Off the Shelf #11
Upon the Wicked Stage: Tracking LGBT Theatre History
by Rob Ridinger
In the folklore of the LGBT community, one of the professions that has long been seen as accepting of people with differing sexual orientations and gender identities is the world of the theater. The socially undefined status assigned to people active in all aspects of theatrical work provided them with a lack of investment in accepted gender roles, making it a place where LGBT people could belong. The literature created to record or utilize the histories of this thread of the LGBT social tapestry across the centuries is marked by a diversity of subjects ranging from biographies to the varied roles played by women and men as actors, authors, designers and performers. Many of the general works on LGBT history also include sections on theater (often matched with either drama or performance), examples being the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. The best single volume on the subject to date is The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era edited by Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, and Robert A. Schanke, published in 2005. Taking the time to acquire an overview of the general outlines of the LGBT theatrical past provides useful contexts for the more limited focus of many of the monographs and biographies which may assume the reader is familiar with studios, productions and individuals they may only know the names of.
The depiction of the world of the theater has been a favorite plot thread for authors across the centuries, many of whom included characters whose sexual orientation was inferred to be non-mainstream but seldom clearly stated. An excellent example of this by a mainstream writer is Mary Renault’s novel The Mask of Apollo, published in 1966. The narrator, Nikeratos, is an actor in the Greek theater whose preference is for men and through his eyes the story of the philosopher Plato is retold from an unusual perspective. A second type of literature also present pre-Stonewall was autobiographies of gay actors who included in their repertoire recreations of famous people known to have been homosexual. In 1968, the veteran English-born Irish actor Michael Mac Liammóir provided a memoir entitled An Oscar of No Importance: Being an account of the author’s adventures with his one-man show about Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Oscar. A third and more limited pool of LGBT theatrical materials pre-Stonewall can be found in dissertations such as Donald Loeffler’s 1969 work, An Analysis of the Treatment of the Homosexual Character in Dramas Produced in the New York Theatre From 1950 to 1968, done at Bowling Green State University. It was later published in book form by Arno Press in 1975 and remains one of the first attempts to discuss the portrayal of gay people on the stage during the decade immediately after Stonewall.
Among the consequences of the rejection of stereotypes in the early days of gay liberation was an expanded legitimacy for scholarly research looking at homosexuals and their words from the perspectives of a variety of academic disciplines. For the theater, some of the first books to appear in the American market were translations of studies originally done outside the United States. The 1978 English version of Georges Sarotte’s Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin, brought to the American public the text of a doctoral dissertation originally done at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1974. Of particular interest is chapter three, “The Homosexual Character Upon the Stage,” which traces all major American plays that had or dealt with the issue of homosexuality from Tea and Sympathy in 1953 to The Boys in the Band in 1968. Sarotte also observed that “following the immense success of Hair in 1968,…it became possible to say anything or to show anything upon the American stage. (Sarotte 1978: p.32)” This was a new climate that allowed the openly gay characters of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band to break new ground for American audiences.
After Stonewall, popular biographies of leading men from the 1950s and 1960s who were closeted (among them Tyrone Power, Montgomery Clift, Raymond Burr, Sal Mineo, Rock Hudson, and Tab Hunter), while interesting as chronicles of hidden LGBT history, became less titillating as openly gay men and lesbians acknowledged their identities and refused to allow themselves to be defined solely by their sexual orientation while practicing their craft. An example of this is Sir Ian McKellen, most familiar to many people as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and as one half of the gay couple in the popular PBS comedy series Vicious. Books of collected interviews with out actors also began to appear and expanded the available coverage of the profession to those whose careers had not as yet been treated by a book-length exploration. Films focusing on the careers of out actors also began to appear, a recent example being one done with George Takei, best known for his character of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu from Star Trek.
One of the most essential sources on LGBT theatre history appeared in 1980 from the Gay Theatre Alliance. Terry Helbing’s Directory of Gay Plays contains information on more than four hundred plays, both those which were performed and published, and those which were written but never published or produced. Each entry provides data on the title, author, type of play, number of acts, number of male and female characters, number of sets, overall plot, and the date and venue of the first production (if done), as well as publication information relevant to securing the rights for performance. A notable feature of the Directory is an appendix of fifty-one “lost” plays, “lost” in the sense that complete data on them could not be obtained. A listing of gay theater companies in existence as of December 1979 is also provided. Librarians and readers unfamiliar with gay theater will find Helbing’s introduction useful for background on the genre.
