Velvet Darkness And Illusions: Examining Drag In “Rocky Horror” And “La Cage Aux Folles”

© Tim Garcia 2020. All Rights Reserved.

In both La Cage Aux Folles and The Rocky Horror Show, intricate patterns emerge concerning the role of both drag and sexuality in the world of each play. Although each musical’s depiction and use of drag, or cross-dressing, exhibit parallels in regards to connections with sexual emancipation, empowerment and personal freedom, each one provides distinct approaches and interpretations of drag, while also arriving at starkly dissimilar endings. More specifically, drag performance is incorporated as a means of tackling the complexity surrounding identity and self-expression, while simultaneous conveying unequivocal morals concerning human behavior and interrelations. In addition, aside from the broad inclusion of sexuality in both The Rocky Horror Show and La Cage Aux Folles, the prominent roles of drag feature multiple functions, implications and correlations with the works of Jean Genet and Julian Beck.

     Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (1973) evolved from a fringe London musical to a worldwide theatrical phenomenon of extreme audience engagement, promoting explicit sexuality through the utilization of rock ‘n roll ballads, hedonistic flavors of dialogue and unapologetic, carnally-driven character portrayals. Moreover, the musical has generated an intense cult-following marked by devout midnight screenings at cinemas, accompanied with live staged performances and frenzied audience participation. Both the musical’s dynamic ritualism and volatile nature can be appropriately aligned with the work of Julian Beck’s The Living Theatre. The Rocky Horror Show audience members are highly encouraged to, quite literally, abandon their clothes and don bizarre character outfits, effectively abandoning their inhibitions and detaching themselves from socially conditioned masks. Aside from adopting costumes that emulate the show’s characters, audience participation even extends so far as to incite both scripted and impromptu vocal reactions and innovative manipulations and usage of props. Moreover, this general audience immersion into the world of the play reiterates Beck’s approach to theater which, in accordance with class lectures, strives to promote a collective, authentic and spontaneous intermingling and fusion between performers and audience members.  The unique staging of the midnight showings triggers a dissolving of the distinction between, and blending of, real life and theatre. When juxtaposing The Rocky Horror Show and Beck’s Living Theatre, more similarities effortlessly surface concerning controversial subject matter involving nudity and human sexuality (in particular, transvestitism, bisexuality and homosexuality – or, more simply, sexual minorities outside the hetero-norm). As reflected in class lectures expounding the wonders and complexities of The Living Theatre, The Rocky Horror Show’s theatrical world increasingly unfolds in the laps of audience members, as they continue to actively engage in the singing, dancing and discussion of the show itself.

     Furthermore, The Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show intermittently addresses audience members, or breaks the notorious fourth wall, underscoring the musical’s coaxing of theatre-goers into the world of the play. Aside from providing narration, the Narrator also offers direct propositions, for instance inviting viewers to embark on a “strange journey” with the “two young, ordinary, healthy kids,” Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, “on… a night out they were to remember for a very – long – time” (1.1. pg. 11). Next, after “a blow-out in the front left-hand tire,” Brad and Janet venture out into dark, uncharted territory as they seek refuge from the storm, most notably illustrated through the dramatic, hopeful chants of “There’s a light, over at the Frankenstein place… [and] in the darkness of everybody’s life” (1.2. pg. 12). Soon, however, the seemingly promising destination toward shelter warps into a wild and boisterous realm of shameless eroticism. This musical number is particularly ironic in that although Brad and Janet seek a safe haven, or “light,” in the mansion and laboratory of Dr. Frank ‘N Furter, their experience in the same location ultimately paves the way to “darkness conquer[ing] [both] Brad and Janet” (2.11. pg. 52).

