Gay and Lesbian Theater

The definition of what exactly constitutes “gay and lesbian theater” determines where one begins an examination of its place in American drama. Gay and lesbian drama is generally regarded as a contemporary phenomenon, denoting those plays specifically written or performed by homosexuals for a largely homosexual audience and therefore concerned with the social, political, and personal ramifications of being a member of the sexual minority; as such, it is deemed to have come into fruition as a specific genre in the late 1960s as a result of the increasing freedom derived from the gay liberation movement. However, if one counts those plays and characterizations depicting any aspect of homosexual life, one needs to look back as far as the late 1800s. Once the concept itself developed through the work of early psychologists such as Richard Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and Sigmund Freud and became part of public consciousness, homosexuality began appearing onstage, albeit usually covertly.

Initial depictions necessarily considered homosexuality an exotic and somewhat frightening mental illness, whose cause was unknown, but whose effect was shameful and destructive. The first known instance of an American stage portrayal of “inversion,” as it was then known, occurs in Henry Blake Fuller’s At Saint Judas’s (1896), a brief play meant to be read rather than staged, in which a Best Man reveals his jealous love for the Groom upon his wedding day and commits suicide because of his shame. In 1922, the Yiddish drama staple God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, the story of a brothel owner’s daughter’s love for one of his prostitutes, introduced lesbianism to the New York stage in a truncated English-language Provincetown Players production. Djuna Barnes, a playwright connected with the Provincetown Players, also touched upon the theme of lesbianism in some of her plays. Edouard Bourdet’s French melodrama, The Captive (1926), about a married woman falling under the spell of a mannish society lady, was a scandalous hit in New York. The play was closed by police after a three-month run; the resulting court battles prompted the Wales Padlock Act, which prohibited depictions of any form of “sexual deviancy” upon the New York stage and technically remained in effect until its repeal in 1967.

Savvy producers found ways to circumvent the law, however. Mae West simply flouted it altogether in her blackmail drama The Drag (1927), and a backstage melodrama, The Pleasure Man, the following year, derived added publicity from her legal skirmishes. Although the portrayals in both plays of effete and effeminate male homosexuality would be considered offensive today, they were among the most enlightened and sympathetic of the time. Building upon the popularity of such transvestite vaudeville/burlesque performers as Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, a veritable “pansy craze” hit the early 1930s, with Harlem drag balls also becoming popular sources of underground entertainment for sophisticated New Yorkers.

But most of the homosexual characters from this era, usually in imports from abroad such as Noël Coward’s The Vortex (1925) and Mordaunt Shairp’s The Green Bay Tree (1933) (featuring Laurence Olivier in his American debut), or homegrown characters such as Eugene O’Neill’s Charles Marsden in Strange Interlude (1928), were so heavily codified as to escape detection from the authorities and sometimes even the audiences. Such telltale signs as effeminacy, preoccupation with dress, use of witty language, and interest in interior décor, mother fixations, and heightened, often hysterical emotionalism became longstanding stereotypical indications of male homosexuality; while masculine attire, self-determination, misogyny, and even an affection for violets (in Bourdet’s The Captive) became identifiable hallmarks of lesbianism.

Analysis of Tennessee Williams’s Plays

Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) brought its lesbian theme to the foreground, remaining the most successful gay-themed play until 1981. However, that play and other mid-century successes such as Tea and Sympathy (1953) and A View from the Bridge (1955) were the work of heterosexual playwrights whose plots usually depended upon suspected rather than actual homosexual orientations. Gay playwright Tennessee Williams was among the first to use his own experience, dramatizing the fears other characters had of closeted characters that were typically already dead (Allan Gray in A Streetcar Named Desire [1947], Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1955]), or otherwise kept conveniently offstage. Although Edward Albee resisted discussing his sexual orientation through his work, critics insisted on detecting its presence in his plays The Zoo Story (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). William Inge was more open about placing his personal struggles onstage in such early 1960s plays as Tiny Closet (1962) and The Boy in the Basement (1962), which were never as popular as his more mainstream fare. Most gaythemed plays from the 1950s and early 1960s still focused on the shameful aspects of homosexuality and abysmal attempts to fit into heterosexual society, with homosexuality either having to be disavowed or disposed of through suicide.

