Stage, Screen, and Cross-Dressing Throughout History
As California Ballet Company gears up to perform Cinderella this May, two of our dancers are hard at work rehearsing in heels and skirts. Both of them are men. In this production of Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters are portrayed by male dancers. After sending out a recent email to our friends, fans, and patrons informing them of this particular brand of hilarity, we received back some replies that questioned our use of guys as gals. We decided the best way to answer them was to show how cross-dressing onstage has not only been around since antiquity, but how it has been widely accepted and hardly looked down upon.
The use of cross dressing in theater has been around since the time of the Greeks. Ancient Greece is unarguably the birthplace of modern western theater. In the annual Festival of Dionysus, people from all throughout Greece would gather in celebration of the Greek god of wine, theater, and revelry: Dionysus. Part of these festivals was a theater competition in which playwrights would present one comedy and a trilogy of tragedies, taking the entire day from sunup until sundown. The winner of the competition would receive huge amounts of money, and quite a lot of fame. Three of the greatest winners are Aeschylus, Socrates, and Euripides, and they told stories that we still see retold today such as that of Hercules (then called Heracles), Prometheus (who brought man fire), and Agamemnon (who fought in the Trojan war after sacrificing his own daughter).
Here’s the interesting thing: every single role in these plays were played by men! In Ancient Greece, it was unacceptable for women to perform in these plays. You see, the actors had to be citizens of Greece, and only land-owning men could be citizens. While not slaves, women had no rights as citizens. The reason only citizens could perform as actors: this whole theater festival was religious! The plays were a tribute to the Greek God Dionysus – the god of theater and, that’s right, women!
So, wait a minute . . . that means that this cross-dressing was mandated by religion? That’s right! And the Greeks weren’t the only ones.
Head a bit further east, and you come upon Japan. Now, the Japanese have had a religious form of theater in their culture since the 15th century known as Noh drama. Noh is a form of dance-drama, accompanied by a live band and vocalizations. The pace of Noh is incredibly slow by Western standards, and traditionally one performance takes an entire day! Noh tells stories of deities, warriors, clans, and more. They range from historical to spiritual, but the Shinto religion is at the center of this art form.
And guess what? Both male and female roles are played by men! That’s right, once again you have a form of theater that is religious in nature, and men cross-dress to perform as women.
Fast forward a hundred years in Japan and you find the more popular Kabuki theater. This form of Japanese drama is broad in style and broad in popularity, appealing to the Japanese masses from the outset. The performances are often ribald in nature, and led to an often rowdy audience. Kabuki, from the beginning, was purely entertainment. There was never a religious connection, and it was always intended for the masses. Kabuki plays were divided into three types: historical, domestic (telling tales of the commoner), and dance pieces.
Here’s the interesting part: Kabuki was originally performed by all women! That’s right, the women cross-dressed for the male roles. Performances were often relegated to Japanes red-light districts, and in fact, the women were often available as prostitutes. Nonetheless, cross-dressing rears it head again!
In the 17th century, women were outlawed from the stage in Japanese society. This was partly due to the prostitution that was connected to Kabuki theater. But this did not mean the end of Kabuki. Can you guess what happened? That’s right, men stepped in and filled the void. Soon, you saw Kabuki performances that were all male, with young adolescent men performing as onnagata, or specialized cross-dressers who performed the female roles.
It is widely accepted that as an all-male art form Kabuki reached it’s peak and golden age. Japanese superstars were made, families rose to prominence, and eventually Kabuki discovered worldwide appeal.
By now you’re saying, “That’s fine. But those are foreign countries or long-dead civilizations. What does that have to do with anything?”
Well, lets come back west, a little closer to home. Let’s go to England in the Middle Ages. Christianity had become the prevalent religion in Europe. Under the tight reign of the church, theater had been abolished. This was largely due to the Romans using theaters as venues to execute Christian martyrs. Suddenly, around the tenth century, dramatic reenactments of scripture began to appear in church services. It began with a dramatic recitation of scripture, which led to passages being split up between more than one person, which evolved into roles. Soon special clothing was being used – costumes. And before you know it, theater had reemerged in the church.
