Tag Archives: Cross Dressing

LGBTI Labour’s Lost

A case for transgender players.

“Aliases, gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, bisexuality, homosexuality and performing have always gone hand in hand.”

OUTING lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) performers has long been an emotive and legal tightrope for historians, but 400 years since William Shakespeare’s death, it’s time to look where academics have feared to glance.

When Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell oversaw the publication of his complete works in 1623, they included a page of “The names of the Principall Actors in all these Playes”.

It was never illegal for women to perform on the stage in Shakespeare’s era, but it was seen as an unthinkable moral breach akin to prostitution. The solution was to cast boys in the female roles.

So of this list of twenty-six male performers, which must include those who played heroines from Juliet to Cleopatra, which fellows donned the skirts?

FOLIO FELLAS The names of the men who created the roles of Shakespeare's plays.
FOLIO FELLAS The names of the men who created the roles of Shakespeare’s plays.

Ruling out those credited with male roles leaves a cluster of men who began their careers as ‘boy players’ and wouldn’t register on any acting roll of honour – Alexander Cooke, John Shancke, Samuel Crosse, Nathan Field and Nicholas Tooley – yet all were shareholders in England’s premier theatre company The King’s Men.

Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 ensured LGBTIs remained invisible for centuries in the performing arts, however, it’s simply not credible to assume all the men on Shakespeare’s cast list were straight.

So I’ll add historical evidence to conjecture and show how easy it is to make room for a same sex-attracted transgender woman within a Shakespearean playhouse, and why she left almost no trace.

The record shows that twice-widowed Susan Tooley was on the market for husband number three in 1592. If we imagine her 10-year-old son, Nicholas, showed early signs of acting skill, we can paint Susan as a stage mother who made use of a known link the boy’s father’s family had to the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeares.

“Shakespeare attempted to dampen the Puritan inferno by writing a batch of heroines who cross-dressed as men.”

If the Tooleys – landed Warwickshire gentry – agreed to make the introductions that got the child off Susan’s genteel apron strings and into the hotbed of sodomy and vice that the Elizabethan playhouse was considered to be, I imagine they enforced one important condition. The boy, by that time listed in the records of London’s Court of Orphans as ‘orphan Tooley’, would have needed an assumed name.

We know from his will that Nicholas Tooley had an alias – the undistinguished surname ‘Wilkinson’. Perhaps it was coined for him in 1595, when a gifted lad was required for a crucial role in a new play?

Pamphlets from that decade reveal the playhouses came under the most intense Puritanical fire against boys cross-dressing on the public stage. If it was ‘orphan Tooley’ who appeared opposite Richard Burbage in the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet, the 13-year-old may wisely have cross-dressed as ‘Nick Wilkinson’.

Imagining the production was a hit allows us to cast ‘player Wilkinson’ opposite Burbage in Shakespeare’s regular new plays. The workload, and the pressure to maintain a slight physique, may have led the teenager, twice in 1599, to seek treatment from Simon Forman, London’s leading astrologer and herbalist. Forman’s notes reveal Tooley complained to him of “melancholy… moch gnawing in his stomak & stuffing in his Lungs.”

We know Shakespeare attempted to dampen the Puritan inferno by writing a batch of heroines who cross-dressed as men; but this could also have been a way to make performing lead female roles easier on one talented, ailing adolescent. The playwright let audiences in on the laughs, however, and created some of the best homoerotic scenes in theatre history, in Twelfth Night and As You Like It.

MASTER BURBAGE Player Richard Burbage (Dulwich Gallery, London).
MASTER BURBAGE Player Richard Burbage (Dulwich Gallery, London).

When ‘orphan Tooley’ reached his majority in 1603, Richard Burbage applied to the Court of Orphans to have him indentured. Clearly, ‘player Wilkinson’ had become indispensable, and since the authority had no choice but to use his birth name on the paperwork, Nicholas Tooley finally emerged as a player.

