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Travesti (literally "disguised") is a theatrical term referring to the portrayal of a character in an opera, play, or ballet by a performer of the opposite sex. Some sources regard 'travesti' as an Italian term, some as French. Depending on sources, the term may be given as travesty,travesti, or en travesti. The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English explains the origin of the latter term as "pseudo-French", although French sources from the mid-19th century have used the term, e.g. Bibliothèque musicale du Théâtre de l'opéra (1876), La revue des deux mondes (1868), and have continued the practice into the 21st century.
For social reasons, female roles were played by boys or men in many early forms of theatre, and travesti roles continued to be used in several types of context even after actresses became accepted on the stage. The popular British theatrical form of the pantomime traditionally contains a role for a "principal boy", a breeches role played by a young woman, and also one or more pantomime dames, female comic roles played by men. Similarly, in the formerly popular genre of Victorian burlesque, there were usually one or more breeches roles.
Until the late 17th century in England and the early 19th century in the Papal States—although not elsewhere in Europe—women were conventionally portrayed by male actors (usually adolescents) in drag because the presence of actual women on stage was considered immoral.
As a boy player, Alexander Cooke is thought to have created many of Shakespeare's principal female roles, as well as Agrippina in Ben Jonson's Sejanus His Fall. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, women began to appear on the English stage, although some female roles continued to be played by boys and young men, including romantic leads. Edward Kynaston, whose roles included the title role in Ben Jonson's Epicoene and Evadne in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, was one of the last of the era's boy players.
Grigory Riabtzev (left) as Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardée
Sarah Louisa Fairbrother as Abdullah in Open Sesame
Mary Anne Keeley in one of her male roles
Euan McIver as a pantomime dame
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