Apologies for my absence; I’ve been busy as hell with lots of amazing theatre projects… but that’s what I want to talk about today.
I have, in recent weeks, found myself thrust into the world of drag performance. I am in a production of Molière’s The Reluctant Doctor, where I play the busty nurse-maid; I am also co-directing a production of Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party, which originally stared the playwright as a 15-year-old wannabe surfer girl à la Gidget (only with a liberal sprinkling of Mommie Dearest thrown in for good measure). After dick jokes, drag is perhaps one of the most lasting comic motifs. But drag is neither specifically comic, nor a drag. Discuss.
Drag started, at least in Western cultures, out of theatrical convention. As I’ve already discussed, women usually get the short shrift in comedy, but this also goes for theatre. Generally speaking, having women on stage is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, theatrical convention often said that all roles were to be played in drag; in Shakespeare’s time, women were played by boys, while men were played by, well, men. This is why most of Shakespeare’s women, even the leads (Juliet, Lady Macbeth, etc.) generally have fewer lines than the men: the actors were less skilled because they were younger. For Molière, who was around at the birth of the actress, plays suddenly had to change. Sexy young ingenues were all the rage; audiences wanted to see beautiful young women on stage, and playwrights wanted to write young women into their plays. But what of all the actors who had made careers playing women? Enter the old maid character: the patently unattractive matron who somehow garners the attention of the bumbling protagonist.
In Japan, we have Kabuki. The performance style is etymologically rooted in a sense of leaning away from the ordinary, so in many ways, you could call it queer. Rooted in stylized singing, dancing, and movement, Kabuki started as performance by women (many of whom also offered other… ahem… services). Women were soon banned from performing because their sexual allure was too distracting, and they were replaced by boys. Of course, the problem continued, and the boys were eventually replaced by men.
But what about comedy? When you think of drag and comedy, you might think of a number of modern images…
The Kids in the Hall. Monty Python. Mrs. Doubtfire. Hairspray. Tootsie. Divine. Pink Flamingos. Victor/Victoria. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The Birdcage. Ja’mie. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Some Like it Hot. Eddie Izzard. Dame Edna.
And no, I’m not going to talk about She’s the Man, so don’t ask.
Ugh. Sorry about that. Moving on.
We recognize these cultural touchstones instantly, and when we see drag characters, we know we’re probably supposed to laugh. But where does drag humor come from? Well, as it turns out, that’s a complicated question with no single answer. Today, drag is closely associated with Camp… but what is Camp? There are lots of definitions and analyses out there, so let’s table that discussion, but we can look to Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp“ for a quick fix: “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” which she suggests is done in part through detachment. I’d say Camp embraces the ideas, individuals, and identities that lie outside the narrow realm of acceptance, and then upends cultural and social expectations, reversing established values and mainstream conventions. In other words, Camp flips convention on its head.
Drag could be so associated with humor because of the Incongruity Theory, which suggests that we laugh when two things are jarringly and incongruously placed together. Our realization of the dissonance sparks laughter — we expect one thing, but we are presented with another. Or, perhaps more acutely, we laugh because of “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” [that’s Kant, by the way]. All comedy requires a reversal, and drag is reversal embodied.
There is of course a difference between drag performers — who use the costume and persona for entertainment — and cross-dressing in general… it’s the difference between costume and identity. The language surrounding drag performance is very specific, but then you have something like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has brought the art of drag to the public eye like never before, though it’s not without its own controversies.
Speaking of controversy, there are strange catches to drag performance, especially in America. There’s a bizarre phenomenon where many major Black male comedians end up having to do a drag role at some point. There seems to be an expectation that, if you are a Black comedian, then drag is inevitable, whereas for white comedians, it is much more of an artistic choice. Dave Chappelle explains his attitude toward this phenomenon:
But what happens when drag isn’t an obligation, a utilitarian choice, or something meant to get laughs on its own? There is a subversive edge to drag that is often subsumed by the more flashy aspects of drag performance: enter Panti Bliss and Pieter-Dirk Uys.
