I’ve got the stuff that you want
I’ve got the thing that you need
I’ve got more than enough to make you drop to your knees
‘Cause I’m the queen of the night!
I’m sure most of us have seen an adult drag show. The popularity of drag has grown considerably in recent years, thanks to TV programs like RuPaul’s Drag Race. I thought it might be fun to look at the history of drag. It also gives me a chance to dust off my extensive back-catalogue of drag images shot on my old iPhone, often on a drunken night out. I’ve also directed a couple of shows myself where the lead male actor is in full drag, I’ve included some images in this collection. Well, what are you waiting for? Go to the bar (remember social distancing) and buy yourself a G & T and get ready to lip sync for your life, as I take a look at the history of drag (thanks Wikipedia).
The term ‘drag queen’ occurred in Polari, a form of English slang popular with actors, fairground showmen, sailors, criminals, prostitutes and the gay community. Its first recorded use was the 1870’s and referred to actors dressed in women’s clothing. Polari began to fall out of favour in gay culture by the late 1960s. So what exactly is drag culture then? I’m glad you asked 💋 Well, drag culture is performance art. A fun fact – One of the first films about drag queens was the 1933 German film, Victor Victoria.
For the Love of Fritz, Gasworks Theatre – Directed by Noel Anderson. The performance of ‘Fritz’ combined drag and slapstick, often a winning combination in theatre. In the past, drag on stage was greatly influenced by puppeteering. This includes popular kids shows like Punch and Judy. The image of actor Josh Futcher (picture above) in drag from ‘Fritz’ appeared on 50,000 of Melbourne’s metro transport brochures during the Midsumma Festival 2011. (Let’s face it public transport can be a drag most days, right?)
Pantomime dames became a popular form of female impersonation in Europe in the 1900’s. This was the first era of female impersonation to use comedy as part of the performance, contrasting with the dramatic nature of Shakespeare and opera. The dame became a stock character, charwoman or grande dame on stage with the drag performer often improvising. To this day improvisation is an essential part of a drag performance. A good drag queen will have the audience hanging on her every word.
The process of dressing in drag can take hours of preparation. Most drag performers are professional costume designers and makeup artists, and like any theatrical profession, it requires love, hours of dedication and skill to fine tune.
A few fun facts – 1. Most drag queens lip sync but in New York a lot drag performers sing live. Broadway is after all full of singers, the rent must get paid somehow. Drag is a respectable way for a performer to earn a living between gigs. 2. Before gay newspapers (and platforms like Facebook) the humble drag queen played many roles on stage. She was entertainer, comedian, anchor woman and news reporter in gay culture, informing the audience on events happening in the local community. The drag performer will tell the punters what to see, where to go and often make satirical comments on what’s happening in world news. (Sounds like Channels 10’s The Project, doesn’t it?) 3. Songs that mention drag queens in their lyrics include Lola by the Kinks and Born This Way by Lady Gaga.
In the early 1900s, female impersonation had become tied to the LGBT community and also criminality. It went from being popular mainstream entertainment to something done only at night, mostly in seedy nightclubs. As LGBT community has become more accepted overtime (achieving marriage equality in many countries) drag has also has become more acceptable. Public marches like Pride, Folsom Street Fair and the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade have also help spread the visibility and popularity of drag performers around the globe.
Worth thinking about! Recently in Melbourne a performer called Drag Queen Annie was booked to present ‘Storytime’ to young children. The performance was to take place at a suburban library. (Drag performers reading age appropriate children stories to kids is apparently popular in the USA) The performer was subjected to savage online abuse and an enormous amount of media attention. So outraged were the ill informed parents, who couldn’t see the theatricality of a man in a frock and possibly had never been to a Christmas panto, that the event was cancelled and the performer lost his job.
A fun fact – The drag character is always the most popular character on stage with children in British pantomimes. Pantos are a tradition in England and are performed regularly at Christmas time in theatres everywhere.
While drag is more acceptable today, it’s clear not everyone agrees or understands the art form. My thoughts – Well, if it was good enough for Shakespeare to dress men in drag to perform work like Romero and Juliet, then that’s good enough for me. Besides the world could do with a little colour and movement at the moment. See you at a late night drag show in Smith Street. BTW the first G & T is on me. PS. Thanks to all the performers who have entertained me through the ups and downs of my life. You are all FABULOUS 💋
About the author – Noel Anderson is currently working on his play ‘Billy Loves Cha Cha Forever’ for the Midsumma Festival 2021, and his feature film script Sammy & Dave. In 2020 Noel adapted Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ into a play called ‘Ghost Story‘. Read an extract of Ghost Story on Amazon. More info: ‘Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes of Fame’ and ‘Dark Victory’s’ available on Australian Plays Org