PRINT May 1990


English Drag

WHEN ALASTAIR SIM WAS APPROACHED to play two roles instead of one in the 1955 Ealing comedy The Belles of St. Trinian’s, he hesitated. One was Clarence Fritton, an unscrupulous racehorse owner. The other was his sister Millicent, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school. Thankfully, the hesitation was short-lived. Heavy-busted, broad-shouldered, Sim minced his way through the movie wearing an elaborately marcelled wig, pince-nez, buckled shoes, drop earrings, any amount of pearl and jet chokers, fur everywhere, and a skirt that looked like a converted hammock. “I suppose I’m just a foolish, weak woman,” Millicent tells Clarence, stuffing a ten-pound note into her ample bosom. It is near the start of the film, yet the illusion is complete. “Sometimes I think it’s just the frustrated mother instinct in me that urges me on,” she later admits, musing over why she runs a school at all. The whole thing is very English.

It is English, of course, because of its sense of normality, or, to be precise, the way viewers are expected to find it unremarkable. Urgent and disruptive, sexual needs are rightly described as “demands.” But the act of demanding does not square with good manners and the constant attempt not to stick out from a crowd. So demands are simply worked into the fabric of daily life in the hope that they will not bother other people too much. On the surface of it, this works. There is an antique shop in Brighton whose owner, a man of Simian bulk, dresses in a floor-length red gown and a mantilla and never lets his double life as a saucy Spanish señorita prevent him from lifting furniture above his head. In England, you see, customers would never be impolite enough to ask him why. Perhaps, for the English, not satisfying one’s curiosity is another type of pleasure.

I remember, as a small boy, being fascinated by a figure I knew to be a man, despite the high heels and pencil skirt. I watched him wait alongside the housewives who were trying to cross the street. As the light changed, he reached out one hand and grabbed the buttocks of the woman next to him. Though he did it quite hard, the poor woman was too busy crossing the road to do more than shriek. I was with Gloria, my aunt, but neither of us has ever mentioned it. It is this ability not to mention things that is the really kinky part. It permits the continued ordinariness of a clandestine, heterosexual buttock-fancier, willing to go to any lengths to satisfy his craving, or a Hispanophile eager to understand the real spirit of flamenco. Or, of course, the magnificent Sim. To my knowledge, Sim never wore skirts again. Perhaps no one told him he could make a full-time occupation of it.

Every night at the Vauxhall Tavern the same thing happens. As a sign that the show is about to begin the lights in the bar are dimmed, all eyes turn to the stage, and for a minute spotlights illuminate the designs on the red plush curtains. The glitter has dropped off, but you can still pick out the shapes. On the left is something that looks like a giant tomato on wheels, while on the right a girl with a dented hat, no nose, and a forearm like Popeye’s engages in single combat with a pinheaded hussar. Regulars know what it is: Cinderella’s coach awaiting her as she waltzes with the man of her dreams, her rags magically transformed, for one evening, to an elegant gown. No better allegory could be found for that stage, that pub, and its nightly entertainment. On Thursdays they are all Cinderellas. The “Stars of the Future” are amateurs with too much makeup, miming to records. For them, being seen in other clothes is an end in itself. Since the audience has become one more element in a private scenario of their own devising, entertainment is in short supply. The unemployed plumber from Lambeth makes Liza Minelli seem painfully shy, while the Greek waiter from Streatham who packs four costume changes into 12 minutes makes Connie Francis look very like a Greek waiter from Streatham. Drag like this is a procession of no-hopers dreaming of metamorphosis, though it thrives twice nightly at Madam Jo-Jo’s over the river. But state-of-the art drag is a different kettle of fish.

Tall, flirtatious, and unashamedly vain, Adrella walks on and greets the audience. “Good evening, Adrella,” they reply in singsong unison, “my, don’t you look stunning tonight.” What follows is more like sado-masochism than entertainment. Victims from the audience are subjected to merciless interrogation, forced to show everyone the labels from their clothes, or are rounded up in a corner. They are asked to speak, then interrupted by a telephone that rings sporadically. It is Captain Mark Phillips, Adrella explains, Princess Anne’s estranged husband, tired of a horsey wife and on the loose at last. Royalty is invoked more reverentially by Regina Fong, billed as the last of the Romanovs, resplendent in floor-length, backless velvet, embroidered with the regal insignia RF. If Fong will never be able to claim the Russian throne, there is the consolation that no other living pretender can boast such a devoted entourage. Where Regina Fong goes, so do the Fong-ettes, a tidal wave of devotees who study the act religiously and sing, dance, shout, and gesture it in unison, yelling instructions that are declined or acceded to by Fong, haughty and coquettish by turns. What they shout are the titles of film clips, television advertisements, parts of quiz shows, documentary soundtracks, interviews, and other more obscure material, which is then mimed by the would-be Empress of All the Russias, bucktoothed, equine, and looking like a print Toulouse-Lautrec forgot to make. The working-class counterpart would be Lily Savage, white-faced, in cheap wigs, dressed, perhaps, in floor-length artificial leopard skin with handbag to match. The relics of an act are still there: Lily is married, with a husband (“our Vincent”) and children (“our Vera and our Bunty”). But these collapse as the flow of talk continues, a conversation with the audience, punctuated by torrential, inspired impromptus compounded equally of nonsense and filth. Politically speaking, Lily Savage resembles a revolutionary Marxist moving at high speed toward primitive anarchism. But, of course, the act uses no political terminology; it is just talk. There are points when the free association is so inspired that the words tumble together, and for minutes you lose your way as the meaning roars ahead of you and you think of Antonin Artaud, possessed and screaming, somewhere on a council estate in Peckham. It is the naïveté that is subversive: speaking truth and not straining to be liked.

