Book Review, Vol. 30 No. 1

May Irwin

May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy. Sharon Ammen. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017; Pp. 296.

In 1981, popular culture scholar Anthony Slide wrote, “if May Irwin is remembered at all…it is as a plump, somewhat unattractive actress, bestowing an amorous kiss in a flickering film from the cinema’s infancy” (2). This film was the famous Edison short The Kiss, an 18-second film featuring Irwin and actor John Rice re-enacting a scene from the musical The Widow Jones. Although the film is historically important, it represents a very minor part of Irwin’s resume. In May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy, Sharon Ammen goes beyond this brief moment to examine the entirety of Irwin’s career, which stretched from the 1870s to the 1920s. Ammen argues that Irwin deployed a wide variety of strategies both on and off stage from her early days in Tony Pastor’s variety shows to her run of successful comic performances to create and maintain a space for herself on the American stage for nearly 50 years.

Ammen’s text is a critical biography of Irwin’s career, organized chronologically over the course of seven chapters. Chapter one traces Irwin from her first stage appearance in upstate New York to her breakout role in The Widow Jones (1895). Ammen connects Irwin’s growth as a performer to her work with figures like Tony Pastor, Augustin Daly, and Charles Frohman. Irwin’s relationship with her sister Flo also figures significantly, as Flo’s sometimes bitter struggle with her sister’s success would vex May until Flo’s death in 1930.

Irwin’s performances in comic farces from 1895 to 1914 serve as the focal point of chapter two. Ammen examines the various strategies that Irwin employed throughout her career to connect with audiences. Noting that Irwin frequently succeeded “in spite of the quality of the material” (41), the author describes how Irwin’s personality dominated her performances, and how this charismatic connection between audience and performer forged a bond that transcended lackluster star vehicles. The author also touches on Irwin’s self-deprecation, particularly regarding her weight, a tactic she was certainly not alone in deploying.

Chapters three and four both focus on Irwin’s complicated relationship to the most successful aspect of her performances, her coon songs. Ammen begins by connecting the emergence of coon songs, with their blatantly racist characters and imagery, to the perceived incursions African Americans were making into the dominant white culture. The author emphasizes the pivotal role Irwin, who was white but never used blackface, played in popularizing these songs. Delving into the specifics of Irwin’s coon songs, Ammen identifies seven distinct groups of songs from Irwin’s repertoire based on the stereotypes presented, such as the “Greedy Gal” or the “Pathetic Coon.” This analysis spills over into chapter four, which examines Irwin’s performance style, as well as her problematic relationships with African Americans offstage. Ammen’s careful exploration of how coon songs reinforced the burgeoning image of the “urban Negro, ready with a razor to cut anyone who dares encroach on his territory” (108) is well-integrated with her explication of Irwin’s performance style, especially in light of the racist paternalism she displayed toward African Americans in interviews.

Indeed, Irwin’s offstage persona is the subject for chapters five and six. In the fifth chapter, Ammen looks at how Irwin turned the private activities of homemaking into a central aspect of her public image. The heart of this chapter is her analysis of Irwin’s cookbook, which included not only recipes but also jokes, anecdotes, and cartoons. Again, Ammen is careful to point out that while Irwin was certainly not the first (nor the last) celebrity to use her fame to sell books, it was the depth of her commitment to connect her domesticity to her professional career that set her apart. Chapter six, on the other hand, examines Irwin’s activities in the public sphere, particularly in politics. The bulk of this chapter is dedicated to Irwin’s support for women’s suffrage, and her related distaste for the temperance movement. Ammen ascribes Irwin’s freedom to espouse her more Progressive opinions without suffering the same backlash that other performers experienced to her facility with women’s sense of humor, “and the connection of this humor to self-awareness rather than feelings of superiority” (149).

The final chapter focuses primarily on life after her retirement from the stage, which wound down during the 1920s. Financially sound thanks to her prudent investing, Irwin turned her attentions to upstate New York where she actively tended to her farm until suffering a stroke in 1937 and passing the following year. Ammen concludes the chapter with a brief summary of Irwin’s strategies “that enabled her to establish and sustain her popularity” (170), which she once again connects to Irwin’s association with coon songs, highlighting the casual racism that pervaded these performances.

The body of the text is well-written and thoroughly researched, and the author is clearly devoted to her subject; however, there is an epilogue that does not seem to fit with the rest of the study. In this section, Ammen describes two performances she created and performed using Irwin’s material in a contemporary setting. While the premise of reading audience reaction to Irwin’s performance is interesting, the author’s choice to present this as a slimmed-down qualitative study is unsatisfying. This section of the text deserves more attention from the author, but in a different venue, and with more depth.

This text, which arrives alongside new biographies of women in American theatre like Ellen Stewart and Ruth Malaczech, offers an historical counterpoint to these more contemporary figures. In exploring the means by which Irwin maintained her place in American popular entertainment, Ammen also connects to continuing research into the history of minstrelsy in popular culture. There are many deserving figures from this era who are just waiting to be (re)discovered, and one can only hope that the scholars who do so treat their subject with the care that Ammen gives May Irwin.

Franklin J. Lasik
Independent Scholar

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 30, Number 1 (Fall 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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