Take Drama, Daily’s First Official Poll: “Queen, King, Drag Queen, Drag King, Drama Queen”

As a preface to this, Drama, Daily’s First Official Poll, I would like to reiterate and add to some points made in my very first post about drama terms, their etymology, and the on- and off- stage performance of gender roles.

In ancient Greece, the verb infinitive theatre meant to behold.  A theatrum was a place for viewing.  The word drama referred to an action, a deed, a play, especially a tragedy.  The first entry of the word in English usage, found in OED and dated 1515, provides the most common meaning: a composition in prose or verse to be staged and conveyed via dialogue and action and accompanied by costume, gesture, scenery as in real life, a play.  An entry dated 1930 indicates the word’s non-theatrical meaning: the dramatic-quality, colorfulness or excitement that characterizes something. 

The tendency to see performance extending beyond the stage and into everyday life is nothing new.  It predates even Shakespeare’s era, and is rooted in both a moral skepticism of theatre (often referred to in academia as the anti-theatrical prejudice) and a belief, extending back to Biblical times and forward through the medieval period and into the 17th c. in England, that women are inherently deceptive, born actresses (often referred to as an anti-feminist, misogynist, or patriarchal worldview).  Even after 1660, when Charles II officially authorized women to perform female parts on stage, female acting and dissimulation continued to be a dominant theme in English drama.  

Today we have  a fuller vocabulary to characterize how men and women perform on and off stage, such as the oft-used and largely derogatory term “drama queen,” which can be found in an OED entry dated 1923 and describes a person who overreacts to a minor setback, a person prone to exaggeratedly dramatic behaviors, a person who thrives on being the center of attention. Nearly two decades later, in 1941, we find the first English usage entry for the term drag queen, a female impersonator (often with the automatic implication that the performer is a homosexual).  The earliest OED entry for its counterpart, drag king, which denotes a male impersonator (often with the implication that the performer is a lesbian), is dated 1972 and derives from The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon by Bruce Rodgers.  The etymologies of these two terms suggest that no straight man or woman would dare to do drag…I’ll have to think about this one.  The word theatrical, which carried a meaning similar, though less disparaging, to drama queen, was used as early as 1649 to describe behavior that resembles the manner of an actor, behavior that is artificial, affected.  Circa 1710 theatrical took on a more derogatory meaning in line with drama queen: having the style of dramatic performance, extravagantly or irrelevantly histrionic, ‘stagy,’ calculated for display, showy, spectacular.  As early as 1837, the term theatricality, the quality of being theatrical, entered into English usage and was used both as a synonym for a play or dramatic performance and also, significantly, to characterize the dramatic nature of something mundane, non-theatrical.  A final term worth noting, performative, was brought into mainstream usage with J. L. Austen’s 1962 work, How to Do Things with Words, though OED dates the first use of the word back to 1922.  A performative is an utterance that also, consciously or not, brings about an action. Following Austen, Judith Butler has theorized the performativity of gender roles. Which brings us to the polls below.  As observers of individuals who live their lives in the spotlight, whether by accident, choice, or occupation, we are often hardpressed to distinguish people from their performances. Is there an original behind the performance, or is the concept of a whole, essential self an illusive myth, so that everything is merely performance?  Is there, for example, a truly gentle, jovial, kind-hearted person lurking beneath the public Cowell’s scowl? Is Sean Hayes, who played Jack on Will and Grace, really a drama queen, or did he just play one on television? Take the poll, and let’s see where you stand.


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