This characteristic unites all three. Though drag cannot help but draw on the British pantomime tradition, in which the part of Dame is played by a man and the Principal Boy by a pretty girl, Fong, Savage, Adrella, and others like them never bother to ingratiate themselves. Nor do they opt for easy laughs by that constant play on sexual oppositions that makes old-fashioned drag unpalatable. In the ’60s Danny La Rue would drop his voice to demonstrate that he was a man. More recent drag stars relate to other ’60s figures, like April Ashley, the notorious transsexual who married into the aristocracy. Betty Bourne, who formed the company Bloolips after a deliberate attempt to bring drag into line with left-wing politics, accepts neither gender. “Bloolips,” a nonsense word, is his sex, and the occupation stated on a Bloolips’ passport is simply “Clown.” But such blunt refusal to be categorized should not be confused with escapism or double values. It indicates a choice and a relevant one.

Forget the ideal of double sexing and the hermaphrodites who overpopulate the new American “bisexual” pornography. Forget the complex that motivates clandestine transvestites in Catholic Europe, where mother knows best, at church or at home. Forget clothes fetishism and the manipulation of fashion—the point at which The Face recommended skirts for men, to take one example. Forget arrangements of sexual parts, random or otherwise. Most importantly, forget what happens between the sheets. (Already this orgy of absentmindedness could only happen in Britain, where politeness forbids interrogations on bedroom routine.) Recall the period we have just entered—a combination of fin de siècle and end of millennium, and its inevitable mood of decadent apocalypse. Imagine its sacred texts, most cherished of all Pierre Klossowski’s The Baphomet, Paris, 1965, with its marriage of sacred and profane and its endless conundrums. Bear in mind what the masses want but cannot achieve: on the one hand, a life of irresponsible, tawdry luxury in which talentless participants flout law, taste, and protocol only to be rewarded with notoriety, the fool’s version of fame; on the other, a born-again sense of ’60s selfhood, a dissolution of individual self into the group identity offered by acid-house parties, currently suppressed by both police and state, who are intent on passing an act to ban them as soon as possible. (In other words, read your daily papers.) Take into account the bankruptcy of the ideals of heroism, respect, leadership, and morality. Remember two major stereotypes of European decadence of a century ago: the androgyne (half man, half woman) and the sphinx (half woman, half monster). And it can be seen that, like Aubrey Beardsley’s version of Pierrot, invariably construed as a self-portrait, Bourne’s term “Clown” smacks of determined innocence, untethered sexuality, skewed religiosity, a compulsive return to legends of temptation and promises of instant transcendence, and a wary approach to the ins and outs of the sexual act. All these are ammunition for that worse which is yet to come.

Resisting labels is essential in Britain at the end of the Thatcher regime. Right-on, left-wing stand-up comedians should be reminded that the situation is one of utter moral crisis, not simply a procession of day-to-day events that demand revision. In times of crisis, taking sides becomes irrelevant. All you can hope to do is be yourself and speak the truth. As T. S. Eliot realized in his sad, envious essay on the music-hall star Marie Lloyd, the Victorian music hall was all about its audiences. And, if the building blocks of history were properly defined, the music-hall audiences might prove to be the most significant crowd in European history since the French Revolution. Subversion is not revolution, of course. Alastair Sim played teachers, criminals, and Millicent Fitton. The stars of the Vauxhall Tavern are a combination of all three, and their audiences adopt their own shifting identities—courtiers, henchmen, and confidantes. No uprising will follow. The English detest uprisings. The result of the new drag may be to strengthen and prolong the mood of dissension, of refusal to be bought off or taken in by easy truths, that precedes some major change. Or perhaps that is just wishful thinking.

Stuart Morgan is a critic living in London.