A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay, and Julian Eltinge

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$19.95  $18.55
Columbia University Press
Publish Date
8.43 X 11.1 X 0.79 inches | 2.0 pounds

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About the Author

David Hajdu is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His books include Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (1996); Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (2001); The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (2008); and Adrianne Geffel: A Fiction (2020). John Carey is a painter and cartoonist. He was the editorial cartoonist for Greater Media Newspapers for many years. Michele Wallace is professor emerita of English at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her books include Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (1990).


This vivid book offers the tales and truths of pioneering performers who challenged the rules of race, gender, and sexuality. "Change the joke and slip the yoke," as Ralph Ellison said. And so they did, remaking American art and history and culture in the process.--Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland: A Memoir
Neither revolution nor radical are terms commonly associated with vaudeville. Yet Hajdu and Carey effectively illuminate the significance of three trailblazers who merit such rhetoric and who have been largely forgotten since vaudeville lost its audience to the movies . . . Hajdu's lively scholarship and critical perspective match Carey's spirited renderings, which range from ebullience to devastation. A sharp account that brings life and light to a period that has gone dark in popular memory.--Kirkus Reviews
A Revolution in Three Acts is an incredible work of historical scholarship, entertainment, and artistry.--Foreword Reviews
Using a format as episodic as the unique performance tradition they are depicting, David Hajdu and John Carey introduce readers to three figures who transformed vaudeville and defied the values of their age. Giving voice and images to these remarkable performers and their social and political milieu, we see Bert Williams convert the stereotypes of Blackness in what Frederick Douglass referred to as the 'pestiferous nuisance' of blackface minstrelsy into performances that depicted the pathos of Black people's experience in the racist and segregated US; Julian Eltinge's cross-dressed delineations of femininity reveal the fluidity and performativity of gender, and Eva Tanguay's embrace of the Salome character's sensuality signify 'new' women's rebellion against social constraints.--Lisa Merrill, author of When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators
Brimming with insight and graphic creativity, this is a highly engaging and informative history of three of the most transformative American performers of the early twentieth century: a Black man who subverted blackface by performing in it, a "wild woman" who "didn't care" about social convention, and a female impersonator who provided beauty advice to multitudes of American women. Hajdu and Carey deftly show us how, rather than being consigned to the margins, they made themselves unlikely stars of the most popular entertainment form of their day: vaudeville, the voice of the city.--George Chauncey, author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
David Hajdu and John Carey's A Revolution in Three Acts offers a thoroughly engrossing, kaleidoscopic historical portrait of three landmark entertainers: Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay, and Julian Eltinge, artists who challenged the presumptive rigidity of racial, gender, and class categories both off the stage as well as on it. With its crisp, vivid, animated narration, it is a book that illuminates the intersecting careers of these pathbreaking performers and the electrifying ways that they each used vaudeville as the space where American identity could be radically reimagined. A page-turner.--Daphne A. Brooks, author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound
A Revolution in Three Acts is a vivid window into a bygone era of American entertainment. Here is vaudeville and all its comic, dramatic, and tragic dimensions as witnessed in the lives of three of its most pivotal practitioners. David Hajdu and John Carey have not simply crafted an elegy for an art form, they have chronicled the figures whose talent made it great in the first place.--Jelani Cobb, author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic
Three amazing people--Bert Williams, a Black entertainer who pushed the boundaries of minstrelsy; Eva Tanguay, a sexually provocative and funny performer whose best-known song is about not caring what people thought of her; and Julian Eltinge, a cross-dressing vaudevillian who even had his own magazine--are the stars of this entertaining, thought-provoking work of graphic history.--Roz Chast, author of Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?