“Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor” (NY Theater/Review)

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Three centuries before Eliot Spitzer was brought down by liaisons with a prostitute, a governor of the territory encompassing New York and New Jersey was scandalizing the populace by publicly appearing in drag, according to some accounts from that period.

Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, a cousin of Queen Anne of England, was sent across the sea in 1702 to rule a colony recently wrested from Dutch control. Lord Cornbury was firmly convinced he looked better in queenly get-ups than his cousin did, and he was not shy about making his case before his constituents. A portrait of a man said to be the governor, his fierce 5 o’clock shadow in piquant contrast to the lavish feminine regalia, can still be seen at the New-York Historical Society.

Actually it’s not just the figure in the painting that is in dispute. Some historians have argued that the whole cross-dressing thing was just political smear tactics. That’s kind of a drag, but fictional or not, Cornbury’s adventures in early America are splashed exuberantly if awkwardly across the stage in this play by William M. Hoffman, the author of the landmark AIDS drama “As Is” and the libretto for the opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” and the actor Anthony Holland, who died in 1988. The play was conceived as a queer retort (although that adjective had not yet been repurposed) to the pageantry surrounding the country’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976, an attempt to add a flamboyant new figure to the gallery of notables in the traditional American history books.

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