The rise of small avant-garde theaters Off-Off-Broadway in the 1960s, as well as the sexual revolution itself, led to the proliferation of overt, somewhat more favorable, and ostensibly more honest portrayals of homosexuals by openly gay playwrights. In such tiny venues as the Caffe Cino, Judson Poets’ Theatre, and La MaMa, rising talents such as Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, and William Hoffman found acceptance for their innovative work. Lanford Wilson’s landmark 1964 play The Madness of Lady Bright, a bitter portrayal of a suicidal drag queen, was among the most successful of these offerings.

Gay drag and “camp” were also emerging as popular subgenres through the work of New York’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and its various offspring: Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Charles Busch’s Theatre in Limbo, New York’s Hot Peaches collective, and its San Francisco counterpart, The Cockettes, all of which specialized in outrageous excess and genre parody. Many of these groups were largely improvisational, and their shows varied widely from performance to performance.

Gay theater reached a turning point with the critical and commercial success of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), which became the first gay play to attract a large crossover audience with its bold language, humor, and frank, though downbeat, portrayal of contemporary gay lifestyles. The concurrent emergence of a visible gay subculture following the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, as well as the repeal of the Wales Act, opened the floodgates to the depiction of homosexuality on stage, in plays geared to both gay and straight audiences. While gay playwrights tended to place their homosexual characters centerstage and focus on myriad aspects of the gay experience, straight playwrights more often relegated gays to the sideline as colorful, witty, or bitchy supporting characters. Many of the plays that flourished during this period, however, still dealt with internalized homophobia, the coming-out process, ongoing persecution by the heterosexual majority, and the struggle for acceptance and equality.

The proliferation of work by gay playwrights led to the establishment of numerous theater companies devoted exclusively to work by, for, and about homosexuals. Led by Doric Wilson’s TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) Theatre Company in New York in 1973, soon every major metropolitan city had at least one gay theater (including Theatre Rhino in San Francisco, Lionheart in Chicago). The national Gay Theatre Alliance was founded in 1978 to help promote and develop gay theater.

Because of the dearth of female playwrights and perhaps because of the perception that lesbianism was neither as controversial nor as commercially viable, plays about lesbians remained few. Starting in the 1970s, several lesbian playwrights did get their work produced; these included Susan Miller and Jane Chambers, whose popular Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1982) is considered a distaff version of Boys in the Band. Others, such as Maria Irene Fornés and Megan Terry, tended to write more feminist than overtly lesbian dramas.

As the gay community made gains in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus of gay theater broadened its concerns. Several plays are considered historical milestones in the struggle: Along with numerous plays about such pivotal figures as Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter came Jonathan Katz’s examination of gay American history, Coming Out! (1975); Doric Wilson’s reenactment of Stonewall, Street Theater (1982); Bent (1979), Martin Sherman’s treatment of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals; and Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice (1983), about the assassination of San Francisco’s first gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. Genres other than drama or historical docudrama were also broached, including domestic comedy (Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship [1979]), farce (Terrence McNally’s The Ritz [1975]), and even musicals (Al Carmines’s The Faggot [1973], Bill Solly’s Boy Meets Boy [1975]). Sexual promiscuity and male prostitution were perennially popular subjects, and nudity also became commonplace.

The apotheosis of gay theater undoubtedly came in 1981 with the international success of Harvey Fierstein’s four-and-a-half-hour epic, Torch Song Trilogy. Originally staged as three separate one-acts at La MaMa, Fierstein’s semiautobiographical story of a drag queen’s search for love ran for more than two years on Broadway, winning Fierstein Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor. However, some gay radicals excoriated the play’s promulgation of heterosexual values and grudging acceptance as the pinnacle of gay achievement.

An indication of how far gay theater had made inroads into the mainstream by the early 1980s was the increasing number of plays in which homosexuality was an accepted given that did not define a character’s entire existence or in which a gay person’s struggles were seen against the larger landscape of the society. Such plays as Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (1980), whose protagonist’s gay relationship is neither an issue nor even commented upon, and Kathleen Tolan’s A Weekend near Madison (1983), in which a lesbian couple search for an appropriate sperm donor among their blasé chums, provide evidence that homosexuality was no longer a shameful or shocking subject.

