Philip Booth

  • Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts by Roger Baker
    Cassell, 284 pp, £35.00, December 1994, ISBN 0 304 32836 7

Nowadays it’s possible to make a career exclusively within gay journalism. Roger Baker, however, was a journalist of wide-ranging interests whose careful think-pieces were a strong feature of Gay News in the mid-Seventies, but who was just as comfortable writing for the Times. His books include studies of those gay icons Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe, but he also published works on exorcism and Israel. Sometimes his work wore trousers, sometimes a frock.

The first version of Drag appeared in 1968. Times have changed. Not only is popular culture now rich in images of cross-dressing, it has also become easier to write openly about homosexuality and therefore to explore more fully the relationship between sexual orientation and cross-dressing. Baker felt the need not only for a radical revision of his earlier work, but also for an extension into new areas. He died before he could finish the book, but the revision was more or less complete. Peter Burton and Richard Smith have added chapters on film, the gay scene and rock music, for which Baker had left notes. The result is not just about drag, nor yet about female impersonation, and doesn’t even confine itself to the performing arts.

Besides the contemporary pieces, Drag has fascinating material on early English drama, from the mystery plays to Elizabethan theatre and beyond, including educated speculation about the acting style and ability of the boys who created some of our greatest female roles. This introduces the concept of the male actress: a man playing the part of a woman because Church and society found it unacceptable for women to do the job themselves. There are chapters on the male actress in traditional Chinese and Japanese theatre, and their influence on Western 20th-century theatre and opera. The stories of various celebrated transvestites are told; there is a discussion of castrati, the occasion for a good deal of male impersonation when 18th-century operas are revived. The tale of a clerical transvestite leads to some examples of men dressing as nuns in opera and on film. A chapter entitled ‘Amateurs’ charts the re-emergence of the practice of men acting women’s roles in 19th-century amateur productions. There are sections on the pantomime dame, drama in boys’ schools and the post-war explosion of transvestite revues such as Soldiers in Skirts. Not wishing to miss the party, transsexuals also get a look-in.

Roger Baker’s own Introduction, describing the evolution of the book, also explores his own evolution in relation to the subject. Here he is on the personal qualities which he believes marred the 1968 edition:

an unwillingness to confront the homosexual connection; a rather blinkered, even dismissive view of the domestic transvestite; a curious need to take up what seem to me now to be quite inappropriate moral attitudes and to make negative value judgments ... All this reticence gave the book an oddly solemn tone with little sense of the anarchic fun that drag creates.

Baker tells us that, in 1968, he hoped to make his subject more acceptable to the general reader by keeping to the context of theatre. This forces me to ask what exactly it is about the theatre which makes cross-dressing more palatable. Is there some meaningful link between cross-dressing and theatre, over and above the process of playing a part? Baker wonders too what goes on in the minds of the audience when confronted with a man in a frock – do they know that this is ‘really’ a man, and what do they do with that knowledge when, for example, he/she plays a heterosexual love scene? The question remains under-explored, despite Richard Smith’s assertion that David Bowie and Mick Jagger in their gender-ambivalent days ‘caused more than a few confusing erections’. Sadly he doesn’t give sources.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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