Mark Ravenhill's new play, Mother Clap's Molly House at the National strikes a particularly British note when it deals with drag. America may have its drag queens, and has produced John Cameron Mitchell's musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (now a film, too), but drag as a widely-enjoyed art form is an essentially British phenomenon.
Mother Clap's Molly House, now previewing at the National, deals with early 18th century gays - 'mollies' - dressing up in women's clothes, to the delight of the audience. A year earlier cross-dressing teenage actors were at the centre of Nicholas Wright's play Cressida at the Albery Theatre. The play described the professional lives of the young men who played female roles in British theatre, prior to the Restoration when, in 1660, Charles II announced that from then on women would play women on stage — a concept previously thought of as too shocking for English audiences.
A more likely explanation for this English tradition, however, is that in spite of — or perhaps because of — the well-known discomfort the British have when it comes to sex (hence the lengthy run of the aptly titled farce No Sex Please, We're British), they have a national penchant for enjoying drag (both gay and straight) that has lasted centuries.
Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade features a camp concert party in the 1940s, where soldiers in skirts are an everyday occurence. It was in this form of entertainment that legendary female impersonator Danny La Rue began his half-century plus showbiz career. As he told an Irish audience on his first visit to a Dublin stage after establishing himself in London (to where he and his family had emigrated in the 1930s): "Look at what the English have done to me! When I left Ireland I was in shorts. Now I've come back in a frock!"
Here we are in 2001 and, it seems, when it comes to the English love of drag, nothing really changes - except the dresses. by Paul Webb Theatrenow