Poetic and heartfelt, The Mommiad chronicles the relationship between a mother and her son, the ups and downs they shared, and the toll that alcohol and dementia would eventually take on Patricia Tucker Gilbert's life. Intimate and affirming, Sky Gilbert confirms the bond he shared with his mother, both in his own voice and through the voice of his alter ego, Jane. The Mommiad is lyrical and tragic and true, an artist's self-reflection and an endeavour to turn one woman's life into an artistic experience.
Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth is an intricately plotted drama about a man haunted by feelings of guilt and shame over an incident in his past. It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 1 February 2001.
Playwright Frank is suffering from AIDS. Having just been through a rather nasty eye operation, the play opens with him talking to his close friend, Laura. The serenity of the scene is interrupted by the ominous sound of a motorbike revving in the distance, before flashing back to Frank’s lunch the day before with his preoccupied doctor, Gompertz. He tries to confess to an incident from his past that is haunting him but can’t quite seem to find the right moment before we are hurled back in time once more to the incident in question. The play explores notions of guilt and death, as well as our inability to truly know even our closest acquaintances.
The Royal Court premiere was directed by Ian Rickson and designed by Mark Thompson, and performed by Michael Maloney, Lindsay Duncan, Adam Godley, Peter Wight, Andrew McKay, Lucy Whybrow and Barnaby Kay.
The production transferred to the Albery Theatre, London, on 17 May 2001.
Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg follows the ups and downs of a circle of gay friends in London over a period of several years, and tackles with brutal honesty the impact that AIDS/HIV had on the gay community during its height in the 1980s, as well as examining the pain of unrequited love and the joy of friendship. The play was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 31 March 1994 before transferring to the West End.
The play's action takes place over three scenes, all of them set in the living room of Guy’s flat in London: during Guy's flat-warming party (Scene 1); after Reg's funeral, some years later (Scene 2); and after Guy's funeral (Scene 3).
The group of friends, most of them in their thirties, meet at irregular intervals, often at Guy's place. Guy himself is a lonely man. Ever since their university days, he has had a crush on John, but he has never dared to tell him about it. Rather, he lives a solitary life, which he only spices up with phone sex and an occasional visit to a gay pub – that is where he meets 18 year-old Eric, who then helps him decorate his new flat. On holiday on the island of Lanzarote, he meets a gay man who eventually forces himself on Guy and has unprotected sex with him – the last thing Guy has been looking for. At his flatwarming party, he has just come back from his holiday and is still quite shocked about what happened. It is hard for him not to start crying when, as a present, John gives him a cookery book specialising in dishes for one.
The most popular member of the circle is Reg, who is conspicuously absent from the party (he doesn't in fact appear in the play at all). Reg has had a long-term relationship with Daniel, but Daniel himself suspects Reg of occasionally being unfaithful to him. In fact Reg seems to be sleeping with every man he can get hold of (even, it seems, with the vicar). In the course of the play, John, Benny and even his seemingly faithful companion Bernie have secret sex with Reg. Ironically, they all confide in Guy. It hurts Guy most to hear that John – whom he himself fancies – is having an affair with Reg, thus betraying their mutual friend Daniel. After his fling with Reg, Benny panics because he thinks he might have contracted HIV, but he does not confess it to his partner, Bernie.
When Reg is dying from AIDS, he is looked after by his partner, Daniel. Ironically again, the next one to die is Guy, the only one who has not had sex with Reg and who seems to have been infected with HIV when he was raped during his holiday in Lanzarote. Guy bequeaths his new flat to the love of his life, John, who does not need it at all because he comes from a rich background. In the final scene, John tells Eric that he has discovered a hoard of memorabilia in the flat dating back to his and Guy's student days. He realises – belatedly – that Guy was in love with him.
The Royal Court premiere was directed by Roger Michell and designed by William Dudley, with Anthony Calf as John, David Bamber as Guy, Joe Duttine as Eric, John Sessions as Daniel, Roger Frost as Bernie and Kenneth MacDonald as Benny.
