirates and long-lost siblings always have an identifying mark that reveals who they really are and so on – and the hard-pressed dramatist has a host of imagery ready to draw on to motivate and explicate his Black characters.

As I’ve said, the East End and riverside theatres, with their predominantly but not exclusively local working-class audiences, frequently reflected in a fairly lurid way the lives and concerns in their areas. Moreover, this population would be fairly mixed – with, for example, a Jewish community in Whitechapel, Irish in Wapping, Chinese and lascar seamen in Limehouse. It’s worth pointing out also that one of the most popular genres in nineteenth-century theatre was nautical melodrama, with its working-class sailor hero, defender of liberty and of the weak, and repository of all brave and decent values. Nautical melodrama long retained its hold and popularity particularly in theatres like the Pavilion, among whose local audience would be large numbers of dock workers and others who depended on the river for their livelihood. A huge hit like My Poll and My Partner Joe, which deals centrally with the capture of a pirate slaving ship by the sailor hero, fearless Harry Halyard, and the liberation of the captured Africans in its hold, gains much of its effectiveness from its evocation of its riverside scenes before and after the exciting naval chase and onboard battle. Harry is press-ganged in the local pub, itself full of riverside characters – just about to marry, he has been planning to go into partnership plying a wherry with his friend Joe, transporting goods along the river. Of course, he returns a triumphant hero having won the undying gratitude of the former slaves, to whom he cries, ‘Dance you black angels – no more captivity, the British flag flies over your head, and the very rustling of its folds knocks every fetter from the limbs of the poor slave.’

But, whether slavery or race are major themes, in almost all the nautical melodramas I’ve read, there is a Black sailor character, sometimes just loyal, sometimes loyal but also comical and incompetent, sometimes a treacherous villain, sometimes just there to add background. In C. A. Somerset’s highly popular 1834 drama, The Sea, for example, Snowball is the ill-treated Black slave of the villainous captain who is defended by the heroic Harry Helm; the captain’s villainy – he has attempted to seize Harry’s wife Mary to satisfy his lust – is amplified by his body of native Indian seamen who fight and defeat the Europeans attempting to defend Mary’s honour. In Edward Stirling’s slight comedy The Blue Jackets (whose popularity rested largely on the fact that a group of young women disguise themselves as sailors and perform a hornpipe with ‘their skirts higher than their knees’ as one reviewer put it), there is a silly drunken Black crewman. Soane’s Luke Somerton (1836) and J.T. Higgie’s Laid up in Port (1846) both sport loyal Black henchmen who would die for their masters. Says the wronged naval captain Stockton; ‘How oft do strangers prove friends when mistermed friends prove bitterest foes. To yonder negro, unknowing, unknown, I owe my life and liberty.’ To which Bemba replies, [kneeling and kissing Stockton’s hand]: ‘Massa was kind to poor slave when all despise and mocked poor negro; him nebber forget; him work – die for white man.’

And in the dramatisation by Oxberry and Gann of Captain Marryat’s popular novel, Mr Midshipman Easy, much of the stage time in its complicated and confusing plot is dominated by Mesty, Mephistopheles Faust, Black cook and general factotum whose dialogue is not only larded with all the stage markers of comic Black speech – massa, him for me or I, iss for yes, berry for very and so on, but also full of stage Irishisms.

Thus, in different ways, the reality of a highly ethnically diverse seafaring body gets seen through the lens of stereotypes long hallowed by time and usage and the most ephemeral and unlikely of dramas can be interpreted as a kind of palimpsest, with traces here and there of real events and situations, echoes of struggles and debates over slavery, and, increasingly after Jim Crow came on to the stage, reflections of the kind of grotesque interpretation of blackness that he, with his tatterdemalion appearance, his gross flattery of his audience, his malapropisms, his childlike and bizarre behaviour (all the while insisting on what a gemman he was) and his outrageous dance, represented. ‘Wheel about and turn about and do jis so, and ebery time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow’ was a constant refrain and taken up at every social level, from street entertainers upwards – to, it was said, though I don’t know if this can be believed, the Duke of Devonshire, who was supposed to have had himself taught to ‘jump Jim Crow’ at this country seat.

