Blackface Minstrelsy in American Puppetry
By Amber West
Though we might rather not admit it in this "post-racial" era, the blackface minstrel show was the first distinctly American form of theater and popular entertainment. Despite enormous popularity during its time, primarily 1830-1930, the understandable discomfort and shame many Americans feel about blackface minstrelsy has hindered research and documentation over the years, stifling awareness not only of its significance during its time, but of its legacy and ongoing effect on American culture today. Within existing minstrelsy scholarship there is little discussion of the significant ways in which the tradition came to dominate American puppetry, while among contemporary puppeteers this difficult history is often avoided through an insistence that puppets are raceless (Cooper 8). Puppetry has the potential, perhaps more so than any other art form, to illuminate the socially constructed nature of race, to dissolve categories created to divide and control us. At the same time, however, in the Western tradition often just the opposite has occurred, with puppeteers disseminating racist stereotypes in the name of audience appeal and upholding tradition. In this article I discuss the origins and influence of blackface minstrelsy on American puppetry in hopes of opening up dialogue amongst contemporary puppeteers, puppetry scholars and theatergoers regarding issues of race and racism in the art form.
Although mythologized to have black southern roots, American minstrelsy "evolved out of the racial fantasies of northern urban whites" (Engle xv) and the struggles of working class European immigrants in the New World. The earliest performances involved a lone white male in blackface, such as Thomas "Daddy" Rice who is often credited with inventing the form. In 1832 Rice, a young working class New Yorker who had escaped the Bowery slums for a life in showbiz, returned home from a trip West with a new routine he claimed was "inspired by watching an old Black slave mucking out some stables in Louisville…singing an oddly catchy little ditty and dancing an eccentric little dance…The old man's name, he [said], was Jim Crow" (Strausbaugh 58). Rice's hit song, "Jump Jim Crow," made him America's first pop sensation while his extreme make-up (burnt cork) and costume (threadbare rags) constituted an exaggerated caricature, illuminating blackface minstrelsy's roots in Western clowning traditions such as "the harlequin of the commedia dell'arte, the clown of English pantomime [and] perhaps the 'blackman' of English folk drama" (Lott 22). Strausbaugh discusses "the social function of the clown as an Outsider, an Other, a creature of difference," and why Rice might have chosen an African-American slave for his clown character: "Who in 19th century America was more of an Other than the Negro? [T]he clown was allowed to say and do things no one else could…[to] satirize and make political comments" (68). Many white laborers in early America, particularly Irish and Scots who came to the New World as slaves and indentured servants, identified with blacks whom they often worked and lived beside. In these earliest incarnations of blackface minstrelsy the surface satire and parody of blacks masked a critique of the white upper class and "urbane East Coast gentility" (77).
In addition to traditions of blackface clowns who "are as often lovable butts of humor as devious producers of it" (Lott 22), minstrelsy is rooted in the Western fascination with the Other. In England actors and courtiers who played Moors had worn masks since at least the early sixteenth century, but Ben Jonson's early court plays, The Masque of Blackness and The Masque of Beauty, were the first recorded instances of players actually darkening their skin. Queen Anne, wife of James I, asked Jonson to write a masque in which she and her ladies could "play black" in 1605 (Rogin 19), and Shakespeare's "sooty devil," Othello, from 1610 is another of our earliest recorded examples (Paskman 7). Blackface has also long been utilized in European folk traditions such as charivari and mumming plays celebrating solstice. The blackface tradition, then, grew out of relations between medieval Christians and Moors, as well as colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, while also tapping into longstanding Western European notions such as the superiority of light over darkness, the spiritual darkness attributed to non-Christians, and human knowledge as the antidote to the primitive darkness of the natural world. As Rogin explains, "Curiosity about these new peoples, the trying on of their identities as Europeans imagined them, was part of the exploitative interaction between Europeans, Africans, and inhabitants of the New World…Queen Anne's desire to play a blacked-up role dramatized a curious sympathy for Africans, an effort to imagine oneself inside the skin of an exotic people" (20). Though curiosity and sympathy are important aspects of blackface, the form remains deeply rooted in the racist ridicule and subjugation that were necessary ideological justifications of colonialism. Blackface and all its baggage journeyed to America with the Europeans.
