‘Camp’ Camp; Or, Blog Band Camp for and about the Exaggeratedly Theatrical

‘Camp’ Camp; Or, Blog Band Camp for and about the Exaggeratedly Theatrical

The inspiration for this post came from Josh’s comment yesterday on my “Metablogging: Drama Daily 2009 Recap” post.  In brief, Josh got a camp vibe from Sarah Kane’s plays.  This association hadn’t occurred to me when I first read some of her work (Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed) a few months back, but it does intrigue me and has made me investigate further my understanding of “camp.”

I’ve always associated camp with drag, and I imagine I am not alone in this.  However, the two concepts are not mutually inclusive: while camp may be inherent to drag, drag is not inherent to camp.  Since its first documented English language usage in 1909, “camp” has taken on several meanings, so before we get to Sarah Kane and her work’s camp factor, let’s look at some definitions.

Definitions from various sources listed on Dictionary.com


  1. An affectation or appreciation of manners and tastes commonly thought to be artificial, vulgar, or banal.
  2. Banality, vulgarity, or artificiality when deliberately affected or when appreciated for its humor: “Camp is popularity plus vulgarity plus innocence” (Indra Jahalani).


Having deliberately artificial, vulgar, banal, or affectedly humorous qualities or style: played up the silliness of their roles for camp effect.
v.   intr.
To act in a deliberately artificial, vulgar, or banal way.
v.   tr.
To give a deliberately artificial, vulgar, or banal quality to:camped up their cowboy costumes with chaps, tin stars, and ten-gallon hats.


1. something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental.
2. a person who adopts a teasing, theatrical manner, esp. for the amusement of others.
v. (used without object)

3. Also, camp it up. to speak or behave in a coquettishly playful or extravagantly theatrical manner.

4. campy: camp Hollywood musicals of the 1940s.
Slang Dictionary

  1. n.
    something cute and out of fashion; something of such an anachronistic style as to be intriguing. : Nobody really knows what style camp really is, and very few even care.
  2. mod.
    and campy. overdone; out of fashion and intriguing. : Most camp entertainment is pretentious and overdrawn.
  3. mod.
    having to do with homosexual persons and matters. : She is so camp, I could scream!
Word Origin & History
“tasteless,” 1909, homosexual slang, perhaps from mid-17c. Fr.camper “to portray, pose” (as in se camper “put oneself in a bold, provocative pose”); popularized 1964 by Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp.”

Definitions from OED


Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals. So as n., ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, etc. (see quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour.

1909 WARE Passing Eng. 61/2 Camp (Street), actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis. Probably from the French. Used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character. ‘How very camp he is.’ 1931 New Broadway Brevities (N.Y.) II. 7/1 (heading) Drags, camps, flaunting hip-twisters and reefer peddlers run afoul of cops on the lam. 1933 M. LINCOLN Oh! Definitely vi. 62 Dennis, slightly more ‘camp’ than usual, opened the front door. 1941 S. J. BAKERDict. Austral. Slang 16 Camp (adj.), homosexual. 1952 A. WILSON Hemlock & After I. v. 101 The..gossip of the golden spiv group…the ‘camp’ end of the room.Ibid. II. i. 112 The incoherence of his speech, the..absence of the customary ‘camp’. Ibid. III. i. 191 Whether Terence was really ‘queer’..how much happier he was when he was not being ‘camp’. 1954 C. BEATON Glass of Fashion viii. 153 Hearty naval commanders or jolly colonels acquired the ‘camp’ manners of calling everything from Joan of Arc to Merlin ‘lots of fun’, and the adjective ‘terrible’ peppered every sentence. 1954 C. ISHERWOOD World in Evening II. iii. 125 High Camp is the whole emotional basis of the Ballet..and of course of Baroque art. 1956 L. MCINTOSH Oxford Folly vii. 103 ‘He was{em}you know{em}one ofthose’..‘What, a pansy?’ ‘That’s right,’ said Julian, ‘he was camp.’ 1959 Observer 1 Feb. 17/1 The cute little dirty chuckle and the well-timed ‘camp’ gesture have made stage and audience indistinguishable from any would-be-smart cocktail-party. 1964 S. SONTAG in Partisan Rev. XXXI. 515 (title) Notes on ‘Camp’.

THE END. Enough definitions.

If you’ve made it this far, you have now seen for yourself the variant meanings of “camp.”  Interesting, eh? I find it interesting that the term can be neutral and derogatory, a statement of aesthetic and an insult or admonishment.  Has your sense of the concept remained the same? expanded?

I am sitting here now trying to think of examples of camp that do not involve cross dressing or homosexuality.  The movie Down with Love starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger is one that comes to mind.  Dolly Parton is another (very obvious) one, but given the frequency that she’s parodied by, well, gay drag queens, she takes me right back to my original association.  Then again, the picture to the right suggests she’s got camp covered all by herself. (Does extreme breast augmentation alone constitute camp, in a sense?) (And while I’m digressing, is Halloween a camp holiday?)

