Thursday, December 21, 2006

The literature of transthingummy -- part 1


Events conspire. Have you noticed that? In this case there was Grayson Perry -- twice. Then there was the April Ashley thing. And finding out that Paul O'Grady is shortly to become a grandfather. And of course it's Christmas; or whatever you care to call it. All of these, and probably several other factors that I can't remember at the moment, conspired to remind me that for months I have been intending to write about the literature of transthingummy.

I say transthingummy because there are various bits that go after trans. There's transvestism, and transsexuality, and nowadays you also get transgender, which is, I think, the more academic and PC term. In the US theatrical context, we also have something known as genderfuck.

All of these things have to do with men wearing women's clothes, women dressing as men, and men and women actually trying to change sex, or gender if you must, through surgical procedures. And this is not, I will admit, everyone's cup of tea, but there is an aful lot of it about, particularly in England (it seems to me), and particularly at this time of year, because it's the panto season; of which more in a moment.

The whole trans thing is also, I will also admit, a phenomenon that I have been interested in for decades. No, dear, I don't borrow anything of Mrs GOB's. Never had the slightest urge. Though I once appeared as a woman in a schoolboy play. But I have, at various times, come across people with some strange habits and ambitions, and I have written about them occasionally, though usually in a fictional context.

So, what we have in this post today is a quick canter through some aspects of the transthingummy phenomenon, beginning, because of the time of year, with reference to theatrical events in England. There will, however, be occasional references to the US scene.

This survey will, I regret to say, be distinctly lacking in academic rigour. This is not a paper to be delivered at next spring's conference in Vienna on Postmodern Role Confusion in the Modern Theatre. It is just a few thoughts, straight off the top of my head, with the titles of a few interesting books and links to web sites, should you be short of something to read.


I will leave it to historians and social scientists to work out why, but it seems to me that, for several hundred years, the English have had a very peculiar approach to the representation of the sexes on stage; and, nowadays, in the other media.

This stems, I guess, from at least Elizabethan times. You may recall that, in the original productions of Shakespeare's plays, all the female parts, including Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, were played by men; or, perhaps more accurately, by boys.

The Elizabethan situation led to gender interchange as a plot device (Twelfth Night) and in modern times there was a reverse variation, so to speak, when Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet.

Rolling on, into the nineteenth century, we find that the music hall had a strong line in women who dressed as men. Of these, Vesta Tilley was possibly the most famous; but she was not altogether respectable, and it is said that, when Vesta appeared on stage at an early Royal Variety Show (in aid of charity), Queen Mary buried her head in the programme.

Examples of modern women performing as men are, it seems to me, less common, but in the US Murray Hill is a famous name, at least in some quarters. And one other performer making a name for herself in this 'drag king' area is Nicole LaGreca.

Drag queens, one commentator observes, are now family entertainment; drag kings, on the other hand, are still edgy and threatening; and, having read Nicole LaGreca's description of what happens when she plays an altar boy, I can understand why. (If you really want to know, a priest comes out and 'sucks her dick'.)

In the twentieth century, a number of variety performers made a very handsome living by playing female parts. There was, famously, Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan), and Norman Evans. You can find Norman's famous Over the Garden Wall routine on the web these days, and I almost know it off by heart. Audiences did too, because he'd toured it for years. But everything, of course, depended on the timing and the characterisation. On paper it probably doesn't look very funny. And it's all very northern working class, too. Not everyone's thing.

It is in the English pantomime that we find the most elaborate and glamorous interchange of sexual roles. The pantomime, I may need to explain for those in the US, is a theatrical performance, put on for perhaps six weeks from just before Christmas, which is built around a traditional folk tale or nursery rhyme. See Wikipedia for a pretty good introductory article.

The pantomime is, above all else, an entertainment for the whole family, particularly for the children, which makes the gender interchange all the more odd.