The production transferred to the Criterion Theatre, London, on 15 November 1994, then to the Playhouse Theatre, London, on 27 June1995.
My Night with Reg won the Evening Standard and the Olivier Awards for Best Comedy and was later turned into a feature film directed by Roger Michell with a screenplay by Kevin Elyot, featuring the original Royal Court cast. The film was released in 1997.
The play was revived at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in July 2014, in a production directed by Robert Hastie.
Out in the Open is a funny and honest exploration of love and the limits of friendship set over a long, hazily hot summer weekend in London.
It is six months after the death of Frankie, Tony’s partner, and Tony has brought home a younger man called Iggy from the pub. Tony is far from over Frankie’s death, but Iggy is really quite handsome and Tony wonders if it might be time to start moving on. But Frankie’s memory is being kept determinedly alive by his exuberantly eccentric mother Mary, who is always popping round with watermelons or flans for Tony. And there’s a secret that Tony’s best friends, the unemployed actress Monica and his lodger Kevin, should have told him a long time ago.
Out in the Open is a warm and emotional comedy looking at the different ways people deal with loss and betrayal. It premiered in 2001 at the Hampstead Theatre, London.
Frustrated with the tedium of suburbia, mummy’s boy Dennis is drawn to Borstal boy Jeffry in a camaraderie that veers into volatile and unarticulated eroticism. Deftly depicting the frustrations of 1960s living, Over Gardens Out is a finely tuned sketch of friendship and family life.
Over Gardens Out by Peter Gill was first performed in the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 5 August 1968.
Jonathan Harvey’s heart-wrenching and hilarious play is about five people who are irrational, lonely, loving, a little bit crazy, and very real.
In the middle flat at 15 Rupert Street lives Shaun, a hairdresser whose girlfriend has gone to Barbados for a funeral. Staying with him while she’s away is his gay elder brother Marti, who practically brought him up. As Shaun says, he was weaned on queenery, and the brothers can perform the greatest scenes of gay cinema by heart.
Living downstairs is George, a secondary-school English teacher who can’t stop mentioning her ex-boyfriend. Living upstairs is the eccentric Clarine, or is it Zoe Wanamaker? Clarine’s identity is a little wobbly. And Shaun’s brought Dean over, a transvestite also known as Fifi Trixabelle La Bouche.
The group is rather a mis-matched one in the first place, and things only get worse when Shaun begins to go to pieces in his girlfriend’s absence, creating a moving and tender psychological drama, flecked with Harvey’s inescapable wit.
Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club was first produced in 1995 at the Contact Theatre, Manchester.
Being a teenager is hard, especially if you’re questioning your sexuality and growing up in rural Ontrio in the mid ’90s. Add to that a temperamental, homophobic father and a tenacious love for Madonna, and it’s almost unbearable. Despite it all, Luke loves working on the family farm, and at least he has the support of a group of local outsiders who invite him into their circle.
Sparking a series of further revelations, the sudden reappearance of David exposes suppressed emotions and desires in everyone and the family must renegotiate their relationships with each other and, ultimately, redefine their family. In sharp, non-stop dialogue, Brad Fraser brings each of his characters to life with a depth, humour, and emotion that tears open the nuclear family and finds the heart that is often lost and forgotten.
Kevin Elyot's last play, Twilight Song was not performed until after his death in June 2014. It is a bittersweet drama tracing a single family’s hidden liaisons over half a century, exploring the pressures faced by gay men before and after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It was first performed at Park Theatre, London, on 12 July 2017, in a production by Cahoots Theatre Company and David Sloan in association with Park Theatre.
The play takes place in the same sitting room of a Victorian villa in North London during the early summers of 1961, 1967 and the present day. In the first scene, set in the present, retired pharmacist Barry (now in his mid-fifties and living with his elderly mother, Isabella) shows the family home to estate agent Skinner, eventually succumbing to Skinner's sexual insinuations. The action then tracks back to an evening in 1961, when Barry's father Basil (played, according to a note in the script, by the same actor) was preparing to go out for supper at Le Caprice with the pregnant Isabella, his gay uncle Charles, and Charles's married lover, Harry. Charles and Harry have long had to keep their lust for each other a secret from the family. By 1967, the year of the Sexual Offences Act, Isabella feels free to make a confession to Charles about her sex life, while liberation has come too late for Charles and Harry.
