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Male Impersonation in the Music Hall: the Case of Vesta Tilley


Music hall has only recently been treated to ‘serious’ as distinct from anecdotal study, and the ‘turns’ of its leading performers remain largely unexplored. Particularly revealing, perhaps, are the acts of the male impersonators – whose ancestry in ‘legit’ performance had been a long one, yet whose particular approach to cross-dressing had a special social and sexual significance during the ascendancy of music hall, with its curious mixture of working-class directness, commercial knowingness, and ‘pre-Freudian innocence’. The most successful of the male impersonators was Vesta Tilley, whose various disguises, the nature of their hidden appeal, and the ‘messages’ they delivered are here analyzed by Elaine Aston.

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Notes and References

1. Vesta Tilley has recently been rediscovered and re-evaluated in the Virago Pioneer series, in a biography by Sara Maitland (1986). Though an improvement on the 1984 biography, The Great Little Tilley by Gwynedd Sudworth, which draws heavily on Tilley's autobiography and has no theoretical or methodological base, Maitland's biography is, however, disappointing and insubstantially researched, drawing erratically and uneasily on Freudian psychology.

2. See Bax Clifford, Pretty Witty Nell (London, 1932), Chapter XVI, ‘The Triumphant Comedienne, 1667’, p. 89.

3. The play was the mid-century Masks and Faces by Charles Reade and Tom Taylor, which had several accomplished interpreters of ‘Peg’ throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, including Mrs. Bancroft, Madge Kendal, Mrs. Bernard-Beere, and Marie Tempest.

4. See his introduction to Herculine Barbin (New York, 1980), p. vii.

5. ‘La Zambinella’ is the subject of Balzac's short story, Sarrasine, the macabre tale of the castrato opera singer, loved by a man, which Roland Barthes uses for his study, S/Z (Paris, 1970). Herculine Barbin(e) was the nineteenth-century hermaphrodite, raised as a woman in all-female societies, and later reclassified medically and legally as a male. Her/his memoirs are introduced by Foucault, as referenced in note 4.

6. W. R. Titterton, From Theatre to Music Hall, describing Vesta Tilley as ‘Burlington Bertie’, quoted by Cheshire David in Music Hall in Britain (Newton Abbot, 1974), p. 7980.

7. Tilley Vesta herself describes, in her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley (London, 1934), p. 147–8, how she cleverly disguised her own ‘long wavy hair’ under a wig, which, close up, resembled ‘a skull cap covered with short hair’.

8. An early example was the lion comique George Leybourne, known as ‘Champagne Charlie’, who was encouraged to extend his image of the bon viveur into his own lifestyle, as a form of self-advertisement. This was disapproved of by high-minded reformers who felt that the image of irresponsible, high living was a bad influence on young spectators.

9. ‘The Evolution of the Male Impersonator on the Nineteenth-Century Popular Stage’, Essays in Theatre, Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1982), p. 30–44.

10. Winkles and Champagne (London, 1938), p. 76.

11. In The Power of the Image (London, 1985), p. 48–73 (p. 54).

12. Godfrey Sima, ‘The Dandy as Ironic Figure’, Sub-Stance, XXXVI (1982), p. 2133 (p. 24).

13. Interestingly, Louis Jouvet, the director of the original production of The Maids, was against the idea of men playing the women's roles and insisted on a female cast. Only recently has it been more widely played by men as Genet originally intended.

14. Disher (1938), p. 78.

15. John M. Garrett (London, 1976).

16. Sweet Saturday Night (London, 1967), p. 30.

17. In music-hall songs, the seaside is frequently cited as an alternative location to the capital city. It signifies a hard-earned respite from the work-day world and an occasion for ‘spooning’. In Tilley's songs, romance at the seaside is used to offset the poignant references to poverty in ‘By the Sad Sea Waves’ and ‘In the Pale Moonlight’, painting over the cracks of a tough working-class existence.

18. Roy George Le, Music Hall Stars of the Nineties (London, 1952), p. 52.

19. Songs of the British Music Hall (New York, 1971), p. 139.

20. Disher (1938), p. 78–80.

21. Senelick, p. 40.

22. See Tilley's autobiography, p. 142–3.

23. The verse is quoted in Lucy Janet Camden, Lovely Peggy (London, 1952), p. 59.

24. Senelick, p. 36.

25. Autobiography, p. 233–4.

26. Maclnnes, (1967), p. 79.

27. ‘Male Impersonators’, The Saturday Book, No. 29 (1969), p. 245–52 (p. 250).

28. Senelick, p. 40.

29. Music Hall in Britain (1974), p. 79.

30. The existence of this book, allegedly prepared by the German Secret Service, was brought to the public's attention by Noel Pemberton Billing in an article for his newspaper The Vigilante, headed ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’ and implicating Maud Allen, performing in Wilde's Salomé, as one of the 47,000. Maud Allen brought a libel suit against Billing, which she ultimately lost.

31. For example, in 1983 Jacky Lansley's revue The Impersonators set out to explore the potential of the Victorian and Edwardian male guises.

32. Fascinating Aida, however, wear exceptionally feminized dress costumes in order to push the stereotypical image of women as sex objects to the point of grotesque caricature.

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New Theatre Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0266-464X
  • EISSN: 1474-0613
  • URL: /core/journals/new-theatre-quarterly
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