Eugene Stratton

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, New York, performed under that name in blackface, dancing and singing "coon songs."

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Stratton came to Britain with a minstrel group and then struck out on his own. 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 his face. In James Joyce's Ireland, 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, a Dowie-like Elijah 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 racist comedy at the expense of black Americans in several parts of Ulysses can be attributed to the huge popularity in England and Ireland of minstrel acts like Ruhlmann's, and to the absence of other black people, fictional or real, that might have supplied less invidious images to the popular imagination. Readers inclined to pass moral judgments should certainly be wary of imposing the values of their own culture on a work birthed in another, but for me such considerations cannot completely excuse playful repetition of ugly minstrel show stereotypes. Surely a writer so deeply humane and hostile to bigotry as Joyce was––not to mention savvy about popular culture, and passionate about literary realsim––could have done better.

[2023] In his revised collection of annotations, Slote reinforces the point about cultural context made here by quoting from Michael Pickering's Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain (2016): "Across most of the modern period the comic blackface mask, with its broad manic grin, was a staple icon in British popular culture.... The minstrel show was a major form of music and entertainment in Britain from the 1840s to the 1970s, rather longer than in the United States, where it was equally popular in the nineteenth century but by the mid-twentieth century had largely faded away. Its appeal was felt among all the social classes in British society, as well as across the categories of gender, generation and geographical region. Variant forms of blackface caricature appeared outside the minstrel show, in media as wide ranging as advertising, postcards, puppet show, comics and juvenile literature, providing abundant evidence not ony of its apparent constancy but also of its cultural acceptability" (xi). The second image displayed here comes from a postcard, and the third and fourth from cards included in packs of cigarettes.

The minstrel shows also appear to enter Ulysses when the Citizen calls Bloom "that whiteeyed kaffir," repeating a title used by G. H. Chirgwin in another popular stage act. Proper appreciation of this reference in Cyclops requires similar care in balancing cultural sensitivities, but here Joyce seems to be more self-consciously examining racial bigotry.

John Hunt 2014
Poster advertising Eugene Stratton's performances at Dublin's Theatre Royal during the week of 16 June 1904. Source:
Edwardian postcard of Eugene Stratton, reproduced in David Pierce, James Joyce's Ireland (1992).
Cigarette card of Eugene Stratton with text on the back noting that "Gene" was born in Buffalo in 1861, educated by the Christian Brothers, and employed in various jobs before joining the Haverley Minstrels in New York and coming to England in 1880. Source: Vincent Van Wyk.
Cigarette card of Eugene Stratton with text on the back noting that the "Coon" King was "Eminently successful in rendering the Plantation songs of Leslie Stuart." Source: Vincent Van Wyk.