Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Sir, please cross your legs on stage. That’s unladylike.

September 19, 2010 · 5 Comments

In the last month, I have seen Merry Wives of Windsor, Bedlam, Les Miserables, 39 Steps, and The Habit of Art, which is significantly more theater in a very short time than I’ve been able to see in the US. So that being said, I have to get my initial gushing about how excited I am that I’ve had this great opportunity and how it’s really great that London makes its arts so cheap to attend and accessible to the public. I say this mostly because I’m genuinely thrilled. I really can’t get over how awesome it is that I get to see all this stuff as part of a class for really cheap. I think that although Kate Fox talks about the English egalitarian sentiment as a largely hypocritical façade for a very unequal class system, the English really do an amazing job of making beauty accessible to everyone – free museums, cheap theater, beautiful parks, etc. (I also say this because my mom keeps reading my Dickinson blog – hi Mom! – and it’s a super cranky blog because American Studies has trained me that when I analyze, I must be angry and critical of society). But anyway, everyone has already talked about the accessibility of beauty. So I’m going to do the other thing that American Studies has trained me for: talk about something inappropriate and pretend it’s academic.

Today’s topic is cross-dressing. Out of all the plays I’ve seen, Les Mis was the only one that did not contain a prominent cross dressing scene, and it’s not English in origin. Bedlam was so intent on having a cross-dressing scene that it didn’t even matter that there was no explanation for it in the plot. The Habit of Art was not even a comedy, and it still had a cross-dressing scene. What part of the English psyche demands a man in drag so intently that it has become a staple of theater? 

Kate Fox would probably say it’s the “importance of not being earnest,” the idea that one must never take oneself too seriously (62, 63). Serious plays must be offset by something self-deprecating and silly, and comedies must contain some form of low brow humor to offset the perception that the jokes are too high and pleased with themselves. (American Studies Jesse would at this point start discussing: 1. The sexism in the idea that a man in drag is funnier and more self-deprecating than a woman in drag because women are less valued in society. 2. The classism in the language of “high brow” and “low brow” and how it creates a humor hierarchy that perpetuates class stereotypes about intelligence and arrogance. But American Studies Jesse is going back into her angry-at-society box now, away from this discussion).

What Kate Fox does not address, is why the “importance of not being earnest” specifically manifests itself in the form of men in dresses and stockings. Sexism and classism are not exclusive to England, and they’re too easy an answer. One of my theories has to do with Liz’s favorite topic, Shakespeare. Shakespeare seems to be a huge point of national pride for the English, and his plays contained a lot of cross dressing for comedic purposes, plot purposes (i.e. The Twelfth Night), and for the practical purpose that only men used to act so they would have to play women’s parts. Maybe the influence of Shakespeare has seeped its way into modern theater in the form of cross dressing. I definitely think at least Leyshon felt some pressure to write some Shakespearean humor into Bedlam since it was performed at the Globe.

My other theory has to do with the absolute silliness of the men’s outfits that we saw in National Portrait Gallery. We look upon the tights, lacy and velvety frills and fabrics, codpieces, and otherwise ridiculous jewelry of the upper class men from the Tudor and Stewart line with the same out of context amusement that we see in the stupid haircuts of cool kids in our parents undoubtedly see in skinny jean leggings. Maybe the history men’s fashion, some of which is totally effeminate by today’s standards, has affected theater. Every time an English person see a man in a dress and suspenders maybe it hearkens back to the old days of the monarchy and the glory of the empire. (Fun fact: Vicky taught me yesterday that in England, suspenders are those little clasps that women use to hold their stockings up rather than straps that old people and people that enjoy ska music use to hold up their pants).

For more information on cross-dressing in theater, here is an article from the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2007/sep/07/whatilikeaboutcrossdressin

I welcome any other ideas.

P.S. Mom, England is very fun and educational and full non drag queen related learning experiences.

Categories: 2010 Jesse
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5 responses so far ↓

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 19th 2010 at 08:55

    Lol, thanks Jesse, thanks 🙂 I’m just glad I didn’t get tagged in this post!

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 19th 2010 at 12:28

    This is a really interesting point, Jesse! I hadn’t realized how much cross dressing we’ve seen – although I did feel like the scene in The Habit of Art was totally out of place and awkward. I thought the narrator character was funny because he took himself too seriously, and was generally a pompous stereotype of a thespian. When he emerged in drag, I didn’t know what to do with him anymore. It’s definitely a way of wrecking any seriousness or subtlety the play has to offer. But taken in conjunction with the other aspects of the play we’ve talked about, I can definitely see your point that there must be something distinctively British about the phenomenon – there’s no way to explain it other than that cross dressing is just a giant inside joke that I’m not totally getting.

  •   Matthew Michrina // Sep 19th 2010 at 14:38

    I didn’t really realize how much cross-dressing we saw as well, and I must agree that there seems to be something in the English character that encourages theatre cross-dressing. To add another example to your argument, Billy Elliot (another English-written show) involves two 12 year old boys cross-dressing, and even singing a song about it. The only exception I can think of is Blood Brothers, which has no cross-dressing that I can recall, but it’s not really so much a comedy or happy show, so that might have something to do with it.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 19th 2010 at 18:10

    I feel like cross-dressing isn’t that uncommon in a lot of theatre in general (this may be because a lot of American theatre is influenced by the Brits?).

    I also think that some of the cross-dressing is not necessarily a commentary on gender. Yeah, I guess there are connotations to Shakespeare’s cross dressing, but to me, it was much more about identity deception rather than reversal of gender roles.

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 18:27

    I agree with you. Cross dressing is not always a commentary on gender. It definitely always has to draws upon gender, but that’s not it’s only function. I really like your thoughts about self-deception. What I’m wondering more, though, is why cross dressing happens so often, not what it does.

    I haven’t seen a lot of American theater so I can’t really compare, but I think it can still count as an English characteristic even if it’s common to more than one culture, just like queuing.

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