I saw Ireland’s drag queen par excellence, Panti Bliss (whose real name is Rory O’Neill), two years ago when I was in Dublin and was blown away by her performance — she works in the self-described field of “gender discombobulation.”
I then learned that Panti is also an “accidental and occasional” activist for LGBTQ rights. Check out her recent “call to action” at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
It’s a beautiful and moving speech, in which the issue of hiding and blending in are brought to the forefront of the discussion. Panti makes the case that through drag performance, we can erase the need for invisibility and camouflage. It’s a powerful moment, and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Panti’s activism. Not to mention she puts on a damn good show.
In South Africa, performer and activist Pieter-Dirk Uys has been fighting injustice and ignorance for decades.
Uys was born in 1945, just before the Apartheid era became fully institutionalized in South Africa; he is the son of an Afrikaner father and a Jewish mother. This placed him at a bizarre crossroads of superiority and the Other. During Apartheid, there was no shortage of protests, embargoes, demonstrations, and denunciations of the Afrikaner minority rule and the blatant racial discrimination and segregation. But for all this effort, little actually changed…
Uys realized that Apartheid had been so pervasive that it had entirely warped the national way of thinking; there was no fighting it. Since there was no point in directing his satire at the thing itself — at the Apartheid — he turned his satire inward. He looked at the symptoms of Apartheid: ignorance, denial, lies, and the like. His most famous drag character is the Afrikaner socialite Evita Bezuidenhout, whose good intentions are always upended by ignorance and naïveté (think Lindsay Bluth).
What is perhaps most amazing about Uys’ Evita is that Nelson Mandela views her as one of his heroes.
I’ll repeat that. Evita Bezuidenhout was Nelson “The Hammer” Mandela’s hero [Note: I don’t know if “The Hammer” was Mandela’s actual nickname, but I’m going with it]. Let that sink in a minute. A culture and society dissolved by racism, hatred, and ignorance, in its earliest days of rebuilding and healing, turned to Nelson Mandela, who in turn, turned to a drag performer.
That’s the power of this sort of humor in drag performance — it has the ability to heal wounds that run centuries deep. Today, Uys is so big that he can go to schools as himself, talk to the kids, and in the course of his “performance,” start changing into a wig, earrings, etc., and the kids don’t giggle and make fun — they cheer, they applaud, they recognize that the transformation into Evita is only moments away and they’re excited. Try that in America and watch the hate-filled comments and parental complaints fly. Seriously, though. Check out Evita’s interview with Mandela:
After the cessation of Apartheid, Uys turned his satire toward the other unstoppable threat to South Africa: HIV and AIDS. In an interview on NPR, he describes his early comedy as a fight against “the virus of Apartheid”: “It was [a virus], and many, many people died, and there was no cure.” This made the transition to dealing with HIV and AIDS in post-Apartheid South Africa a relatively simple shift. “Once upon a time, we had a government that killed people. Now we have a government who lets them die.” I think that these jokes work because they operate in that dangerous space between understanding and incongruity, but they reveal some hidden truth that we may have been too blind to see until that moment. Panti’s speech above is drawn from experiences of fear and anxiety, and that is exactly what Uys is trying to combat.
“Humor, again, is my traditional cultural weapon, my weapon of mass distraction. The moment you laugh at your fear you make that fear less fearful. It never becomes less lethal, but it’s not 20 feet high, it’s maybe 20 inches.” — Pieter-Dirk Uys, The Connection
Uys and Panti utilize the conventions of drag performance to combat injustices and oppression. If drag operates in a sort of middle ground of incongruity, where we must hold an ambivalent attitude toward opposing images, ideas, and concepts, then drag humor uses that same ambivalence to knock us in between the eyes and demand that we wake up. Sometimes, it’s just to wake up for a laugh (hey, look, some folks doing something interesting with gender identity!), but in the hands of skilled performers, it can be a call to arms against the status quo. I think it’s best summed up in Uys’ attitude toward his own humor: “I don’t do jokes. But the truth is pretty funny.”