- “Give an Imitation of Me”: Vaudeville Mimics and the Play of the Self
In the winter of 1907, theatrical producer Joe Weber tried to stop comedienne Marie Dressler from singing her theme song, “A Great Big Girl Like Me,” at the Colonial Theater in New York. Weber claimed that Dressler had first sung that song at Weber & Fields Music Hall, which gave the Music Hall exclusive performance rights to it. Marie Dressler’s response was to claim that in her performances at the Colonial she was only “giving an imitation of someone giving an imitation” of her singing that song. 1 What allowed Dressler to make such a claim was both the shifting nature of women’s humor on the popular stage in the first decade of the twentieth century and the broader cultural preoccupations and anxieties this new form of comedy produced and reflected.
Women’s stage humor took many forms in the early years of the twentieth century, but nearly all funny women used some kind of imitative comedy—and quite a few depended upon it almost exclusively. That was true of what one observer called the “epidemic” and another referred to as “the great army” of mimics who descended upon the vaudeville stage beginning in the early 1900s. 2 So popular was mimicry that one musical revue playing in Chicago in 1908 featured several burlesques of the trend, including a song called “The Imitation Craze.” 3
Though male performers were also implicated in the epidemic, imitations, especially imitations of well-known performers, were largely [End Page 47] the province of female comics. 4 Among them were the great headliners: Cecilia (Cissie) Loftus, Gertrude Hoffmann, Elsie Janis, and Juliet Delf (who, dispensing with her surname and adding a question mark, went by just, “Juliet?”). 5 These women were part of what might be called a mimetic moment in American comedy in the years between 1890 and end of the 1920s. On the popular stage of vaudeville and musical revue every conceivable kind of comic imitation was in full flower: blackface minstrelsy, gender impersonation, burlesque, parody, and ethnic caricature. But something new was taking place as well. While the female mimics’ performances sometimes involved gender impersonation and imitations of racial “others,” the stage work of Juliet, Hoffmann, Loftus, and Janis also represented a significant break from those traditions. Unlike those who devoted themselves exclusively to the comedy of blackface caricature and gender impersonation, the vaudeville mimics moved beyond generic and stereotyped images of race and gender to what could best be described as the comedy of personality. This was the imitation, sometimes in a satiric vein, of the particular style and repertoire of specific individuals—mainly well-known female and male performers. Much of the time they were impersonating white female performers like themselves—women they envied or admired.
From the perspective of the vaudeville mimics and their audiences it was the focus on the individual rather than on a generic type that distinguished the comedy of personality from other forms of mimetic humor. As Cissie Loftus put it in a 1907 article, rather than copying “a type,” where only “general accuracy” was needed, her imitations required her to “get inside . . . and reveal the real personality” of the “particular person.” 6
To a far greater extent than other forms of popular comedy, the comedy of personality provoked a critical dialogue about its cultural significance. Female mimics themselves took an active part in this dialogue. Their attempts to situate their comic practices within the cultural discourses of their day reveals an extraordinary degree of self-consciousness about how their performances related to larger cultural concerns. Why that should have been the case has much to do with the ways in which women on stage were assuming new roles as arbiters and interpreters of their own cultural moment. It was also a consequence of the broader cultural changes that made “imitation” a highly charged and widely discussed concept in both aesthetic and social theory.
The mimetic moment in American comedy coincided with the [End Page 48] mimetic moment in American social thought. As we shall see, the issues raised by the vaudeville mimics were also crucial to...