U 12.1226-8: - Twenty to one, says Lenehan. Such is life in an outhouse. Throwaway, says he. Takes the biscuit, and talking about bunions. Frailty, thy name is Sceptre. [...]
Lenehan’s jokey style abounds in wordplay and comic allusion. One expression that has passed the annotators undetected is "talking about bunions". This apparently nonsensical and Lenehanesque expression dates back to the theatre of the 1860s, and is another link between Joyce and Lord Dundreary (of the celebrated "dundrearies" or long side whiskers: U 14.889) and the punning burlesque-writer Henry James Byron (see Shine on, Harvest Moon).
Lord Dundreary made his first appearance on stage in October 1858, on Broadway. The character of a foppish English lord with eccentric dress, manners, and speech was intended as a minor attraction in Thomas Taylor’s Our American Cousin. The part was offered to the jobbing and not particularly successful English actor – then seeking fame and fortune in America – Edward Askew Sothern. Sothern reluctantly took the part and had little impact during the first few weeks of the play’s run at Laura Keene’s Theatre. But it is said that he grew into and shaped the part, building up the whimsical fop by writing amusing new lines, developing his stammer, lisp, and skipping walk, and gradually emerging as the star of the show.
Sothern’s success with the character was repeated in Britain and Ireland, and also in New Zealand – but not in France. The eccentric English gentleman puzzled the Parisians. Such was the success of the character elsewhere that Sothern wrote or co-wrote or cajoled others to write sequels which were essentially vehicles for his Dundreary character.
Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary (Wikimedia Commons)
Sothern was regularly in Dublin. The Freeman’s Journal of 15 October 1864 advertises his engagement at the Theatre Royal:
Theatre Royal, Dublin. –
Positively for Six Nights only, commencing on Monday,
In Monday and Tuesday, October 17 and 18.
Our American Cousin.
Lord Dundreary … … Mr Sothern,
To coincide with the laughable Farce of
A Regular Fix.
Mr Hugh de Brass … … Mr. Sothern.
On Wednesday, October 19,
The New Comedy of David Garrick.
David Garrick … … Mr. Sothern.
Lord Dundreary Married and Settled.
Lord Dundreary … … Mr. Sothern.
The significance of this lies in the new one-act sequel Lord Dundreary Married and Settled performed on 19 October 1864.1 This had been written by Sothern, with help from the established playwright Henry Byron. Its comedy centred around Dundreary’s marriage and subsequent difficulties with his new wife’s friends and her mother. When Sothern took the play to New York in 1873 the Herald of 4 April, p. 6, reported:
The piece is a roaring farce as absurd and funny as possible. Mr. Sothern, as Lord Dundreary, gave the old part its old interpretation, but under other circumstances, and with different surroundings. Some of Dundreary's observations are very droll. "Speaking of bunions," he says to his wife, "how is your mother?" Of course the house is vastly amused at a remark as opportune and betraying so much of the tender and solicitous son-in-law.2
Sothern appeared regularly in the play in Dublin. The Freeman’s records him there in October 1868, and in 1874 it relates how Michael and John Gunn, kings of Dublin theatre management
telegraphed to Mr. Sothern to San Francisco, asking him to accept an engagement at the Royal, and the affair was quickly and satisfactorily settled by the agency of the electric wire. The engagement is sure to be a popular one. Dundreary and David Garrick are impersonations of world-wide fame.
Freeman's Journal (1874) 7 August
Sothern was back at the Gaiety in Dublin (managed by Michael Gunn) ten years later in 1884, with Our American Cousin, Sam Dundreary’s Brother, and the "screaming farce" Dundreary Married and Settled, just a couple of column inches above a report of the Misses Flynn’s annual concert at the Antient Concert Rooms, at which Bartle McCarthy and “Mr. J S Joyce” (Joyce’s father) were performing.3
Lord Dundreary’s catchphrases were well-known in Britain, Ireland, and America. The Decatur (Illinois) Daily Republican (1881) 17 June 1 had listed, amongst its "Authentic Sayings of Great Men":
"Talking of bunions, how’s your mother?" – Socrates.
The Daily Astorian (Astoria, Oregon) (1883) 5 May records a development of the expression:
Talking about bunions, it may be in order to ask how that Clatsop road project is coming on.
and over the next few years the Daily Astorian seemed to take quite a shine to the expression. See, for example:
Talking of bunions, how about these fire insurance rates? Are Astorians going to keep on passing their surplus profits into the pockets of San Francisco $10,000 a year gentlemen, or shall we have an insurance company of our own?
Daily Astorian (Astoria, Oregon) (1889) 10 December, p. 3
As late as 1915 Sothern’s son, interviewed when reprising the role himself, spoke of his father’s jokes – and of how they were not new even in the 1860s:
The three tickler in "Lord Dundreary" are not new, of course. Mr. Sothern merely claims they are pretty blamed funny, and he just wants to see anybody write a joke that can beat them.
Here they are:
First - Speaking of bunions, how is your mother?
Second – Why does a dog wag its tail? Because its body is heavier than its tail.
Third – He cures new ralgia. Yours is old.
Evening World (1915) 6 December
The expression is an amusing device for introducing a new topic which is apparently (and typically whimsically) linked to the previous one. In extended use it moves from meaning "while we are on the subject of …" to "apropos of nothing…"), in line with Dundreary’s distracted and "innocent" style. Dundreary links bunions and his mother-in-law; Lenehan follows bunions with an oblique reference to women in general and to the ill-fated five-year-old mare Sceptre in particular (“Frailty, thy name is woman! – A little month, or ere those shoes were old […]).
So Lenehan’s "talking about bunions" can be traced back to the Dublin and New York stage. It turns out to be another of the evocative expressions that Joyce put into the mouth of Lenehan from the world of comic theatrical entertainment.
1 A published version of the short sequel has not yet been located in the standard bibliographical sources.
2 Cf. Zoe’s apparently nonsensical expression in Ulysses: “thank your mother for the rabbits”.
3 For further information on the career of Sothern see Lord Dundreary: A Memoir of Edward Askew Sothern by T. Edgar Pemberton, with a brief sketch of the Career of E. H. Sothern: the Knickerbocker Press, New York (?1908), and F. G. De Fontaine, Birds of a Feather Flock Together or Talks with Sothern (G. W. Carleton & Co.: New York, 1878). Michael Hart, on whom Joyce drew for Lenehan’s character, was involved with Gunn and the Dublin theatre world (see Gallant Michael Hart).
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