Date of Degree
Theatre and Performance
James F. Wilson
Elizabeth L. Wollman
Digital Humanities | Performance Studies | Theatre History
Across the United States, in the mid-1930s, drag made a transition, along with much other entertainment, from vaudeville into night clubs. There, concomitant with developing notions of gender and sexuality, it became increasingly associated with the contemporary expressions of drag that we see today in popular television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and in gay nightclubs across the country. In short, it became the queer form of entertainment. But in the 1930s, with such developing notions of gender and sexuality, it was not as easy as saying that it was a gay art form. Rather, as heterosexuality and heteronormativity took shape, drag was an active participant in both the formation of normativity as well as the articulation of a resistance to that normativity. Drag, in these venues, did not simply mean female impersonation. Emergent terms, such as pansies and queers, should be understood as vibrant and complex terms that both engendered a normativity to be articulated but simultaneously enabled the resistance to such a normativity, articulated not as its opposite but in its own vibrancy through a large network of performers. In this dissertation’s case studies, I analyze some examples of the routes of resistance that drag enabled for some of the artists that were primarily active during this time. Departing from previously well-established terms like the gay and lesbian “pansy craze,” I encourage a new perspective on this period’s drag, and possibly beyond, as a distributed form of resistance, dependent on the relay of information between individuals.
In the first chapter, “From High Heels and Rubber Breasts to a Collective ‘I’: Finding the Pleasure of Drag Through Intimate Accoutrements,” I theorize the individual and collective relationship between drag performers in the 1930s and their clothing and other accoutrements (specifically, an extremely high heel and a plastic breastplate) as a pleasurable way for them to find a destabilized or “illicit” form of subjectivity. It presents an argument for why the feeling of finding one’s illicit subjecthood in collectivity mattered. It provided its participants with a method of making sense of their world and their feelings, to interact and survive, to manage and distribute the cultural, social, and financial risks that they subjected themselves to in the world at large. As such, the chapter forms a background to the case-study chapters that follow.
The second chapter, “‘An Expanse of Hairy Chest Above a Beaded Brassiere’: Bobby Morris’s Burlesque Drag Striptease,” analyzes the reporting around a burlesque comedian, Bobby Morris. He is an especially interesting agent introducing minoritarian cultural references—a proto-queer form of camp—to the majority culture through his performance in the liminal space of the burlesque theatre. I read the reporting of Morris’s body and his act as an attractive, interesting, and complex nonbinary embodiment, which questions simple notions of stereotypical representations of “pansies” on the burlesque stage and anti-gay hoots and jeers in the audience.
In the third chapter, “Camping in the Clubs and the County Courts: Taming the Wild Gender of the Playboy Revue,” I investigate the spectacularly detailed reporting of legal battles fought by the eleven “Playboys” who performed at a tavern in Troy, New York. The legal cases and the discursive media accounts that I discuss in the case study never openly construed the artists as gay, homosexual or differently gendered. It left them in a completely different register, an indeterminate form of embodiment not entirely legible in the early twentieth-century lexicons of gender and sex. Their refusal of recognition or response to the call of interpellation is understood here as a denial of the scene of politics. The performers’ acts, in and out of the court centered wild forms of self-made gender presentations, rendering Echo Tavern a utopian space or life-world of queer belonging where the pressures of heteronormativity and its gendered forms of respectability and legibility subsided in favor of a different, queer and wild epistemology.
In the fourth and final chapter, “Theorizing the Peripatetic: Constructing Networked Drag Histories Through Data-Assisted Historiographic Methods,” I argue that queer, digital historiographic methods enable new and better archives of historical drag performance and gain a deeper understanding of these performers’ organization, structure, and cultural growth. Using algorithms and digital visualization technologies, also detailed in the chapter, we can improve our descriptions of the social structures that enabled the drag performances. In the chapter, I detail the exact technologies that I have used to build a digital archive around the performers in the dissertation’s case studies, and the way that network analysis, specifically, can help us see both the archive’s lack and presence of queerness. In the dissertation’s Digital Manifest, the reader can find the appropriate resources to rebuild the tools that were constructed with this dissertation in mind. Used for speculative historiography, these technologies can be leveraged to create new, exploratory modes of approaching historical narratives in a conjectural mode that acknowledges and encourages partiality, potentiality, virtuality, and constructivism.
Westerling, Kalle, "Gay Boy and Playboy Revues: Constructing U.S. Queer Collectivities in Networks of Peripatetic Burlesque and Nightclub Drag Performers, 1933–1939" (2022). CUNY Academic Works.
This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Thursday, February 01, 2024
Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.