Theatrical transvestism in the United States and the performance of American identities, 1870-1935
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This study documents and analyzes the work of several variety acts of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: the Russell Brothers, who were famous for their Irish Servant Girls characters before coming under attack by Irish American protestors; James McIntyre and Thomas Heath, who performed various blackface characters on the vaudeville stage long after minstrelsy waned; and Harrigan and Hart, whose musical plays included a multitude of ethnic types in an exaggerated mirror of the immigrant slums of New York. Each of these acts included female impersonation as a prominent component, and also created detailed “race delineations.” Every one of these performers was accorded expert status in the popular press as authorities on the behavior, dialect and slang of the racial group they depicted. These acts also all experienced a decline in popularity as female comedians, chorus girls, and glamour drag queens staked out theatrical territories in the twentieth century. Of these acts, only Harrigan and Hart have received extensive biographical attention; but the strange production history of Michael Stewart’s Harrigan ‘n Hart illustrates the effects of sexual anxiety on the writing of theatrical biography. Not until the 1990s would performers of multiple ethnicities and genders, such as John Leguizamo, Tracey Ullman, and Anna Deavere Smith, regain mainstream currency as authorities on race relations and sexuality. This study correlates the decline of a rich period of multivalent social impersonation with shifting perceptions of homosexuality, gender play, class consciousness and racial identity in the United States.