By the 1840s, solo minstrel song-and-dance acts like T.D. Rice's evolved into group performances often described as "Ethiopian operas" performed by "Ethiopian Delineators." The Virginia Minstrels, a NYC-based quartet, are credited with adding the now infamous plantation setting, and creating skits to accompany the music and dance. The plantation setting signals a shift in minstrelsy to a focus on "authentic" southern black plantation life around the same time that Jacksonian Democracy was causing white workers in Northern cities "to see Blacks less as allies and increasingly as competitors or even enemies" (Strausbaugh 90). Blackface minstrel troupes began to compete by marketing themselves as more authentically black than one another. Their depictions of plantation life were often highly idealized, relating to minstrelsy's role in upholding ideologies that justified racial subjugation as blackface had done for centuries. The Christy Minstrels, led by Edwin Christy, eclipsed the Virginia Minstrels in popularity, greatly increasing the number of cast members and solidifying the minstrel show into a three-act format in 1846 (Engle xviii). The Christy Minstrels became so popular in the US and England that the name Christy became synonymous with minstrelsy. Numerous traveling minstrel shows unaffiliated with Christy appropriated the name to legitimate their acts. It is the Christy-style minstrel show that is still best known today and that influenced American puppetry the most.
Unconscious that its origins made this a homecoming, blackface minstrelsy arrived in Europe as America's "hot new export" when troupes like the Virginia and Christy Minstrels began touring internationally. It was this "oddly circuitous cultural exchange that initially brought blackface to the puppet theatre" (Fisler 53). British puppeteer William John Bullock created the first puppet minstrel show, inspired by the Christy Minstrels' sensationally successful mid-century tours of England. McPharlin describes minstrelsy's suitability to puppetry through discussion of Bullock's minstrel marionette show: "The row of darkies could be strung in two tandem groups, one on each side of [the interlocutor]; he, Tambo, and Bones…would be separate so that each could rise and cavort by himself. When a specialty dance took place in front of them all could be hung so that they would sit and watch. Thus two or three puppeteers could animate eleven to fifteen puppets" (159). Fisler provides evidence from British scholar John Phillips that a Parisian waxworker named Lambert D'Arc may have actually built and performed briefly in Dublin with the puppets before selling them to Bullock, whose marionette minstrels received rave reviews opening in St. James Hall in London in 1872 (34). Bullock distinguished his show from numerous other puppet troupes touring at this time by creating a three-part format that included a Fantoccini (a series of spectacular trick puppets), a miniature minstrel show, and an extravaganza (in the style of English pantomime) (McPharlin 159). His minstrels performed some songs that sentimentally denounced the now-outlawed slavery (e.g. "Hunkey Dorum," "Old Runaway Jack") and others (e.g. "The Old Nigger," "We'll All Skedaddle") that idealized plantation life (Fisler 44-8). In this way Bullock's puppets encapsulated the contradictions of minstrelsy, a form that was widely and diversely practiced, sometimes to justify institutionalized racism and other times to critique it. By the 1870s the name "Christy" had become synonymous with minstrelsy, and by calling them his "Automatic Christy Minstrels," Bullock tapped into the phenomenon for his own marketing benefit.