The Park Theatre production was directed by Anthony Banks and designed by James Cotterill. It was performed by Philip Bretherton (as Harry), Adam Garcia (as Skinner/Gardener), Bryony Hannah (as Isabella), Paul Higgins (as Barry/Basil) and Hugh Ross (as Charles).
Twilight Song premiered at Park Theatre, London, in 2017.
The moment Mark meets David his world is thrown off balance. Who could have predicted finding love in a furniture store, or finding it with an unemployed lifeguard? But despite their immediate connection, Mark isn’t sure if David is gay. Mark isn’t even sure if Mark is gay. As he falls deeper in love, Mark works desperately to make David nothing more than a friend and to make that enough. Filled with hopeful exhilaration and devastating missed opportunities, Under Wraps nimbly tracks one man’s tumultuous quest to finally love himself and let it all out.
If ‘gay theatre’ is taken to mean plays written by and for homosexuals, then it is true that there was almost no ‘gay theatre’ before that produced in the aftermath of the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. Such a definition, however, dismisses the formal variety of twentieth-century gay culture, and fails to take account of the specific contradictions and complications produced by the double movement of that culture since the beginning of the century. One direction of movement has been towards the elaboration of an autonomous subculture with its own sites and styles; the second, occurring simultaneously, has been towards the integration (often superficial and always troubled) of gay images, languages and individuals into the culture as a whole. Between these two ideals of autonomy and integration lies a spectrum of cultural operations devised by those who have supported, challenged, appropriated and exploited the existing order. It is within this spectrum that we must try to place a diversity of theatres – a glam drag act in a working-class pub, a radical drag version of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage in a fringe arts venue, a lesbian comedy thriller in the same venue, a play about AIDS with a gay cast, a play about AIDS with a straight cast, Lindsay Kemp’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a wildly camp version of Cocteau’s Oedipus staged by a leading gay actor in a respectable repertory theatre, a lesbian cabaret act, and an utterly straight staging of Otway’s Venice Preserv’d in which both director and star (playing one-half of an eighteenth-century ‘heroic friendship’) are gay men. The twentieth century has been a period of extraordinarily rapid social and cultural change for gay people, but within all this diversity and change one factor has remained until recently constant. The writing and production of theatre have remained largely male operations, and it is not until the early 1970s that the phrase ‘gay theatre’ can be honestly used to describe work by, for or about lesbian women as well as gay men.
The complications of what might be meant by the phrase ‘gay theatre’ pre-date the coining of the terms (and indentities) ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’ in the late nineteenth century. The often homoerotic and always transvestite theatre of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Fletcher was attacked by contemporary critics such as Prynne as the home of catamites and Ganymedes; John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, rewrote Fletcher’s Valentinian in the late 1670s as a maelstrom of confused desires whirling around an outspoken boy-loving emperor; Shadwell, Southerne, Dilke, Farquhar and Vanbrugh all exploited cross-dressing on stage at the same time as the development of an off-stage subculture by men who described themselves as mollies, meeting in private brothels and semi-public taverns in women’s clothes as part of their sexual and social life. By the turn of the nineteenth century, at the end of a 40-year period in which both the subculture and its collisions with the world of culture had produced increasingly confident gay styles, the distinctive features of the gay theatre of our own century had been set.
