Academic journal article MELUS

The Genesis of Whiteface in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Culture

Academic journal article MELUS

The Genesis of Whiteface in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Culture

Article excerpt

The Irish American's progress from immigrant to citizen of the New World has been less the path of civic assimilation than the road of racial alchemy. (1) Between 1840 and 1900, Irish immigrants entered not only a New World, but also a new arena, where race rather than national origin was the prevailing idiom in discussing citizenship. They adapted quickly--thanks in large part to their previous history of oppression--becoming accepted citizens almost seamlessly, in the shortest time of any of the mass immigrant groups, but not before they had overcome their own share of racial discrimination at the hands of the now native population, the Anglo Americans (Jacobson 1-90). Part of becoming citizen-like for the Irish immigrants was a necessary abdication of the former reality of their existence, in favor of a nostalgic sentimentalizing through symbolic representation. Stereotypes which had formerly conditioned their existence would eventually come to symbolize just how far they had come in their quest for citizenship. To understand the road to citizenship the Irish constructed, it is necessary to excavate some of these long-held stereotypes and discover the parameters of the stereotype's vicissitudes against a measure of historical objectivity. This paper looks at the previously unconsidered racial stereotype of whiteface utilized by Anglo Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century to distance their working-class from those of the newly arrived immigrant Irish.

The whiteface minstrel show was, like the parallel but better-recorded blackface tradition, an adaptation of the vaudeville tradition where a character was easily recognizable as a type of his race. (2) For the Irishman, it incorporated everything from Mose the Bowery B'hoy--made famous by Frank Chanfrau in the 1850--an elegant tough who spoke with a peculiar lingo and was always greeted with a cheer of recognition, to the later, more sympathetic depictions of Harrigan and Hart's Irish musical theater. The typical whiteface character was recognizable by the stovepipe hat he wore tipped over his forehead, by the shillelagh he carried for fighting, and by his makeup which exaggerated Irish physical characteristics, and, as Carl Wittke tells us, "often consisted of red wigs, red noses, green whiskers, or little beards known as 'gaulways' or 'Galway Sluggers'" (260). This whiteface mask, a common enough theatrical tool, was used mostly so that the largely illiterate audience would easily recognize the type of character portrayed and the humor elicited from his/her appearance. Eric Lott, in his insightful Love & Theft." Black/ace Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, discusses how the blackface minstrel show, "continually transgressed the color line even as it made possible the formation of a self-consciously white working class" (8). This is true even more substantially (but only in a one-way direction) for the whiteface minstrel show, which borrowed from the blackface its symbolic mask of visual identification in order to constitute the Irish as something other than the American "white working class." (3)

Whiteface and blackface were not only associated in theatricality; in a more profound sense, they both replicated similar stereotypes based on racist readings of black physiognomy. Essentially, the stereotyped Irishman, for a time, through whiteface, became pejoratively black; that is to say that, during the post-famine period, in an attempt to disclaim any appeal to citizenship, whiteface was used typologically to cast the Irishman as black in the popular press and public arena. This paper's investigation of the genesis of whiteface will strive, first of all, to offer conjectures on the ideology behind the creation and designation of this specifically American typology, and then to trace the historical development of the whiteface type through theater and into the cultural and literary scene, where it took on its most simianized form. …

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