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Charles Busch at home: The drag legend and Broadway playwright on finding his role

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
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Bona drag: From Bert Savoy to Charles Busch to Tyra Sanchez

By James Jorden | June 17, 2010

It was two whole seasons before I understood ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ But when I got it, the show changed everything I thought I knew about drag.

At first, the drag on the Bravo competition show just made no sense. Yes, it was pretty; occasionally it was gorgeous. The queens could breeze through the complex gymnastic dance routines while doing flawless lip-synching in even more flawless makeup. But then they would stumble on the simplest tasks, such as acting a brief campy scene.

No, these were not the drag queens I knew. And I’ve known a few of them. My ex—let’s just call him “C”—did drag part-time back in the late 1980s. (How many nights did I have to call the car service postponing the pickup for half an hour, an hour, two hours, four hours…) C and I were best friends with a full-time drag queen, and by full-time I mean she was Empress-elect of the Imperial Court of New York. I even did drag once or twice back then, though never again after that awful post-performance experience removing duct tape (I wanted cleavage, all right?) and taking with it about three layers of dermis. I have never known worse pain, and what did my C do? He shoved two Tylenols and half a tab of Ecstasy down my throat, put me to bed, and went out to Sound Factory. Which, come to think of it, is the main reason C is now my ex.

And even though I haven’t worn duct tape, or even false eyelashes, since roughly the Gulf War, today I’m known best online as a drag persona: the opera gossip columnist La Cieca, a role I’ve played for almost 15 years now.

Yet I just couldn’t fathom those wannabe Next Drag Superstars. To be sure, I spotted the eventual winner, Tyra Sanchez, early on, but if you asked me why she was destined to win, I couldn’t have told you. She wasn’t as pretty as Tatianna or Morgan McMichaels, as glamorous as Raven or Sahara Davenport, or as witty as Jessica Wild or Pandora Boxx. Tyra was sullen, uncooperative, slow on the uptake, and ignorant of anything in popular culture beyond Beyoncé: at one point she lost the thread of a backstage conversation and asked in her gravely monotone “What’s Bollywood?”

This is drag? I always thought drag was about camp style, a parody of femininity and middle-class values. Camp is certainly a through-line of drag from its modern beginnings in vaudeville female impersonation acts like Julian Eltinge and Bert Savoy.

Savoy’s untimely death in 1923, in fact, may have been the ultimate act of camp. According to legend, he was strolling on the beach with a few friends as a storm approached. Startled by a sudden thunderclap, he squealed, “Ain’t Miss God cuttin’ up somethin’ awful?” And then he was struck dead by a bolt of lightning.

By the 1920s, the drag subculture was so well established in New York that Mae West (who based her stage persona on Savoy’s act) could set the climactic scene of her 1926 melodrama “The Drag” at a downtown cross-dressing ball. True, the play closed out of town, but not because the drag material puzzled audiences. On the contrary, anti-vice groups objected to the (barely) double-entendre dialogue West adapted from the queens’ raunchy club patter. In one scene, a straight cab driver protests to a drag queen, “I just don’t get you guys!” The queen snaps, “If you don’t, you’re the first taxi driver that didn’t.”

THIS TRANSGRESSIVE, SEXUALLY AGGRESSIVE ELEMENT of drag also informed the downtown arts scene of the early 1960s. Playwright Charles Busch singles out filmmaker Jack Smith as an icon of what might be called Art Drag, a type of performance art in which drag is so deconstructed as to offer not even the possibility of identification of the performer as female. In “Normal Love” Smith’s muse Mario Montez sports ragtag bits of women’s clothing, his face is sloppily slathered with makeup, and he strikes poses learned by rote from 1940s B-movies, but never is there an instant of doubt that he is a muscular male: even his stage name deliberately betrays his gender.

Julie Halston and Charles Busch

Julie Halston and Charles Busch in “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography

Busch’s brand of drag as theater proceeds from this rejection of gender illusion. He’s a superb actor with a terrific writer’s flair for pastiche, and he’s memorized and tweaked an encyclopedia of actressy gestures from Greta Garbo’s pout to Susan Hayward’s snarl.

