Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts

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Men have been dressing as women on stage for hundreds of years, dating back to the thirteenth century when the Church forbade the appearance of female actors but condoned that of men and boys disguised as the opposite sex. Forms of travestism can be traced back to the dawn of theatre and are found in all corners of the world, notably in China and Japan.

In recent years, of course, drag has witnessed a dramatic and widespread revival. Newsday recently observed, People are talking about all those fabulous heterosexual film idols who now can't seem to wait to get tarted up in drag and do their screen bits as fishnet queens. Drawing on a cinematic tradition popularized by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot, Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie) and Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire) have each delighted mainstream audiences with their portrayals of women. Even former drag queens have experience newfound fame; witness the recent popularity of the late Divine, renowned for her oddly compelling appearances in underground John Waters films.

Music, too, has been profoundly influenced by drag sensibility, from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Rocky Horror Picture Show to Boy George and RuPaul (the self- proclaimed Supermodel of the World).

Tracing drag tradition from the Golden Age of stage transvestism during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I in England to the current quasi-drag inclinations of American grunge bands, Drag is an entertaining overview of this popular and complex medium.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Listing examples of female impersonators in recent entertainment is no difficult task: Tootsie; Mrs. Doubtfire; The Crying Game or television's Bosom Buddies. Think of Boy George, David Bowie, RuPaul. Anyone who believes these often flamboyant and controversial characters are a recent manifestation would be well-advised to read late British writer Baker's fun, informative and revealing historical tour. Having emerged from church pageants, the theater was (like the church itself) dominated by men. Men got the female parts for centuries, including original portrayals of Shakespeare's Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Desdemona. When actresses came into their own during the Restoration era, the man in drag moved to burlesquewhere they tended to remain. Although almost entirely about female impersonation, there is a some mention of opera's trouser roles (Cherubino, Octavian, etc.). Likewise, the focus is Western, despite a chapter on Japanese and Chinese female impersonators. Baker spices his text with a gentle, appealing cynicism. (Talking about the corrupting influence of Elizabethan theaters, he notes, ``Presumably countless grandmothers were hastily buried on the afternoons when Tamburlaine the Great or Macbeth were being played.'') Baker's voice is a strong one, making Drag a quiet, funny and superbly documented study that should appeal to a variety of readers. Photos. (Mar.)
Jack Helbig
British gay journalist Baker had finished two-thirds of this book, a much-needed updating of a 1968 original, when he suddenly died in November 1993 of complications of emphysema and Beijing flu. Two colleagues completed it, which is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because Baker's work is exceptionally well researched and written in an absorbing, authoritative manner that makes the book hard to put down; a curse because Peter Burton and Richard Smith, though clearly knowledgeable and capable journalists, can't equal Baker's vigor. The last third of the book pales by comparison with the first 200 pages. Still, it certainly would have been a loss if this mostly finely written history of female impersonation had never seen the light of day, especially since, for the first time in centuries, it is possible to discuss issues of cross-dressing and gender bending free of the kind of religious moralizing (and related moralistic psychologizing) that used to make clear-eyed discussion of them impossible.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814712535
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/1995
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.82 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Author of books on Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe, the late Roger Baker wrote on a wide range of cultural topics for an equally wide range of publications, from The Times to Gay News and Gay Times.

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Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors
Introduction 1
Pt. I The Rise and Fall of the Female Impersonator
1 Out of the Chancel, Into the Street 23
2 No Place for a Lady 33
3 Acting Style and the Sound of Juliet 46
4 Swinging Arden 56
5 Onnagata and Tan 65
6 Western Approaches 75
7 The Male Actress Takes Early Retirement 82
Pt. II Fantasies, Fairies and Follies
1 Diplomats in Dresses 99
2 Squalling Cats 109
3 Shame in the Ladies' Morgue 121
4 The Things that Are Done by a Nun 134
5 Amateurs 144
Pt. III The Rise and Rise of the Drag Queen
1 Enter Pursued by Laughter 161
2 Dames by the Dozen 172
3 All Legs and Limelight 184
4 Glamour Girls and Terrifying Termagants 199
5 Hollywood and Bust 225
6 Frock Tactics 236
Select Bibliography 265
Index 273
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