Brief historical survey
Text samples
Music and lyrics
Social aspects



The Minstrel Show

3. The text samples

The samples in Richard Moody's collection(5) were put together to give a general impression of what the texts used in minstrel shows were like. They were not performed all together in one show, they only represent the different forms that were used.

3.1 short skits

The first five texts are short skits from the first part of the minstrel show. They all follow the same scheme - a dialogue between an intelligent person, who speaks in a somewhat pompous way and has a very good command of the language, and a quite dull person with a limited vocabulary, speaking a heavy dialect, which leads to constant misunderstandings. These typical roles are normally played by the Interlocutor and one of the two endmen, Tambo or Bones. Sometimes the names differ, as is the case with samples three to five, but the character types stay the same.

The skit "Blackberrying" works exactly that way. Here Tambo plays the role of the Interlocutor. (In my opinion this must be an error, because the role of Tambo as foolish and stupid black is clearly defined.) He uses a very sophisticated language with vocabulary that Bones cannot comprehend. So he turns these words into words of his own vocabulary which sound quite similar.

Tambo: No, Bones, you mean three days previous to her decease.
Bones:  No, she had no niece.

Tambo: I presume he was a pretty good physician?
Bones: No, he wasn't fishin'; he was home.

Another common pattern is to use words with a more formal and a simpler meaning, for example the word standing. It can be used in the sense of reputation or simply as expanded form from to stand:

Tambo: I mean he was a doctor of some standing.
Bones:  No, he wasn't standing, he was sitting on a three-legged stool.

The final joke of this skit, to which the title refers, is also based on a pun. Here the phonetical similarity of the word 'berry' and 'to bury' is made use of. So the phrase 'to go out Blackberryin' which originally means Brombeeren pflücken gehen can also be understood as 'to go out Blackburyin'.

These are typical examples for comical dialogue, the way it was normally used in the first part of the minstrel show. In many of these skits the Interlocutor acts mainly as a stooge to give Tambo or Bones the possibility to present their jokes.

But the minstrels even increased the contrast between Interlocutor and endmen by their whole behaviour on stage. The Interlocutor was the personification of style and dignity, whereas the two endmen indulged themselves in exaggerated gestures and childish antics. They were the real minstrel clowns.

3.2 stump speeches

The stump speeches, which comprise the texts 6-8, were among the highlights of the minstrel show. There were even minstrels who specialized in stump speeches and were quite famous for their lectures. This can be seen by the additional notices Adapted and arranged expressly for..., or written expressly for... These orations offered an opportunity for endless puns, malaprops, gags and jokes, but they also frequently dealt with current subjects or expressed social criticism.

The burlesque lecture 'Dat's what's de matter' uses a lot of elements to provide a comical effect. Probably the most striking element is the repetition of the phrase 'Dat's what's de matter' all through the speech without making sense one single time. The element of consistency is also there when the speaker addresses his audience. He never uses a correct address but always varies it in new puns:

  probable meaning:
my deluded frens my dear friends
my disgusted hearers my distinguished hearers
my insignificant frens my significant friends
  (my crazy congregationers)

Other elements are malapropisms (Nextly,..., to bring de conclusion ob my disgustion to de terminus ob de beginning), wrong word order (the Bull o'Battles Run instead of the Battle o'Bulls Run), puns (Conthievocracy instead of Confederacy or Midsummer Ice Cream instead of Midsummer Night's Dream) or pure nonsense (feller citizens an' oder animals).

The topic of this speech is the American Civil War, which shows that the minstrels did not restrict themselves to Negro themes. The lecture conveys a pro-Northern attitude and is full of verbal attacks against and jokes about the Confederacy. From today's point of view this is not easy to understand, because it is necessary to know the names and functions of places, battles and soldiers to get the point.

3.3 afterpieces

There were a lot of different possibilities what an afterpiece could look like. At the beginning of minstrelsy the afterpieces were mostly set on a Southern plantation. In this case they were a mixture of songs and dance scenes that were embedded in a low comedy type plot. But these plantation scenes closely resembled the first part of the show and soon the minstrels started to look for new possibilities. Among other things they began to perform burlesques of popular plays of the day.

"Camille" is a parody of a contemporary play that must have been quite well-known because people had to know the contrast between the original and the parody in order to understand the parodistic elements. Nevertheless the two actors announce what they are going to perform.

