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Variety and Vaudeville  
 
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From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, a number of popular theatrical forms that included play on gender flourished in Britain, Europe, and the United States. The best known among these styles of theater, and the ones that flourished most in the United States, were minstrelsy, vaudeville (and its precursor, variety), and burlesque. All of these forms featured cross-dressed acts, as well as routines that challenged prevailing gender constructions.

In addition, certain performance specialties featured in some of these theatrical forms were known to attract homosexual performers. One of the difficulties in discussing sexual orientation in reference to performers of this period, however, is that the identity "homosexual" was relatively new and may well have been rejected by those whom we would now identify with this term.

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On the other hand, there was a clear recognition by theater folks of this period that some performers were in same-sex or untraditional relationships. This recognition can be seen in snippets of gossip columns in theatrical newspapers that make oblique, usually snide, references to performers' private lives.

Many popular theater forms of the nineteenth century relied heavily on parody, stereotype, and novelty. Cross-gender casting was one way in which serious drama or opera could be parodied. In all-male minstrel companies, cross-dressing was a necessity if female characters were to be included. And in forms such as British pantomime, which relied heavily on illusion and transformation, certain roles were purposely cast cross-gender.

Minstrelsy, burlesque, vaudeville, and variety were highly complex theatrical forms and all contained social commentary in addition to parodies of gender and gender constructions, but these parodies were a significant part of their appeal.

Minstrelsy

Minstrelsy emerged in the Northeastern United States during the 1840s and flourished until almost the end of the century. After the Civil War minstrelsy began to face competition from other popular forms such as burlesque, variety, and musical comedy. As Robert Toll notes, in order to compete with these rival forms a new role emerged within the all-male minstrel company--that of the glamorous female impersonator.

Indeed, in the United States minstrelsy can properly be regarded as the origin of glamor drag, and a number of prominent female impersonators of the earlier twentieth century--Karyl Norman and Julian Eltinge, for example--began their careers in minstrelsy.

Probably the best known of the early minstrel female impersonators was Francis Leon. Leon billed himself as "The Great Leon" and was featured in burlesque operettas staged by the Leon and Kelly Minstrel Company. Leon, and his business partner Kelly, maintained their troupe for five years, leasing a theater in New York City. Toll notes that by 1882 Leon was the highest paid minstrel performer and one of the most praised.

There were a number of other very successful female impersonators active in minstrelsy in the period, and reviews note that they sang in a believably female range.

The "prima donna" or "wench" role was not the only female role available to male minstrel performers. There was also a comic female role, the "Funny Old Gal," which was often performed by a large actor dressed in old and mismatched clothes.

This role was not unlike the comic cross-dressed roles for men found in burlesque, and similar characters were also found in the Irish comedies of Harrigan and Hart in the 1880s and later. This comic role was essentially parodic and relied on low comedy; these characters could be used to make fun of old women, unattractive women, unmarried women, and women advocating suffrage.

Burlesque

Burlesque is now most often associated with seedy strip shows and low comedy, but in the mid-nineteenth century this theatrical form was associated primarily with parody of high culture through puns, word play, and nonsense.

Burlesque in the United States was transformed by the tour of Lydia Thompson's British Blondes in the late 1860s. This troupe continued to use the standard formulae of burlesque, but they infused the form with sex. The actresses in this predominantly female troupe dressed in scanty costumes that showed their legs to the audience.

Burlesque always included cross-dressed roles in keeping with the topsy-turvy world of this form. The "dame" role of burlesque was not unlike the "Funny Old Gal" role of minstrelsy, except that the costume was less ridiculous. Like the "Funny Old Gal," this role was also often played by a large actor who looked ridiculous in female attire.

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Top to bottom:
1) Minstrel performers Rollin Howard (in wench costume) and George Griffin (ca 1855).
2) An advertisement for "Ethiopian Comedian" Dick Parker's act, which included cross-dressing (1867).
3) Minstrel performer Francis Leon as his female persona.
4) Vaudeville sensation Julian Eltinge in costume (left) and in street clothes.

  
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