Eugene Stratton

In Brief

As people go about their day on the streets of Dublin they see "hoardings," or billboards, advertising a show to be performed by "Mr Eugene Stratton." Eugene Augustus Ruhlmann, a white American from Buffalo, NY, performed under that name in blackface, dancing and singing "coon songs."

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Gifford notes that Stratton "toured primarily in the British Isles, first with a minstrel group and then as a solo performer" (108). He was billed as a comedian, but his act consisted chiefly of singing, whistling, and dancing. The stage was usually darkened, and a spotlight shone dramatically on Stratton's face. David Pierce notes that "He was popular with other professionals, and in 1896 and again in 1900 he was named King Rat. The Chieftains play a hornpipe named after him" (127). His songs, Pierce observes, included "The Whistling Coon" and "The Dandy Coloured Coon." He performed from the 1880s into the 1900s to great acclaim, and ads in the 16 June 1904 Freeman's Journal and Evening Telegraph, as well as posters on the hoardings, proclaimed that "the World Renowned Comedian" would be playing at the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street.

In Circe Bloom (who saw one of the posted ads through the window of his carriage in Hades) thinks of Stratton in connection with "Negro servants in livery," "Othello black brute," and the "Bohee brothers": "The exotic, you see." The narrative then generates a stage performance in keeping with the Negro impersonator theme: "Tom and Sam Bohee, coloured coons in white duck suits, scarlet socks, upstarched Sambo chokers and large scarlet asters in their buttonholes, leap out. Each has his banjo slung. Their paler smaller negroid hands jingle the twingtwang wires. Flashing white Kaffir eyes and tusks they rattle through a breakdown in clumsy clogs, twinging, singing, back to back, toe heel, heel toe, with smackfatclacking nigger lips."

Later in the chapter, Elijah (a.k.a. John Alexander Dowie) morphs into Stratton by becoming "black in the face" and lapsing into faux Negro dialect: "Big Brother up there, Mr President, you hear what I done just been saying to you. Certainly, I sort of believe strong in you, Mr President. I certainly am thinking now Miss Higgins and Miss Ricketts got religion way inside them. Certainly seems to me I don't never see no wusser scared female than the way you been, Miss Florry, just now as I done seed you."

The appallingly racist comedy at the expense of black Americans in several parts of Ulysses can no doubt be attributed to the talented Eugene Ruhlmann's stage portrayals, to their huge popularity in Ireland, and to the absence of other black people, fictional or real, that might have supplied more affirmative images to the popular imagination. Still, anyone who knows and appreciates Joyce's fiction would think that an artist so savvy about popular culture, and so deeply humane, might himself have done more to imaginatively inhabit the lives effaced by these invidious stereotypes about an oppressed class of human beings.

JH 2014
Poster advertising Eugene Stratton's performances at Dublin's Theatre Royal during the week of 16 June 1904. Source: chem.engr.utc.edu.
Edwardian postcard of Eugene Stratton, reproduced in David Pierce, James Joyce's Ireland (1992).