Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Drag Queen at The Mark Twain House? Really?

On Friday, June 18th at 8 p.m., The Mark Twain House & Museum welcomes international chanteuse and drag comedian Varla Jean Merman for a one-night-only fundraising event. Having been seen at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, London’s West End, TV’s Project Runway, Ugly Betty, and New York’s Public Theatre, Varla (a.k.a. Jeffery Roberson) is certainly one of the top drag performers in the world. But a drag queen at The Mark Twain House? Really? This may seem, well, a bit odd. Actually, very odd. But, with minimal effort one can find the connection.

In Twain’s masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the titular character dresses as a girl to gain intelligence on recent events on the river. “I would slip over the river and find out what was going on. Jim liked that notion; but he said I must go in the dark and look sharp. Then he studied it over and said, couldn’t I put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl? That was a good notion, too. So we shortened up one of the calico gowns and I turned up my trowser-legs to my knees and got into it.” He steals off to the home of a woman whose husband is out searching for the escaped slave Jim. After bungling his nom de drag and committing various other feminine faux pas, the woman exposes Huck’s charade with invaluable drag advice on how to properly thread a needle and the ladylike way to throw something at a rat. The book contains other sequences of cross-dressing shenanigans involving the “King” dressing as Juliet and Jim dressed as Aunt Sally.

Twain’s recently unearthed and revised stage comedy, Is He Dead?, features a protagonist who cross-dresses to commit fraud in the art world. An artist, in order to escape crushing debt and a life of penury, decides to fake his death in order to become successful. “One of us must seem to die – must change his name and disappear – we’ll make his name sound throughout the world, and the riches will come. Francois Millet must die!” Knowing that an artist’s work is far more valuable if the creator is dead, Millet and his co-conspirators scheme to “kill” the artist. After convincing everyone that he has succumbed to a horrible fate, he returns dressed as his sister, the Widow Daisy Tillou, to collect the money that will undoubtedly start accumulating. When Millet makes his first appearance in drag, Twain’s stage directions paint a not-so-pretty picture: “The Widow, young, handsome, cheaply but prettily dressed with hat or without it, as you please, comes mincing out of the bedroom, smoking a corncob or briarwood pipe.” Millet complains, “You see I’m femininely ignorant. I could make fatal mistakes in talking…I’ll do the best I can…I can’t stand too much of an exhibition. Let me run in and fix my hair.”

Cross-dressing appears in other Twain texts including The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and various short stories. Linda A. Morris’s book Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-dressing and Transgression more fully explores drag in Twain’s literature along with the Victorian and Minstrel Show traditions that influenced this aspect of his writing. And if you still don’t believe that Mark Twain might welcome a drag comedian at his home, you can check out the photo of Twain himself bedecked in a dress and a bonnet, performing in a family theatrical with daughter Susy. He has even smartly accessorized with a hot water bottle.

Varla Jean Merman is “The Lady Behind the Moustache” is Friday, June 18th at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling (860) 280-3130.

- Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communications


Anonymous said...

"But a drag queen at The Mark Twain House? Really? This may seem, well, a bit odd. Actually, very odd."

Wow. Odd? What's odd is the way you've written this article. Glad I don't give your organization a dime.

The Mark Twain House & Museum said...

I'm sorry you didn't like the post, might you explain a bit more about what's odd about it?

Jacques Lamarre said...

@countryaudi - Didn't mean to imply that drag queens should be considered odd or unwelcome at The Mark Twain House. Only responding to the thought that having a drag queen perform a fundraiser at our museum might seem unusual at a casual glance. Some of the most creative people I know, including Varla Jean Merman who is donating her time, are drag artists. Not sure if this addresses your concern. - Jacques Lamarre