Like many New Yorkers, David Greenspan had seen the portrait at the New York Historical Society: A figure in a sumptuous blue gown and tiara with a pronounced double chin and, well, let’s just be frank, a decidedly masculine look.
“I had seen the portrait and thought, ‘That guy’s in a dress!’ ” says Greenspan, a seasoned New York writer/director/performer, who stars in the title role of Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor
(currently at the Hudson Guild Theatre). The play, originally written by William Hoffman (As Is
) in 1976 but never produced until now, tells the story of the man believed to be represented in that infamous portrait: Edward Hyde, the colonial governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708, a.k.a. Cornbury (for an inherited title in England).
“It’s freely adapted from history,” says Greenspan. “There’s no definitive proof of why he cross-dressed, or even that that’s him in the portrait.”
Indeed, while reports of Cornbury’s cross-dressing may have been mostly fabricated by his political foes, they create images that are simply too rich not to dramatize: He is said to have opened the 1702 New York Assembly clad in a hooped gown and an elaborate headdress and carrying a fan, imitative of the style of Queen Anne. He was also rumored to have attended his own wife’s funeral dressed as a woman. When pressed, his reasoning was reportedly that as the Queen’s representative in the colonies, “in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.”
As Hoffman wrote the play in our nation’s bicentennial year, he explicitly intended it as tribute to a kind of alternative patriotism.
“This was written in the spirit of those who would never be celebrated at the bicentennial,” Greenspan explains. “There’s an African slave, and Cornbury’s friends and confidants are a Jew and a Native American; his wife is a French kleptomaniac, and there are lesbians in the play, too,” Greenspan explains. “He’s kind of surrounded with people who are marginalized. Everybody who was ostracized at that time, and continues to be in certain ways, is very much welcomed as an active participant here.”
Lest this “play about cultural diversity” and American history sound too stodgy or sacrosanct, Greenspan is quick to point out that it “has an element of camp, as well. It’s flamboyant. Bill [Hoffman] refers to the play as ‘jocular.’ It’s not a realistic depiction of gay life.”
While Greenspan says that, given the play’s comic tone, “dealing with the historical record is only so much worth my time,” the director, Tim Cusack, has educated the cast about 18th century “Molly” culture, the homosexual underground of the colonial period. “I’m not an authority on it,” says Greenspan, “but my understanding is that ‘homosexual’ is more of a 19th-century word, but there was some awareness of gay identity in Cornbury’s time.”
Greenspan has played his share of outré characters, some from history, in self-penned works (Dead Mother, She Stoops To Comedy
, 2 Samuel 11
., The Myopia
) and in other people’s shows (The Beebo Brinker Chronicles
, Some Men
, The Boys in the Band
). One of his most conventional roles, and his only Broadway gig, was as an understudy for the role of Hairspray’s
Wilbur Turnblad (he went on just once).
He has made a career of switching hats between performing, writing and directing. Next up on his docket is Coraline
—not the animated movie, but a musical for MCC to open in May, based on the same Neil Gaiman novel, with music by indie tunesmith Stephin Merritt. Until then, Greenspan is happy to give life to a little-examined corner of our nation’s prehistory—not least because we’re living in such a historic time for some of the outcasts the play celebrates.
“This play was somewhat ahead of its time,” Greenspan says. “No one wrote plays about friendships between gays and Jews and Africans at the time. Boys in the Band
had been written, but there were still relatively few gay plays.”
Now, with an African-American president and the matter-of-fact cultural preeminence of gay icons and issues, times they are a-changin’, no?
“There does seem to be a historical trajectory of social justice,” Greenspan says. “There are regressive periods, which I think we’ve just been through.” Even the theatre has a way to go: I remember when I did Beebo Brinker Chronicles
, which was about lesbians, our audiences were filled with women. You don’t see that very often; there are more often gay men. And when I talk to women colleagues, playwrights especially, they’re still very troubled by the lack of opportunities for women.”
Putting on a dress and celebrating womanhood, however campily, seems like the least a guy can do.
Click for information about Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor.