If anyone was to look at the 2024 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, there is one thing that they would notice. There are a plethora of one-person shows. Now, on one hand, I think this is great for the actors/writers since it gives them a chance to really flex their creative muscles and tell their own story. However, when it comes to writing blogs based loosely around the shows, like I try to do, the fact that the show is so personal to the actor/author makes it hard for me to find an entry point. So, I began to think, what came to my mind when I heard their titles? How could I also write something that is more personal to me? As I pondered this question, I reviewed the titles of the one-person shows one more time, and my eyes were drawn to one. Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender. This show, at the point of writing, has closed for the season, but it did create a sort of lightbulb moment in my mind. For in that moment, the only thing I could think of when hearing the phrase “alchemy of gender” was the art of Drag. 

Personally, I am a big fan of drag. RuPaul’s Drag Race is honestly the only show that I keep up with as it comes out every week.  I love the artistry that goes into the looks and makeup. I love the performance and the larger-than-life personas that capture the audience’s attention. Now I know it isn’t for everyone, and I’m not here to try and convince you to like drag as much as I do. That being said, I did begin to think about the history of drag and wanted to explore that a little bit more. I heard once that it originated from Shakespeare as an abbreviation for “Dressed Resembling a Girl”, but is that right? 

Well in truth, no one really knows where the term “drag” came from, though there are some theories. When reading The Big Reveal by Sasha Velour, Fulbright scholar and winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9, I was able to learn a couple of these possible origins. Yes, people once said it was an annotation for Shakespeare that simply meant “dressed resembling a girl”, but no official record of that exists according to Velour. They also say that it is possible that the term originated from the German word tragen which means “to dress up” or “to wear,” but the history that Velour likes the best comes from a language called Polari, which was a secret code used by queer people and traveling entertainers of the 19th century that pulled influences from Yiddish, Italian, French and working-class English slang, where the word “drag” simply meant clothing (specifically the type that you weren’t expected to wear). Regardless, all of these are just possibilities, and since language is an ever-evolving system, all we can do is speculate unless cold hard evidence surfaces. 

But that’s just etymology, and as fascinating as that is, what about the history of the actual act of performing in Drag? I briefly touched on this before, but Shakespearean actors performed in drag, as women weren’t permitted to perform in such an unseemly profession. Before then, there are records of drag being a big part of the theatre scene around the world, from Japanese Kabuki performances to the theatre of ancient Greece. In more recent history, we can add the names of Vaudeville greats to the history of drag, though they were more advertised under the term “female impersonator.” The most prominent of these Vaudeville stars are Francis Renault, a soprano performer who sang in 42 countries and even at Carnegie Hall, and Julian Eltinge, a movie and theatrical star who would even perform for King Edward VII. 

But the art of drag as the culture knows it now can be traced to the 1880s, where American activist and the self-proclaimed “Queen of Drag” William Dorsey Swann was discovered to have been throwing drag balls in secret, using these events to dress up with a fascinator upon their head and competing in a cakewalk, which National Geographic describes as “a dance resembling voguing that enslaved people had invented to mimic plantation owners”. These drag balls would eventually grow and flourish during the Harlem Renaissance, but there were still strong racial divides within the ball scene, as judges would tend to favor more Eurocentric/white features in the contestants. Enter Crystal LaBeija, the winner of Miss Manhattan 1967 and one of the few black queens to be awarded the title “Queen of the Ball” at a white organized drag ball. In an iconic scene from the 1968 documentary The Queen, LaBeija can be seen calling out the favoritism and rigging of the system proclaiming “Miss Thing, I don’t say she’s not beautiful, but she wasn’t looking beautiful tonight, she doesn’t equal me. Look at her makeup, it’s terrible!” 

Even though I can’t say for certain if that particular ball was rigged, it was this moment that served as a catalyst for LaBeija to create the first ever ballroom “house” and start her own ball exclusively for Black and Latinx trans, gay and other queer people.  This new ball system would, of course, be met with success and last for years to come, and you can learn more about it in the documentary Paris is Burning or in this previous blog post written by my colleague Spencer Ellis, who explores ballroom culture and how music helps people find a sense of community. But on top of the changes she made to the ballroom scene, I also have LaBeija to thank for helping inspire RuPaul’s drag journey, which would eventually lead to Drag Race itself. 

Even in more recent history, drag is used in performance and as inspiration. We see Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo don wigs and heels in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and even a year prior to the release of that film there was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp. In Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams assumes a drag persona with the help of Harvey Fierstein, who also performed in drag when he originated the role of Edna Turnblad in the production of Hairspray the Musical. Now that I mention Hairspray the musical, naturally I have to include that the original film made by John Waters stars the drag queen Divine, whose distinct look would be used as an inspiration for Ursula in the Disney animated movie, The Little Mermaid. These are only a few of the connections that the art of drag has helped inspire in a spiderweb of creativity that is phenomenal and beautiful to me. 

So, here we are at the end of the journey that, in truth, only delved into a portion of the iceberg that is called the art of drag. As abridged as this history was, I do hope there was some new information or something of interest learned here.  If you are inclined to, feel free to check out the media in this list on our catalog that includes some of the movies mentioned above, biographies, and books that include drag as a story element or other drag-related excellence.

Because reading is what? Fundamental.