An Actress at her Toilet or Miss Brazen just Breecht

An Actress at her Toilet or Miss Brazen just Breecht

Artist: John Collet
Media: Paper and coloured inks (hand-coloured)
Date & Location: London, 1779, currently at the British Museum (not on display)
Image Source: Wiki Images (Creative Commons License)

Significance to Queer Art History

This print is part of the long hirstory of genderfluidity in performance. From Shakespearean plays at The Globe theatre to the stages of Tang Dynasty China and from eighteenth-century opera houses to contemporary clubs, the art of what we now call ‘drag’ has been thriving and entertaining through time and across geographies as a crucial part of the performing arts. In response to all of the recent anti-drag and transphobic legislation we are seeing as I write this entry (particularly in the United States), you can expect a lot more on this long (very long, very fabulous) hirstory in the coming months.

This particular print shows the actor Margaret Kennedy who performed at Covent Garden and Vauxhall Gardens in eighteenth-century London. Another print (below) from 1778 shows Kennedy in full, flamboyant costume as Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.

A black etching on thick, textured yellowed paper of Margaret Farrell in her costume as Captain Macheath. She wears a feathered captains hat, long captains coat with buttons running up either side, and breeches.
John Bew, Portrait of the actress Margaret kennedy, in character in Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’, 1778. Etching. British Museum, London.

In the role of Captain Macheath, Kennedy plays a ‘breeches part,’ which Beth Friedman-Romell describes as “an eighteenth-century stage staple.” Friedman-Romell explores how these (often satirical) roles could be a queer invitation for audiences who “willingly and pleasurably gave themselves over to the illusion.” She draws on a verse about another eighteenth-century actor who played ‘breeches parts,’ Peg Woffington, to show that this potential for queer desire was recognized at the time.
That excellent Peg
Who showed such a leg
When lately she dressed in men’s clothes—
A creature uncommon
Who’s both man and woman
And chief of the belles and the beaux!

The genderfluidity of these actors and their characters is itself a source of desire-sparking power. The caption under the 1778 etching of Kennedy even reads “how happy I could be with either” suggesting both audience desires and perhaps the desires of the actor whose embodiments spanned the spectrum of gender.

Ula Lukszo Klein recognizes the potential for both lesbian and trans* experiences in these performances. She writes that the “authors and audiences acknowledged and enjoyed the possibility of same-sex desires or transgender or gender-fluid embodiments” as she finds these roles to be sites of “heterosexual and homosexual desires, as well as transgender and nonbinary embodiments.”

These roles are also important to the legacy of drag since they—like contemporary drag—could challenge the expectations, desires, and biases of their audiences through playing with gendered performance. As described by Helen Brooks, actors like Kennedy and Woffington “drew attention to masculinity’s status as something achievable—displayed, worn, and ultimately performed through gesture, clothing, posture, and vocal presentation.” Even in the display of the legs of afab actors, these roles required a subversion of gendered constraints on the body.


*Disclaimer: Many of these sources use the term ‘cross-dressing’, but I would invite trans* interpretations as well as the use of the term ‘drag’ to bring these historical moments into contemporary queer discourse and to recognize through the terms we use the resonances that these hirstories have with contemporary queer communities ♡

Beth Friedman-Romell. “Breaking the Code: Toward a Reception Theory of Theatrical Cross-Dressing in Eighteenth-Century London.” Theatre journal (Washington, D.C.) 47, no. 4 (1995): 459–479.

Helen Brooks, Actresses, Gender, and the Eighteenth-Century Stage: Playing Women. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Hui-ling Chou. “Striking Their Own Poses: The History of Cross-Dressing on the Chinese Stage.” TDR : Drama review 41, no. 2 (1997): 130–152.

Lorna Koski. “Cross-Dressing With Shakespeare.” WWD, December 31, 2013, 10. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed March 7, 2023)

Ula Lukszo Klein. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021.

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