I had a marvelous conversation today with friends about my doctoral research from years gone by, which focused on 19th-century theatrical female impersonation. This topic seems increasingly relevant as people play with gender identities on stage and in life. One of the acts I wrote about was Harrigan and Hart. Edward Harrigan is frequently credited as the “father” of American musical theatre, as he was among the first to combine songs and sketches into an extended entertainment with a (somewhat) unified plot. Harrigan wrote the sketches and lyrics, while composer David Braham provided the music. But his performance partner, Tony Hart, was absolutely beloved for his quick-change artistry, portraying multiple roles of both genders and numerous ethnicities in one show (or even in a brief sketch). Tony was also pretty-faced and sweet-voiced, so his female impersonations caused many people to swoon, regardless of their gender. Sadly, he had an unhappy personal life and died young from syphilis. Harrigan continued his robust life and career and was celebrated in song by George M. Cohan.
My interest in Harrigan and Hart was piqued by the haunting extant photos of them, in which Hart’s blue eyes have that ghostly lightness that can still pierce you. But when I dug into the files at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, I found a promotional poster for their early duo act, “The Little Frauds,” that really puzzled and excited me. It’s a lithograph of a quite recognizable Edward Harrigan and an exceedingly feminine companion in girlish dress and coquettish pose. From the ribbon on her hat, through her long curls and hourglass shape, and down to the pointed toe of her buckled shoe, Harrigan’s companion is all girl. The image is captioned: Harrigan and Hart. I was frozen when I first saw this: circa 1872, the duo’s audience saw the image of feminine perfection and called it Tony Hart! And they packed the theatre, blew kisses, and roared for more. Although Harrigan’s descendants were concerned about whiffs of homosexuality clinging to Tony, none of the contemporary press seemed confused by a beautiful boy playing both male and female roles. Nor did their fans. Yet these same actors also employed blackface and other derogatory ethnic images. And this same society was rife with gender inequality, immense poverty and brutality to openly queer behavior. So many contradictions. But in the right theatre, with the right mix of talents, under the right lighting and with the right costume, gender play was a thrill ride and a total hoot. So sad that it’s over a hundred years later and we’re still struggling to bring these mysterious joys into the light. Below is the lithograph that stilled my heart. Enjoy!