- Race and the Modern Exotic: Three 'Australian' Women on Global Display
This book compares the lives of three remarkable women performers, all of whom claimed to have been born in Australia, although in one case that was patently untrue. In relating the stories of their professional lives, Angela Woollacott compares their experiences and places them within wider contexts relating to race, "whiteness," femininity, and transnational identity. The [End Page 387] result is a complex argument that deepens our understanding of these concepts within the context of twentieth century international popular culture.
The three subjects of this study are Annette Kellerman, long distance swimmer and aquatic performer in vaudeville and film; Rose Quong, sometime actor and successful lecturer who interpreted China to the West; and Merle Oberon, a famous film star in the United Kingdom and subsequently in Hollywood.
Beginning her career in her native Australia performing underwater, long distance swimming, and diving stunts, Kellerman left for England in 1905. She subsequently became a top-bill music hall/vaudeville and amusement park performer on both sides of the Atlantic. She also starred in a number of silent films and wrote books both on swimming and physical fitness. She even returned to Australia after World War 1 to perform in a large water-filled tank on the vaudeville circuit. Woollacott argues persuasively that Kellerman's appeal resulted both from her physical prowess as a swimmer and diver and from her sexual allure, heightened by a scantily clad, fit body. Less persuasively she suggests that audiences were attracted by the South Seas persona that Kellerman sometimes adopted. On the evidence presented here the South Pacific role was peripheral to her repertoire.
Like Kellerman, Rose Quong left Australia to pursue a stage career in England. In Australia in the interwar period, serious high drama was left to the amateur repertory companies, as the major commercial outfit (JCW) staged musicals and light comedy. And here, Woollacott reveals a wonderful irony in Quong's career. As an avowed admirer of British culture, and of Shakespeare in particular, Quong left Australia, where serious acting opportunities were limited, to pursue her career on the British stage. However, because English companies were reluctant to employ an actor of Chinese ethnic heritage in Shakespearean roles, and perhaps because she was not a very good actor (my suspicion, not Woollacott's), the Anglicized Quong chose to take on a new career, as a lecturer on Chinese language, literature, and philosophy, speaking to British and American audiences. To do so, the Western-educated Quong needed to take lessons in Chinese philosophy, literature, and language. But there was a market among the educated classes in Europe and the US for a speaker able to explain the Orient to the West. Moreover, Western sympathy for China and its culture was deepened because of the threat to the country's very existence by Japanese military forces. However, Quong never enjoyed the same fame and fortune as Kellerman—lecturing on Chinese culture did not bring the same status and wealth as performing on stage and screen. She spent the last years of her life mostly in obscurity, living in a modest New York residential hotel. [End Page 388]
Merle Oberon was the odd woman out. She claimed to have been born and raised in Tasmania, but that was to disguise the fact that she was the daughter of an Anglo-Indian girl (and I am using the term accurately) and her stepfather. For her whole career Oberon lived in fear that her "mixed race" origins would be revealed, and occasionally the press, both in Australia and the United States, hinted at this very fact. I found the portrayal of Oberon the most fascinating of the three. Here was an actor obsessed with demonstrating her "whiteness," and whose roles as British heroines seemed to legitimize her European origins, who nevertheless on occasions also took on exotic parts, as for example, a "South Seas Girl." Her career and her life were a mass of contradictions.
Woollacott uses the...