Though the name makes it easy to attribute the relationship between puppetry and minstrelsy entirely to Bullock's "borrowings" from Christy, Fisler argues that the much older English Punch and Judy tradition is yet another branch in the roots of the 19th century phenomenon he describes as "puppet minstrelsy" or "blackface puppetry." "The theatre's first 'Negro puppet' is a black servant who tries to silence Punch's incessant ringing of a bell, at the instruction of his unmet master. Like nearly all his fellow supporting characters, the servant is made a fool by the protagonist" (Fisler 21). The unnamed, bristly-bearded black servant is sometimes referred to as "Shallaballa," the only word he seems able to say. After 1850, however, the character was regularly referred to as "Jim Crow" and would sometimes even dance and sing T.D. Rice's popular number. By changing Shallaballa to Jim Crow, English puppeteers (consciously or unconsciously) transformed him from "an African foreign resident to…an American blackface clown," while also setting the stage for future borrowings/interactions between minstrelsy and puppetry on both sides of the Atlantic in the following decades. Punch and Judy influences the minstrel marionette tradition, therefore, by "associating the blackface puppet with dancer/singer, exotic other, and object of ridicule, all fundamental essences of blackface puppetry" (22).
Fueled by his huge success in England, Bullock brought his Royal Marionettes to New York in 1873, where he again opened to rave reviews. The Daily Graphic said, "The minstrels give songs and choruses in true burnt-cork abandon" (qtd. in McPharlin 165). For nearly two years Bullock toured his marionette minstrels to cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, making an astounding six thousand dollars per month (Fisler 52). Before returning home Bullock contracted puppeteers John McDonough and Hartley Earnshaw to continue touring his Royal marionettes throughout the country. Much like what had occurred with the (human) Christy Minstrels, Bullock's Royal Marionettes were such a phenomenon in England and America that other troupes quickly began following his highly successful format. The words "Bullock's" and/or "Royal" became synonymous with marionettes, and the inclusion of a minstrel show became standard puppetry protocol. The Middleton Brothers, for example, an English family who had performed with marionettes for generations, commonly presented a three-part variety show in America during this period that opened "'with a Negro minstrel first part, with nine characters'" (qtd. in Bell 18). In 1882 Daniel Meader, a San Francisco prop maker who had earlier performed with McDonough and Earnshaw, made his own Royal Marionettes, which included "a five-member group of black-faced minstrel brass musicians in formal dress, as well as stereotyped 'darkies' in work clothes, familiar to the white audiences of Uncle Tom's Cabin" (27). Fisler points out that Meader's minstrels, unlike Bullock's, are coal black "to indicate blackface makeup, rather than authentic African American skin" (66), and that his drummer has the "sharp triangular upper eyelids and jutting chin of [his] Punch…[displaying] a clever synthesis of influences [with] the potential to undermine the racialism at the heart of minstrelsy…by adding the anti-hierarchical essence at the core of Punch and Judy" (69).
For those interested in more details on the relationship between puppetry and minstrelsy, I strongly recommend Fisler's unpublished dissertation, available through Google Scholar and cited here. Tracing blackface puppetry from Bullock to the end of the Federal Theater Project in 1939, Fisler argues that Paul McPharlin started a trend in early 20th century American puppetry in which puppeteers made distinctions between exaggerated blackface/minstrel puppet characters, which they used for lowbrow puppetry (i.e. lighter-themes, clowning, farce), and more realistic-looking (albeit exoticized) representations of black people, which were often used for more "highbrow" or "high art" puppet shows (i.e. serious themes, drama). "The less the puppeteers wish their 'negro puppets' to play the fool," Fisler argues, "the more likely they are to try to shape their vestiges within the boundaries of photographic realism" (13). Fisler makes clear that puppetry, like many other forms of American art/entertainment/culture, was overrun with minstrel shows well into the 20th century. He calculates, for example, that ten percent of American puppeteers adapted Helen Bannerman's 1900 children's book, Little Black Sambo, to the puppet stage during the 1930s (189), and twenty-five percent depended on blackface puppets for their livelihood in 1934 (175). Particularly in puppetry produced in rural frontier communities and/or for children's audiences, blackface puppetry "was as widely circulated as puppetry itself" (186). Many puppeteers continued to "revive the form for the delight of collective recognition" (185), unwittingly prolonging damaging stereotypes of African-Americans in the name of tradition and nostalgia, particularly through dissemination to schoolchildren.
