- Irish on the Move: Performing Mobility in American Variety Theatre by Michelle Granshaw
It is perhaps unsurprising to realize that the famously xenophobic phrase “No Irish Need Apply” was in response to the perceived threat of Irish immigration to the United States starting in the mid-nineteenth century. As the past few years under the Trump administration have highlighted, however, the United States has an infuriating history of attempting to alienate immigrants—whether they be Irish, Chinese, or Latinx, to name a few—as a way to shore up white, Anglo-Saxon power. What is surprising about Michelle Granshaw’s fascinating work about Irish mobility is the way immigrants, like the Irish Americans she focuses on, used the very fact of their movement into and through the country to navigate this xenophobia by performing their Irishness. Recovering the little-studied “microhistories,” as she terms them, of Irish American involvement with the variety theatre in the late nineteenth century, Granshaw reveals the way that theatre became a crucible for combining and recombining notions of race, gender, and class. What one discovers by reading this richly researched study, therefore, is the way Irish Americans used their performative gestures both to acculturate themselves to American society and to retool that same society’s tenets.
Her first chapter ably documents this idea in its engaging exploration of the comic “tramp”—the down-on-his-luck, wandering Irish character born in the wake of the Panic of 1873. Built from expert salvage work, this chapter chronicles the way that the unemployed Irish American tramp—a victim of a disappearing market for unskilled laborers— was characterized as a threat by American society precisely because of his mobility. As a character in novels, cartoons, and theatre, the Irish American tramp was stereotyped by his mobility, but as Granshaw relates, this mobility cut both ways. For nativists he was an anxious embodiment of the threats of Irish immigration; for Irish American audiences he became a heroic instantiation of the promise of moving up the social ladder. Charting the heroic mobility on the nation’s stages of a comic tramp like Johnny Wild, Granshaw demonstrates that this heroism came in part by distinguishing between Irish American tramps and Black tramps, with heroic white tramps claiming an access to mobility that, they insisted, Black tramps lacked.
The next chapter builds on this idea of mobility by mapping out the competing ways that labor movements recoded Irish American working-class violence. Transforming the tramp into theatrical representations of Irish American freedom fighters, thereby directing their mobility and violence toward nationalism, variety theatre offered a positive representation of Irish American identity as these soldiers fought in Turkey, Greece, and Cuba. At the same time, the motif of fighting for liberty also showed up in variety theatricals focused on labor unrest. Characters like Molly Maguire existed historically as labor agitators in the coal fields of Pennsylvania after 1877, and the threat of their theatrical violence in the service of social justice became the flip side to the freedom fighters abroad. If the mobility of the freedom fighters could be imagined as promoting and extending American values in the world, Maguire’s mobility turned on her ability to mobilize alienated labor.
The next chapters move away from more traditionally theatrical fare to take up the “hibernicon,” a moving panorama that depicted scenes of the “homeland” for nostalgic Irish immigrants; the use of Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart’s touring theatricals by local parish priests to bolster Catholicism; and finally, the fad for competitive race-walking, or “pedestrianism.” In these chapters, Irishness is still further defined by its mobility—its ability to move across a panorama, to reach small towns in the American countryside, and to represent movement itself in the disciplined form of middle-class “walking.” Granshaw is at her best when she balances the competing cultural and social work that Irish American variety theatre engaged in, and when she leans into the intersubjective nature of performance—so vital in situating...