Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Gay Old Time Part 2

You'll recall I was getting a little hot under my winged collar yesterday about the mean-spiritedness of male theatrical drag. Probably someone's already written a book about this. I hope so. It makes me really cross that men, having corralled women into limited modes of experience and expression, then assume permission to lampoon at will the stereotype of their own creation. 

Men, theatrically disguised as women, play out every neurosis their imagination will allow. This reinforces a vision of women as hysterics because the audience does not think of these performers as 'men'. They are laughing at 'women' and they feel free to do so because they think they are witnessing extremes of 'female' behaviour - narcissism, sluttishness, victimhood and selfishness. 

It seems some men desperately want to express emotional abandon and neediness but cannot get away with it as men amongst men, even gay men. And we women cannot redirect this back to men because there is no way of saying, 'please stop trying to be us in order to work out what you are'.

I've seen plenty of drag acts over the years. I actually saw Danny La Rue albeit relatively late in his long career. I found his act a bit pathetic but not nasty. Danny La Rue was the last of the old skool drag queens. Something meaner and leaner was just around the corner. It seems to me that drag in a post-feminist world is a place where gay and straight men have forged a new alliance over a common enemy - an imagined resurgent matriarchy. Little Britain is the realisation of this fantasy. But where did this all come from? 

The theatrical tradition of men playing female roles goes back to the Greek origins of theatre. Women were not allowed to appear on stage and their characters were interpreted by men. It was the beginning of a very long traditional in which women were voiced by men in their, and our, joint story. 

Shakespeare creatively exploited the Elizabethan rule outlawing women players and, by necessity, popularised the concept of 'drag' in English theatre as we know it. His comedies often deployed the trope of cross-dressing to enable a love-lorn character to gain access to, or the confidence of a desired one. The sophistication with which he manoeuvred around this legal obstacle is simply breathtaking, and its resonance quite possibly incalculable. We all love the beauty and power of Shakespeare's dramatisation, but most of us now think that a notional society in which real women are expected to assume an invisibility is absurd. 

In modern English pantomime, the part of 'the dame' is usually played by a portly old man and the 'principal boy' is usually played by a slender young woman. This convention is a direct descendant of the Shakespearean construct of revealed disguise. You get the odd disingenuous dame, but rarely is it an evil portrayal. Pantomime is a family thing and audiences don't want some fat old ex-soap hack taking the piss out of their Nana. And the young woman who plays 'principal boy' is the 'hero' in every respect. 

On yesterday's post I put up a picture of Vesta Tilley, one of English music hall's biggest stars. In common with many great stage stories, the signature idea on which her fame floated is a hearts-winning whim. As a child performer she was directed to present a song parody of a famous male opera singer of the day. She did it in a tiny tux to huge acclaim and later said, 'I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.' And Vesta Tilley might well have believed it the age of 6 when her impresario father first put her in that tiny tux. Tilley went on to have a huge career as a male impersonator. 

The song I'd always associated with Vesta Tilley is Burlington Bertie (written by Harry B Norris in 1900 - see yesterday's picture). When I searched for the original lyrics I came up with a 1915 version written by the American William Hargreaves for his wife, Ella Shields. And video of her performance appears above for your entertainment. 

I realised that this version is the one I'd learned a few years ago. It's a song that predates even the birth of QEII but it contains the amusing lines,

I stand in the yard while they're changing the guard,
And the Queen shouts across, 'Toodle oo!'
And the Prince of Wales' brother along some other,
Slaps me on the back and says, 'Come and see Mother,'
I'm Bert, Bert, and royalty's hurt,
When they ask me to dine I say no.
I've just had a banana with Lady Diana*
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow.

*the 1915 version refers to Lady Diana Cooper. The prescience of this verse was underlined in a 1981 Royal Variety Performance performed by Anita Harris. 

The history of women impersonating men on stage is, in the short time it's been allowed, overwhelmingly gentle. Obviously there's not much in the male costume that can be exaggerated. But women who've parodied men on stage have gone for the toffs - as Vesta Tilley did. The men who caricature women tend to go for the throat rather than the collar.