As Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical cruises into our theatre, we take a look at drag, and how this underground art went mainstream.
British theatre has a long and honourable tradition of men dressing up as women – if you don’t believe me, think about the pantomime dame – but that’s usually done for purely for comic effect, almost in the same category as Les Dawson or the various members of Monty Python dressing up as old women in sketches. While drag certainly has comic potential, there’s usually more too it than that – and certainly there’s more glamour involved.
First, of all the name itself – why drag? Well, you won’t be surprised to learn there are a number of theories. The term ‘drag’, referring to men dressing in female clothes, is first recorded in the 1870’s. One suggestion is that it may simply be an acronym, standing for ‘dressed resembling a girl’. A more exotic explanation it that it comes from the Romany word, for skirt, daraka, possibly travelling via Polari, the slang language used by the gay community right up until at least the 1960’s (on a side note, Polari was the source of the weird language use by the characters Julian – played by Kenneth Williams- and Sandy in the popular early 1960’s BBC radio comedy Round The Horne.)
Then, of course, there’s the question of what drag is – is a drag queen simply a female impersonator? Most modern practitioners of drag would say no, with the American drag queen RuPaul stating, “I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?…I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”. Drag performances are about much more than ‘passing’ as a woman.
The origins of drag are hard to determine – usually associated with homosexuality (illegal in Britain until 1967) and gay culture, it remained an underground and undocumented art form for most of its history. However, the first film to feature something we would recognise as drag was actually released in 1937 – the Polish film Upstairs (Piętro wyżej, for any Polish speakers among you). But it wasn’t until the mid-1990’s the drag really entered the mainstream, with the release of a small Australian film called – The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (to give it it’s full title).
The film was remarkable as a mainstream depiction of drag culture, as well as for the performance of Terence Stamp as the transsexual Bernadette – a total departure from any of his previous roles. The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and Stamp was nominated for several best actor awards. A few years later, it was a central inspiration for the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.
In 2006, the stage musical version of Priscilla premiered in Sydney – due to popular demand, it’s been touring the world pretty much ever since. This week, it’s here in Canterbury. Get ready for the ride of your life!