This month, guest contributor to the Provocative Objects series Cas Bradbeer, V&A/RCA History of Design MA Student, explores a music sheet held by the V&A entitled If I Hadn’t Ha’ Been So Shy (1897).
Content Warning: Please note that this essay contains media and textual references that may upset or offend readers, especially in terms of racist contents; these have been included only where necessary for illustrative purposes.
In my research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I have been studying a highly provocative object entitled If I Hadn’t Ha’ Been So Shy (1897). This music sheet was published in 1897 by Francis, Day & Hunter (1877-1972), whose founders often performed in blackface, and whom in 1897 became one of the founding publishing houses of London’s Tin-Pan Alley.[i] The frontispiece is a chromolithograph by Harry Générés Banks (1869-1946), the song was composed by Thomas Widdecombe (1865-1936) who hand-signed this copy. Banks’s frontispiece illustrates George Beauchamp (1862-1900) in the character in which Beauchamp sang the song—Widow Twankey, an aged Chinese woman who mothered Aladdin in his eponymous pantomime. This character continues to be often played by white actors in theatres today.
I am struck by the many inequities of this image, especially regarding a white person donning yellowface. This reminds me of the Orientalist analyses of theatre historian Dongshin Chang, who argues that there is a distinct lack of Chinese agency in the creation of pantomimes like Aladdin. I am also reminded of present-day Asian drag performers like River Medway who have argued for the cruciality of casting Asian people in Aladdin pantomime productions.[ii] Yet, in addition to analysing the discrimination imbued in this object, my research has attempted to slightly nuance Chang’s historical interpretation by identifying marginalised voices in the production and reception of If I Hadn’t Ha’ Been So Shy.
This does not in any way forgive the discrimination strongly imbued in this object, but it does provide an important reminder that if we look closer at inequitable objects such as If I Hadn’t Ha’ Been So Shy, we can find many traces of marginalised voices. I hope to critically analyse these complex dynamics of marginalisation in a way that can catalyse reflexivity on the part of the V&A, as well as contemporaries who continue to stage pantomimes featuring Dames like Widow Twankey.
There are many more examples of marginalised agents imbued in this object than can be mentioned here, but some key ones are:
- The intra-Oriental nature of the tale of Aladdin—a Syrian tale of Chinese and African travellers.[iii] - The Chinese musicians in the Chinatowns of London and New York whom Widdecombe and Beauchamp may well have encountered.[iv] - The potential transgender identity of Beauchamp, which can be understood through reading historians like Kit Heyam and applying their theories of trans possibility to cross-dressing performers like Beauchamp.[v] - The working-class women central to making paper from rags.[vi]
Crucially, there are also many agents who can’t be neatly placed as either appropriative or marginalised. For example, on the one hand Beauchamp came from a working-class background, may have been transgender, and performed very queer-resonant scenes as Widow Twankey—such as ‘tubbing and dressing’ the Vizier (played by a man) in a way that was deemed by a contemporary reviewer to be ‘amusing’ but so sexually subversive that it ‘would be better omitted’.[vii] On the other hand, Beauchamp was a renowned white comic performing as an Asian character who was made to be ridiculed—for example, the name Twankey was a sinophobic joke aimed to make her character seem poor, weak and haggard, since it sounds like Tunxi (a brand of Chinese green tea that at the time was known for its cheap, mild-tasting, ragged leaves).[viii]
And then there are the aspects that truly are straightforwardly xenophobic and devoid of marginalised agents, such as how the title’s word ‘shy’ in this period held connotations of ‘cock-shy’.[ix] In this game (often abbreviated to ‘shy’) a stylised blackface doll called Aunt Sally was placed on a shelf and pelted with balls until she was hit and thus won by the thrower. When relating this to the lyrics of the music, Widow Twankey’s lament could be that she is this targeted racialised object of white men (‘the mashers all ran after me’) who is stuck on a platform (‘left on the shelf to cuddle myself’) but remains gingerly hopeful that she might be won by a rich man (‘What is to be My luck before I die, Whether it’s quids or fourteen kids’).[x]
In these ways, I hope to have at least cursorily illustrated how the study of works like If I Hadn’t Ha’ Been So Shy can provoke avenues for both reappraising the agency of marginalised individuals in historical pantomime ephemera and critiquing the xenophobia that nevertheless permeates the heritage of Aladdin.
Notes [i] Margaret Jones, ‘Minstrels’, MusiCB3, Cambridge University Library (2019), https://musicb3.wordpress.com/2019/10/25/minstrels/ (accessed 04/12/2022) [ii] Dongshin Chang, Representing China on the Historical London Stage: From Orientalism to Intercultural Performance (Oxford, 2015), p.181; River Medway, ‘here’s 18 year old me as aladdin in panto’, https://twitter.com/river_medway/status/1604454741886603264 (accessed 05/02/2023). [iii] Judith Plotz, ‘In the Footsteps of Aladdin: De Quincey’s Arabian Nights’, The Wordsworth Circle 29, no. 2 (1998), p. 124; Jennie MacDonald, ‘Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp in British and American Children’s Entertainment’, pp. 90-91. [iv] Richard Anthony Baker, British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (Pen & Sword, 2014), p. 153; Paul Kendall, ‘The Oriental and the Music Hall: Sound and Space in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Chinatown’, in British Modernism and Chinoiserie, ed. Anne Witchard (Edinburgh, 2015), p. 158; ‘Mr George Beauchamp’, The Era, 05/01/1901, p. 18; Kang, ‘Musical Chinoiserie’, p. 274; Krystyn Moon, Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance (New Brunswick, 2005), p. 31. [v] Kit Heyam, Before We Were Trans (London, 2022), pp. 24-28; José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York, 2009), p. 65; Margaret Middleton, ‘Queer Possibility’, Journal of Museum Education 45, no. 4 (2020), pp. 426-436. [vi] Corrine Cardinale, ‘A Penny for Your Rags: Rag Pickers and the Paper Industry in the Later 19th Century’ (BA thesis, University of Buffalo History Department), pp. 25-26; William Vintage, ‘J Whatman—The Master of Western Packing’, Vintage Paper Co (2019), https://vintagepaper.co/blogs/news/drying-paper-at-whatmans-springfield-mill (accessed 04/12/2022). [vii] The Era’s Special Commissioner, ‘A Chat with George Beauchamp’, The Era, 27/05/1893, p. 16; Mr George Beauchamp’, The Era, 05/01/1901, p. 18; Correspondent from The Era, ‘Amusements in Brighton’, The Era, 01/01/1898, p. 26. [viii] Afarat Razzaque, ‘Who was the ‘real’ Adaddin? From Chinese to Arab in 300 Years’, Ajam Media Collective (2017), https://ajammc.com/2017/08/10/who-was-the-real-aladdin/ (accessed 04/12/2022). [ix] Ware, Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, p. 12. [x] Ware, Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, p. 100.
Cas Bradbeer (they/them) is an RCA/V&A History of Design MA student. They are also the RCA Queer Society President and Visual Cultures Lead for the Feminist Gender Equality Network.