Variety Arts #8: The Minstrel Show
This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts, and to relate some of my own interactions therewith, all in anticipation of my upcoming show Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.
This series of posts is about form and structure, so for the nonce I will sidestep the related issue of blackface here, although I certainly have written about it (and will continue to write about it) elsewhere, as in my book No Applause, other parts of this blog, and in published articles.
The minstrel show is America’s first original theatre form. While its racial aspects are American show business’s “original sin”, it is also the ancestor of all we hold dear. But for a brief clarification: minstrelsy and black face are not synonymous. Not only did American blackface performance predate the minstrel show by several decades, but it also outlasted it by several more (in places like vaudeville, films, and amateur theatricals). Also, interestingly, the minstrel show form has been implemented WITHOUT black face, notably in the “Female Minstrel Shows” that formed one of the chapters in the history of burlesque. Also, towards the end of the 19th century, all-black minstrel shows came into their own–paving the way for all-black shows without blackface.
The form came into being in the 1840s (several years after the advent of blackface) and declined slowly after the Civil War, gradually being displaced by vaudeville — one of the few institutions vaudeville “killed” before being “killed” itself.
Minstrelsy’s positive cultural legacy makes the form extremely problematic for the vaudeville fan. On the one hand, its racial depictions are uniformly heinous. At its very best, it is merely patronizing. But, on the other hand, minstrelsy’s songs, sketches, monologues, and overall format laid the foundation for the character of American show business for all time. American popular music of every conceivable type (ragtime, jazz, blues, bluegrass, country) owe something to it, as does all American solo, improv, and sketch comedy.
For example, minstrelsy’s pop tunes were so catchy that, 150 years later, many of them are still “on the charts”. Far and away the most successful minstrelsy songwriter was Stephen Foster, who wrote songs for both T.D. Rice and E.P. Christy. His hits (all of which are still in circulation) include “The Old Folks at Home”, “Camptown Races”, “Swannee River”, “Old Kentucky Home”, “Old BlackJoe”, “Buffalo Girls”, and “Polly Wolly Doodle.” Another important songwriter from the minstrelsy stage was James Bland (an African American) who wrote “Carry Me Backto Old Virginny”, and “O Dem Golden Slippers”.
And then there is the invention of the comedy team. The minstrel songs would be interspersed with comic dialogue between a character known as Mr. Interlocutor (also known as the middle man) and his two “end men” Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. These stockcharacters were so called because the former played the tambourine, and the latter played the bones. Mr. Interlocutor was more subdued than the others, a sort of stiff, humorless master of ceremonies to bounce jokes off of. Some of the jokes they told, and the manner in which they told them, would be familiar to any child over the age of five:
END MAN: Say, boss, why did the chicken cross the road?
MIDDLE MAN: Why, I don’t know, Mr. Tambo, why did the chicken cross the road?
END MAN: To get to the other side!
This joke has become so well known it has ceased to be a joke. It is woven into our very fiber. We know it as well as we know the Ten Commandments, and in some deplorable cases, better.
It would be hard to overstate how hugely influential the whole Tambo-Bones-Interlocutor comedy axis was. Any two-man comedy act (often called a “two act”) in the history of show business owes something to it. Mr. Interlocutor is the original straight-man, Tambo and Bones, the original stooges. The kind of rapid fire interplay between them (known as crosstalk) would be perpetuated by everyone from Weber and Fields, to Smith and Dale, to Burns and Allen, to Abbot and Costello, to Lewis and Martin, to Rowan and Martin, to Ren and Stimpy.
Minstrelsy also exerted an influence on the format of American variety. The center piece of the minstrel show, called the “olio”, was a pure variety show. The olio was very much like a crude form of vaudeville, featuring specialty acts like a banjo or fiddle player, a “stump speech” full of comic malapropisms, a drag act (known as the “wench”), Scotch and Irish jig dancers, and the like.
So, while the minstrel show is American show business’s original sin, it is also the ancestor of all we hold dear. Family histories are like that.
To learn more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.