     The Rocky Horror Show’s main drag persona, the mad scientist and “sweet transvestite” Dr. Frank ‘N Furter, embodies both an unshackled gender fluidity and sinister debauchery (1.3. pg.19). Although drag may also be interpreted as liberating or alluring in The Rocky Horror Show, most notably during Dr. Frank ‘N Furter’s taunting, “don’t get strung out by the way that I look, don’t judge a book by its cover,” the ominous elements directly aligned with the axe-wielding, gender-bending Dr. Frank ‘N Furter, outweigh the euphoric, sexual release experienced by Brad and Janet during their transformative drag Floor Show number (1.3. pg. 18). The initial undressing of Brad and Janet in Dr. Frank ‘N Furter’s laboratory, “reduc[ing] them to 50’s underwear,” symbolizes an unmasking of their societally-inflicted personas exemplifying vulnerability and innocence, while also arousing parallels to Genet (1.3. pg. 20). Eventually however, while donning raw, drag-inspired attire, the climactic Floor Show number summons character trance-like testimonials provoking “orgasmic rush[es] of lust,” detailing how “[their] confidence has increased, reality is here… [their] mind[s] [have] been expanded” (2.10. pg. 45). The songs then culminate in a repetitive, mellifluous recitation of “Don’t dream it, be it,” highlighting the central message at the heart of The Rocky Horror Show, resembling Genet’s concentration with masks, or the recurrent adherence to diverse senses of self and existence (2.10. pg. 46). Next, the menacing servant, Riff Raff, abruptly interrupts the “wild, untamed” ecstasy being depicted through song and dance, declaring “it’s all over [for Dr. Frank ‘N Furter]… [his] mission is a failure… [his] lifestyle too extreme” (2.10. pg. 47). Moreover, Frank ‘N Furter’s world of “swim[ming] the warm waters of sins of the flesh, [including] erotic nightmares beyond any measure,” as well as “[shakin’ and rockin’ to] party sounds… till the life has gone,”  comes to an untimely end, as he and Rocky Horror are murdered by the usurping, ray-gun toting Riff Raff (2.10. pg. 45). Therefore, with the integration of drag performance, the musical ultimately succeeds in agitating and illustrating the stimulating benefits of mental and sexual emancipation, while simultaneously generating a cautionary link between reckless carnal indulgence, promiscuity and the inevitable descent into madness and personal demise.

     As described in lecture, the concept of masks in Genet’s The Blacks unearths a longing to escape from a prevailing world of oppression. However this convoluted internal struggle eventually causes so much bewilderment that characters succumb to an ongoing state of identity crises, never establishing any definite solutions or self-fulfillment. Although The Rocky Horror Show is clearly more appropriately aligned with the finality or end result of The Blacks, Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles (1983) also contains connections with Genet’s approach to the inherent values and messages he found to be most crucial in communicating to audiences. In accordance with class lectures, Genet asserts that society imposes numerous masks upon individuals, while they subsequently create even more masks in attempts geared toward molding new representations of themselves in efforts to adapt to each of their surroundings. Moreover, Genet reveals that society consists of an intricate, highly institutionalized system of self-deception and self-manipulation, while the constant espousing of socially-conditioned masks never reaches any decisive conclusion. Genet also shares that the problems addressed concerning the ambiguous and habitually unpredictable nature of identities cannot ultimately be resolved; a haunting sentiment lingering with viewers exiting The Rocky Horror Show. Also, similar to the conduct of brothel clients in Genet’s The Balcony, essentially every character in La Cage Aux Folles assumes new selves in relation to their specific environmental and interpersonal situation at each particular moment.

     The musical numbers embodying the essence and significance of drag performance in La Cage Aux Folles emit a considerably less sexually-charged energy than The Rocky Horror Show, serving instead as more of a bold declaration verifying self-worth and sustained poise in the face of ridicule. Albin offers an earlier characterization of Zaza as a personal coping mechanism, declaring “once again I’m a little depressed by the tired old face that I see – once again it is time to be someone/ who’s anyone other than me,” culminating that, “I can cope again! Good god, there’s hope again” (1.2. pg. 30). Albin intermittently reiterates his “pride” in drag performance, proclaiming “I am what I am… It’s my world… And it’s not a place I have to hide in, life’s not worth a damn till you can say ‘hey, world I am what I am!’” (1.5. pg. 66) Additionally, the festive proclamations of self-acceptance by Cagelles (cross-dressing male performers) is communicated through strong affirmations announcing, “We are what we are… you’ll love us once you get to know us… we face life tho it’s sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter, face life, with a little guts and lots of glitter” (1.1. pg. 19).

