School of the Arts’ Fall Major production explores trans histories, gender fluidity & queer possibility

A graphic advertisement for the play ‘The Force of Habit’ that features a stylized image of a feminine presenting person in the style and pose of Napoleon Bonaparte. Below the image there is text that reads ‘down with the cistem.’

The McMaster School of the Arts’ Fall Major Production is a new English adaptation of 17th-century Spanish playwright Guillén de Castro y Bellvís’ The Force of Habit.

On the surface, The Force of Habit, by 17th-century Spanish playwright Guillén de Castro y Bellvís, seems like any other light classical comedy — hilarity around the incongruity of subverting traditional gender roles.

Set in Spain in 1609, it’s the story of two siblings who have been separated at birth.

Félix, assigned male at birth, has been protected from a vengeful grandfather by being brought up as a girl. Meanwhile, Hipólita, assigned female at birth, has been brought up as a boy on the battlefields of Flanders.

When the two are reunited, ridiculousness ensues as the siblings’ parents try to force them to revert to their genders at birth.

But there’s more to the play than simple comedy — and that’s why School of the Arts’ professor Peter Cockett and his students decided to make it their Fall Major Production this year.

The comedy’s playful approach to gender presented the team with an opportunity to explore textual evidence of trans histories, gender fluidity and queer possibility.

“I was inspired in part by an idea from Kit Heyam’s book, Before We Were Trans, where they argue ‘the battle for trans rights is being fought on the battlegrounds of history,’” explains Cockett.

“Performing this classical play gave us an opportunity to push back against the idea that trans identities are modern ideas — that they’ve all of a sudden appeared out of nowhere. Trans and queer historians have demonstrated that there’s all sorts of evidence of trans folks throughout history — you just have to know how and where to look.”

Force of Habit is “really a queer play,” says Cockett, and many, many elements of the production reflect that. For one thing, a majority of the cast members identify as queer or trans, with those perspectives forming a central role in how the show took shape.

“All those queer elements are there in the subtext of the show,” says Evelyn Speakman, a third-year Life Sciences student who plays Félix (who is also known as Félicia). “You just have to look at the show through a different lens and challenge your preconceptions of what message the playwright might be trying to express. When you change the lens, the language takes on a completely different meaning.”

And while most of the text is true to the original play, the team has added a gender-fluid, drag-inspired chorus that, through five original songs, provides a contemporary critical commentary on the actions of the characters — especially the ones trying their hardest to get Félix and Hipólita to conform to their birth genders.

“Queerness has always been present throughout all of history, and we tried to find references to that in the text of the play, which became the lyrics for the songs,” explains Saad Sheikh, a Theatre and Film Studies student who wrote the songs and directed the chorus.

“We incorporated the drag element to make it super clear that gender is a performance — both in the play and in real life.”

Finally, while the production uses most of the original play, the cast collaborated on some important changes — which, Cockett says, will be a surprise until the show opens.

“Usually in classical comedies, everything gets messy and chaotic in the middle of the play, the order is subverted and social assumptions challenged. At the play’s ending, there’s a restoration of order that forces us back into a conservative worldview, including an acceptance of the colonial gender binary,” he explains.

“In this production, we wanted to explore the messy middle. We are very interested in the historical context, but ultimately we are accountable to our contemporary audience, not to the playwright or original text.”

To provide that historical context and emphasize accountability to contemporary 2SLGBTQ+ communities, a lobby display prepared by MA and PhD students in English and Cultural Studies allows audiences to explore and interact with issues and possibilities raised in the production.

As part of their fall seminar, “Engendering the (Queer, Trans, Non-binary) Early Modern Stage,” students researched concepts of gender and sexuality that would have been understood by the audiences of Guillén de Castro y Bellvís’s time, but not necessarily by contemporary theatre-goers.

The resulting posters cover ideas of queer space, the concept of “transcestors” (trans-ancestors) and masculinity in connection with violence, honour and family line.

“The idea behind our lobby display is to shape audience engagement around gender equity, past and present,” says Melinda Gough, who teaches the class. “We’re giving the audience a range of reference points and inviting them to connect their experience of the show with queer and trans histories from the early modern period when Force of Habit was first written and performed.”

To learn more about Gough and Cockett’s work on the portrayal of gender in classical theatre, read “Unsex Me Here” on the Brighter World website.

Ultimately, the student researchers, the cast and the production team are all hoping that audiences enjoy the show and maybe think about things a little differently afterwards.

“I hope the audience understands that gender can be portrayed in many different ways” says third-year studio arts student Matthew Bailey, who plays Don Luis. “It doesn’t matter how you identify and how you portray your gender – how you express yourself is who you truly are, and there are going to be people in your life who accept that and will be by your side.”

Force of Habit runs from November 11 to November 20 in the Black Box Theatre in L.R. Wilson Hall. Tickets are available at

To read interviews with the cast and learn more about the show and its history, go to the play’s webpage.

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