Under the terms of his apprenticeship, the young man was accommodated by the wider Burbage family, London’s leading theatrical dynasty.

Surely it was the relentless playhouse work, wrangling not only his own scripts but also his master’s, performing before enormous crowds in the pre-eminent popular entertainments of the day, that led to Tooley’s elevation to shareholder of The King’s Men by 1605.

For anyone on the payroll to make a career as a leading lady would have drawn plenty of negative attention; but Shakespeare’s next move suggests he recognised the dramatic potential of one man’s ability to convincingly inhabit feminine authority, passion and lust.

When the playwright dropped the cross-dressing of comic female heroines and created his most complex female roles – Desdemona (1603), Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra (both 1606) – one review showed the impact.

In a performance of Othello by the King’s Men in 1610, a consummate actress fooled diarist Henry Jackson into writing: “She always acted the matter very well, in her death moved us still more greatly; when lying in bed she implored the pity of those watching with her countenance alone.”

Was this Desdemona played by Nicholas Tooley at the height of ‘her’ powers?

Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, from the cover of 'The Roaring Girl'
ROARING GIRL Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, arrested for performing on an English stage.

Onstage gender boundaries were being tested. In 1611, Londoners were thrilled and scandalised by the performance of a woman at the Fortune Theatre – Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, the infamous ‘Roaring Girl’.

Her subsequent confession to the Consistory Court states: “She told the company there p[re]sent that she thought many of them were of the opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging they should finde that she is a woman & some other immodest & lascivious speaches she also vsed at that time And also sat there vppon the stage in the publique viewe of all the people there p[rese]nte in mans apparrell & playd vppon her lute & sange a songe.”

Mary’s arrest, public shaming and penance were the playhouse gossip of the 1612 season and surely struck fear in the heart of every cross-dressing performer.

Now 30, Tooley was overlooked for the title role in a play by the newest writer on the scene, John Webster, whose The Duchess of Malfi ushered in the next generation of boy players, playwrights and shareholders.

My story, Merely Players, drew inspiration from this pivotal moment in Western theatre history.

Tooley’s one documented attempt at playing a male role was in Webster’s hit tragedy, while witnessing his replacement emerge; so it’s not a stretch to imagine his melancholy returned with force as he struggled to maintain his identity in the playhouse.

It’s also common for an intense period of playing passionate lovers to lay fertile ground for a relationship offstage; so it’s not incredible to suggest that Tooley and Burbage had an ongoing affair that came under threat as master’s career continued while apprentice’s declined.

My story has Tooley making a gender transition while disappearing for years into one of the few places that I believe would have taken him in – London’s Convent of Saint Helen. Here, she may have fooled the nuns into thinking she was a woman. The name I imagine was easiest for her to adopt was one she’d already used – Mistress Wilkinson.

After hearing that her old master is not well, I have her strolling back into the Globe playhouse in 1619, where she uncovers much hanging in the balance.

“Any number of participants in Western theatre’s groundbreaking era could have been LGBTIs.”

Before his death in 1623, the never-married Nicholas Tooley used his birth name to legitimise significant financial gifts to a coterie of women, including his master’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Burbage, “in whose howse I doe now lodge as a remembrance of my love in respect of her motherlie care over mee”. He stipulated the funds were to be paid into the womens’ “owne proper hands” and not to any husband.

The document reveals a man who spent much time in the company of a large number of women, and knew the legal impediment that marriage placed on daughters, wives and sisters inheriting monies independently.

But Tooley also signed a codicil identifying himself as “Nicholas Wilkinson alias Nicholas Tooley”, which no historian has ever thought to investigate as a cisgender dead name.

Any number of participants in Western theatre’s groundbreaking era could have been LGBTIQ, it’s simply a matter of ending the academic silence.

 Aliases, gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, bisexuality, homosexuality and performing have always gone hand in hand, and apart from sharing the stage when cisgender English women finally got public support for bursting onto the stage in the 1660s, in 400 years not much has changed behind the scenes.