There were many jobbing dramatists, their names unknown today, who produced play after play, most forgotten after their brief period on stage, but whose output is worth looking at for the reasons outlined above, for what they tell us about kinds of lives people lived and the ways in which they saw the world. One of these was Edward Fitzball, a prolific melodramatic author, who dashed off some 150 plays – including, in the early 1850s, at least three concurrent adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s highly popular novel, Uncle Tom. This was not, said he modestly, difficult, since all it required was ‘to select scenes and join them together’. Fitzball, addicted to the gothic and a master of ‘blue fire’ – that is spine-tingling lighting effects – was said by one theatrical critic to know as much about real life as ‘a donkey does of the theory of gravitation’. Nonetheless, he frequently managed to catch the froth of popular culture in his output and I want to look very briefly at just a couple of his plays for what they show about the development of Black representation.

Fitzball’s Negro of Wapping was first performed at the Garrick theatre in Leman Street in April 1838 – not far away from where its action was set. The Garrick was a fairly down-market venture – more so than the Pavilion which was dubbed the ‘Drury Lane of the East’. The play focuses on Sam, a Black crossing-sweeper, who, spurned by the miser Miers in the street, connives with another ne’er do well, Jack Altrades, to rob him of his gold. Miers’ house, in which his daughter Fanny and his nephew also live is almost next to the Green Dragon pub (the waterfront at Wapping was notable for the number of public houses). The house is covered in scaffolding; builders are at work. The scaffold, Fitzball calls it in the play, no doubt for the frisson that execution dock, where pirates were left hanged and in chains till three tides washed over them, was at Wapping foreshore. The last such execution had taken place only eight years before. As Miers’ household retire for the night – after some harsh words from the grasping Miers to his nephew – Sam and Jack contrive to climb up the scaffold, Sam climbs down the ruined chimney ‘clad all in black so as to resemble a demon’, there is a struggle; he seizes Miers’ sword from him, stabs him, grabs the gold, and after a struggle with Philip – who has been roused by all the commotion, while Fanny rushes for help – ‘displays herculean strength’ overcomes Philip and rapidly retreats up the chimney. Cries Philip: ‘search for him – search for him quickly … By the door – by the window. No that way he could not unnoticed pass – it was a fiend then, which held me so transfixed … a demon!’

Philip, robbed of his own patrimony as well as his uncle’s – Fanny and Philip were destined for each other – is forced to enlist and embark for India. Sam and Jack after a series of encounters, go off to divide the rest of their ill-gotten gains in a lonely and derelict boatshed on the foreshore, where the exhausted Fanny has already taken shelter from a raging storm. Cue lots of villainous speeches, attempts by Fanny to escape, and vacillation from Sam’s partner in crime. Attempting to hang Fanny from the rafters, Sam is caught in his own snare – and is finally shot, after an exciting struggle, by Philip, returned with a party of soldiers.

What is interesting is the elements of which Sam is composed – he is at first the wheedling fawning crossing sweeper and there were among the Black poor of London a number who swept the crossings, including the one-legged Billy Waters. Billy had found fame as a character in Moncrieff’s highly popular series of ‘Tom and Jerry, or Life in London’ plays, and died in poverty lamenting that because he was considered rich because of this, no one gave him money any more for sweeping the crossing. Or there was ‘the Old Commodore in Tottenham Court Road’ who, it was said by one right-wing magazine might as well play Othello as the Black American actor Ira Aldridge, since for both their skin colour was their sole qualification. In Fitzball’s play, however, Sam, turns quite rapidly into the ‘black gentleman’ – a nickname for Old Nick himself, emphasised by frequent references to Sam’s demonic appearance as he commits the crime and the rapidity with which he escapes. The reference to superhuman strength is indeed a long-lived stereotype – do you remember the Rodney King case in Los Angeles in which an unarmed Black motorist was believed to have superhuman strength, needing three or four officers and a taser gun to subdue him? Then, Fitzball reaches for the story of the wronged and vengeful African, who is allowed some motivation for his crime: to his partner, Sam declares, ‘Do not say friend: the African torn by the hand of cruelty from his native land- dragged on board a ship, and doomed to labour till his once proud limbs become warped and feeble, then left to die of famine in a stranger land, might well be pardoned his disbelief in the white man’s sincerity …’

And, finally, there is the appeal to common humanity. In Sam’s final speech: ‘I meant not to rob the old man of his life – no, no; but he had no pity – none! The wretch whom his avarice had deprived of his last farthing, and the poor desolate negro, friendless, homeless, were rendered by poverty equally culpable in his opinion. I begged of him one cold wintry night, with tears in my eyes, when I was starving, only a morsel of bread … had I been a dog … he could not have spurned me with more fury. Till that moment I had been honest – famine made me desperate – I stole for the first time – one crime led to another – … but the negroe’s story is told – oh!’