The 1980s were very good years for LGBT theater history, beginning in 1986 with Boze Hadleigh’s collection Conversations With My Elders, which presents interviews with Sal Mineo, Luchino Visconti, Cecil Beaton, George Cukor, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Rock Hudson, all gay actors and directors who concealed their sexual orientation. The next year, stage historian Kaier Curtin continued the thread of LGBT theatrical history initiated with Like A Brother, Like A Lover in We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Its coverage begins with the 1922 play The God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch (an English transition of a widely performed work from the Yiddish theatre) and readably examines the world of American theatre through such classic works as The Captive and Mae West’s The Drag, into the explosion of plays with gay characters that followed The Boys in the Band up to more recent productions such as Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage aux Folles. A new genre of literature also made its appearance, reflecting the increasingly open treatment of lesbians and gay men on stage and among playwrights following in the tradition of The Boys in the Band. In 1988, the collection Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays appeared, with a very useful opening chapter by editor Don Shewey, “Pride in the name of love: notes on contemporary gay theater.” The eleven plays in the collection represent some of the most important works and writers in the evolving LGBT theatre, and include the controversial Bent by Martin Sherman (set in a Nazi concentration camp), Terence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata, Jerker by Robert Chesley, and As Is by William Hoffman.
In the next decade, LGBT theatrical literature continued to grow and diversify. In 1992, Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage by Nicholas de Jongh and John Clum’s Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama picked up the thread of scholarship begun by We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians ten years before. Not in Front of the Audience provides a comparative survey of the theatre scene in New York and London from 1925 to 1958 and as such is a valuable complement to We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians. Clum’s Acting Gay is the first of several works by this author which would appear in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century treating the subject of gay men in theatre, and Not in Front of the Audience treats British as well as American theatre works, focusing on the period since 1930. In 1994, Boze Hadleigh balanced Conversations with My Elders with a book of interviews of ten prominent actresses and designers whose sexual orientation was for their own gender, Hollywood Lesbians. Among the familiar names in this collection are Agnes Moorehead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Judith Anderson. It was complemented in 1995 by a second work by Axel Madsen, The Sewing Circle: Hollywood’s Greatest Secret: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women, whose coverage reaches from the inception of talking pictures up to the 1950s and expands the pool of documentation available on this area of LGBT stage and screen history. Coverage of the further development of gay theater can also be seen in a second anthology of ten plays edited by John Clum, Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Gay Theater, released in 1995. A more extensive examination of homosexuality in the British theatre from the fourteenth century to the Restoration, Stages of Desire: Gay Theatre’s Hidden History by Carl Miler was published in 1996. The last two years of the twentieth century were marked by works focusing on specific issues and time periods in LGBT theatre history. 1998 saw the publication of Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America by Sarah Schulman, the anthology Tony Kushner In Conversation, Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann (accompanied by David Ehrenstein’s Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-1998) and Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players In American Theater History by Robert Schanke and Kim Marra. The pool of general works on LGBT theatre was expanded in 1999 by Alan Sinfield’s Out On Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century, matched by another work from John Clum, Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture.
The opening years of the twenty-first century witnessed the continuation of the established trends in LGBT theatrical writing. The work begun by Boze Hadleigh in 1994 with Hollywood Lesbians was added to by Diana McLellan in her analysis of films’ “Golden Age” of the 1930s, The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, which appeared in 2000. John Clum updated the coverage of his 1992 Acting Gay by adding a new section of two chapters which explore both British and American plays portraying gay men which appeared after Angels In America, and closes with a thoughtful essay that begins “what do I want from contemporary gay theater? I have a menu, not one item.” (Clum 2000: 284). A notable observation in the last chapter of Still Acting Gay is that film seems to be doing a better job of looking at where gay men should be going in the new century.
In 2001, William Mann, the author of Wisecracker, offered an examination of six decades of the cinema industry (and the LGBT presence therein) with Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969. In 2002, Robert Schanke and Kim Marra served as editors for a volume of fourteen essays treating major actors, actresses , dancers, critics, and designers, whose period of significant impact was prior to the Stonewall events of 1969 entitled Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theater History. It was balanced by a second group of essays edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla, The Queerest Art: Essays On Lesbian and Gay Theater whose time frame is broader (including William Shakespeare) and which offers two lengthy moderated conversations, “From the invisible to the ridiculous: the emergence of an out theater aesthetic “ and “Out across America: playing from P.S. 122 to Peoria.” And in 2003, a group of essays (some previously published) written over a period of ten years by theater critic David Savran presenting investigations of the relationship between art and culture appeared under the title A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater from the University of Michigan Press. The title is somewhat misleading, as Savran uses “queer” to cover a range of characters depicted in American theater.
2005 was a landmark year in the development of reference works on LGBT theater, with the appearance of The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era, edited by Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra and Robert A. Schanke from the University of Michigan Press. Nothing similar has been published subsequently as of this writing. Another collection of memoirs and interviews offering insider stories on LGBT theater life and events is Robin Bernstein’s 2006 work Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater, containing the personal accounts of twenty-two designers, critics, technicians, playwrights actors and producers spanning a fifty-year period.
The decade closed with the publication of another volume of a dozen essays on gay theatre which defined its subject as “any play or performance in which the author or performer- whether gay or straight, man or woman- chooses to centrally explore an aspect of the homosexual experience” (Fisher 2008: p.2). The collection’s title, We Will Be Citizens, is a quotation from the closing monologue in Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle Angels in America, and subjects examined range from the premier of The Normal Heart in 1985 to individual pieces by performers as varied as the lesbian company Split Britches, Kiki and Herb, and Lypsinka.