Sam: I was to do Theatre, to see de "Hospital Tragedy".
Julius: Why, what play do you mean?
Sam: I mean "Camille". Did you ever see it?
Julius: Oh, yes. I saw Ned Forrest play it at the Broadway.

Burlesques or parodies like these were a welcome possibility for the minstrels to introduce the "wench character", a minstrel playing the role of a woman.
The wench is another stock character that mostly appeared in the afterpieces, like Zip Coon, the Negro dandy, a pretentious and exaggeratedly well-dressed, urban Negro. The stage direction of Camille's entrance gives us a hint how the wench characters looked like.

Enter Sam, dressed extravagantly as Camille. She has a large "waterfall",composed of an ox bladder blown up, and painted black, after it becomes dry. She also has a wreath of vegetables on her head[...].

The scene that follows ridicules love scenes the way they were performed in the popular melodrama of that time by grotesquely exaggerating and contorting the typical elements and symbols of love. Flowers are turned into vegetables, love swears are uncovered as extrinsically motivated,

Army: ...and you'll find me ever by your side - when I'm broke.

or just grotesquely extended.

Camille: Army, I love you! devotedly! [Embrace] devoutly! [Embrace] madly! [Embrace] excrutiatingly! [Embrace] spasmodically love you! [Embrace and kiss]

Even the usually emotional and peaceful dying scene turns out to be a quite violent act.

Camille: Army, I'm dying!
[Camille pulls him by the head and uses him exceedingly rough.]

Army: Die easy, Camille, die easy! [She throws him over her head...]

These are scenes where the comic principle of "incongruity plus surprise" is brought to a climax because nobody would expect such 'violence' to happen in this context. This is completed by comic repartee,

Camille: Army, dear Army! How long has this fiery passion burnt inside your breast?
Army: About ten minutes.

and the usual puns.

Camille: Army, I feel every indication of a "swine" (instead of "swoon").

Apart from that, the comical effect was certainly increased by the gestures and the whole behaviour of the actors on stage. This is indicated here by quite detailed stage directions. I could imagine that the lover in this case was played by a physically rather short actor, in contrast to the wench; which would make it easier for "her" to hurl him across the stage at the end. Additionally a lot of comical effects were provided spontaneously by the actors during the performance. "Seldom were any two performances of an afterpiece burlesque totally alike."(6)  This depended "of course on the talent and inventiveness of the performers" , but also on the reaction of the audience.

We only have the acting editions of these farces today, and can only try to imagine what the real performances in the context and the atmosphere of a minstrel show were like. By simply reading these farces at home at one's desk it is sometimes difficult to find the reason why they should be funny, as is the case with "The Thumping Process".  But maybe we have to take into account the different attitude of the people in the last century towards, and their dependency on medicine and doctors with their sometimes questionable cures, in order to understand this kind of humour.

In "Sublime and Ridiculous" we find the typical situation where Julius, an ignorant black, is confronted with a classical drama and its fictitious world, artificial style and elevated language. He is supposed to play the role of a comedian in this classical play, which has to go wrong because he is not able to keep fiction and reality apart. The manager, who tries to explain the role to him, almost loses his mind because Julius, who is only supposed to say "I slew your horse", always takes it for real and insists on not having a horse.

[Manager exits right and rushes on tragically]
Manager: Lucullus, my horse!
Julius: Hey?
Manager: Hey? Did I tell you to say hey? I told you to say, "I slew your horse."
Julius: Yes, but I ain't got no horse.

Furthermore Julius is afraid that the tragedian could hurt him if he told him that he slew his horse, and doubtfully regards the physical constitution of the tragedian as he enters and starts reciting "Hamlet's soliloquy". Not recognizing this as a piece of art and not understanding anything he tries to give the words a sense in his own world.

Tragedian: Get thee to a nunnery.
Julius: Get you to a grocery.

After having finally delivered his sentence "I slew your horse" , his fears seem to have been warranted because by misunderstanding the word execute he begins to fear for his life.

Tragedian: Merciful powers! I'm standing here -
Julius: So am I
Tragedian: - To see if my powers will with their lightnings execute my prayer upon thee.
Julius: Execute! He's a butcher!

He finally calls for the police, once more confirming the stereotype of the stupid and ignorant black.

(5) All the following excerpts are taken from: "Minstrel Show" , in: Richard Moody (ed.), Dramas from the American Theatre 1762-1909. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, pp. 475-500.
(6) Engle, Gary D., This Grotesque Essence. Plays from the American Minstrel Stage. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1978, p. 33.


©2000 by Jochen Scheytt
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