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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 360-361
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The Changing Room:
Sex, Drag, and Theatre
The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre.By Lawrence Senelick. Gender in Performance Series, no. 7. London: Routledge, 2000; pp. vi + 540. $29.95.
An exceedingly ambitious addition to the dynamic and innovative Routledge series Gender in Performance, Lawrence Senelick's most current and comprehensive investigation of sex, drag, and theatre is astonishing not only for the fantastic amount of historical information it contains, but also for its authoritative examination of theatrical transvestism as a vigorously time-honored cultural and political phenomenon. Senelick suggests in his acknowledgements that the present volume was conceived nearly twenty years ago when gender studies were in their infancy and articles inquiring into "the origins of male impersonation seemed marginal at best, suspect at worst" (xiv). No longer suspect, but inspiring a glut of scholarship from both traditional and more marginal camps, studies of transvestism in literature and performance have become such theoretical and critical commonplaces that too often the subject's more lucid, material foundations are obscured. Not so in Senelick's The Changing Room.
Written as a sort of cultural and historiographic reclamation of the inherent connection between cross-dressing and theatrical performance, the present volume is overflowing with exceedingly well-researched examples of the pervasiveness of theatrical transvestism from its earliest shamanic and divine purposes through its twentieth century manifestations as an "effective weapon in the arsenal of the artist of outrage" (402). With clever, tongue-in-cheek chapter titles such as "Skirting Christ" (56), "Orientations" (77), "Breeches birth" (206), and "Sex, drags, and rock 'n' roll" (444), The Changing Room exhaustively covers historical ground that has been, comparatively, only casually explored in previous works on the subject.
Senelick begins by detailing the divine origins of transvestism in the gender transformative rites of shamans. His examination of the subject varies from Siberian tribal tradition and Pelew Island ritual to the Sioux and Inuit tribes and the male divine/whore caste of India, the hijra. In subsequent chapters he examines the homosexual appeal of transvestism in eastern cultural and theatrical forms as he deftly follows the link between the "futon and the footlights" (85) for both historical and contemporary female impersonators in Japanese no\ and kabuki. He examines the popular if problematic appeal of the boy player up through the Regency period in England, and follows with several chapters that probe both the sociocultural and practical justifications for trading transvestite youths for be-breeched young women with the advent of actresses on the European stage.
From the fetishized, leggy allure of the principal boy, to the female impersonator's purveyance of Progressive era standards of feminine beauty, Senelick meticulously chronicles both the origins and affects of cross-dressing in its theatrical as well as pedestrian forms. Later chapters cover broad areas of inquiry like the rise of the club-style drag show, while at the same time offering more intimate glimpses of individual artists and their contributions. Through his insightful examination of twentieth century drag performers, both from the center and at the margin of the profession, Senelick masterfully demonstrates how the "forceful weapon" of gender impersonation has served "the violent antagonism that has been the keynote of the avant-garde theatre since the turn of the nineteenth century" (409).
While the historical and cross-cultural scope of The Changing Room is enormous, the author does not permit this to interfere with the book's clarity of purpose and sense of focus. From the beginning, Senelick suggests that the volume follows his own intuitions regarding "the inherent sexuality of all performance, the ability of live theatre to construct gender variants unencountered anywhere else, and an abiding 'queerness' in the most authentic types of theatre and its antecedents" (xiv). The Changing Room addresses all of these claims with convincing critical and theoretical insight that is at times as startling as it is revealing.
Analyzing widely popular critical arguments, from Judith Butler to Jill Dolan, regarding the performative nature of gender, Senelick insists that "the theatrical performance of gender, especially when...