The advent of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s changed the face of gay theater forever, as it changed the sexual landscape as a whole. The fear, confusion, and lack of appropriate governmental response to the epidemic was documented in a rush of angry agitprop plays, beginning with William M. Hoffman’s domestic tragedy As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the playwright’s personal account of the creation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization, both of which appeared in 1985. Although the latter became the New York Shakespeare Festival’s longest-running nonmusical play, Kramer was vilified by many for what was seen as an antisex diatribe. Because AIDS remained the defining issue for the gay community, virtually every gay play of the next decade focused on some aspect of the disease and its toll. By the mid1990s, however, a second generation of AIDS plays that no longer focused specifically on the disease reflected its entrenched position in society.

A few successful lesbian playwrights emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s, such as Paula Vogel and Claire Chafee, with New York’s WOW Theatre Café providing a venue for experimental work by women. Holly Hughes, whose “dyke-noir” parodies include Dress Suits for Hire (1987) and The Lady Dick (1985), was one of the few to achieve widespread recognition, primarily through the notoriety of having her NEA grants rescinded. Several women’s ensembles also sprang up, notably Split Britches and The Five Lesbian Brothers, who created their work collectively.

Tony Kushner’s mammoth two-part Angels in America, an ambitious work subtitled a “gay fantasia on national themes,” became, in 1993, one of the most highly praised and award-winning gay plays ever. A sprawling, politically dense, theatrically innovative, angry, and comic epic portrait of America’s failures, it proved the ability of gay theater to transcend its limitations as a ghettoized genre.

At the beginning of the 21st century, gay theater continues to push the boundaries. An exciting trend is the amalgamation of homosexual concerns with those of other marginalized minority groups in the work of African Americans such as Pomo Afro Homos, Cheryl L. West, and Shay Youngblood; Asians Chay Yew and Diana Son; and Latina Cherrié Moraga and Latino Guillermo Reyes. Individual performance artists such as Tim Miller, Marga Gomez, and John Fleck also extend the parameters of gay theater in their largely autobiographical solo pieces. While many gay theater companies find it difficult to survive in the harsh economic climate, mainstream theaters are increasingly more open to producing gay-themed work that, in the past, would have been considered of limited commercial appeal.

While no individual play has had the same impact as Angels in America (1990 and 1991), the proliferation of gay and lesbian themes and characters in more mainstream writing continues. Even such an unlikely candidate as David Mamet has included gay/lesbian characters in his three most recent works (Boston Marriage [1999], Romance [2005], and November [2008]). Although the majority of new work continues to premiere in, and often does not travel beyond, regional productions, Broadway welcomes commercial productions centering on gay issues, such as the productions of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed (2006) and a 2006 revival of Simon Gray’s Butley (1971). Off-Broadway, some stalwart gay playwrights continue to produce successful new work (Paul Rudnick’s Regrets Only [2006] and The New Century [2008]; Terrence McNally’s Some Men [2007]), while such exciting young playwrights as Christopher Shinn (Four [revival, 2002] and The Dying City [2007]) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Based on a Totally True Story [2006] and Good Boys and True [2008]) are taking gay theater to imaginative new heights.

A challenge for many gay and lesbian theater companies has, ironically, been the increasing proliferation of images of homosexuality within other media (including print, film, and television), which has obviated one of its previous primary functions of providing positive gay portrayals not obtainable elsewhere. As social acceptance, if still not full equality, becomes more commonplace, many playgoers no longer feel the need to seek out theatrical representations of homosexuality. The very diversity within the community also presents an obstacle, since no individual issue (such as marriage equality or the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy) can be relied upon to interest all segments of the gay population. The imbalance between representations of lesbianism and male homosexuality, as well as the schism between lesbian and gay theater companies, also unfortunately continues, as does an underrepresentation of the bisexual and transgendered communities.

Brecht, Stefan. Queer Theatre. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1978. Clum, John M. Still Acting Gay. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Curtin, Kaier. “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians”: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Boston: Alyson, 1987. De Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience. London: Routledge, 1992. Fisher, James. “We Will Be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008. Harbin, Billy J., Kim Marra, and Robert A. Schanke, eds. The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary in the Pre-Stonewall Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. Hoffman, William M., ed. Gay Plays: The First Collection. New York: Avon, 1979. Sinfield, Alan. Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature, Queer Theory

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