- Feeling Scottish: Affect, Mimicry, and Vaudeville’s “Inimitable” Harry Lauder
Scottish singer Harry Lauder was one of the most beloved vaudeville performers of the early twentieth century. Short, balding, and bowlegged, he was the antithesis of the matinee idol, yet his skillful impersonation of a wide range of Scottish types and his playful banter between songs reportedly “sent audiences crazy with delight.”2 “The man has a keen sense of humor,” the New York Times observed in November 1907 after his American debut, “and he has a very remarkable gift for sending that humor over the footlights and making it take hold of his public.”3 Other accounts similarly note Lauder’s “infectious” quality, his appeal to both the “crudest” and most “fastidious” of tastes, and his ability to hold an audience rapt for over an hour, three-times longer than the average vaudeville act.4
Though few could deny Lauder’s affective pull, critics struggled to identify its source. Some attributed it to his “Scots blood” and the love he inspired in his fellow “Scotsmen,” while others argued that it went beyond nationality. “He possesses that strange quality which Mr. Barrie calls ‘bloom’,” observed critic James Douglas: “You feel the bloom on him as soon as he comes on the stage. He is queerly different from other comedians . . . . [H]e rouses in you deeper emotions.” Another writer characterized his ability to “draw out of the commonest words a deeper meaning” as a form “of emotional hypnotism.”5 Within the “feeling-technology” of American vaudeville, which emphasized speed, variety, and emotional intensity, Lauder’s “queer difference,” his ability to make audiences feel more and feel more deeply, made him a star.6
When asked why audiences felt such a strong affective bond with him, Lauder insisted that it was the authenticity of his characters. “A man’s fame might spread all over the world and still not make any particular impression if it lacked true merit,” he concluded.7 But while truthful impressions of Scottish types were central to his success, Lauder’s unique “affectivity” seems to have arisen from what Joseph Roach describes as the “effortless embodiment of contradictory [End Page 145] qualities simultaneously: strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience, and singularity and typicality among them.”8 He was at once defined by his “singularity,” as a talented one-of-a-kind performer and by his “typicality” as a working class Scot plucked from the mines of Scotland, an “everyman” who made his audience feel welcome, recognized, seen.9 More than displaying his talents, the structure of Lauder’s act simultaneously mirrored and amplified his “It” qualities. Slipping seamlessly in and out of character while allowing glimpses of a perceived “authentic” self to seep through, Lauder performed a distinctly antimodern form of romantic pastoralism with all the speed, energy, and vitality that epitomized the modern era. His “It-ness” was thus bound up in the oscillation between self and character, by his performance of the contrasts between his role as performer and his former role as a working class miner.
Yet if Lauder’s particular affectivity, his “It” quality, can be attributed to his embodiment of clashing characteristics, the particular affects that came to be associated with him (the ones that “stuck” to him) emerged through a much more complicated relational process.10 For while individuals with “It” may arouse a variety of affects—excitement, anger, love, sexual desire—affect does not reside within bodies or objects. Rather, to echo theorist Sara Ahmed, the “affective value” associated with an “It” performer arises through discourse, imagery, performance, and other circulatory processes such that he or she appears to embody specific affective qualities.11 In the case of Harry Lauder, vaudeville mimics played a key role in impressing his name, imagery, and affective qualities into the American cultural imaginary. “An impression,” Ahmed writes, “can be an effect on the subject’s feelings (‘she made an impression’). It can be a belief (‘to be under an impression’). It can be an imitation or an image (‘to create an impression’). Or it can be a mark on the surface (‘to leave an impression’). We need...