I’ve been thinking about drag a lot recently. Part of this was sparked by the recent death of Paul O’Grady, every granny’s favourite drag queen but also due to a protest recently held outside a drag story-time event.
First of all, they weren’t actually holding a drag story-time event at the time of protest, it was merely a venue that has held such events in the past. Secondly, we must be importing our outrage if it’s seriously suggested that England has a problem with drag.
England loves drag. Most small theatres in this country only survive because every year they put on a show for children where a man in drag in one of the main attractions. A good Dame can make or break a panto. (Not to mention the tradition where the main male ‘hero’ row is played by a woman). English comedies thrive on drag, from Monty Python and The Two Ronnies to the drag festooned stage of the Music Hall where acts like Dan Leno ruled supreme.
What’s more English men are renowned for donning a dress at any opportunity. In 1666, Samuel Pepys turned a party into a hyper-party by swapping clothes with his wife and singing until four in the morning. Mary Seacole records the first action of soldiers entering the town of Sevastopol after an eleven month siege was to raid wardrobes, frock it up and frolic.
One friend of this site with a place in drag history is Christopher Smart, whose female alter-ego, Mary Midnight came off the pages of a magazine and onto the stage. He’d started The Midwife in 1751, it came out once a month, was about thirty pages long and Smart was the sole author. The fictional editor, Mary Midnight was an elderly midwife and the central joke was that her ‘old woman’s knowledge’ was sharper and more incisive than the standard sources of media. The magazine was also crammed with other voices, with Smart taking names such as Ebenezer Pentweazle (and indeed, the whole Pentweazle clan). There were machines to grind old people young, societies of antiquities that fished in sewers and a round-up of the international news that pointed out the inconsistencies of reporting in other publications.
In January of 1752, Smart launched a new venture, a stage show based on the magazine. Previously, as a lecturer in Cambridge University, he’d put on a comic play with the students and he always showed an interest in theatre. Following the harsh licensing laws put in place after proposed play called The Golden Rump (which depicted politicians lining up to kiss a giant golden arse) there were only two licensed theatres. As a result the performance was held in the Castle Tavern, where the gimmick was that the audience were paying for a cup of tea and just happened to receive a night’s entertainment at the same time.
This method of narrowly avoiding the law had been pioneered by Samuel Foote, impressionist and comic who had run successful ‘tea parties’. The show was initially called Mrs Midnight’s Oratory, playing on the popularity of the Mrs Midnight character but also referencing Henley’s Oratory. Henley was a tubthumping preacher, literally tub thumping as he preached from a large tub - I have a biography of him but haven’t got around to it yet. As the show moved venues, at times being held in the Little Theatre in Haymarket, and even touring the south of England it had a number of names, including; Mrs Midnight’s Grand Concert, Mrs Midnight’s New Carnival Concert, The British Roratory, and Sack Posset.
The show was a revue, helmed by Christopher Smart in drag as Mary Midnight. She’d give a comic speech and introduce acts, most of them musical and given silly names. Performers included Signor Bombasto, Signora Spoonatissima, Signor Piantafugocalo, Mynheer Puffupandyke and Mademoiselle Rompereu. It sounds like a noisy night with many of the instruments being salt shakers and other household items.
Smart must have passed pretty well as he once met David Garrick ‘dressed as an ancient lady of the last age’ and fooled him. This is doubly surprising as Garrick would have known Smart through a number of acquaintances, including Samuel Johnson who didn’t rate Smart much as a poet but found him a good chat. Smart’s daughter Elizabeth said his short stature and dainty hands helped.
There are a number of reviews for the show. Horace Walpole declared it the ‘lowest buffoonery in the world, even to me’ after seeing a performance in may 1752. Hester Thrale Piozzi agreed that it was ‘low buffoonery’ but said ‘it pretended to be nothing better, and it was wondrous droll and what the wags call funny.’ Newbery, Smart’s publisher and father-in-law declared in a puff for the Reading Mercury that Mrs Midnight’s Oratory was “conducted with the Utmost Decency and received with the most Extraordinary Applause.”
There was some controversy. At one point Smart booked a wooden-legged dancer called Monsieur Timbertoes and there was outrage that he’d be employing a Frenchman in a time of war. Smart had to explain that Monsieur Timbertoes was so called because he danced the French-clog and was actually an English man who’d lost his foot whilst serving in the English Navy against the French.
Orator Henley, who inspired the original show’s name, tried to stir outrage by declaring that Mrs Midnight was nothing but a man in a dress and tried to expose the true author of The Midwife magazine. Smart responded by saying that he was only jealous of Mary Midnight, as he was also an old woman but not as pretty. Henley hit back by calling Smart a Molly - slang for a man who attended Molly Houses, a secret underground of gay/trans hangouts where men would dress as women, have sex and even perform fake marriages and births.
Chris Mounsey, in his biography Christopher Smart: Clown of God, goes further. He claims that Smart’s show was performed in Molly houses and that Smart had been seen wearing women’s clothes off the stage. He sites people calling him Kitty Smart, the feminine form of his nickname, Kit. That he was seen frequenting gay hookups with Samuel Foote, who had come in to play Mary’s daughter Dorothy and who was later accused of forcibly buggering a footman. (The one-legged Foote declared “buggery: I can’t stand for it” - which he possibly couldn’t).
Newbery also published a book called A Collection of Pretty Poems for Children Six Feet High, featuring a frontispiece that Mounsey declares is Smart, looking very camp and including poems that could be interpreted to ‘out’ Smart and castigate him for cheating on his wife, Newbery’s adopted daughter. Mounsey uses this to build a case to argue that Newbery engineered the sane Smart’s incarceration in a madhouse as revenge against his cheating on his wife, and also to distance himself from the increasingly politically dangerous things Smart was saying in his Midwife magazine and during the live performances. I’ve never been wholly convinced of Mounsey’s argument, I personally think Smart probably had a form of bi-polar disorder and his family had become concerned for him after he forced people to pray with him during a manic episode.
Certainly, Smart found himself in a bad place. The Midwife had been slowing down as a magazine as the live show kicked off, with 68 performances in its first year. He’d been ill, whether his asthma, the fever he memories in Hymn to the Supreme Being or a depressive part of his bi-polar cycle. People such as Foote stepped in when he wasn’t available and the show became a selection of animal acts and the drag revue element dropped off. Smart himself was incarcerated in 1757 but the Mary Midnight shows carried on a little while after.
Much critical and biographical focus ends up talking about Smart in his incarceration, where he created The Song to David, and Jubilate Agno - two very different masterpieces, but I think it is worth thinking of Smart in his theatrical heyday, dressed as an old woman, laughing, joking and having a good time. Nothing controversial about that is there?