This article appears in the program for The Mystery of Irma Vep.
By Keith Spencer
Most of us have, at some point in our lives, tried on clothes of the opposite gender. For many of us it happens in a childhood theater experience, dressing for a role. For others it happens in normal childhood play, as it did with me; one day, after kindergarten, when a girl and I swapped clothes in the playroom for curiosity’s sake. After observing myself clad in an ill-fitting, flower-pattern dress, in her mother’s full-length mirror, I felt a strange taboo sensation wash over me, as if I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. For actors of any level, theater offers the opportunity to play as someone other than ourselves: for a brief staged moment, we get to experience what it might feel like to be the Prince of Denmark, or a poor flower girl, or, as in The Mystery of Irma Vep, several different characters ranging from a nobleman to an Egyptian princess. For many actors this is a lesson in empathy, in that we learn to relate with people radically different than ourselves by stepping into their skin. Yet sometimes, actors discover that they’re more comfortable in who they become on stage, than who they are off.
Long before the modern struggle for LGBTQ civil rights, theater offered an escape, a means of performing as the person many actors felt, deep down, that they were. Only in the 20th century did intellectuals start to think of gender itself as a taught performance. In the 1980s, Berkeley professor Judith Butler developed a theory of gender performativity, theorizing that both sex and gender were an edifice, constructed by culture. Masculinity and femininity, and their associated behaviors and symbols, were not inherent traits; rather, they were inventions of culture, and learned ones at that. Hence the strange uncomfortable feeling I experienced when trying on a dress at age five: I was performing outside of the gender I’d been told I was. This idea of life as a performance, akin to acting, is not new: As Jaques mused in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” On the Elizabethan stage of Shakespeare’s era, women were not allowed to be actors—meaning the first performances of Shakespeare’s plays in England featured all-male casts. Imagine the multiple layers of meaning in, say, Twelfth Night, where a woman (Viola), played by a male actor, pretends to be a man, Cesario, in the context of the story. One can see how a queer actor—struggling with conflicting identities that were not acceptable in Elizabethan society— might find respite in such a role.
Recently, the headlines have been full of stories surrounding the idea of gender as an artifice, not an inborn trait, with different sexualities being even more accepted in progressive communities like the Bay Area. This has led to major progress in civil rights, such as this summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide. However, before identities like gay, transgender, gender fluid, and gender variance were well on their way to becoming socially accepted, drag performance was used—and still is—as a means of questioning gender and sexuality conventions, and satirizing the rigidity of gender roles. Why is it exactly that we find drag so funny? Perhaps it’s because the way we are taught to perform and adhere to gender roles is so uncompromising that it can be a relief to recognize it as a farce, a constructed world at which we can play. Or maybe it’s because deep down we know the whole premise of gender is absurd. Charles Ludlam, playwright of The Mystery of Irma Vep and a gay man himself, certainly saw the potential of theater to enact alternative identities. Supposedly, one of his college professors told him he was “too effeminate” to make it as an actor. He did so anyway, and shortly after college began a career as a playwright, director, and actor, founding the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the West Village. Ludlam’s 1984 play The Mystery of Irma Vep—which requires two male actors to play eight characters, both male and female—went on to become his best-known and most-produced. While previous plays of Ludlam’s were well-known within the gay theater scene, Irma Vep was unequivocally a mainstream success. Though privately ambivalent, Ludlam himself seemed pleased at the success of Irma Vep, and the success of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He once explained his theatrical style as such: “I think the distinction between gay theater and what I do, which some people call ‘queer theater,’ is that gay theater is really a political movement to show that gay people can be admirable, responsible members of the community… I don’t do that.”
Reading between the lines, Ludlam’s point seems to be not that he is apolitical, but that he depicts queer identities in a way that normalizes them. Playing off queer themes for laughs rather than politics attests to the way that queer art was on its way to becoming more conventional, even in the 1980s. If then the theater doors were wedged open just far enough for Ludlam’s queer theater to become mainstream, it is telling how much we’ve progressed since. Queer characters of all stripes grace television and movie screens, so much so that seeing a gay or trans character on the screen no longer causes a to-do. Ludlam, no doubt, would approve.
Keith Spencer is a freelance writer and graduate student, currently pursuing a PhD in Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Formerly publications manager for Cal Shakes, he has written about gender, class, and sexuality for Jacobin, Dissent, and PopFront. He will be giving four pre-show Grove Talks in mid-August prior to The Mystery of Irma Vep, where he will talk more about gender performativity and comedy.