This article was first published on Gay Star News and appears in Michael’s book ‘Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

‘It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare’

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WHEN a middle-aged boy player returns to London’s Globe playhouse during a terrible revival of Romeo and Juliet, she sets off a chain of events as great as any of Shakespeare’s entertainments, revealing a love story that lay hidden for decades, just beneath the lines of the script.

Centuries later, an out-of-work Sydney actor connects the dots of this drama and is inspired to write a play, bringing him face to face with big life lessons in the art and politics of storytelling.

The lives of these two unconventional players collide in a journey from Australia to England, from drama school to the professional stage, from male to female, from failure to success and back again, exploring the untold story of those who created the complete works of William Shakespeare.

An extract from Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters.

Masters, I have seen a man out of his clothes before, and not tried to make him mine.”

I go back to the place I have made for myself by the rack. Master Burbage sulks while the others begin to peel doublets over expanded bellies, revealing sweaty waists and backs. I notice Heminges undoing his hose on the other side of the rack, trying to conceal himself.

‘Masters, I have seen a man out of his clothes before, and not tried to make him mine, but if you’d be more comfortable hiding your glorious forms, I can wait upstairs,’ I say.

‘Nay, your place is down here with us. We’re not going to make a fuss about Master Tooley, now are we?’ Heminges asks.

Condell shakes his head.

‘Perchance you just sit by the steps and tell me if you can spot any printer’s boys in the crowd,’ Heminges adds.

‘You’re letting printers into the playhouse now?’ I ask, crossing to the stairs.

‘Much has changed since you were in the playhouse, Master Tooley. They’ll have real women playing soon enough,’ Condell says.

‘Don’t believe him, it will never happen,’ Master Burbage mutters into his lap.

‘And there’s never a rehearsal for the bit players, because there’s no lines apart from whatever you can drag up from within your receptacle,’ Condell adds, tapping the side of his head.

I search the ceiling by the stairs, where that larger crack allowed the light to fall onto my mirror when I arrived. Three steps up, the view of the stage reveals itself.

The sun has dipped below the highest gallery of the playhouse, where people sit talking and eating, some asleep against pillars or calling down to others in the pit.

I glance back into the darkness below, to see Condell rushing to get his wide arse back into a fresh pair of hose before I can see him.

‘It won’t be much of a play, without all the lines,’ I say, eyes back on the crowd.

‘We all know how the stories go, just follow the patterns,’ Condell says, ‘you enter, you wait and you listen, then you throw in a line or two which you think sounds right according to your part. Make it a rhyme, if you have the time. Keep it short, or have some sport … it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare.’

‘We don’t do too many old plays by Master Shakespeare,’ Heminges adds, emerging fully clothed from behind the rack, ‘not these days, because whenever we do, the printers send a pair of their pock-faced boys to sit up the back and scribble down our words as best they can. By the time they go to print with it, Will’s best poetry sounds like a madhouse ditty!’

Judging it safe to take my eyes from the stage, I say: ‘I might have been away from this playhouse for many years, Master Heminges, but I do recall you once had a grand plan to print all the plays of Master Shakespeare’s in the one book.’

“While you’re on the stage, duckie, perchance you work out what it is you did come back for.”

‘I did, but then one player of this playhouse took it upon himself to sell the contents of his receptacle to a printer, and when the little books of Master Shakespeare’s became so popular no printer was interested in paying for our plays anymore, they were only interested in stealing more of them. If I ever discover which player it was I’ll hang him by his balls from the top of this playhouse, but I could never catch him at it. I always thought it had to be a player who disappeared from our playhouse, and never dared show his face back here again,’ Heminges says.

I glance down at them, three pairs of eyes, looking into me.

Before I can say anything, a sudden round of trumpets announces the play. The crowd explodes into applause.

‘We’re off!’ Condell says.

‘No-one is listening to you prattle, Heminges, ready yourself,’ Burbage says.

