The Structure

The minstrel show, as it was established by the 'Christy Minstrels' and copied by all the other minstrel troupes in the 50s and 60s, consisted of two large parts. The first part started with the entry march of the whole company until the typical semi-circular line-up was reached. The Interlocutor, who served as the master of ceremony, always had the centre position; Tambo and Bones, the other two main characters, were at the two ends of the line-up and therefore called 'endmen'.

The entry march was followed by joking exchanges between the Interlocutor and the endmen and a series of comic and sentimental songs. The first part concluded with a walk-around, which was later called 'cake-walk'; a dance where each member of the company did a kind of specialty act in the middle of the semi-circle. This walk-around was a very characteristic feature of the minstrel show.

This illustration shows the typical line-up. On the left Bones, next to him the wench character, in the center the Interlocutor, next to the right another Minstrel with a banjo, and finally on the right Tambo, named after the tambourin he is holding in his hand.

The second part, which was also called 'olio', was a kind of miscellaneous section. It offered a lot of different specialty acts, which comprised various acrobatic, musical and dance performances, 'wench numbers' and all kinds of novelties, and was very close to variety shows and vaudeville. But the stump speech was the distinctive feature of this part of the show. At the end of the second part the so-called 'afterpiece' was performed. In the early days this was mostly a scene set on a Southern plantation. But it also could be a burlesque of some classical drama (Shakespearean plays were quite frequently used) or a short farce of a contemporary play. Here the whole company again was involved, and so the afterpiece could be called the climax of each minstrel show.

(1) "Minstrel Show" , in: Richard Moody (ed.), Dramas from the American Theatre 1762-1909. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, pp. 475-500.


  © 2022 by Jochen Scheytt

Jochen Scheytt
is a teacher, pianist, composer, arranger and author. He teaches at the State University of Music and the Performing Arts Stuttgart and at the Schlossgymnasium in Kirchheim unter Teck.