Reading Fisler's work I wondered over and over whether every black puppet created and/or operated by a white puppeteer must be considered a blackface puppet. Fisler discusses Ralph Chesse's 1936 puppet production of Eugene O'Neill's drama, The Emperor Jones, for example, as an instance of blackface puppetry. Chesse's design for the protagonist was based on Charles Gilpin, the African American actor who he had observed famously playing the role in 1926. Fisler writes, "Chesse's Emperor Jones suggests that high artistic principles draw theatre makers toward sincere portraits of race, as they drive them away from the grotesque fantasies of more commonplace art" (214). Despite recognizing the sincerity of the puppeteer's attempt, Fisler still considers Chesse's a blackface puppet, rather than a black puppet because its designer/operator is white, and because some of the puppet's facial features (such as his nose, lips and jowls) are exaggerated. He writes that the puppet "was Gilpin's corporeal form, with the stamp of minstrelsy upon him. In essence, it was more human than the average blackface puppet, but more stereotyped than the actual human being that inspired it" (217).
According to Fisler, since humor derived through exaggeration and ridicule is at the core of the minstrel form, his "investigation cannot separate the essence of exaggeration in humor from the essence of exaggeration in puppetry" (14). I find this problematic because it causes Fisler to equate nearly any exaggeration of human features (particularly racial features) in the puppetry he examines as evidence of adherence to (or, as resulting from the legacy of) blackface minstrelsy. This seems to overlook the fact that exaggeration (particularly of physical features) is an important aesthetic aspect of puppetry unrelated to (or, at least not entirely rooted in or equivalent to) the exaggeration that occurs in blackface minstrelsy, and that puppets with exaggerated features are not always designed or utilized for humorous effects. Chesse's decision to base his design on an actual human, but to exaggerate some of his physical features, perhaps had less to do with adhering to minstrel traditions than with creating a puppet aesthetic that would best embody O'Neill's play, an uneasy, contradictory mix of expressionism and realism. The production contained black characters and occurred in a time when many blackface minstrel puppet shows were being produced, but does that and the puppeteer's race automatically make it blackface minstrel puppetry? I would argue that this particular production was an ambitious and admirable attempt on the part of Chesse to produce "high art" puppetry that dealt with difficult issues of race/racism in America and abroad. The production in this sense may have been a response/act of resistance to the puppet minstrelsy trend of the time rather than a version of it.
Despite my disagreements with some of Fisler's arguments, his work is vital as the only thorough examination of the use of blackface by countless American puppeteers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including heavyweights like David Lano, Paul McPharlin, Tony Sarg, Remo Bufano and Ralph Chesse, and also contains an impressive variety of images from the period. Fisler makes clear that minstrelsy is an extremely prevalent and significant but often unacknowledged tradition within American puppetry. For those interested in issues of race and racism in later 20th century American puppetry, I would also recommend another unpublished dissertation by Heidi Louise Cooper, which begins with the many "how-to" puppetry building books published in the 1920s and '30s, and examines a variety of racial representations in 20th and 21st century American puppetry, from children's shows like Sesame Street to abstract puppetry for adult audiences by artists such as Hannah Tierney and Basil Twist. Cooper writes, "[T]he desire to claim puppets as unraced is a reflection of the discomfort which many puppeteers feel when trying to represent human diversity while often working in a folk medium with a history of racist images…[But] representations of humanity…almost always have the potential to read in terms of race and ethnicity. It is ultimately more useful to recognize this fact of representation and incorporate it consciously and responsibly into one's art work than to try to de-racialize the medium" (8). The fact that Fisler and Cooper's work remains unpublished perhaps speaks to the puppetry community's hesitancy to grapple with these difficult issues, making their work (and this issue of Puppetry International) all the more important and necessary.
