CHAPTER 9:Tail-Bone Mine, Says Billy Barlow
American Audiences in the Early 19th Century – The Special Singers of the Isolated Appalachian Mountains – Shakespeare and the Possum – The Great Sam Cowell – Speculation on the Origins of the American Hobo Clown – Billy Barlow, the Rat-catcher and the Possible Link with The Cutty Wren – Billy Barlow the Viper.
Theatre in 19th Century America
In 19th-century North America, in almost every household across the whole of the continent, from the cities of the Eastern Seaboard to the frontier settlements of the West, in the mountains and lowlands of the South, there were Bibles and at least a few other books. More often than not, the works of William Shakespeare had a special place in the smallest library. The poems and songs of Thomas Moore and other poets and songwriters from the British Isles were well known to almost everyone. Publishing companies printed sheet-music that was collected by both men and women, and carefully assembled into songbooks along with hand-written poems and pictures.
People from all walks of life and of all ages memorized long tracts from the Bible, from literary works like Pilgrim’s Progress, from the plays of Shakespeare, and from speeches and narrative poems. With printing presses springing up all over the country, turning out cheap copies of books, newspapers, and sheet-music, America soon became a nation of literate, articulate, self-opinionated people. All of them were potential actors, preachers, grand orators, singers, musicians, or dancers. The early evangelical religious movements that swept the frontier, culminating in the camp meetings of the 19th century, encouraged spontaneous public speechifying and ecstatic outburst as the Spirit touched individuals.
At least at first touring English performers found themselves welcomed, the characters they played already-known and loved. As Americans began to produce more of their own home-grown actors, the enthusiasm for imported entertainment diminished.
American audiences were known for their inclination to get very involved in the plays they watched. To a fair degree this was a characteristic of 19th-century audiences everywhere, and some stories similar to the ones that follow, also come out of the British Isles and Australia. From America come many accounts of how Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Romeo, among many others, were given advice or chastised by patrons; or of the times when sizable numbers of the male audience leaped up on the stage to form a ring around combatants, so as to ensure a fair fight. Judging from accounts of entertainment in Shakespeare’s own time, these American stories of the presentation of his plays and the way they were received may well have seemed very familiar to the great bard, and he might have felt strangely at home in 19th-century America.
At least one example of similar audience participation in Australia, during a production of Hamlet, comes from the Victorian goldfields. During the grave-scene, Poor Yorick was quite forgotten when a group of Eaglehawk miners got into a detailed discussion with the actor/grave-digger and Hamlet about the depth of the sinking and the equipment he planned to use. There are stories about incidents like these from England as well, but many more of them come from America.
There is a possibility that these stories are linked somehow as “Yokel” tales, tales about “others” or stories about the funny things children say. All of these are of course also the basis for so many jokes and comic songs that range from gentle self-mockery to nasty, vicious, and cruel humour. They may also be compared to occupation anecdotes — in this case, the acting trade — as examples of silly things audiences say and do.
There was the supposed incident in Kentucky where the poor melodrama-wife of a melodrama-gambler was given money, by a frontiersman in the audience, to keep her and her children from starvation. The mother was advised, “not to let her husband know about it or he would spend it all on faro”.
Satire was especially popular during the 19th century, where the tragedies of Shakespeare were parodied, often on the same program as the straight version of the same play. Other popular stories and plays were treated in the same way. Even during a serious performance there were musical acts interspersed with the play. In England it was required in the smaller “illegitimate theatres”. The top actors of the period were seemingly good-natured about this, and the others had no choice. Often even the stars played both comic and straight roles, and sang and danced as well. Most actors began as clog-dancers as well as singers. There are accounts of actors, male and female, being able to juggle and perform acrobatics, ride horses –or elephants –, and do magic tricks as a matter of course.
An incident as early as 1822, before the parodies of the Minstrel Shows, is quoted from a number of sources. It is probably either completely fabricated or at most very loosely based on truth, being as it is a comic’s routine. English actor Charles Mathews Senior visited New York’s “Nigger’s Theatre” to see an all-black production of Hamlet. At Hamlet’s line, ” … whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer, or take up arms against a sea of trouble, and by opposing end them….” there was a general cry from the audience for the well-known song,
” Opossum! Opossum! Opossum up a Gum Tree!” Mathews went home to develop a one-man show that he performed in blackface, based on his experiences in America. He included the scene that he said he had witnessed in this show. Later, following the sudden rise to stardom of Daddy Rice as Jim Crow, an actor, whose name is not recorded, blended Hamlet’s lines with those of a Blackface Minstrel:
Oh! ’tis consummation devoutly to be wished
To end your heart-ache by a sleep
When likely to be dished.
Shuffle off your mortal coil, do just so,
Wheel about and turn about, and jump Jim Crow.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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