Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots, and Matilda currently on stage, Broadway has placed a spotlight on issues of cross-dressing and gender identity. While processing the Museum of the City of New York’s Broadway Production Files as part of a project funded by an IMLS Museums for America grant, I’ve come across plays that have made me realize how much of our theatrical culture has included elements of drag and gender confusion, whether for comic or dramatic effect.
Cross-dressing has had a long and frequently controversial history in theater. While it was often used to draw laughs from the audience, traditionally with males impersonating female characters, even comedies can have a serious subtext. They permit a way of examining various facets of gender without overtly threatening social norms. Women were banned from the stage primarily for reasons of maintaining female chastity until the 17th century, when female singers were cast in male roles in operas. The term “breeches role,” referring to a role in which an actress appears in male clothing, originated during this period – breeches being the standard male garments worn at the time. Women wore these breeches to make them look the part of a masculine role, but the tightly fitted clothing still accentuated the feminine calves and contours that audiences found alluring. While males impersonating females on stage traditionally served as comedic relief or to cross sexual boundaries and gender-specific behavior in a way that was acceptable to the audience, females impersonating males were required to act boyishly but still retain acceptable feminine attributes. This tradition lasted well into the twentieth century, and still holds precedence today. Women were cast in male roles because of their androgynous physicality and because females were better envisioned playing weak, fragile, or effeminate male characters.
This is exemplified in the play L’Aiglon by Edmond Rostand about the life of Napoleon’s son Napoleon II of France, Duke of Reichstadt. The play premiered in Paris in 1900 starring Sarah Bernhardt as the title character and in New York at the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1901 starring Maude Adams. The role of Napoleon II (who was nicknamed L’Aiglon, or “little eagle”) was played only by women, who portrayed L’Aiglon according to descriptions that characterized him as vulnerable and effeminate. Bernhardt had already become famous for cross-dressing while playing Hamlet on Broadway that same year.
Bernhardt commented on this in a Boston Transcript’s April 1, 1901 issue: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man. These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty. A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon…an older man…does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thought of the man.” She apparently had a method form of acting while putting on L’Aiglon, wearing men’s clothing off-stage and even at home to immerse herself in the part.
Miss Elsie de Wolfe, actress and prominent figure in New York City society at
the time, commented on the differences she saw between Bernhardt’s L’Aiglon and Maude Adams’s in a September 17, 1900 issue of the New York Times: “Miss Adams sees in the Prince a weakling, which he was, a man without force or will; a dreamer. In her performance I think we will get the poetical side. And she is correct in her views. Hers will be the historical character. With Bernhardt you get a suggestion of power that did not belong to the man. It pervades everything she does – voice, bearing, and action.”
Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs, at one time wife to actor John Barrymore and sister-in-law to actress Ethel Barrymore, played L’Aiglon in 1927 at the Cosmopolitan Theatre. Oelrichs wrote and acted under the pseudonym Michael Strange as an act of defiance against social norms.
Later in life, she and the author of the children’s book Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, formed a long-term romantic relationship. While Bernhardt and Adams are known for shaping the role, Strange is best known for looking the part with her famous androgynous features.
Eva La Gallienne joined the ranks of female stars playing L’Aiglon at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1934. In an article of the San Bernardino County Sun published that same year, Miss Le Gallienne stated that along with Peter Pan, L’Aiglon was a role that, as a stage-struck young girl, she had written down on a list of parts she intended to play before she was thirty-five. She was thirty-four when she was cast as L’Aiglon, and said of her success that, “you can do anything if only you want to enough.”
The actresses playing L’Aiglon used the role in different ways to denaturalize gender as a dichotomy and instead blur the opposition between the two genders to show that there was a great deal of the female in this male role. While these women made great strides to challenge gender norms and achieve success in a male role, there still existed gender stereotypes connecting femininity with fragility and immaturity. Characters like Hamlet and L’Aiglon were considered inappropriate models for manhood and were therefore played by females. Whether it’s L’Aiglon or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, theater creates a space for the audience to acknowledge and question these stereotypes.