Category Archives: Samuel S. “Sunset” Cox

Politics, Mark Twain, and Blackface

Mark Twain caused all kinds of trouble.  In fact, he reveled in it.

He famously advertised his lectures with the tag line, “The Trouble Begins at 8,” and was apparently delighted to share that line with his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels.  Both Twain and the minstrel troupe played around with variations—”The Insurrection Begins . . . ,” “The Orgies Commence . . .,” “The Inspiration will begin to gush . . . ,” “The Trouble Commences . . .”—but both used the more famous version for years without interruption.  One thing is sure.  The phrase was indelibly associated with both:  “trouble” was their trademark.

The San Francisco Minstrels were not what we expect when we think of blackface performance—at least, they weren’t what I expected when I first began researching them—for their popularity was based in part on their political satire.  They were satirists who believed that the only possible fodder for a sacred cow was a stick of dynamite, and while they did indeed parody black people, they parodied everyone; they were what John Strasbaugh calls “poly-ethnic offenders” or what Chris Rock terms “equal-opportunity offenders.”  And while some of their routines are ugly with racist underpinnings, other routines question these stereotypes as essential categories, challenging ridiculousness, corruption, and pretension wherever they see it.  A surprising amount of their material has little direct connection to race at all. Known for end-men Charley Backus’s and Billy Birch’s free-wheeling improvisation on current events, the San Francisco Minstrels attracted nineteenth-century audiences in much the same way that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert do today:  their satiric spin on current events, politics, and entertainment.

M. D. Landon once quipped that Charley Backus had been “censured by the Speaker of the California Legislature for making fun of his brother members.  This broke poor Charley’s heart and he joined a minstrel company so’s to be where no one would grumble when he indulged in a little pleasantry”[1]   Emma Benedict Shephard remembers that they “always managed to hit the public men or local politics in their questions and answers”[2] and Francis Smith,  that “the San Francisco Minstrels [Hall was] packed on Saturday afternoons with Wall Street brokers, roaring over the personal jokes, those never-to-be-forgotten end-men, Billy Birch and Charley Backus, had prepared for them overnight.”[3]

Twain famously wrote in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar that “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”  Charley Backus held a similar view.  When asked if he would like to run for Congress, the blackface actor quipped,  “No, indeed . . . I only have to play the fool a few hours on the stage, at night; but in Congress, I’d have to play that rôle all the time.”[4]  It’s pretty easy to see why Twain enjoyed their performance style.

So when in 1875, Thomas Nast published a political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly that bears the caption, “The Trouble Has Commenced – A Tale of Anxiety,” there is little doubt that his audiences would have gotten the reference.  The cartoon offers a caricature of Congressional debates over proposed Civil Rights legislation.  Congressman John Young Brown of Kentucky was vigorously attacking the Republican efforts to pass the bill during a lame-duck session.  Brown’s remarks got personal, and when Speaker of the House Blaine questioned his intent, Brown replied, “If I was to desire to express all that was pusillanimous in war, inhuman in peace, forbidding in morals, and infamous in politics, I should call it ‘Butlerizing.'”[5]

harpers the trouble has commenced nast

His insult was directed at Benjamin Butler, Congressman from Massachusetts and a former Union general notorious for his harsh occupation of New Orleans and his use of international law to argue that escaped slaves were “contraband” of war that he was not obliged to return to their owners, earning him the title of “Beast Butler.”  When censured by Speaker Blaine, Brown apologized, saying that he intended “no disrespect,” and with comic timing born of the political theatre, he added  “. . . Continue reading →

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