How often have we laughed about the situations created on stage or in films when a woman is cross-dressing as a male and gets mistaken for one or makes the oddest mistakes BECAUSE she is a woman? Think, for example, of Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” in which Lady Rosalind dresses as a man in order to find out whether the man she loves returns her love. Well, it is touching, suspenseful, and funny. This is travesty. The German term Hosenrolle (pronounce ‘hoh-zen-raw-la, meaning breeches role) which made it into the English language, relates to a different kind of role, that of a woman BEING a male character.
Cross-dressing has been of a longstanding tradition on stage. It was not always deemed appropriate for a female to be on a public stage to whatever purpose. Therefore, up unto the mid-1600s, female roles were usually cast as so-called skirt-roles, i.e. young boys played young women, old and/or ugly guys played old, evil or hilarious, ugly women. The Italian opera used castrates to perform female roles because their voices wouldn’t undergo puberty and stay like that of a young girl. But, as mentioned before, this all changed in England after 1660, when the monarchy was restored after years as a republic. Women began to play women on stage. A year later, a ballet corps was founded in Paris, France. All of a sudden, it was not unusual anymore to see women on stage.
So, why the Hosenrolle at all? For one, high voices were deemed very artistic and fashionable. But far more important – think of the fashion of those days. What a frivolous entertainment to actually see a woman’s leg revealed by the short pant legs that men wore back in the day! In an age when it was unheard of that a woman with a good reputation showed so much of an ankle, now you get an idea why being an actress or a ballet dancer was nothing any family truly wanted their daughters to be. Although, soon enough, some actresses, and female singers or ballerinas made it to fame, and it became a matter of reputation to have rubbed shoulders with them.
The first time I was confronted with Hosenrollen (the German plural form of the term), I was nine or ten years old when our family went to see Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera “Hansel and Gretel”. Admittedly, I saw the necessity that Hansel had to be sung by a woman because the voice needed a childlike timbre, and though bewildered at first, I soon forgot that I saw a woman embodying a boy. One of the most precious duets to me is still the “Evening Benediction” the Gretel part of which I would perform on a concert stage about a decade later. Also in the play, the sandman and the dewman travel the stage, sung by females. Click the link to watch the sandman scene and the duet here:
Travesty and Hosenrollen – such as Sarah Bernard acting as Hamlet – became often a necessity for actresses, as there were few important female roles in theater up until the 19th century. Travesty became a signifier for emancipation, therefore – women were able to act like men and even to dress like them. French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil even LIVED her travesty to make a point – in public, she dressed like a man, and she even took a male pseudonym, that of George Sand. Yes, the one who had that famous love affair with Chopin. Hosenrollen, though, were perceived as erotically different. Think of Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier” in which a woman impersonates a man courting a woman.
I once was cast as a man at my school’s drama club’s performance of Siegfried Lenz’ play “Die Augenbinde” (i.e. the blindfold). It was a good Hosenrolle, but I felt neither here nor there. I felt emancipated enough to pull it off but too female to like it. In the end, I figure, I never wanted to be cast into any role by somebody else – because I decide whether it’s my time to wear a skirt or breeches.