This formative period was not, however, characterized by a collective sense of gay culture. Few of the following artists active at that time would have been aware of each other’s work, or would have perceived themselves as differing practitioners within a single culture: Wilde, the most famously homosexual of all theatre artists, who never created a gay character – if we discount the page-boy in Salomé – but whoseobsessive demolition of polite sexual and social relations in works as diverse as The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and La Sainte Courtisaine (unfinished) was surely profoundly informed by his observations from the perspective of a social and sexual outlaw; Diaghilev, who was about to commence the lifelong series of works created with and for his lovers Lifar, Massine, Dolin and Nijinsky; Malcolm Scott, billed as ‘The Woman who Knows’ in a series of drag routines at the London Pavilion in 1903; Julian Eltinge, the first, greatest and most successful of the Broadway drag queens, who crossed the Atlantic to play to royalty in 1906; John Gray and André Raffalovich, a homosexual couple, both published poets, whose play The Blackmailers portrays the strengthening of a male homosexual relationship under the pressure of a family melodrama and was produced by J. T. Grein at the Prince of Wales, London on 7 June 1894; John Todhunter, whose 1893 play The Black Cat decorates a standard marital crisis with a caricature of a homosexual dandy; or John B. Fuller, whose play At St Judas (New York, 1896) climaxes in the forced suicide of a best man in love with the groom at a society wedding.
All the categories of contemporary ‘gay theatre’ are there in that catalogue, with the exception of theatre created for rather than by or about gay people although Gray and Raffalovich may be seen as having written the first play clearly intended to hearten the gay people in its audience as well as educate its liberals and shock its conservatives.
The most continuous and the richest theatrical tradition built upon these early works has been that of the drag artists – though their work has been the least honoured and the least documented, because it is a popular (i.e. working-class) tradition, and is rarely dependent on scripts or playwrights. The least continuous – since each artist apparently attempts to reinvent theatrical language in isolation – has been the series of acknowledged ‘great artists’ who are recognized by the critical establishment as gay but whose work is rarely if ever ‘about’ gay characters or incidents. Williams, Cocteau, Genet, Lorca and Orton were not the product of some generalized ‘gay sensibility’, but each is similar to the others in that his work was decisively influenced by the language, role-playing, bitterness and need to either decisively conform to or disrupt conventions of the very different gay cultures in which he lived.
The ‘problem play’ is the most extensive section of any bibliography of gay theatre; it will include both plays in which homosexuality is a minor, decorative problem (The Black Cat) and plays in which ‘the problem of homosexuality’ is the main dramatic interest (The Blackmailers or Mart Crowley’s infamous The Boys in the Band, 1968). The popularity of the genre arises from the fact that incidental gay stereotypes or stereotyped gay incidents provide ample opportunity for the bestselling theatrical ingredients of sex, misery and disguise. Also, homosexuality as a construct is the site of many of the culture’s most-discussed social crises sexual licence and sexual identity, the conflicting demands of liberalism and conservatism, parenthood and marriage. It would be a mistake to see such plays as The Captive (Eduard Bourdet, 1926), Rope (Patrick Hamilton, 1929), The Children’s Hour (Lillian Hellman, 1934), A Taste of Honey (Shelagh Delaney, 1958), A Patriot For Me (John Osborne, 1965) and Staircase (Charles Dyer, 1966) as ‘merely’ commercial or exploitative. They rather form a genuine acknowledgement that the formation of homosexuality in the twentieth century has been inextricably mixed up with the formation of other controversial identities – the ‘nonconformist’, the ‘pervert’, the ‘independent woman’, the ‘virile’, ‘promiscuous’ or ‘effeminate’ man. Some ‘problem plays’ are sympathetic to or actually militant on behalf of homosexuals – Mae Wests’s 1927 The Drag or Sewell and Leslie Stokes’s Oscar Wilde (1936). Some are the work of homosexuals themselves: J. R. Ackerley’s Prisoners of War (1925), James Fugate (Barr)’s Game of Fools (1954), Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour (1958). Others are cryptic or transposed homosexual works by authors unable or unwilling to write explicitly – the works of Coward, Rattigan and Maugham, for instance. The cryptic or implicit use of gay themes should not, however, be simplistically read as evidence of the author being ‘in the closet’. Somewhere in the category of ‘problem play’, for instance, one would have to locate the series of works by Brecht in which the ‘problem’ of an intense relationship between two men in love is used to expose and tear apart the workings of the society in which they live – Baal, In the Jungle of Cities, Edward II and Galileo – the portrayal of the hero and his beloved pupil in the latter surely influenced by Brecht’s collaboration with the great gay actor Charles Laughton.
The watershed of twentieth-century gay culture is 1969, the year in which the Stonewall riots in New York dramatized the beginning of the gay liberation movement. Before neatly dividing gay culture into ‘before’ and ‘after’ Stonewall, it is salutary to consider the scale and diversity of the earlier work and to remember that all of the cultural forms pre-dating gay liberation have survived and developed. On the London stage (London is used throughout as an example of the complex development which might be traced in any English-speaking or European metropolitan gay culture; not because it was the centre of or leader) in 1968, for instance, you would have been able to watch the following shows, all of them by or featuring homosexual women or men: Simon Gray’s Wise Child; Colin Spencer’s Spitting Image; Orton’s Loot; Shaffer’s Black Comedy; Peter Luke’s Hadrian the Seventh; John Bowen’s Trevor, with its depiction of a lesbian couple; Brecht’s Edward II; Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; the National Theatre’s all-male production of As You Like It; Charles Marowitz’s production of Fortune and Men’s Eyes; Christopher Hampton’s Total Eclipse; Paddy Chayefsky’s The Latent Heterosexual; Lanford WIlson’s The Madness of Lady Bright; Edward Bond’s Early Morning, with its lesbian affair between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale; Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes; the musical Hair; drag queens Rogers and Starr in the Gaiety Box Revue; and Danny La Rue fronting his own drag club in Hanover Square as well as playing Dame in Sleeping Beauty at the Golders Green Hippodrome.
Gay liberation did, however, decisively disrupt this spectrum of theatrical forms, and indeed the meaning of the phrase ‘gay theatre’. First, and most importantly, it created a theatre which had not only gay writers, performers and producers but also a gay audience; a theatre not only by and about but also entirely for homosexuals. Although there had been explorations of the idea of playing to a gay audience in the club and cabaret culture of, for instance, the Harlem Renaissance and pre-Hitler Germany, this theatre had in fact never existed before. Second, it proposed that gay women and gay men should work together to create a radical gay culture. Third, its main political tactic, ‘coming out’ – ceasing to pretend, behaving in public as an evident homosexual – made the enormous number of plays in which straight writers and performers had made such a drama of speaking as or for gay people seem immediately dated and rather distasteful.
In six years (1971–7) the impact of gay liberation on London theatre produced a development of new forms from street theatre (the drag disruption of the Miss World contest in 1971) to the complex operations of an established gay company, Gay Sweatshop. Their work included influencing the establishment of venues friendly or dedicated to new gay work (INTER-ACTION, ICA, Oval House); extensive regional touring of radical community work; major new plays like Dear Love of Comrades by Noël Greig; commissioning work from established writers (Bond’s Stone); and moving into youth theatre work (Royal Court, 1977). All successive work in this area – the establishment of community companies; the continuing existence of fringe venues promoting radical gay work; the influence of gay writers and gay sexual politics on experimental theatre as a whole – has been built on their pioneering efforts. The United States and to a lesser extent Europe have also seen the parallel establishment of numerous venues, authors and companies dedicated to the gay audience both as a cultural and political ideal.