‘I have, but where is my Lady Montague?’ Heminges asks, offering the hat and veil to me. I don them without thinking, and reach for the sliver of mirror in my basket, by the steps, the light from the stage falling across my aged face.

‘Oh dear … I am not ready for this,’ I say, pulling the veil tight and slipping it under my chin.

Heminges takes my arm in a strong grip. ‘You’ll soon be, duckie. A player who does not play has no place in a playhouse!’ he says, as we ascend into the light.

Performance rights for Merely Players are available via the ePlay rights page.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved

Frocking-up for Fight Club

MAX FACTOR Jamie Farr as Klinger in M*A*S*H.

AT the point when rejection of my writing was getting too much, I foolishly turned to another element of the performing arts and took up an even worse pastime if rejection was not my thing – I went back to school and studied acting.

Five years on the stage opened my eyes wider to the inner workings of the performing arts industry, yet I learnt no more about how to get ahead in showbiz.

But the experience gave me some of the most exciting days of my life up to that point, and one production in particular sums up the wacky life led by the actor.

After securing an audition with an independent theatre company in Sydney – we’ll call it Slash Theatre – I was cast in a paid gig (tick), performing Shakespeare’s King Lear (tick), for an established company with a loyal audience (tick), at a real theatre (tick, and don’t laugh, often you’re expected to perform in pub cellars with sewerage pipes at nose level).

The first week saw everyone co-opted into detailed sessions of transposing the text, during which the director made no secret of her willingness to be open to ideas from the actors (tick, and great fodder for a writer).

Then I had an idea …

My character, Kent, is a loyal friend to the King, and spends the bulk of the play in disguise. Casting all Shakespeare’s male characters as female, the director had interestingly changed the power structure of the play, but there was one thing she didn’t do – my role was male in Shakespeare’s original, and remained male in this new vision. Why?

That’s where my idea came in – if being female meant access to power and security in this director’s vision, then surely, I thought, Kent should disguise himself as a woman in this production?

It would add to the comic possibilities, but, like Max Klinger in M*A*S*H, the cross dressing could also be for a purpose that wasn’t entirely funny.

Far from being dismissed, the idea was pondered, and eventually approved. I hasten to add it scared me shitless – I am not a man who would ever pass convincingly as a woman, and so, my courageous offer would need some rationale, some device from within this interesting world, to support my disguise, which was an unchangeable plot point of Shakespeare’s play. It would certainly need an effective costume.

But I completely placed my trust in this director, donned a rehearsal skirt, and experimented with my voice and my character’s journey.

BIG FIGHT Learning stage fighting sorts the men from the boys.
FIGHT CLUB Learning stage fighting sorts the men from the boys.

Concurrently, we were put through our paces by a fight director, daily, to achieve complicated sword fighting sequences. Seeing empowered women wielding swords in pivotal Shakespearean roles was an amazing experience.

Conversely, seeing Lear’s daughters – sketchily drawn as bitchy and evil – played by men, was fascinating.

Many of the cast had been selected for their stage fighting skills and experience. A few of us were totally new to the discipline, so we trained from the ground up. Nevertheless, the cast quickly fell into two groups: the ‘Fight Club’, and the rest of us who were learning to execute the moves.

At last came the moment when the costume designer was coordinating fittings, and his vision for this female-dominated world would surely include a costume to assist in making my idea work within the world of the play.

My excitement quickly turned to dread when he produced a dress which I could tell immediately I was never going to fit into. Vainly, I tried, and it ripped, but by that time the designer had walked away, seemingly uninterested in what I would be wearing for 90 per cent of the play.

But production stresses were kicking-in and the director became unapproachable. Having been a director, I decided that what she’d appreciate the most was a proactive actor who’d sort out his own costume issues for himself.

Being a trained costume designer in addition, I simply replicated what the designer had created for the female characters in the production, so well in fact that even he would have to admit it fitted-into the world of the play seamlessly – forget that he wasn’t really doing his job until he’d adequately costumed me.