The last six years have witnessed more detailed LGBT theatrical research, ranging from examining the contributions of specific companies and performance spaces, to considerations of ethnicity and evaluations of the work of individual performers and LGBT presence in types of characters. 2010 led off with Kate Davy’s Lady Dicks and Lesbian Brothers: Staging the Unimaginable at the WOW Café Theatre and Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, And Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance by James F. Wilson. In her work, Davy examines the rise and impact of a women’s theater collective on New York’s Lower East Side where some of the most prominent lesbian performers and performances of the 1980s and 1990s were staged. The title also includes a reference to one of the groups that appeared there, the Five Lesbian Brothers. James Wilson’s investigations bring to new audiences expanded treatment of plays and players from the Harlem Renaissance era of the 1920s whose significance to the challenging of sexual and social conformity had previously been noted only in passing, with the exception of recognized stars such as Ethel Waters and Florence Mills.
In 2012, Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics by Ramon Rivera-Servera explored a range of artists and performance space within the Hispanic community whose repertoire directly engaged LGBT and queer issues and content, and Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, includes in its discussion the work of playwrights Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Mart Crowley and Tony Kushner. Framing LGBT theatrical history within the careers of individual performers continued in 2013 with Jennifer Read’s Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, while Marlon Bailey’s Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit augmented research on African American gay men by expanding consideration of the limits of a performer’s stage beyond the confines of established theater spaces. The geographical limiting of theater history chronology to performances given on the stages of London and New York was likewise redefined in 2013 when the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival Ltd published Wilde Stages in Dublin: A Decade of Gay Theatre, written by director Brian Merriman. And one of the oldest stereotyped depictions of homosexuals as evil and threatening beings (utilized as long ago as the first performance of The Captive in the 1920s) was given separate treatment by Jordan Schildcrout in 2014 as Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater. The sheer diversity of the roles in which LGBT people have participated in the life of the theatre (whether onstage or off) ensures that this genre of LGBT literature may be expected to continue as a colorful and vibrant part of the community history.
Bailey, Marlon M. Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.
Barratt, Mark. Ian McKellen: An Unauthorized Biography. London: Virgin, 2005.
Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers who Changed America. New York: Twelve, 2012.
Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater. Edited by Robin Bernstein. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Clum, John. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Clum, John. M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Clum, John M. Still Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: St.Martin’s Griffin, 2000.
Curtin, Kaier. We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.
Davy, Kate. Lady Dicks and Lesbian Brothers: Staging the Unimaginable at the WOW Café Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
De Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Ehrenstein, David. Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-1998. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America edited by Marc Stein. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Edited by Wayne Dynes et.al. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era. Edited by Billy J Harbin, Kim Marra, and Robert A Schanke. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Gay Theatre Alliance Directory of Gay Plays. Compiled and edited and with an introduction by Terry Helbing. New York: JH Press, 1980.
Hadleigh, Boze. Conversations with my Elders. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Hadleigh, Boze. Hollywood Lesbians. New York: Barricade Books, 1994.
Tony Kushner in Conversation. Edited by Robert Vorlicky. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c1998.
Loeffler, Donald L. An analysis of the treatment of the homosexual character in dramas produced in the New York theatre from 1950 to 1968. Ph. D.; Bowling Green State University; 1969.
Mac Liammóir, Micheál. An Oscar of No Importance: being an account of the author’s adventures with his one-man show about Oscar Wilde, the Importance of Being Oscar. London: Heinemann, 1968.
McClellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. New York: LA Weekly Books, 2000.
Madsen, Axel. The Sewing Circle: Hollywood’s Greatest Secret: Female Stars who Loved other Women. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group, 1995.
Mann, William J. Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969. New York: Viking, 2001.
Mann, William J. Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star. New York: Penguin, 1999, copyright 1998.
Marra, Kim and Robert Schanke. Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theater History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Merriman, Brian. Wilde Stages in Dublin: A Decade of Gay Theatre. Dublin, Ireland: International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival Ltd, 2013.
Miller, Carl. Stages of Desire: Gay Theatre’s Hidden History. London; New York: Cassell, 1996.
Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays edited by Don Shewey. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater. Edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla. New York: New York University Press, c2002.
Reed, Jennifer. Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Renault, Mary. The Mask of Apollo. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.
Rivera-Servera, Ramón H. Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Sarotte, Georges Michel. Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.
Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c2003.
Schanke, Robert and Kim Marra. Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Schildcrout, Jordan. Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater.Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2014.
Schulman, Sarah. Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
Sinfield, Alan. Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Gay Theater. Edited by John M. Clum. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995.
To Be Takei. Beverly Hills, California: Anchor Bay Entertainment , 2014.
Warner, Sara. Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c2012.
“We Will be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre. Edited by James Fisher. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, c2008.
Wilson, James F. Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c2010.
Copyright R. Ridinger 2016