As far as Sarah Kane is concerned, I have to now agree with Josh that there are camp elements in her plays.  The purposely and excessively vulgar Hippolytus in Phaedra’s Love qualifies as an all out camp character.  But he does not (only) evoke trivial humor that results from mere hyperbole and impersonation; he evokes in us solemn feelings, sinister feelings.  He is a darkly satiric reflection of the mirror up to nature in a corrupted society.  I’m also tempted to say that there is something camp about the exchanges between Ian and the soldier in Kane’s first play, Blasted, and I think this would be, again, because of the extreme, yet pointed, vulgarity of the two characters.  Her play Cleansed makes poignant use of cross dressing and the theatricality of gender, but I’m not sure if I’d identify the play as ‘campy.’  Thoughts?

8 Responses to “‘Camp’ Camp; Or, Blog Band Camp for and about the Exaggeratedly Theatrical”
  1. Josh says:

    For some reason I don’t think “camp” refers to queerness or drag at all, even though obviously it’s obviously a major part of a queer vernacular and artistic heritage. I was also using “camp” as a positive here, not as a negative. I really love these plays.

    I meant “camp” in a broader, more “holy shit these plays are over-the-top” kind of way.

  2. nstodard says:

    completely agree the camp factor in Kane is positive…arresting, thought provoking

  3. George Hunka says:

    Maybe the most important and influential essay on camp is Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (in the volume Against Interpretation, I think; worth a read).

    There are camp elements in “Phaedra’s Love” and perhaps even “Cleansed,” but to call these plays “campy” I think is to miss the more sincere elements of the work. Irony is an essential component of camp, and I don’t think that Kane’s vision is ironic enough to support a blanket statement like that. I think it’s also one of the things that made her dislike Quentin Tarantino’s work so much.

    • nstodard says:

      It’s been more than a decade since I read Sontag’s essay. Yikes! I need to revisit it.

      While there are moments of humor and camp in Kane’s work, I agree that there is so much more at hand. Taken together, her work is, to me, a plea from within a wasteland. Poetic and punishing.

      I’d like to know more about Kane on Tarantino… and can you expand on your point about irony in relation to Kane?

  4. George Hunka says:

    A lot of Tarantino’s films are about other films: they’re genre studies, self-consciously “hip”; his violence is specifically film violence. Kane draws her art from real-world suffering and violence; there’s little to distance it from real-world experience. Or, from the Kane interview that I posted:

    “… if the truth of a moment is that it refers to another film and the way in which someone’s head’s been blown off in that film, for me that’s fucking meaningless. And I’m just not interested in it. … I thought I’ve given quite enough of my life to seeing that stuff and I’m not giving another second. Never mind three hours or whatever ‘Pulp Fiction’ was.”

    All violence and sexuality onstage is necessarily aestheticized; it is always metaphoric necessarily; stage blood a metaphor for real blood, for example. And an embodied demonstration of suffering rather than that suffering itself. This is quite different from what Tarantino’s up to. And Tarantino seeks to delight the viewer with his violence, whereas Kane — whether she aims to shock or not — seeks instead to remind us of our tender flesh in both pain and ecstasy. This is, to me, far from irony: it is taken at its face value.

    • nstodard says:

      George, thanks for expanding on your point. It’s a helpful insight and affirms my own sense when first reading her work that there is much more at stake in her depiction of violence than just violence for violence’s sake or a ploy to shock or thrill. And this is what bothers me so much about initial reactions to Blasted–that the reactions point to biases…about what the theatre can/should do and also what’s appropriate for a woman to write about. I wonder if any critics initially reacted to Tarantino’s work with the same disapproval as they did Kane’s Blasted.

  5. Josh says:

    George, I’ll read that Sontag essay. I guess I just don’t think of camp as insincere. When I made that statement about Kane’s work, I meant it as a compliment. To me, it seems like both camp and high art.

    If what you’re saying is that Kane’s works were written without even a semblance of a sense of humor, without even a shred of irony (is that what you’re saying?) then for me the plays just plain don’t work anymore.

  6. George Hunka says:

    That’s not what I mean at all, Josh — I wrote in the comments on your own blog: “Kane had an excellent sense of humor. … She’s very funny personally, as well as in her work, something that the Soho Rep production of Blasted a few seasons ago brought out very well.”

    There’s irony and irony — the comic irony of Ian’s discovery that there is indeed a kind of afterlife in “Blasted” (I believe his response to this is “Shit”), and tragic ironies of all kinds. Though camp is not necessarily insincere, it interposes an additional level of aestheticism between what is depicted and the means of its depiction (which is, I suppose, the role of irony in camp work). To me, Kane is more direct than this, though I do agree with you that there are camp elements, especially in “Phaedra’s Love” and “Cleansed.”

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