Before the great theatrical sin I’d committed was voiced, I also spent time ensuring that a few dangerous backstage conditions were sorted-out, not by complaining at notes sessions, but by proactively recruiting fellow cast members into helping me move the sharp metal spiked stair treads dumped across the main backstage exit, waiting to impale someone’s knee in the dark, like other nasty traps overlooked by the stage managers.

I also tried to bridge the growing gap between the cast (who were expected to assemble bleacher seating before dress runs) and the crew (who were under great stress as a difficult set elements were wrangled). I knew that whinging actors were no help to this scenario.

But when the producer (who’d recently given birth and had her attentions split so many ways she was hardly there) spat at the cast saying we should be thankful we were being paid, I responded … by asserting that it wasn’t helpful to put things that way.

A kind of calm descended on the company at that point – we had a schools’ matinee to perform, and the auditorium filled with hundreds of raucous students, hungry for entertainment.

The show opened, I executed my disguise scene in good time, and we went into the first major fight sequence, in which Kent makes a desperate attempt to escape capture.

SWORD SWING It's just like golf!
SWORD SWING It’s just like golf!

I had one move to execute which the fight director encouraged me to compare to teeing off on a golf course – a 360-degree swing which was Kent’s attempt to slit the throat of his opponent who was prone on the ground. If it was golf, the way this move was choreographed would have seen the ball fly off into the audience …

And that’s exactly what my sword did, after the tip clipped the floor and the choreographed force of the swing behind it sent the weapon right out of my sweaty hands.

In dread, I watched as the silver spike glinted in the light high above the heads of the amazed school boys, who were surely thinking: This is supposed to happen, right?

I had immediate visions of being arrested for impaling children through the temples, as all eyes in the room watched the sword descend, and a small boy – the hero of the day – stood and simply caught the blade as it flew towards his head, just like in footy.

Speechless, I led a standing ovation for the kid who’d saved my ass, and called him to the stage to return the sword to my hand – all in character, I hasten to add – and then returned to the fight, which was only half over.

When I stumbled off the stage minutes later, some of my non-Fight Club comrades were desperate to know what had happened. I implored them to just soldier on.

We went through the Q&A session with students and teachers afterwards, at which the amazing stunts the gathered crowd had participated in were congratulated. I left it to the director and the fight director to explain. They declined, poe-faced.

The schools left, and we started de-mobbing the show, when I got a call to meet the director in the upper foyer.

As I approached I could hear her speaking. Thinking someone was being seen before me, I slowed down, only to see her rehearsing something to an imaginary other. Then it dawned on me – I was the imaginary other.

I cleared my throat, and gently knocked.

WHITLAM'S WAY I got the sack too.
WHITLAM’S WAY I got the sack too.

I don’t know whether it was my courageous act of completing my own costume, to make sense of what I was doing in the confusing world the director was struggling to birth, or whether it was the impromptu thrills of my sword throwing, but I was summarily sacked.

I was quite calm, just asked her to explain how the costume she wanted me to wear fit into the world of the play, let alone across my torso?

She was incapable of speaking, from anger, from fatigue and confusion. This was a useless moment that would never find an answer, because the director had lost touch with the fundamental questions which were part and parcel of her role, and I’d unwittingly opened the doorway to the kind of shame and negative attention endured by cross-dressers for centuries.

I heard later they’d changed the golf-swing move so that if the sword slipped from my replacement’s hands, it would fly into the wings and not at the audience’s heads. Common practice, I would have thought, on reflection.

I will always remember that day fondly as a wildly creative one, because electrifying experiences can happen onstage, even when they are completely unrehearsed.


I know I engaged the audience far more in those minutes than the production possibly did over two seasons. Getting the sack for it smarted, but call it synchronicity or coincidence, less than a week later I read that even the great Katharine Hepburn (who I in no way compare myself to) got the sack when she was an emerging actor – it can be a measure of creative fitness.

And I gave one young audience member a day he’ll never forget!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

An extract from Merely Players.