Pretty much as long as there's been theatre, there's been drag. I don't think it was long after the very first time an actor put on a costume that an actor make it an outfit of the other gender's clothes. What began as a way to sublimate women (casting men in female roles to exclude women from the arts) eventually became a way for men and women to take on roles of the opposite sex and even reflect the nuances of a more fluid understanding of gender, as society is evolving toward today. As a trans community emerges with its own distinct identity, traditional drag remains not only a cultural phenomenon, but a vital element of performance art across many disciplines and genres.
Scroll down to read about some key moments in the history of drag in theatre.
Much of theatre history in general traces its roots back to Ancient Greece and drag can certainly do the same. In Greek society, women were considered vastly inferior to men and unfit for the stage, one of the society's most respected art forms. Female roles were played by men. Not even this complete absence of women in theatre offers a complete portrait of the culture of the time, however. Both Plato and Socrates worried about the damaging effects of male actors degrading themselves by representing female emotions and characteristics.
With all the dynamic female roles in Shakespeare, it's hard to believe this great oeuvre was once the exclusive domain of men. In Elizabethan times, women had limited freedom or social status and could not participate in any professional discipline, including theatre. Adolescent boys played the female roles, perhaps looking somewhat plausible in women's clothing with their less broad shoulders, softer faces and more diminutive heights. The audiences of the time were able to suspend their disbelief, but you have to imagine the world didn't see the greatest Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra or Juliet until years later when women were cast in the parts.
In Japan, Kabuki actually began as a female-only discipline (with women playing roles of both genders), but in the 16th century, women were banned from performing and so a new, all-male Kabuki was born. In both cases, Kabuki was a common form of mass entertainment, including erotic titillation, even to the point where the performers (female and later male) were available for hire as prostitutes after the show. Later, as Japan opened up to the West, there was a movement to legitimize Kbuki with more respect among the upper classes and solidify its place as an indigenous art amidst all the cultural integration. The success of these efforts assured the lasting legacy of Kabuki in modern Japan, now opened up to women in some companies.
In Western opera, there are traditions of cross-gender casting in both directions. Some female roles were played by men, either countertenors (men who sing in a middle female, or alto, range) or sopranists (men who sing in the higher female, or soprano, range). At times, these roles were played by castrati, men who were neutered before adolescence so as to preserve their prepubescent feminine-sounding voices. Less extreme, but more unique to opera, has been the existence of "pants roles," male parts played by women, such as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. Perhaps due to the heightened reality of operatic music, this type of reverse casting has been generally accepted by audiences for centuries. In Chinese opera, there is even a history of female impersonators as the greatest stars of the stage, most notably Mei Lanfang, who toured the world in the early 20th century, performing for Hollywood stars and heads of state and who is said to have influenced Brecht and Stanlislavsky.
It was during the Victorian era that the term "drag" is believed to have been coined, as the long and heavy skirts of the day (particularly in the exaggerated fashion worn by men in female roles) literally dragged along the stage. This occurred, however, alongside a transition from more presentational styles of performance to the naturalistic world of playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, in which actors generally portrayed characters of their own gender. Theatre flourished as political and economic stability made for safe nighttime passage (to and from performance venues) and shows were able to run for a long time. Eventually, though, this era of theatre gave birth to arguably the most famous example of cross-gender casting, the title role in Peter Pan, a male part audiences not only accept played by a woman, but expect to be played by a woman.
While still a vibrant aspect of some theatre, drag has also evolved into an art form unto itself. If 20th-century queer men and women experimented with cross-dressing to express their individuality apart from traditional society (and their solidarity with each other), the inherent presentational nature of drag made for a slippery slope between performance and offstage life, with generations of drag kings and queens walking that line, each in their own unique fashion. Some of those artists have identified as transgender while for others it has been just playing a character. For some, it's a character, but one they don't take off, challenging society at times with the open rebellion against traditional gender roles.
Since the beginning of the LGBT liberation movement and the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn, drag has been as closely linked to political action as it has been to entertainment and as the years go on, this line continues to be blurred. RuPaul began his career as a counter-culture fringe artist alongside Lady Bunny and numerous other Alphabet City denizens of the 80s, but today hosts one of the most successful reality competitions on TV — a show business phenomenon that surely educates many people otherwise unfamiliar with aspects of LGBT culture.
Charles Ludlam was not a drag queen in his day-to-day life, but became known for many drag roles in his influential plays for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Charles Busch, a clear descendant of Ludlam's work is known and respected as a man, a playwright and actor, who has taken on many great female characters in his Charles Busch shows, but there is also Charles Busch, the grand dame, serving as theatrical doyenne in and out of drag and in concert at 54 Below. It hardly seems to matter whether Busch is in a dress and wig or not.
Murray Hill is a drag king (perhaps the world's most famous) known as the "hardest-working middle-aged man in show business." As a fixture of downtown New York nightlife, you'll find Hill all around town at all hours, always in a suit and tie, onstage or off. Broadway, television and cabaret star/comedian Lea DeLaria says she is often confused for Hill, although DeLaria proudly identifies not as male, but as "a butch dyke." DeLaria has played men, though, in The Rocky Horror Show and Lil' Abner. DeLaria explores all these colors of expression on her new album, "House of David," offering a fresh perspective on the music of landmark rock and roll gender-bender David Bowie.
Glenn Milstead became a star as Divine starring in many of John Waters' seminal works of the 70s and 80s. Each film was like a movie within a movie wherein Milstead played Divine playing a character. He even released music as Divine and yet, he lived as a man. A new play, Divine/Intervention (conceived and directed by Braden Chapman, a.k.a. Mimi Imfurst on "RuPaul's Drag Race"), is currently exploring this dichotomy in the New York International Fringe Festival. Divine's legacy continued years later on Broadway when Hairspray became one of the biggest musical hits of the 2000s, with Harvey Fierstein and then a long line of men in the role of Edna Turnblad. While Fierstein is a versatile actor long associated with drag in various permutations, many of the actors to take on Edna have been novices to the genre — gender be damned. Maybe it's just a character like any other. On the other hand, there is a statement being made somewhat subtly in a man playing Edna; it expands the horizons of the show's message about social acceptance, racial integration, etc. Similarly, in Off-Broadway's Ruthless!, a man plays the role of Sylvia St. Croix, adding a irony to an already pointed depiction of traditional middle-class America.
Today, shows like Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Kinky Boots depict a progressive perspective on trans issues, drag and gender roles in a broader sense. Theatre no longer carries the exclusive burden of leading society in social change as more and more TV and movies take on these stories, but theatre got there first and with its live, in-person, real time nature, theatre offers a singular environment for empathy and courage and experimentation. To quote Terrence McNally, "It's only a play."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)