     Aside from his reliance on his drag persona as a tool for instilling self-confidence, Albin’s efforts to masculinize himself as Uncle Al, mandated to renounce his “dainty” and “delicate” mannerisms in order to evade criticism (2.1. pg. 72),  Jacob’s transformation from the “half-man, half-woman” ensemble in the nightclub to “Louis Qunize footman in brocade and powdered wig” (2.2. pg. 77), and even Marie’s “most nude… knockout” drag costume, and Dindon’s “ugliest” cross-dressing attire (2.4. pg. 108), epitomize an ongoing sequence of altering identities driven by individual objectives and each unique moment. Although initially reluctant, the sexually malnourished Brad and Janet undergo drag transformations similar to the equally sanctimonious Edouard and Marie Dindon. However, in contrast to Brad and Janet’s gradual immersion into the insatiable lust of the cross-dressing Transylvanians, the Dindons find themselves resorting to drag makeovers as a means of escaping a predicament which jeopardizes the credibility of their current masks. More specifically, Albin’s earlier sentiment concerning drag as an instrumental practice for conjuring a sense of self-empowerment is later revisited as the Dindons embrace drag as a means of circumventing humiliation or condemnation due to potentially being associated with the “house of sin…[and] two transvestite homosexuals (2.4. pg. 100). The Dindons succeed in sneaking away unnoticed by the lurking paparazzi by conforming and blending in to their prevailing surroundings.

    Before the finale, Georges declares to La Cage Aux Folles patrons that “if we have done our job correctly, you will leave with more than a folded program and a ticket stub,” insinuating that there is something of value to be learned (2.4. pg. 104). Soon Georges finds himself alone onstage, as Albin enters “in a suit, singing softly,” suggesting that his previously consistent dependence on illusionary drag as a means of personal pleasure and empowerment is no longer absolutely imperative, as both he and Georges tenderly share, in a brief reprise of Song In The Sand, “Though the years race along… there is one thing that I am forever certain of… I’m young and in love!” (109). Next, Georges segues into a reprise of With You On My Arm, indirectly hinting to the audience that “life is a celebration, with [Albin] on my arm… each time I face a morning that’s boring and bland, with [Albin] it looks good, with [Albin] it looks great, with [Albin] it looks grand” (2.4. pg. 105). He continues sharing that “we [Albin and I] start a conflagration that’s cause for alarm, we’re giving off sparks, we’re setting off bells,” evoking an ironically celebratory tone toward the homophobic, incendiary reactions he and Albin endure from members of society due to their alliance with drag and open same-sex relationship. In short, Albin and Georges’ journey through a flowing world of drag concludes with a charming vision of their unconditional affection and devotion for one another. In contrast, The Rocky Horror Show ends on a murky and somber note, with a reprise of Science Fiction, Double Feature, reflecting how “Frank has built and lost his creature,” while (as aforementioned) “darkness has conquered Brad and Janet” (2.11. pg. 52). At the end of the play, the Narrator’s dialogue induces tragic undertones, as he describes “insects called the human race” resorting back to “crawling on the planet’s face… lost in time, and lost in space, and meaning” (2.11. pg. 51). In other words, Brad and Janet’s newfound cohesive commune of surrendering to base emotional drive, resembling Beck’s Living Theatre, must now disband, deserting characters in a doomed abyss and disconcerting cycle of masks.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Richard. The Rocky Horror Show. New York: Samuel French, 1983.

Fierstein, Harvey. La Cage Aux Folles. New York: Samuel French, 1984.

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