But even at his most cinched and fill-lit glossiest, Charles isn’t fooling anyone visually: the auburn pageboy and Adrian shoulder pads don’t conceal the middle-aged, round-faced fellow underneath.

If it’s not a real woman on stage (as Busch constantly, subtly reminds us), then we have permission to buy into a brand of old-fashioned theatrical extravagance that a biologically correct actress couldn’t sell nowadays. Busch, an avid student of theater history, recreates for his audiences the experience of seeing a great actress playing in a stage or screen vehicle, but he does it though a lens of intentional camp. Distanced from the unlikely melodramatics by laughter, we can thrill to glamorous virtuoso Gertrude Garnet’s clash with the Nazis in “The Lady in Question” or shudder at has-been screen siren Angela Arden’s LSD-induced breakdown in “Die, Mommie, Die!”

If a modern-day Katherine Cornell or Susan Hayward were to attempt to this kind of stuff straight, the result would be unintentional, embarrassing camp. Busch circumvents this hazard by tacitly announcing, “None of this is any more literal than I am a woman.” He further distances himself from the material by playing, not the role, but rather, the actress who plays the role. He always writes his character a “delayed entrance,” deliberately teasing the audience with hints of the leading lady’s impending arrival. Finally, when the big moment arrives—when the spectacle of the great lady sweeping down a staircase or through a pair of French doors—finally transpires, the audience plays along with the gag, interrupting play’s action with an ovation while the “leading lady” basks in the waves of love across the footlights.

So well does Busch play the onstage diva that it takes a few moments to get accustomed to the real, offstage Charles: soft-spoken, witty and generous.

When I interviewed him earlier this month in connection with the impending Channel 13 telecast of the documentary “The Lady in Question is Charles Busch,” I hesitated to broach so pedestrian a topic as reality television. To my delight, Charles admitted that he adored reality competition shows (though “I don’t care about those housewives”) and he chatted eagerly about the most recent season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Admitting that he lacked an important prerequisite talent for such a competition (“I am the world’s worst lip-syncher”), he mused that if he and John “Lypsinka” Epperson ever appeared on the show “we’d be eliminated the first week.”

And that’s probably true, though not because Busch or Lypsinka lack glamour, talent or a Helen Lawsonesque level of gritty determination, but rather because the show focuses on exactly the quality Busch and other “Art Drag” artists deliberately avoid: verisimilitude or, in the terminology of drag-house culture, “realness.”

Tyra Sanchez commands realness, though not in the way you might expect. Yes, she’s pretty, and she moves well, and if you squinted really hard she might (just) pass for a biological woman, but lots of other queens do all these things far better than Tyra. No, Tyra’s realness, and it is absolute, is the realness of being a diva.

Yes, “diva” is a double-edged sword, and Tyra’s behavior during the series exemplified many of the qualities we associated with obnoxious diva behavior. She was late, she was lazy, she was self-absorbed, she was difficult. And yet, she also produced dazzling moments of that almost-supernatural fascination that only true divas can.

The most stunning example occurred during the wedding challenge, and that was the moment when I knew Tyra was the winner. A number of the other contestants criticized her on the runway, and for a moment the strain got to her. Her eyes welled up and her lips trembled, but she shoved the emotion down, repaired her mascara and stood tall. And then, she pulled her tulle wedding veil over her face. It was an instinctive gesture, but the slight distancing effect somehow made her seem all the more regal. No, not regal: she didn’t look like a queen. She looked like a goddess, and somehow at the same time like a statue of that goddess in a temple to herself, disdainful, proud, not of this earth.

At the time, all I thought was “wow!”—but on reflection, I realize what Tyra was doing there. No—not doing. What she was being there. Tyra was being a diva.

Now, Charles Busch does diva, which is to say he portrays divas—expertly, with the technique and style of a brilliant actor and writer. But Tyra Sanchez has diva in her DNA.

This is not be the drag I know, but it may be the highest form of drag of them all.

A contributor to Capital, James Jorden is happy to have the chance to write about something other than opera, which is what he writes about on his blog parterre.com and in the New York Post.

  • Colin

    You fell asleep on half a tab of ecstasy?

  • CruzSF

    I hope the entire interview will be broadcast, too.