Cross-Casting in French Court Ballet, 1650-1670: Monstrous Aberration or Theatrical Convention?

Anti-theatrical tracts in Renaissance England are riddled with the complaint that actors who perform female roles are ‘monsters’.  This notion of monstrosity stems not only from a belief that cross-dressing will lead to effeminization on the part of both cross-dresser and viewer, but moreover from the way cross-casting highlights disturbing insights into the notion of personal identity. Two apparently contradictory views co-existed in anti-theatrical writings of the period: the first, whereby personal identity is mutable, as perceived in the tension between the sex of the actor’s body and the gender associated with his adopted clothing; the second view implies that personal identity is inherently monstrous and immutable. Anti-theatrical writings are scarce in France, however, and by the mid-17th century, mixed acting troupes were the norm. Apart from school productions, cross-casting in France persisted most notably in court ballet which, in 1650, was still (with the exception of the Queen’s ballets) the exclusive domain of male dancers.  Even as female dancers were introduced, female roles in mascarade ballets continued to be performed by men, as did a number of female roles in more serious ballets.  In this paper, cross-cast dancing roles from a number of ballets will be examined in the light of any implied or perceived monstrosity.  Frequently, they were exploited for their comic, even monstrous, potential and, similarly, the grotesque potential of male-to-female cross-casting was exploited as men performed monstrous (i.e. unfeminine) female parts.  That roles such as furies and hags were played by men testifies not so much to the monstrous nature of man lurking beneath the surface, but rather to the requirement that women should conform to gender stereotypes of beauty and sexual attractiveness.  In French ballet, then, the monstrosity of a man appearing in female attire was subordinate to the need for women to conform to the roles assigned to them under patriarchy.

Julia Prest
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Jesus College, Oxford, UK