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In The Beginning…

Would you believe me if I told you that Drag has existed since Elizabethan Era, England? Probably not. And you’d be partially right. Drag, as we know it, certainly wasn’t around then. But, the act of men dressing as women was institutionalized in the 1500’s thanks to the world of theatrical arts. Up until the late 17th Century in England, women were not allowed to act on stages across the country. That’s right, the first Juliet to ever take the stage was played by a man. To be more precise: female roles (with the exception of minor, comedic relief characters such as nurses, chamber-maids, peasants, etc.) were played by young boys whose voices and bodies had yet to mature.

Edward Kynaston. One of England's last "Boy Players"

This category of actor was commonly referred to as “Boy Player.” Some of the most prominent of these players were Christopher Beeston, Nathan Field, and Edward Kynaston. Shakespeare, himself, was no stranger to gender-bending. In his acclaimed comedy, Twelfth Night , he writes about a hectic circle of love involving women dressed up as men and mistaken gender identities. This convention appears frequently in other plays of his as well.

Gweneth Paltrow as Olivia in "Shakespeare in Love"

Drag in historical theater, however, was not limited to men playing female roles.  To culturally dissect the word, “Transvestite,” leads to a classic theatrical convention, “en travestie,” or, “in trousers.”

Mary Anne Keeley, a prominent English actress, was popularized for her talents as a "Breeches Actor"

Following the legalization of women in theater resulted in a dramatic about face.  Now, women were playing male roles, or “Breeches Roles.”  This was a common convention in Opera.  Oftentimes, roles of young adolescent males were accompanied with songs written in soprano voice that could usually only be sung by women.  Popular “Breeches Roles” include Cherubim in The Marriage of Figaro and Orpheus in Orpheus and Euridice.

An interesting correlation to be noted of this period in time is the lack thereof of Drag and homosexuality.  The two were rarely, if ever, linked as topics of discussion.  There is no doubt that audiences to the Elizabethan Theater were familiar with Drag. And back then, there was a far bigger separation between Drag and homosexuality than what exists today. There is no doubt that audiences to the Elizabethan Theater were familiar with Drag. And back then, there was a far bigger separation between Drag and homosexuality than what exists today.  Today, Drag and homosexuality are practically synonymous. In Elizabethan England, however, this was not the case. Drag was simply seen as an occupational necessity. “Sodomy,” however starting in the 1530’s, was a crime punishable by death. Boy Players were never assumed to partake in sodomy simply because they dressed as women.  In this day and age, though, a drag queen is automatically expected to be gay.

As time progressed, the line between gender norms began to blur.  Clothing became less flamboyantly geared towards either gender.  Behavior and cultural attitudes towards the male/female spectrum shifted.  And Drag in theater became less of a serious requirement and more of a comedic tool.  Roles such as tavern wenches and ugly step-sisters were cast as men to add an element of levity to shows.  It is here where we can see the transformation of Drag from a traditional convention to a light-hearted parody.


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