The songs, dances, jokes, parodies, spoofs, and skits of blackface groups such as the Virginia Minstrels and Buckley's Serenaders became wildly popular in antebellum America. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask not only explores the racist practices of these entertainers but considers their performances as troubled representations of ethnicity, class, gender, and culture in the nineteenth century.
William J. Mahar's unprecedented archival study of playbills, newspapers, sketches, monologues, and music engages new sources previously not considered in twentieth-century scholarship. More than any other study of its kind, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask investigates the relationships between blackface comedy and other Western genres and traditions; between the music of minstrel shows and its European sources; and between "popular" and "elite" constructions of culture.
By locating minstrel performances within their complex sites of production, Mahar offers a significant reassessment of the historiography of the field. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask promises to redefine the study of blackface minstrelsy, charting new directions for future inquiries by scholars in American studies, popular culture, and musicology.
This monograph, part of the distinguished "Music in American Life" series, is an interdisciplinary study drawing on music, performance, and theater history to examine the beginnings of an influential entertainment medium. Mahar (humanities/ music, Pennsylvania State Univ.) uses the study of blackface minstrelsy from 1843 to 1860 as a way to examine the formation and effect of much late 19th-century American popular culture. He provides generous samples of playbills, sheet music, lyrics, selections from comic sketches, and photographs as evidence for his argument. Mahar shows that the minstrel show made fun of formal speech and rhetoric, satirized opera for popular consumption, and provided a mirror for the polarities of contemporary American life, social rituals, and sexual roles. It prepared the way for melodrama, burlesque, vaudeville, and the musical comedy, all of which extended those functions. Recommended for scholars.--Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., MA