For many the image of a woman performing stand-up comedy seems like a fairly modern phenomenon, especially when listening to the constantly reoccurring debate as to whether or not women are funny. With strict ideas about a womans place being ‘in the home’ and backlashes against platform women and the fight for Women’s suffrage, the Victorian music hall would certainly not look like an obvious timeframe in which to begin an exploration of Women’s history in comedy. However, the enormous success, earning power and interesting material of the female serio-comic on the music hall stage gives us a complex insight into our comedy history. Serio-comics were performers who produced a mix of comic and serious songs and sketches, interspersed with patter and audience interaction. They relied heavily on topical and satirical comic songs and their material can be seen as an embryonic form of the stand-up comedy we enjoy today. These serio-comics would perform their material on the music hall stage as part of a variety bill during which acts such as dancers, acrobats, scenes from ballets and operas and animal acts would perform to a largely working class audience.
One of the most famous of these serio-comics was Jenny Hill (1848-1896) – known as “The Vital Spark.” Hill’s career began when she was 7 and played the legs of the goose in mother goose! Her most notable solo serio-comic successes occurred between 1870 and 1894 and it was during this time that she became one of the highest paid performers on the British stage earning as much as £80 for twelve nights work as well as having regular benefits held in her honour. At these benefits she was presented with gifts such as diamond rings and broaches. She performed a rich variety of material, mainly focusing on representing the lives and work of working class women but also including highly political songs (one seeing her perform as a female politician), upper class male personation and drinking songs. Although the press at the time constantly tried to belittle her achievements her reputation, tireless self-promotion though advertising and immense success throughout the country make her an intriguing and exciting lens through which to revaluate music hall and women’s contribution to comedy and performance.
– Lola Wingrove, theatre historian and writer for The Vital Spark