Amber West is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Connecticut where her research focuses on contemporary poetry, theater and puppetry by women and artists of color. A California native, she earned her MFA in Poetry at NYU, and is co-founder of Alphabet Arts, a NYC-based artist collective that blends poetry, puppetry and other arts to create innovative performances, educational programs and curriculum for youth and adult audiences (www.alphabetarts.org).
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Theatre, 1872-1939." Diss. University of Maryland, College Park, 2005. PDF.
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Paskman, Dailey. Gentlemen, Be Seated! New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1976. Print.
Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Print.
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Toll, Robert. Blacking Up. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
The earliest recorded blackface performances in America include a white actor named Lewis Hallam playing a black slave in Isaac Bickerstaff's The Padlock in New York in 1769 (Engle xv), and another named Mr. Grawpner who starred in Aphra Behn's Orinoko, or the Royal Slave in Boston in 1799 (Paskman 7).
Strausbaugh describes the experience of working class whites at this time as a "group identity crisis." As the white underclass were extended political/social power (such as the right to vote for non-land owning, non-Irish white males) and the possibility of upward social mobility, a rift developed between poor blacks and whites. More so than in Jim Crow, a rural/country character somewhat distanced from the realities of urban life in the North, this dynamic was performed on the minstrel stage through the character of Zip Coon, a black urban dandy in top hat and tails first performed in New York by George Washington Dixon in 1834. In a time of working class white identity upheaval, poor whites' identification with blacks meant that Zip was in part a symbol of their own struggle for opportunity. At the same time, Zip embodied poor whites' fears "of being left at the bottom if 'niggars' like Zip got too uppity" (95). Jim and Zip, the country bumpkin and the city slicker, best exemplify minstrelsy's complicated origins in northern urban white working class culture.
After the Civil War, black minstrel troupes began to beat white troupes at their own game. Though many black performers were long-free Northerners, black troupes were easily marketed as more authentic delineators of "real" southern black plantation life than their blackened up predecessors. Black minstrelsy incorporated more authentically black musical forms such as spirituals and jubilees, whereas the purported black music of earlier blackface minstrelsy was more often catchy variations on upper class white parlor music and/or European immigrant folk songs. By the early 20th century, traveling tented minstrel shows helped usher newly developing black musical forms such as ragtime, blues and jazz into the mainstream. This is also an important part of the transition from minstrelsy to vaudeville that occurred gradually from the 1880s to the 1930s.
The show began with a walk-around, in which the entire troupe danced onto stage singing a popular song. The walk-around often included a cakewalk to enhance the claim of depicting authentic southern black plantation life. Ironically, enslaved blacks on southern plantations developed the cakewalk to satirize their white masters' movement and dress. White minstrel show audiences, like plantation owners, "loved to see Black dancers execute a fine cakewalk…apparently unaware that they were being mocked" (Strausbaugh 105). The second part was the olio, a series of diverse variety acts played in front of the curtain, which paved the way for vaudeville. During the olio the stage was prepared for part three, the afterpiece, a plantation extravaganza punctuated by a final large group song and dance number. After the mid-1850s, the afterpiece changed to one-act burlesques often spoofing a popular novel, play or opera, such as Desdemonum, Hamlet the Dainty and The Hop of Fashion, a contemporary spoof on Macbeth (Strausbaugh 106). "All of these nonplantation skits were basically slapstick comedies…ending in a flurry of inflated bladders, bombardments of cream pies, or fireworks explosions that literarily closed the show with a bang" (Toll 57).
Fisler examines the differing opinions of puppetry scholars Paul McPharlin and George Speight regarding the origins and development of this character, who during the 1850s was (re)named "Jim Crow." McPharlin posits that the servant puppet originates in American minstrelsy, and that English puppeteers added the character after T.D. Rice "jumped Jim Crow" in London in 1836, while Speight believes the character to be a pre-existing invention of the English puppet stage who was simply renamed to draw on Jim Crow's popularity (21).