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Post No. 58
Call this post “The Theater and the CD – An Enigma”
The public celebration of a private club’s 125th year of entertaining college students along with a nation-wide audience prompted mental gears to spin: Is there any connection at all between acting, singing, dancing — stage craft in general — and the cross dressing community? Is there a cause and effect? An action and reaction? We know from unearthed cave drawings that some form of dancing has been in existence since the dawn of civilization, but, fortunately for this particular post, clothes was not an issue back then; so,for the purposes of practicality we will confine this post to, say, these past 900 years.
About this private club:
Back in the 1880s private universities, even in the U.S., were limited to young gentlemen from wealthy families. Perhaps that is the reason that Clayton Fotterall McMichael decided that my alma, the University of Pennsylvania, needed a theatrical troupe that would “get up in frocks and spoof everyone and everything naturally”. And that they did — traveling in their own railroad car, annually presenting top notch musicals and high caliber tunes picked up over the years by Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald among other notables, competing with Broadway shows for decades. The Mask and Wig Club was featured on the Ed Sullivan show no less than four times and played such prestigious venues as the Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center. In 1894 the high society mothers of Philadelphia chipped in to buy their sons a clubhouse now of historical importance. This, the oldest all-male collegiate musical troupe in the U.S. was later followed by Princeton’s Triangle Club, Harvard’s Hasty Pudding and others. Their theatrical professionalism is maintained to this day.
And yet, when looking at their first cast photo from 1889 I see some forty males dressed in various costumes befitting that play, and another thirty wearing medium to long length gowns, white or dark hose, low heels of the day, wigs and a few ladies’ hats. No makeup is evident — that would appear in later years. Nor is there mention in the historic write-ups of members cross dressing before joining or after leaving school, of being considered strange, weird or anything but “the funniest students on campus”. One was quoted as saying, “So happy to get back in drag” but that’s the only mention I could find to the attraction of the costumes worn on stage! Was it possible that they were ALL entertainers as, certainly, many had the talent as the media would attest. In the 18th and 19th centuries we read of professional female impersonators who made a living entertaining on the show circuit — a far different group than the comedians on TV who found that impersonations never failed to draw a laugh. The former certainly were talented song and dance performers as well. Is there some analogy between them and the talent displayed by these all-male clubs? And where did the early-on desire to wear female clothes mesh, if it did, with the desire to perform on stage? I think one cross dresser was on the mark from his own experience when he commented after reading of the enigma between CDs and performing on the stage: “I find mixing boy/girl elements a lot easier than going all out {Out in public.} en femme. To build up confidence and overcome nervousness, performing arts are a really good practice stage (literally ^^)! If only my theater teacher had known why I was always so eager to grab female roles.” Similar feelings expressed on the Internet are not uncommon.
In the late 1500s Shakespeare had no choice for the magistrates of that era required him to produce all-male plays. Surely, when writing his plays that would live on through the ages he knew very well that the female roles would have to be played by younger males but, obviously, it never hindered his creativity. But one has to wonder — did Shakespeare scour London looking for CDs with acting ability?
One member of the forum has another slant by offering the premise that during the middle ages there was another motivation to stage plays — to provide entertainment during sea voyages. She writes: “Sailors in the British navy were about as far from wealthy {Alluding to the fact that Royalty, landed gentry and the wealthy were not punished if they happened to be inclined to crossdressing during these centuries.} as you can get, and boredom on long sailing voyages was a very real and very dangerous problem, so every ship had a chest of costumes, props, and plays, yes, with appropriate female costumes, and sailors would put on plays for their own entertainment, for the Captain and officers entertainment, and quite probably as a bit of inter-ship rivalry when in port.” And she offers another example: In 1914-1917 Ernest Shackleton commanded an Antarctic exploration ship, the Endurance, which became trapped over the winter in the Antarctic ice. The ship was eventually crushed and Shackleton and the men made temporary camps on the ice. To keep the men from going crazy in these, some of the most brutal conditions imaginable, one of the things they did was to use the contents of a similar chest to perform plays! After months and months and an 800-mile trip across open Antarctic water in an open boat, Shackleton was able to rescue all of the men with no loss of life!” In a funny but true vein a few CDs, picking up on a sentence above, remarked “To keep the men from madness by women’s clothes is, in part, my reason for dressing too.”
Accepting the historical fact that chests of stage costumes were carried on many of the sailing vessels from probably the 15th to the 19th century I would like to further fill in on the not too distant past in the field of entertainment and the relationship of the pragmatic need to fill a female stage role with a male actor-performer in contrast to those cross dressers in these centuries who found a needed outlet for their inclinations through the theater. In regard to entertaining the sailors: Granted that it’s very likely that putting on plays passed the time and diverted one’s fear of impending doom. Though if you have ever been at Mystic Seaport or elsewhere where one can board an old sailing vessel and explore the very close quarters, and also considering that rum was provided as a daily ration, one has to question whether show-time is all the entertainment that the crew had in mind — or the officers for that matter?
Several hundred years after the first Noh play in Japan it was women who performed the first male and female parts of the Kabuki. These plays ran all day long providing the actresses with the opportunity to earn money “on the side”. They were called “prostitute singers” by the displeased shoguns. The shoguns then replaced them with young men with the similar results — and so all-male plays (by older men) and musicals became the norm in Japan by the early 1700s. On the other side of the world the Italians looked to Greek plays for the birth of the opera. Young men were recruited and trained before their voices changed — countertenors or tenor altinos (falsetto) filled the bill. The beautiful voices of a boys’ choir eventually divided into castrato (yep) and houte-contre so opera began sans femme. I digress.
No need to remind the present CD community that from the 13th Century to present gays and transvestites were lumped together with all the other “crazies” — be they drunk, had dementia or any other obvious mental malady. Dickens pertinently described the horror endured within the walls of their confinement. Treatment was non-existent other than some having part of their brains cut out. By the way, if one neglected to pay their debts exceeding the equivalent of fifty dollars you were also thrown into the pit. And yes, the Royalty of Europe and England along with their relatives and wealthy friends were left alone regardless of any sexual or gender proclivities they might display. Interestingly, actors, writers, poets and the like were also excused from close scrutiny. Is not CDing also role playing in a fashion? Would not CDs have a greater attraction to the theater than the “average”. If true, then would it not also apply down through the ages? Perhaps there is a stronger connection between many of those who chose the theater as their avocation and those with cross dressing proclivities than we care to admit.

I wish that this post could be more definitive to the degree that cross dressers have been related, involved, with the theater. A CD suggests that the difficulty lies in the same reticence that we still find: “You wonder whether some of these people would have left memoirs that revealed their passion for ‘drag’ or more – but again, perhaps an indication of the extent of shame or taboo has meant that men of standing would never be prepared to admit as such.” I wonder too.

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