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Male impersonators all the rage in the music halls

Drag queens have long been part of popular British culture, but women dressing as men have enjoyed less attention.

Now a University of Huddersfield researcher is revisiting a time when female performers became major international stars by impersonating men and often puncturing male pretension and pomposity in the process.

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Jo Dyrlaga is an oral historian with a background in film, but for her PhD project, which is now in its closing stages, she is probing a period when the music hall was the main purveyor of entertainment to the masses.

Between the years 1890 and 1920, the male impersonator was a frequent attraction on the halls and this period is the focus of Jo’s research as she reconstructs an almost-vanished entertainment sub-culture.

The roots of male impersonation can be found in theatrical conventions such as ‘breeches roles’ – when women played young men – and the ‘principal boy’ in pantomime, when thigh-slapping female actresses in tights took on roles such as Dick Whittington or Aladdin. But one of the first major music hall stars to perform exclusively as a male impersonator was Bessie Bonehill in the 1890s.

In this video Ella Shields can be heard performing her trademark song Burlington Bertie from Bow which is an adaptation of an earlier song by Vesta Tilley called Burlington Bertie.

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“I have photographs of her, but she remains quite a mysterious figure,” said Jo. A much bigger star was the music hall legend Vesta Tilley, who scored a huge success in 1900 with the song Burlington Bertie, for which she dressed as a foppish wastrel. Tilley reputedly earned as much as £500 a week.

Also popular was Ella Shields, American-born but a big star in England who continued to perform until the 1950s. Another enduring survivor from music hall days was Hetty King, who was still working right up until her death at the age of 89 in 1972, and achieved sufficient fame to be a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.

Mockery of men

Jo Dyrlaga is fascinated by the lives of such women and the types of men they chose to impersonate. Victorian and Edwardian audiences would have taken male impersonators in their stride, she believes, but the performers did include some spiky satire and social commentary in their acts. For example, there was mockery of men who tried to cross rigid class boundaries. ‌

To find out more about the performers and music hall culture, Jo has worked in the unique Mander and Mitchenson archive of British theatre ephemera at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection as well as looking through Vesta Tilley’s own personally curated scrap books at Worcester County Record Office. Jo analyses photographs, newspaper reports, letters from fans and song lyrics to investigate the layered performances.

‌Jo’s first degree was in film studies, before she embarked on an MA in Oral History, writing a dissertation on the subject of gender and performance. For part of her dissertation, Jo interviewed a number of drag kings, who at first glance might seem be an echo of the old-time male impersonators, but exist in a very modern context where gender expression can be more nuanced and flexible, she said.

“Performers such as Vesta Tilley had to carefully manage gender expectations and would often tell interviewers how glad they were to shed their male attire and revert to womanly clothes.”

Discovering a passion for history via her MA course, Jo decided to step further back in time and focus on the music hall era for her PhD, for which she is supervised by University of Huddersfield’s Head of History, English, Languages and Media, Professor Paul Ward.

The University of Huddersfield

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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