Hajdu, with artist John Carey, chronicles the lives of three early 20th-century performers in A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay, and Julian Eltinge (Columbia Univ., Sept.). Hajdu and Carey were also interviewed on the More to Come podcast.
Can you tell us about the three figures at the center of this book?
Over a hundred years ago a handful of artists were engaged with issues about gender, identity, race, and sex in ways that we think of as utterly 21st century. Among them is the fluidity of gender identity. When we consider Julian Eltinge, we consider how gender is something imposed or constructed. He established this idea to women that, “Oh, if this guy can embody the feminine ideal, then I can too.” But upon closer inspection, in what Eltinge passed off as his private life, he was being equally performative, a kind of turn-of-the-20th-century masculine ideal.
Bert Williams, who was Black, had to perform in blackface. He altered blackface by increments, but those increments were significant. He changed the way the general population thought about African Americans. He brought a humanity to his performances: subtlety and complexity.
Eva Tanguay was a proto-feminist, sort of the Lady Gaga of her time. In the post-Victorian era she challenged every preceptive feminine propriety. She was sexually free, independent, strong-willed, dynamic. She changed America’s ideas of womanhood.
What led you to pursue the book as a graphic narrative?
The period is not well documented; there’s hardly any archival imagery. We thought the way to bring it to life would be through drawings; it needed to be depicted graphically because it was just so crazy and wild, and my collaborator, John Carey, would bring readers to another time and place in all its unruly fabulousness.
Do you have an overall takeaway from telling the stories of these performers from a pop cultural perspective?
I would hope readers come away inspired by these three artists (actually four, if you include Bert Williams’s partner, George Walker), who pursued their own ideas, their individual visions in the face of opposition at every turn. They each sought to do something that there was no place for, and then they made a place to do what they wanted to do through perseverance and sheer force of will, as well as talent. I like to think that people will find that inspiring.
We also wanted to reposition vaudeville, present it as something other than this corny, old-fashioned landscape of straw hats, twirling canes, doing a soft-shoe. Vaudeville was actually a wild free-for-all where anything could happen. A lot of strange, transgressive stuff happened on the vaudeville stage.