Life Is A Drag
Updated: Jan 20
Realistic and codified performance in theater is based primarily on the premise that performance can be approximated into neatly aligned categories. Much like human behavior and the modalities of culture, performance is not always a lesson in either/or, but rather a lesson in disunity. Nowhere do we see disunity more realized than in the world of drag performance where the audience enters into a nether world where realism and codified performance unite as strange bedfellows. This third way of viewing performance is neither the sublime experience of communitas or the self-embodiment of realism, but rather the collapsing of these two identities into one.
In performance this becomes the anthropology of the theater, the way in which we transmit code through cultural performance. Richard Schechner, in his landmark study of performance, refers to this as “framed behavior,” a method of explaining the unspoken without the use of the written word, through the mirror of realistic or codified expression.
Schechner views realistic performance as “the behavior of characters modeled on everyday life." Realism is thus a psychological tool utilized in the theater to convey relatability. It becomes an impressionistic mirror in which the audience perceives they are viewing something which is authentic and true, even if the very act of realism is an act of theater, and the act of theater, a type of artifice.
The stage musical Hedwig and the Inch casts away the shackles of realism and codified performance to embrace a third way of performance, disunity. The musical follows the exploits and heartache of genderqueer rock singer Hedwig Robinson, an East German immigrant living in the United States, who’s undergone a botched sex change operation and is now living in Junction City, Kansas, where’s she’s recently been abandoned by her G.I. husband. Through guitar feedback and outlandish rock songs the play chronicles Hedwig’s trials and tribulations living in the shadow of her former protégé, Tommy Gnosis's, who we discover at the beginning of the play has stolen Hedwig’s stage act and has capitalized on it to become part of the pop zeitgeist, albeit a very straight masking one.
Breaking the fourth wall at every turn, Hedwig speaks directly to the audience using the common tropes and conventions of drag performance to convey emotion and narrative disinformation. This includes complex rock songs set to poetic verse about Greek mythology, elaborate stage costumes, and exaggerated hair and make up, all of which form signifiers of cultural performance and transmission through the queer lens. And what do we mean by the queer lens? We mean a shared identity and experience free of the heteronormative world. In drag performance the queer lens is a bent way of viewing the world, devoid and uninterested in making sacrament at the altar of the straight and narrow. The queer lens is a suspended state of exalted being, one disinterested in the binary laws of gender. It is the optical version of the other. It is a rapturous and glorious state in which queer identity reclaims its own gaze.
Codified performance in the drag world relies on an understanding and transmission of the unspoken. A gesture as simple as a neck roll can indicate dissatisfaction with the binary laws of gender, a discreetly placed eye roll can become a unique signifier that sexuality is never so simple, a strategically chosen wig can be used as a shield to fend off the straight worlds attempt to sanitize and compartmentalize queer sexuality for mass consumption. To the straight world these gestures might be deemed ridiculous and campy, but to a queer audience they are signifiers of shared cultural experience and identity. We discover this from the onset when we’re introduced to Hedwig and her band playing a seedy nightclub on the outskirts of nowhere America. Hedwig is attired in garish make up and wearing an enormous blond wig with curls on each side that resemble giant toilet paper rolls. The wig itself is where audiences often divide their attention and loyalties. For the straight viewer, the sight of Hedwig’s wig is often nothing more than sight gag, a ridiculous gesture of camp. But for queer audiences, it is a cultural signifier, not because of its bad taste and ironic camp value, but precisely in spite of it. Hedwig’s wig is a coded reminder that anyone willing to adopt a stage presence this fierce should under no circumstances be messed with. It’s also a cultural signifier that the cruel sting of the heteronormative world has caused our heroine unjust harm, but she isn’t taking it lying down and either should you. Thus, her wig is her shield and her armor against hostile forces that seek to destroy her identity. Her wig is part road kill, part punk rock gesture, and a reminder to a queer audience that Hedwig’s experience is by extension our experience.
This reminder of communitas is the foundation on which codified performance operates in the drag world. A straight audience experiencing Hedwig might merely see a man in a dress, but queer audiences read this differently. Hedwig is not merely a drag queen or a trans identified rock star, but rather a gender outlaw, trafficking in the art of illusion. “There is no original or primary gender a drag imitates,” Judith Butler reminds us in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. “But gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself." Drag is thus a reminder that gender is an optical illusion. It’s also the recognition that being a gender outlaw is a sublime experience, inhabited by the beautiful and the profane to form a community of misfits far beyond the straight dictum of the heteronormative world.
The codified expression of drag relies on music and verse to shape and transmit a shared cultural experience. It’s meaning can be enjoyed by all audiences, but only understood by some. Take the song The Origin of Love, the mantra that runs throughout Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The song, written by Stephen Trask, is based on Symposium by Plato and illustrates the origin of three genders, the two we think we know and the third, the outlaw gender, created as a kind of mind fuck by the Greek Gods upon their unsuspecting subjects. The song has a mystical and chilling melancholy as it touches on the origin of love, the complexity of queer identity, and the very need for communitas as a means to find belonging in a cold dark world. It’s the merging of codified expression with a tinge of realism that hits a queer audience right in the gut and becomes an anthem of identity, pride, and loss. To a straight audience the song might be interpreted as solely the loss of love engineered by a vengeful God, but to queer audiences it’s the code of survival, the recognition we need our community to draw strength from in order to survive.