And guess what? Because this all started in the priesthood, all of the actors were men! Who do you suppose portrayed Eve when they reenacted the Garden of Eden. And who played Mary in the Passion?
In time, the church decided that these dramatic presentations were not proper for the church, and they were moved outdoors. As the priesthood stepped back from performing these enactments, the layman stepped in. Of course, women were still not allowed to perform, and wouldn’t be for seven centuries.
So, wait a minute. You mean that Christianity – in fact, the Catholic church – not only had religious theater, but allowed its male priests to portray women?!
Yup. That’s right.
Fast forward to the 1580′s, and we come to a much-loved, well-known, often-worshipped playwright. I’m talking about William Shakespeare, of course! No one can argue that he is the most influential, most renown, most loved dramatist that ever lived in Western culture. His works have changed the way we speak, the way we think. They have been the basis for plays, movies, ballets, musicals, and more. Shakespeare spoke to the hearts and minds of the English people in the 1500′s, and he continues to speak to the hearts and minds of the entire world today.
So, is it surprising to find out that all of his works were performed by men and men alone? Remember, we said that women were outlawed from the stage until the 17th century.
If you went to see Romeo and Juliet, that was a young, often adolescent boy playing Juliet. If you went to see Taming of the Shrew, Catherine was a man. In Shakespeare’s theater, the gender lines broke down out of necessity, but many actors found fame and fortune in their portrayal of women.
Now, we’ve looked through history and have seen that this is not a new development. Cross-dressing in theater has been practiced for centuries, and we’ve barely scratched the surface here. Let’s take a moment and think about current-day cross-dressing performances that we all have enjoyed, laughed with, or empathized for:
- Some Like it Hot (1959) – Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon perform in drag alongside the ever-gorgeous Marilyn Monroe.
- Yentl (1983) – Barbara Streisand dressed as a man to enter religious school.
- Looney Toons (1938) – How many times did Bugs Bunny dress as a woman to fool Daffy or Elmer?
- Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1973) – Does anyone remember the Lumberjack Song?
- Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – This musical, a recent smash hit at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, originally featured a young Tim Curry as a Sweet Transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.
- Victor, Victoria (1982) – Julie Andrews plays a young woman trying to make a name for herself, and can only do so dressed as a man.
- Disney’s Mulan (1998) – This is based on a Chinese folk tale about a woman who dresses as a man to take her father’s place when he’s conscripted into the army.
- Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) – Robin Williams pretends to be a lovely British woman in order to see his children.
- Hairspray (1988) – originally starring Riki Lake in 1988, and now a hit Broadway show, the role of Edna is traditionally played by a man.
- Chicago (1975) – this hugely popular Bob Fosse musical traditionally features a man as Miss Mary Sunshine.
- Shakespeare in Love (1998) – Gwyneth Paltrow dresses as a man in order to perform in Shakespeare’s theater, and ends up inspiring his Twelfth Night.
This list can go on and on, but you get the idea. The idea of cross-dressing in theater or on screen is nothing new. We have been lauding and applauding it for centuries. Isn’t it interesting, though, to see how long it’s been around, how it’s changed over the centuries, and how we normally don’t even think anything of it?
So, put your reservations aside and enjoy theater for what it is: good fun and entertainment! Come join California Ballet May 5th and 6th when two of our dancers fill the stage in cross-dressing hilarity as Cinderella’s ugly step sisters. Oscar Burciaga and Joe Shumate are hard at work learning how to dance in heels and a skirt just to make you laugh!
San Diego Civic Theater
May 5, 2012 at 7:00pm
May 6, 2012 at 1:00pm
For tickets and information call 858-560-6741 or go our website by CLICKING HERE!