The heroine, you see (let's say Cinderella), is always played by an attractive young woman. But her significant other, in this case Prince Charming, is always played by an equally glamorous, but perhaps slightly older, young woman. Our hero, known as the Principal Boy (despite being a girl) normally dresses in a short masculine tunic, fancy hat, and fishnet tights which show off her legs to great advantage.

I pause here while I distractedly remember some of the Principal Boys whom I have seen, and fancied something rotten, in the past. Time was, you see, when we didn't favour the anorexic look, and principal boys had thighs that could crack a man's skull. Lynda Baron (if memory serves) was the best. Ronnie Barker, a man with considerable good taste in these matters, must have thought so too, because she ended up playing Nurse Gladys Emmanuel. The mere memory develops beads of sweat on one's brow.

Next, we have the Dame. The Dame is an older woman, well past her prime but still game for anything, and she is invariably played by a man. Mutton dressed as lamb, with lots of costume changes, which can be exhausting, one gathers.

Famous dame characters include Mother Goose and Widow Twankey. Famous actors who have done dames include Douglas Byng, Berwick Kaler, and, more recently, Sir Ian McKellen.

In Edinburgh last year, I saw (and reviewed here) a play (Twinkle Little Star) about a pantomime dame. Finding himself demoted in the panto in order to give more time on stage to some talentless Australian soap star, the dame arranged for said soap star to come to a grisly end when turning on the Christmas lights in the city where the panto was to take place. It's a good play; see it if you can.

In some pantos, other parts are also played by actors of the 'wrong' sex. Thus in Cinderella, the ugly sisters might be played by a couple of blokes in drag: e.g. Alan Haynes and Danny La Rue, Barry Howard and John Inman.

Mention of drag brings us round once again to the drag queen aspect of transthingummy. Drag queens, outside of pantomime, are by no means an English phenomenon, but we do seem to have quite a plethora of them, and they contrive to be popular despite being in what might, in an earlier age, have been described as poor taste.

Possibly the most successful drag artist in the UK was Danny la Rue. His 1974 book Life's a Drag! is still around secondhand. More recently, Paul O'Grady hosted TV shows in his Lily Savage persona ('We were poor, but we were shoplifters'; and, 'Why buy a book when you can join the library?'); though nowadays he is his usual self for his extremely successful afternoon chat show (he alternates with Richard and Judy).

That will do for now. Yes, I realise that we haven't mentioned Foo Foo Lamar, and many others. Neither have we, you will observe, touched upon non-theatrical transvestism, still less the difficult and painful surgical procedures involved in so-called sex changes. Those matters must await our attention, if you can bear it, on another day.

Further reading:

Roger Baker: Drag: a history of female impersonation on the stage. Macdonald, 1968
Peter Ackroyd: Dressing up -- transvestism and drag, the history of an obsession. Thames & Hudson, 1979


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Anonymous said...

To quote Goodhart, "transvestism is a highly personal and often closely guarded aspect of many practitioners' lives." I more than welcome that.

Anonymous said...

I will leave it to historians and social scientists to work out why, but it seems to me that, for several hundred years, the English have had a very peculiar approach to the representation of the sexes on stage; and, nowadays, in the other media.

I have to say, as a historian, that when my work forced me to think in English for a while, I choose to speak it with a vague transatlantic accent. Rather than opting for the RP, that I was taught at school.

There's something effeminate about the British accent.

Anonymous said...

I am a regular viewer of the American daytime drama (soap opera) All My Children. They recently introduced a character who is going to reveal that he always saw himself as a woman. This made big news here in the staid USA, to have AMC introduce a transgender (their term) character. Even more disconcerting to redneck America is that the proposed storyline will have him become a her as he/she falls in love with a lesbian character on the show.

Jon said...

And something should be said about Dame Edna Everage, who appears over time to have taken over poor Barrie Humphries just as Mr Hyde took over poor Dr. Jekyll. This loathesome creation now appears on Australian stamps and narrates children's CDs like Peter and the Wolf, while the puppeteer behind her recedes ever-faster into obscurity.

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