And he dies.

What there is not in all this is any of the much more recent imagery of the comic grotesque, given great currency only a couple of years earlier by T. D. Rice with his Jim Crow song and dance act. This was judged to be ‘the perfect representation of the Yankee n****r’ according to one commentator – a remark echoed elsewhere. The forerunner of blackface minstrelsy, it spawned an amazingly long lived fad for the grossest of parodies of what Black people were like and ultimately crowded out just about any other type of representation. Possibly this was because Fitzball was slower to catch on to the comedy potential of the new image than other dramatists, possibly because, for all its unlikeliness, his story was apparently taken from a real event. In the Saturday Journal (19 October 1839) – this is after the play was first performed – I came across the story of an escaped slave from South Carolina who made his way to London and was said to have confessed on his death bed to the murder and robbery of a laundress, who lived with her nephew in Wapping. The former slave climbed on to the roof, stripped himself naked, climbed down the chimney, robbed and killed the woman – her drunken nephew grappled with him when ‘by the light of the moon which shone through the window he discovered the complexion of the villain, whom having seldom seen a negro he took for the devil. He was tried, convicted and executed, protesting to the last his total ignorance of the murder, and throwing it wholly on his black antagonist, whom he believed to be no other than Satan.’

So, was there something behind all this, or was it some kind of urban myth? A very quick search of the online criminal records of the Old Bailey revealed nothing – and is it credible that a man living in Wapping, however drunk, would not recognise a Black person?

In any event, the type of character that Sam represented, with his lament for his lost African homeland soon almost vanished. Even the dramatisations of Uncle Tom – in the novel as unminstrel-like a character as could be imagined – quickly fell into the minstrel pattern; it was termed a ‘low comedy part with more than a dash of sentiment’ by Era the leading theatrical magazine of the day. But, by then, the Jim Crow figure, and his various minstrel successors had been a ubiquitous presence in popular entertainment for around a decade and a half. And while Fitzball may have been slow off the mark to incorporate Crow-type minstrels into his Black characterisations, he made up for it with his various Uncle Toms, whose subservience, unctuous dependence on ‘massa’ and general foolishness make excruciating reading today. Just one example: when Tom finds out he is about to be sold, but could possibly escape in time, this is his reaction: ‘No: no: I ain’t going … I must be sold to pay masser’s debt, or all tings, maybe, go to rack an ruin: Poor Massar and Missis, turn’d out o’ their comforble home … Masser ant to blame Chloe; he’ll take care o’ you and the childer when Tom’s gone; and if Masser’s in trouble Tom’s willin to go – to die for m’ [Dashing away tears.]

Now that’s the kind of slave you really really want … He might not have sung and danced, but this Tom served up just as flattering and comforting a racial fantasy to his audience as did Jim Crow’s minstrel successors.

I’ll leave the last word with the satirist and critic Giles Abbot a Beckett, writing in 1846:

‘We get in these days very few of those cutting allusions to the traffic in slaves, and those tender appeals to the equality of the human race which were the charm of the dramatic negroes of our infancy. The stage negro has become a vulgar dancing brute, with a banjo in his hand, constantly jumping about, wheeling about and turning about, but wholly devoid of that solemn admiration for the British constitution … which we used to hear with a feeling of pride at being natives of a land that admitted of so much puffing on the part of our dramatists.’

Some 150 years after that statement, he’s still there, that dancing, singing minstrel figure, in the shadows maybe and not as mainstream as he once was – but still recognisable – which says, I think, a lot about the continuing colonisation of our cultural imagination by racial stereotyping.

Related links

Read about Racism on the Victorian stage

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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