The Origin of Love is thus a ballad of queer discovery, free and independent of the straight gaze. The music becomes the soundtrack of the queer experience set against the backdrop of a vengeful God’s wrath. From this journey we find that love has become a type of outlaw, living on the margins of Junction City, Kansas. Love has become uninterested in the binary thinking of the straight world. Love, as we discover, isn’t any more objective than our heroine. To be objective is to be a machine. To love, is to be counter revolutionary. And what happens to a counter-revolutionary run amuck? It must be blinded. Trask alludes to this blindness, cast down upon unsuspecting lovers in the heartbreaking verse, “You had a way so familiar/But I could not recognize/Cause you had blood on your face/I had blood in my eyes.” In doing so the lyrics frame queer experience as one that must be lived in order to be fully understood, becoming the cognitive difference between thinking and feeling. Or put another way, a straight audience can intellectualize Hedwig’s plight, but a queer audience has lived it.
Love becomes an acknowledgement of shared experience and identity in the final stanza of Trask’s lyrics, “But I could swear by your expression/That the pain down in your soul/Was the same as the one down in mine.” It is thus the recognition we’re all gender outlaws forming communitas through music and verse in a quest, not to imitate heterosexuality, but to disavow ourselves of it. “Gay identities work neither to copy of or to emulate heterosexuality,” Judith Butler notes in Imitation and Gender Insubordination, “but rather to expose heterosexuality as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization."
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a musical built on a world of codified performance, but linked together by the fractured hand of realism. Writer and director, John Cameron Mitchell, explained the origins of creating Hedwig in an interview with the online magazine PopMatters, by expressing his need to keep the character constantly in motion, but grounded in realism. “I certainly wanted Hedwig’s world to be one where identification and categories are fluid, and confusing, as they are, really, in life." The director eventually utilizes realism to show the limits of love placed on our heroine by the binary trap of gender. We experience this as Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s soul mate and aspiring musical partner, discovers that Hedwig’s assigned gender at birth was male rather than female, just at the moment they are about consummate their love for the first time. Tommy’s discovery that Hedwig’s assigned gender at birth was male rather than female is played out like a Greek tragedy. What Tommy experiences before this discovery is love, a feeling that requires no gender to identity with, but what he experiences after is pure panic. Tommy, unable to come to terms with these disparate emotions abandons Hedwig, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her shattered heart, devastated and emotionally gutted.
The use of realism in Hedwig is utilized to draw the audience towards the recognition and empathy of our heroine’s plight. Hedwig, as we have come to recognize, has not changed, but how her lover sees her has now changed irrevocably. It’s crucial we have this moment of realism in order to sit with the magnitude of Hedwig’s loss, but also to mirror the cruelty she encounters, an experience many queer people undergo on their quest to find acceptance and love in a straight dominated world.
Drag performance is built on this awareness of trompe l'oeiland, but what happens when we strip away the illusion of performance? The play seems to say we find the veneer of realism peaking out from underneath the door. The art of drag is thus the act of exposing the fourth wall and not allowing our heroine to hide behind it. As a result, we can understand Hedwig’s predicament, but also pay witness to it.
Realism, as a byproduct of theatrical performance, is arguably the illusion of naturalism and, to a lesser degree, truth. But drag isn’t so much about realism, but about realness. The very definition of realness being the act of embodying the truest version of something or someone, but realness is only realism when projected through the queer lens. Drag ultimately traffics in a type of cultural code where realism is not allowed to maintain hegemony over what we see and what we feel. Instead, it transmits a unique set of optics to the audience through codified performance where we understand the stage is both an illusion and echo chamber for realism. It becomes a pulpit where the performance is concerned with shattering barriers, provoking dialogue, and presenting alternative narratives about social and political issues bound together by communitas.
Ultimately the line between realism and codified performance is but an arbitrary one, an illusion we cling to make sense out of the cultural modalities presented to us by a world insisting upon answers and categories. In our quest to make these distinctions, between what is real and what it not, we discover the pointlessness of the quest, and the possibility of a third way of experiencing performance, a space between the sublime word of codified performance and the agony of its dance partner, realism. It’s this third way of viewing performance as a part of disunity where we find harmony and peace, but still no answers.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche seems to argue that one should always take realism (and possibly all categories of expression, codified and other) with a proverbial grain of salt by pointing out the very limits of the enterprise, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist." Or, put another way, perhaps it is a fool’s errand for viewers and scholars to seek definitive answers from a work of art when the role of art isn’t to provide answers, but instead to provide insights and questions into the human soul, a soul stitched together with paradoxical meanings and intent, and bound together and preserved for eternity like nothing less than a perplexed question mark.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge,
Butler, Judith. Imitation and Gender Insubordination. Print. Rpt. in Inside/Out. Ed. Diana
Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Fuchs, Cynthia, Pop Matters Film. Interview with John Cameron Mitchell.
Mentis, Mandia. Mediated Learning: Teaching, Tasks, and Tools to Unlock Cognitive
Potential. Corwin Press, 2008.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Routledge, 2013
Trask, Stephen, Hedwig and the Angry Inch/The Origin Of Love, Hybrid Recordings.
HY-20024, 2001, CD.