- Greasing the GlobalPrincess Lotus Blossom and the Fabrication of the "Orient" to Pitch Products in the American Medicine Show
It was a swashbuckling world, peopled by a few geniuses and a great many rascals. It was a world in which the romance of the four corners of the world could be found in the flame of the pitchman's gasoline torch. The torches are gone, but the names they led to fame are not.—Violet McNeal, Four White Horses and a Brass Band
In her 1947 autobiography, dramatically entitled Four White Horses and a Brass Band, Violet McNeal recounts her days as the premiere female pitch doctor on the medicine show circuit. She describes her journeys throughout the United States in great detail, dotting the countryside with her fellow performers, a wooden wagon, and an endless supply of medicinal cures for a multitude of common ailments. On the medicine show circuit, McNeal most often portrayed a character by the name of Princess Lotus Blossom, a visitor from the Far East well versed in Chinese remedies and cure-alls. Throughout the book, she recounts the development of this character from its initial beginnings at the hands of her "mentor" and husband Will Cooper, to its first appearance on the medicine show stage, to its final performances and subsequent retirement. To further supplement the character of Princess Lotus Blossom, McNeal and her associates also devised elaborate stories to impress audiences and convince them of the wonders of Tiger Fat salve, Vital Sparks, or other vaguely "Oriental" products. Taken together, the character and the stories created an elaborate performance designed to create the maximum amount of wonder and the appropriate amount of exoticism to sell the optimum amount of product. [End Page 49]
The underlying culture of the medicine show visible just beneath the surface of these elaborate performances, and McNeal's navigation of that often rough terrain reveals a rich and complicated interplay of the global with gender and racial identity. McNeal's performance of "yellow face," or the donning of makeup and other facial prosthetics to appear "Asian," through the character of Princess Lotus Blossom, for example, facilitates and fosters the commercial and capitalist system of the medicine show—popular theatre used fundamentally to sell products—and illustrates how those concerns influenced her performance decisions. McNeal's gender in a predominately male, hierarchically structured performance tradition informed her decision to portray Asian characters onstage. Performing during a time of increased immigration from China and Japan, McNeal engaged with prevalent stereotypes that labeled Asian immigrants as interlopers, vagabonds, thieves, sexual objects, and opium addicts. These stereotypes contributed to and strengthened Orientalist fantasies that objectified the Asian immigrant and transformed people into products for commercial means. McNeal's performance directly reflects and borrows from this historical and cultural moment. Drawing from McNeal's own account of the process of developing and staging the character of Princess Lotus Blossom, I examine how, at the site of medicine show performance, McNeal's gender, race, and class identities operated through her "yellow face" performance. McNeal's character, Princess Lotus Blossom, revealed the struggle between capitalist and commercial endeavors of the form while simultaneously exhibiting the supposed freedoms, rites, and opportunities that performance afforded her over the "typical" woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am chiefly concerned with letting Violet McNeal speak through the vivid passages of her autobiography. The male-dominated medicine show culture often silenced female participants, and thus a focus on McNeal's own account serves as an intervention in this patriarchal history. Documenting and decoding McNeal's experiences as expressed in her life work privileges her knowledge over the power structures and forms that often dictated her everyday practice.
The evolution of McNeal's Princess Lotus Blossom must be understood within the context of the often-overlooked popular form and performance culture of the medicine show itself. Medicine shows traveled throughout both North and South and brought urban ideas and practices, such as sophisticated advertising campaigns and increased standards of cleanliness, to rural areas throughout the United States. Like the modern-day late-night television infomercial, medicine shows used performance as a means to sell...