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  • A Closer Look at Eugene Stratton (1861-1918)
  • Judith Harrington (bio)

Eugene Stratton, one of music hall's great stars, is briefly but memorably referred to in Ulysses. His minstrel show and music hall career pivoted on a blackface act during which he often sang 'coon' songs.1 Today we find these songs offensive although they were very popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1830s well into the 1920s. Stratton's career is inevitably enmeshed with this troublesome material - as was a broad variety of entertainment during Joyce's life.

Stratton was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1861 to first-generation Alsatian parents who named their son Eugene Augustus Rühlmann.2 He spent a few years at the local Christian Brothers school. As a boy, his solo performance at the school gala included 'Jim, the Carter Lad' to which he added an Irish jig and a German patter song. Stratton quit school early to work seriatim for a draper, a cattleman, and the local telegraph company.

The exemplary models of minstrel shows opened in New York City in 1842 with Dan (Decatur) Emmett's Virginia Minstrels, quickly followed the next year in Buffalo, New York, by Edwin Pierce Christy's Christy Minstrels. Perhaps this explains why Stratton appeared in blackface right from the beginning of his career. Under the name The Two Wesleys, he teamed up with an enormously large man in blackface for an improbable tumbling and acrobatic act they dubbed 'The Big and Little of It'. This act folded after a year to Stratton's great relief. He had become increasingly anxious about the physical risks of being repeatedly thrown around.

He next appeared in a solo blackface act as Master Jean with a clog-dancing and tumbling routine that met with a bit more favour. Stratton's diligent practice and hard work gained him shorts stints with small minstrel troupes as well as a travelling circus. He earned a bit of cachet when he joined the blackface team of Harrigan & Hart. I suspect Joyce did not know that Harrigan & Hart managed to 'become Irish' courtesy of their hit song 'Mulligan's [End Page 78] Guard' for which they dressed in comically incorrect uniforms while spoofing the quasi-military groups that had proliferated after the American Civil War.3 The lyrics convey their Irish roots, their marching, their braggadocio, and their drinking, all without the slightest hint of combat. Both the public and the military took up the song with gusto. Soon marching bands drummed their way with this piece across the United States, Britain, and India.

When Stratton was fifteen he joined the blackface quartet known as the Four Arnolds with whom he often played Jewish, German, or Irish juvenile roles. The group successfully toured North America before they went big-time, joining Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels in 1878 when Stratton was seventeen. 'Colonel' Jack Haverly was the P.T. Barnum of the minstrel shows. He managed a number of different troupes and had a talent for organization and ingenious ads. Haverly also changed the minstrel show format: bigger was definitely better. Costumes had more glitz and the staging became more elaborate, both of which the public embraced. Haverly was even bold enough to produce a circus burlesque titled 'PEA-TEA-BAR-NONES'S KOLLOSAL CIRKUSS, MUSEUM, MENAGERIE AND KAYNE'S KICKADROME KAVALKADE'.4

Minstrel shows paid attention to the continuing influx of immigrants; consequently, their programmes included 'Tyrolean polkas, Irish ballads, Italian arias, Cossack boot dances' and more.5 The shows made fun of the newcomers, especially targeting the Irish. Anticipating the upcoming music hall format, Haverly built on this taste for satire and diversity by adding more variety acts to his minstrel shows. While touring with Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels, Stratton finally settled on Eugene Stratton for his professional name. After the Mastodon troupe returned to the United States, Haverly then sent his Genuine Coloured Minstrels on the same overseas tour, with ads stressing how many 'real Negroes' would be appearing.

In 1881, Stratton stayed in England and soon joined the London-based Moore & Burgess Minstrels. By this time there were any number of groups claiming to be Christy Minstrels...


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