What a time

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 proclaimed that "the World Renowned Comedian" would be playing at the Theatre Royal.

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 (aka 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."

JH 2014
Edwardian postcard of Eugene Stratton, reproduced in David Pierce, James Joyce's Ireland (1992).