Sarah Balkin – “The boundless exaggeration uttered most demurely”: Deadpan before Deadpan


Sarah Balkin

University of Melbourne

“The boundless exaggeration uttered most demurely”: Deadpan before Deadpan

Scholars often cite the first recorded instance of a term or phrase—in the Oxford English Dictionary or in John S. Farmer’s 1891 Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, for example—in order to help historicize a given phenomenon. This practice helps us avoid anachronistically projecting our own concepts and definitions back onto a past to which they may be inapplicable. Nonetheless, in this paper I ask what can be gained by taking the emergence of a term as an endpoint rather than a beginning. My current research traces the historical emergence of deadpan, a performance of seriousness or normalcy intended to inspire laughter. The first recorded use of the term “deadpan” was in 1927, but the gap between subject matter and style of delivery as a central aspect of comedy, I argue, developed about a century earlier in a transatlantic context. I pay particular attention to the terminology reviewers, theatregoers, and artists used to describe comic styles I understand as emergent deadpan. For example, in January 1867 the English poet and critic Gerald Massey described “the racy and hilarious yet matter-of-fact hyperbole…the boundless exaggeration uttered most demurely, the knowing unconsciousness” of American humor in the Quarterly Review. Historicizing deadpan in this way, I argue, presents methodological opportunities for understanding a style during the century before it was named. It also suggests how historical evidence, including performance ephemera and textual descriptions of style, can reveal structures of feeling that developed alongside and competed with nineteenth-century investments in authenticity, earnestness, and composure.

Sarah Balkin is a Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Spectral Characters: Genre and Materiality on the Modern Stage (University of Michigan Press 2019) and articles on nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first-century literature, theatre, and performance. Her current research examines the historical emergence of deadpan performance (1830-1930) and its derivations in contemporary queer and feminist comedy.