The initial appearance of performance in many cultures took the form of public rituals and ceremonies involving dance, speech, masks, costumes, and performers with special roles. With the addition of an audience and a stage, those rituals evolved into the early beginnings of drama, or theater, which often reflected the cultural mores of a society, particularly in relation to gender values, expected behaviors, and traditional roles.
In ancient patriarchal societies in which men had all the power, cultural values sometimes were expressed in performances lauding masculinity. Many components of Greek comedy in the fifth century bce resemble ceremonial phallic rites of that era, which celebrated the phallus as a symbol of creative energy, with choruses that sang and danced as they carried large phallic symbols on poles. Greek tragedies from that period were written by men, were performed by all-male casts, and played to predominantly male audiences. Women generally were depicted as passive and suffering; when written as characters with power, they often were presented as negative and destructive, such as Clytemnestra, Medea, the Gorgons, the Sirens, and the Harpies. In ancient Greek tragedies sexuality is addressed thematically most notably by Sophocles (c. 496–406 bce) in Oedipus Rex (c. 430–425), which deals with incest, and by Aristophanes (c. 446–385 bce) in Lysistrata (411 bce), in which a sex strike is conducted to end a war.
In the ancient Roman era theater was male-dominated, with men accounting for the majority of actors. The one format in which females were allowed was mime, which was erotic in nature and was known to involve nudity. For that reason actresses were regarded as being on the same level as prostitutes; both were denied religious rites unless there was a deathbed repentance. However, in the sixth century the mime actress Theodora (c. 500–548) not only made a name for herself as an entertainer but also became the mistress of Justinian (c. 482–565), the heir to the throne of his uncle, the emperor Justin I. Although Justinian wanted to marry Theodora, that was prohibited by an old Roman law that did not allow government officials to marry women of the theater. After successfully petitioning for the law to be repealed, they married in 525. When Justin became emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Theodora influenced him to pass laws banning forced prostitution.
The association of female performers with prostitutes was not unique to the Romans. In ancient India, where theater also originated with public ritual—in this case temple dances—nati dancing girls, though valued for their physical talents, which were thought to please the gods, received little respect even though their performances were given under the authority of temple priests. The ancient epic Sanskrit tale Ramayana, which, along with Mahabharata, has been the revered source material for many dramatic productions, mentions theatrical dance performances as well as feasts and gatherings with dancing girls for entertainment. Nonetheless, the Dharmasastras, or metrical law books, state clearly that if married, dancing girls need not be treated with the respect typically accorded to another man's wife. In Kama sutra a dancing girl's position is the lowest among the courtesans.
Another form of dramatic performance that began with dance is Kabuki, which can be traced back to 1603, when Okuni (c. 1572–1613), a female dancer from the Izumo Grand Shrine, started doing public performances on an improvised stage in a Kyoto riverbed. Her Kabuki programs, which were sexually suggestive, cast women in both male and female roles in comic playlets that were interspersed with dances. As the popularity of the programs quickly increased, many imitation Kabuki troupes formed, presenting equally lascivious material so that eventually Kabuki came to be associated with prostitution. In fact, the earliest skits were referred to as keiseikai, or "hiring a prostitute," and chaya asobi, "playing in a teahouse brothel."
In 1629 the shogun's government decided that the eroticism of Kabuki and its practice of having women play men were immoral and banned women from appearing on stage. Immediately after the period of women's Kabuki came young men's Kabuki, in which young men played all the female roles; those performances attracted raucous audiences clamoring for seductive material. Yaro hyobanki (critical guidebooks) rated the young male actors more for their sexual attractiveness than for their acting skills.
When fights broke out at performances over the attentions of the young actors, the shogunate banned young men from the stage in 1652; this gave rise to men's Kabuki the next year. In this form only mature men were allowed to perform, and they did so in a more sophisticated, highly stylized manner. Nevertheless, the shogunate required that the onnagata, male actors who specialized in women's roles, shave their heads to render them less sexually desirable and less likely to tempt audiences. As a result the onnagata, who typically came from a family of specialists, wore a silk head covering over the shaved forelock that remains a standard part of the costuming.
THE MUSLIM WORLD
In Muslim passion plays from ancient times to the present the dramatic representation of women on stage has been curbed to discourage lustful reactions. Whereas representations of men or masculinity are uninhibited, women are portrayed by men who are discouraged from physically mimicking femininity and instead rely on language or other signifiers; alternatively, they are portrayed by women in a manner that downplays sexual attractiveness.
In the Beijing opera, which began in the late eighteenth century, actresses were not banned from the stage, but during feudal times it was considered unfitting for men and women to appear on the same stage. In addition to the male sheng roles of the Beijing opera, which are subdivided into old men (lao sheng), young men (xiao sheng), and warriors (wu sheng), men played the female dan roles, which are subdivided into the quiet and gentle (qing yi), the vivacious and dissolute (hua dan), warrior maidens (wu dan), and old women (lao dan). In fact, the most famous performers, such as Mei Lan Fan (1894–1961), Cheng Yanqiu (1904–1958), Shang Xiaoyun (1900–1976), and Xun Huisheng (1899–1968), have been men known for their portrayals of female roles.
