Another installment of ‘A Brief-ish History of Drag’ and we’ve still barely scratched the surface! This post might be a little shorter and broader when compared to others in the series, as it marks a bit of a turning point — shifting away from drag’s “ancient history” and roots, shifting towards the more recent, counter-cultural influences that shape it in the present. It’s a transition episode!
In the last post, we talked a bit about one of the original English-language producers/directors of drag as we know it, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was, by all accounts, highly referential and prone to remaking, remastering, and rewriting existing tales — he was known for adapting stories both old and new, folding in cues from pop-culture.
One of Shakespeare’s influences I neglected to mention is actually very important to the history of Western drag, and even connects to our first installment, which touched on ancient drama — the pantomime!
The word pantomime is derived from the Greek word pantomimos, consisting of panto- meaning "all", and mimos meaning “acted”, in reference to the single dancer/performer who acted out all the roles or all the story. The Roman artform generally adapted or retold Greek tragedies, comedies, myths or historical events. Pantomimes usually featured a solo male dancer — you guessed it — wearing androgynous clothing and primarily usings female mannerisms/characters to tell the story.
Sounds familiar, right?
It feels almost too on the nose — a dancer telling a story set to music, using their body and costume as a prop to play with gender and narrative. There’s even historical evidence for the usage of masks in tandem with stock poses and an expressive ‘hand language’ — think of it like an ancient Roman prototype of voguing. That’s not an exaggeration or baseless comparison either; American choreographer and Harlem ball-culture legend Willi Ninja is often called the “Godfather of the Vogue”, and specifically cites martial arts/ film combat, ballet, professional gymnastics and pantomime as the primary elements of the voguing dance style. Ninja features heavily in the iconic docufilm Paris is Burning, which will be the subject of our next installment, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. The ball scene and its most preeminent documentary are more than deserving of their own standalone episode. My point is that there’s a clear, observable throughline here: classical pantomime to American balls to modern drag.
The funny thing is that pantomime was also the root influence of drag in the United Kingdom. See, pantomime — as a result of the Roman occupation — was transferred to Brittany by cultural osmosis. Britain would use the pantomime format to recount their own myths and legends, particularly the exploits of The Dragon Slayer Saint George, or noble thieves like Robin Hood and Galoshin, depending on region. The archetypal structure slowly blended with elements from the increasingly popular Italian commedia dell’arte, a kind of stock theatre involving colorful costumes and big, expressive stories told through movement and music. This would eventually evolve into a form of theatre that emphasized audience engagement, coarse humour, and elaborate, eye-catching, campy outfits — the most extreme distillation of the formula/genre is called Harlequinade. It wasn’t long before this form of theatre began satirizing gender roles.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
British Pantomime’s “dames” (older women characters) came to be defined by outrageous, over-the-top performances by men in striking makeup and huge wigs; the “principal boy” (ie. young, dashing male lead) was usually played by a young woman in men’s clothing, playing across from another woman as the love interest. Once again, ‘traditional’ drag queens evolve from theatre and gender-bending lesbianism isn’t ever far behind. Maybe it’s slightly more obtuse, but you can follow the throughline in this pocket of history too: classical pantomime to satirical fairy tale plays to opulent silliness to modern drag!
It’s a great example of convergent evolution; of the same result from two different processes. There’s a meme in literary culture circles — that dragons exist in so many cultures because every time humans encountered lizards, at least one person went “Wouldn’t it be cool if it was huge?” I think drag operates on a kind of theatrical version of the same logic. Whenever humans take to the stage, someone at some point goes, “Hey, wouldn’t it be really funny if we all switched clothes and acted super extra?” And it is. That goes without acknowledging the drama and camp of the storytelling, the craft and passion that goes into composing the looks, the intricate techniques of the makeup, etc. There’s something special about the very human, very queer impulse to dress up, to act strange, to explore ourselves and our moment in time and space by being extra as hell.
NEXT TIME ON ‘A BRIEF-ISH HISTORY OF DRAG: We take a look at the Harlem ball scene and how it not only defined and created present-day drag, but laid the groundwork for so much of queer counterculture.