Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xiv

I have lived for many years with May Irwin. Sometimes she has been the object of most of my attention and research. At other times, she has receded into the background. I am forever indebted to the faculty at the University of Maryland who assisted me in my early research: Harry Elam, who introduced me to black theater aesthetics; Jane Donawerth, whose enthusiasm and suggestions for further publications have been a welcome addition to my work; and Catherine Schuler, whose scholarly guidance, wit, and friendship kept me on track. I owe a great deal to those individuals...

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Introduction: May and Me

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pp. 1-12

Before Sophie Tucker “corked up” to entertain her audiences with ragtime songs in “Negro dialect” and before Fanny Brice stumbled into the footlights in her rendition of the “Dying Swan,” the reigning queen of comedy and song on the American stage was May Irwin. A performer both in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage, Irwin was also known as an accomplished homemaker and loving mother, a political activist, a real estate tycoon, and a prolific writer of articles, composer of songs, and author of a popular cookbook....

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1. Never Were There Such Devoted Sisters

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pp. 13-35

Risqué acts such as “The Haymakers” were at the heart of the new “variety” theater that thrived in America’s saloons in the 1860s. An alternative to the legitimate theater, whose prices had skyrocketed after the Civil War, these shows offered male-only audiences a succession of musical numbers peppered with bawdier fare. Men of all social classes intermingled to drink, gamble, and get an eyeful of the “‘legmania’ dancers who wiggled their hips suggestively or kicked high to expose their ‘drawers.’”1 With increased leisure time, however, women and “respectable” men were clamoring...

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2. Stardom

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pp. 36-68

In the early 1900s, May Irwin’s celebrity had grown to such an extent that she would be besieged on a weekly basis by a range of requests such as those listed above. Her rise from a favored soubrette and singer to a major star began in the years following the opening of The Widow Jones, which also featured what was to become her most famous number, “The Bully.” (I will examine “The Bully” in depth in chapter 4.) By the turn of the century, critics viewed her as the “personification of humor,” “the one distinctively funny woman on the American stage,” and—because of the presumed scarcity...

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3. The Profoundly Troubling History of the Coon Song

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pp. 69-89

Irwin’s fears that she would be remembered only for her coon songs may have been well founded. Indeed, in her obituary, the New York Times noted that the plays Irwin starred in were already mostly forgotten, “but the ditties she nursed into popularity are still the stand-bys of the old song books.” In the longer run, however, May Irwin may have been, to paraphrase one of her own tunes, “laid on the shelf ” because of the racism of these numbers. These songs are representative of a large collection of undeniably heinous racist music and memorabilia that have only in recent generations...

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4. The “Only One Boss Bully”

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pp. 90-114

Pathetic Coons and Greedy Gals were standard fodder for Irwin’s song hits, but they were outlasted by her “Frog Song” and, especially, her “Bully” song, perhaps the most pernicious number in the entire coon-song repertoire. This chapter takes a closer look at these songs and considers how they were received and their possible implications.

Outside Voice: Coontown

If the Pathetic Coon appealed to Irwin’s white audiences’ sense of superiority, the songs she sang from an outsider’s view made that appeal more blatantly. These numbers reveal a black society parallel...

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5. Unbounded Domesticity

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pp. 115-136

As Irwin grew older and embarked on a long series of “retirements” (not unusual for star performers even to this day), her domestic life became more and more important to her.1 But even in her younger days, her cooking and housekeeping were strongly associated with every aspect of her public persona. Newspaper headlines often coupled Irwin’s performances with her domestic work, usually with an emphasis on the latter. Allusions to her domestic life intruded on and sometimes overwhelmed descriptions of her stage career. More than three-quarters of contemporary articles written about...

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6. Causes and Compromise

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pp. 137-160

May Irwin was an ardent supporter of women, even if she may have shied away from direct identification with the early women’s movement, claiming, “I am not a suffragette, but I believe in absolute freedom, fresh air, vegetables, and laughter.”1 But even the most cursory review of Irwin’s life indicates that she was an active supporter of suffrage. And like many in the women’s movement of the early twentieth century, she was also a staunch advocate of pacifism. Although suffrage and pacifism were Irwin’s most significant causes, she was also involved in other political activities, from economic...

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7. The Road to Rainbow’s End

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pp. 161-176

By 1915 Irwin was increasingly concerned with weighty matters—specifically, the war in Europe and the growing conflict over women’s suffrage at home. May was beginning her gradual retirement from the stage. She was now a new grandmother to John C. Irwin, the son of her firstborn, Walter, and his wife, Ethel, who lived in Detroit, where Walter was a wholesale fruit dealer. Her younger son, Harry, had been married for just a year, and Irwin began to spend much more time with her growing family. But she still valued her audience and declared that their laughter provided her...

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Epilogue: Me and May

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pp. 177-188

What is it like to perform May Irwin’s material today—particularly her racist songs—and how do audiences react to it? I cannot pretend to be an entertainer of May’s caliber. Nor, though I have performed May’s material on numerous occasions, have I conducted a controlled quantitative analysis of audience response to her racist songs. When audiences viewed my performances, they were seeing a professional educator and actress present a scripted text carefully designed both to educate and to entertain. Nevertheless, the variety of responses I have received during performance and through discussions...

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Chronology

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pp. 189-194

This is an abbreviated chronology taken from my more detailed history and performance daybook. Biographical information and performance history are derived from many sources used throughout this book, including Robinson Locke Scrapbooks, vols. 297–99, from the New York Library of Performing Arts; Special Collections from Hawn Memorial Library and the Thousand Islands Museum, both in Clayton, New York; articles and reviews from the New York Times and the Watertown Daily Times ; the Jack Brown Scrapbook from Ontario, Canada; Whitby Archives in Whitby, Ontario,...

Notes

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pp. 195-226

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 227-238

Index

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pp. 239-262

Image Plates

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