MORALITY AND PROPRIETY ON THE EUROPEAN STAGE
Across cultures the prevalent casting of men in female roles is usually done because of societal morals related to propriety. However, in traditional Kathakali, which originated in Kerala in southern India in the seventeenth century, it was not uncommon for dancing, musical, and ritual performances featuring performers with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes to last as long as seven or eight hours (an entire night). In light of the stamina and energy required to sustain such a presentation, the casting of young boys in female roles was rooted in practical physical concerns, not solely societal values.
Thematically, concerns involving sexual propriety such as marital infidelity and the unwitting husband, or cuckold, received much comic attention on stage in European drama in the late Middle Ages. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) in his 1528 satire The Mandrake pokes fun at a gullible older husband who agrees to let another man bed his wife for convoluted fertility reasons. John Heywood (c. 1497–1580) in his 1533 play Johan, Johan shows a henpecked husband as a farcical subject who finally manages to drive off his condescending wife and her lover, a priest, only to continue fretting about what they are doing while away from him. In Italian commedia dell'arte, or comedy of professional players, which reached its height in the period 1550–1650, this form of comedic improvisation with stock characters and stock plots frequently used cuckoldry as one of the main plot points to explore the follies of people and love.
In England in the Elizabethan era (1558–1603), when cross-casting young boys in female roles was the norm, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) explored themes of gender identity, mistaken and otherwise, in two plays written around 1600. In As You Like It, Rosalind is a girl (who would have been played by a boy) who disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, who unwittingly attracts the love interest of a woman who believes that Rosalind is male; at the same time Rosalind (as Ganymede) plays the role of a girl in a mock wooing scene with her male love interest, Orlando. In Twelfth Night, or What You Will the protagonist, Viola (who also would have been played by a boy), spends the majority of the play disguised as a boy, Cesario, again attracting the unwanted affections of another female, Olivia, while Viola is in love with the Duke, who has accepted her in disguise as a trusted male confidant. Both plays are comedies, and so the mistaken identities ultimately are resolved and end in happy marriages.
Also benefiting from the prevalence of cross-casting were the troupes of young actors, or boy players as they were known. Consisting largely of boys between the ages of eight and twelve with prepubescent voices, the players often were educated in grammar, logic, and rhetoric; they were musically talented, and some spoke Latin. The most accomplished of them included Christopher Beeston (c. 1579–1638), who continued acting well into maturity and parlayed his knowledge of the theater into a career as a theater manager; Nathaniel Field (1587–1620), who was a favorite of the playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), penned his own plays, and was a member of the King's Men, the company to which Shakespeare belonged, which often played at the Royal Court; and Edward Kynaston (c. 1640–1712), who was one of the last prominent boy players and a main character in the 2004 film Stage Beauty.
During the Restoration period (1660–1700) Charles II reigned with a promiscuous enthusiasm that was reflected in brazenly sexual plays. One of the most notorious was The Country Wife (1675) by William Wycherley (c. 1640–1716), in which the protagonist, a licentious womanizer, convinces all the men in town that he is impotent, giving him access to all the married women, whom he proceeds to seduce. Also notable in that era was the introduction of professional actresses into theaters. Many productions took advantage of the novelty of having women on stage by casting them in "breeches roles," or roles in which actresses wore tightly fitting male clothes that outlined their figures and showed off their legs. Those roles were so successful in drawing an audience to the theater that they would be inserted gratuitously in revivals of older plays; among all the plays produced in London between 1660 and 1700, it has been estimated that nearly a quarter included a breeches role. Successful actresses of that era include the witty Nell Gwyn (1650–1687), who overcame illiteracy. She was one of Charles II's mistresses, bore him two sons, and said to her coachmen (who was fighting a man who had called her a whore), "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about." Elizabeth Barry (1658–1713) had a talent for tragic performance that is credited with popularizing "she-tragedy." Susanna Moutfort, also known as Susanna Verbruggen (c. 1667–1703), had many breeches roles created especially for her. The sexual liberation of the Restoration period also nurtured the career of Aphra Behn (1640–1689), one of the first successful woman playwrights.
THE MODERN ERA
In contrast to the morally carefree theater of the Restoration period, the modern realist movement in theater that began in the mid-nineteenth century was concerned with depicting brutal social truths; those plays often were met with popular resistance and controversy. When the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) attempted to stage A Doll's House (1879), in which a young wife leaves her husband and two children after realizing that her husband regards her as little more than a doll, some theaters refused to present the play unless the ending was changed. At theaters where Ibsen retained the original ending asserting a woman's right to individuality, critics attacked the work as unrealistic and incendiary, for what woman would dare leave her family in such an irresponsible manner? A Doll's House, which many consider the first true feminist play, was banned in England for a time. Despite resistance to his work, Ibsen continued to raise awareness for women's rights in plays such as Ghosts (1881), which dealt with venereal disease, incest, illegitimacy, and adultery through a protagonist who has suffered her husband's philandering only to find out that her son, who is dying of syphilis inherited from his father, wants to marry their maid, who is his half sister, a product of the husband's infidelity. This depiction of an individual who is victimized by her dutiful adherence to societal morals was equally difficult for critics and audiences to stomach. However, Ibsen found support among his artistic peers, such as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), who was influenced by Ibsen's example to examine social concerns in his own work.
In Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893) Shaw, who spent most of his time in England, frankly portrayed (and condemned) the social circumstances that led women to prostitution. His matter-of-fact characterization of the protagonist as a working-class woman neither young nor beautiful and not enamored of finery or self-indulgence was a distinct departure from popular fallen woman narratives of the nineteenth century, as exemplified by Alexandre Dumas (1824–1895) in La dame aux camélias (Camille), in which a youthful pretty heroine who is full of love and life, fond of luxury, and financially and emotionally dependent on men faces an inevitable downfall, sacrifices herself for the sake of others, and dies tragically. In contrast, Shaw's title character enters prostitution and becomes an independent, prosperous business owner. This notion was so scandalous that Mrs. Warren's Profession was banned in England, and when it was publicly staged at a theater in New York in 1905, the house manager was arrested and warrants were issued for the cast and crew.
As a theatrical performer the American entertainer and playwright Mae West (1893–1980) presented a highly unconventional depiction of prostitution, which she parlayed into great success. In 1926 West staged Sex, casting herself as the heroine, a sexually charismatic entertainer and prostitute who is boldly unapologetic about her opportunistic aims. Unlike other Broadway plays of the 1920s featuring prostitutes as women who eventually met with ruin, West's characterization was that of a sassy, empowered female who took the lead in all her sexual relationships. Her sexual aggressiveness was criticized by the New York Times, which called Sex "crude and inept," and Variety described it as "nasty, infantile [and] amateurish." The show, however, was popular with audiences.
On February 9, 1927, after 350 performances, New York policemen raided the show. Along with the producers, the theater owner, and the cast, West was arrested for corrupting morals, sentenced to ten days in jail, and fined $500. She used the ensuing public attention to publicize the wrongs done to her and went on to stage more successful theatrical productions—The Wicked Age (1927), Diamond Lil (1928), The Constant Sinner (1931), and Catherine Was Great (1944)—all of which featured her as a prostitute or kept woman who takes wealthy men for lovers, only to cast them aside when a richer one comes along. An outspoken advocate of sex as a basic human rights issue, West was also a proponent of gay and transgender rights. She wrote The Drag (c. 1927) about homosexuality; it was banned from Broadway but was a box-office hit in New Jersey.
Contemporary theater has witnessed a great deal of identity reclaiming in the realms of sex and gender as well as a continued commitment to social issues. In the 1960s the Saudi Arabian playwright Ali Ahmed Bakthir wrote a play calling for the general education of Arab women. In 1975 the African-American playwright Ntozake Shange (b. 1948) wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf: A Choreopoem, which explored numerous aspects of black female identity via poetry, dance, and theater. In the same year the Nigerian playwright and Nobel recipient Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) penned Death and the King's Horsemen, calling attention to the sacrifices sons must make for their fathers, families, and society. Care and Control by Michelene Wandor (b. 1940), the first British play about the rights of lesbian mothers in custody battles, was staged in 1977. Eleven years later David Henry Hwang (b. 1957) reworked the stereotype of the submissive Asian female from Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly in M. Butterfly, recasting the passive, suicidal Japanese geisha as a cunning Beijing opera diva and spy who, unknown to his European lover and mark, is really a man. The year 1988 saw The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein (1950–2006), which reflects the evolution of feminism through the protagonist, Heidi Holland, who was regarded as embodying the new feminine feminist.
In the late 1980s and 1990s gay, lesbian, and bisexual solo performance artists were active in American theater as AIDS awareness and issues of queer rights emerged. In 1989 Michael Kearns (b. 1950), the first openly HIV-positive gay actor in Hollywood, wrote Initimacies, an award-winning multicharacter solo performance exploring the personal stories of HIV-positive individuals. The bisexual Japanese-American solo performance artist Denise Uyehara subverted many common Asian female and sexual stereotypes with Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels. The queer solo performance artists Karen Finley (b. 1956), John Fleck (b. 1951), Holly Hughes (b. 1955), and Tim Miller (b. 1958), all recipients of a solo performer fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1990, suddenly had their funding revoked when political pressure groups deemed their sexuality-focused and body-focused work inappropriate for federal funding. The "NEA 4," as they were dubbed by the media, took their case to the Supreme Court, which upheld the NEA's decision on the basis of general standards of decency, thus implying that those artists' work was indecent. The NEA then stopped funding individual artists.
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