Later gay theatre was a continuation of the variety of older forms, complicated further by the intervention of gay liberation. The more-or-less exploitative ‘problem play’ remained, in several forms. Homophobic details and narratives continued to be common in mainstream film and television. An upmarket version of the old style is provided by the work of Peter Shaffer, whose highly successful plays The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Equus (1973) and Amadeus (1979) all sensationally portray the obsessive admiration of an older man for a younger. Most interestingly, gay writers themselves are producing what are in effect problem plays – commercially successful character-dramas focused on popular and painful issues – which are also explicitly the polemic writings of gay authors: Michael Wilcox, Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, William Hoffman, Martin Sherman. Noël Greig and Michelene Wandor produce work which brings to ‘issue’ drama the full richness of perspective of their involvement in gay and women’s liberation – the result of their early polemic work is, paradoxically, a theatre whose politics are expansive and wide-ranging, embracing multiculturalism and formal experiment as necessary results of the cracks first opened in the theatrical establishment by the demands of the new gay theatre. Drag continues to be a popular tradition, with its inimitable and vital mixture of artistic and political awfulness with rare artistry. It is still the most challenging and the most gay of our theatres; most importantly, it is the only art form which has actual premises – buildings and stages – dedicated to an exclusively gay public. The Broadway musical and the ballet both survive as art forms whose history has often been determined by gay performers and producers, which have a large gay male audience and whose iconography has been much loved and used by metropolitan gay male culture, but neither of which is thought of as ‘gay theatre’. Perhaps the most exciting work is that of those artists in whom the new confidence made possible by the expansion of the subculture, and by the radical politics of liberation, has collided head on with the older traditions of drag, vaudeville, cabaret and the sex industry. In the performances of Lindsay Kemp, Charles Ludlum (New York) and Bloolips (London), in the ballets of Michael Clark and the films of Derek Jarman there is a theatre which seems distinctively and uniquely gay. These spectacles have an uncompromising strength which isthe result of our liberation, an eccentricity which acknowledges that we are still outside of the culture and a gorgeousness which is motivated largely by a desire to avenge all the repression and gloom which others have sought to stamp on our culture. They propose a theatre which goes beyond the simple categories of a theatre by, for or about gay people, since they are not always about the ‘gay world’. They imagine, attack and talk about the world in gay language.
In the United States: Playwright Robert Patrick once quipped that a ‘gay play’ is one that ‘sleeps with other plays of the same sex’. His humour sidesteps an entrenched critical debate. Anthologies sporting such unambiguous titles as Gay Plays: The First Collection (1979, ed. William M. Hoffman), Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays (1988, ed. Don Shewey) and The Actor’s Book of Gay and Lesbian Plays (1995, ed. Eric Lane and Nina Shengold) examine the term ‘gay play’ carefully: Must it denote the work of an openly gay author? Must it be written for primarily gay audiences? Must it have gay characters, or just gay subtext? Many gender theorists argue that the very term ‘gay’ is specious; sexuality manifests too fluidly for language to contain it.
There has, however, been little ambiguity in the American public’s animated consumption of ‘[male] gay plays’. Ever since Jazz Age heterosexuals thronged Greenwich Village cafeterias for ‘fairywatching’, US audiences have devoured male homosexuality. New York State law, which from 1927 to 1967 forbade theatrical treatment of ‘sex degeneracy, or sex perversion’, may have prevented Mae West’s The Drag (1927) from reaching Broadway; but soon thereafter West crashed New York with The Pleasure Man (1928), and its soaring ticket prices and heaving reviews revealed a public taste for forbidden gay spectacle. With its presentation of sinister effeminacy, the British import The Green Bay Tree (1933) by Mordaunt Shairp also thwarted New York law and allowed thousands of spectators ample opportunity for sordid sexual interpretation. Ironically, Robert Anderson, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller soon profited by Senator McCarthy’s terrifying implication that American audiences, blind to homosexual subversives, were not such savvy readers of maleness. Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953) depicts the brutality foisted on effeminate, heterosexual Tom Lee by Bill Reynolds, his hyper-masculine, closeted headmaster. In Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Brick’s former athletic glory and seductive masculinity cannot stem sexual suspicions surrounding his friendship with Skipper. In Miller’s A View From the Bridge (1955), Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone unleashes frustrated sexual desire for his niece by slamming a frenzied kiss on her effeminate fiancé’s mouth as ‘proof’ of the boy’s deviance. As with Bill and Brick, Eddie’s audience must ponder whether his homophobia reveals the attacker’s sexuality more than that of his target. Although this equation no longer shocks, View’s popular 1998 Broadway revival demonstrates America’s continuing need to plumb male performance for potential secrets.
In the 1960s Off-Broadway theatres such as the Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village began to showcase work by openly gay authors for equally open audiences. The Cino, which offered such writers unprecedented freedom, influenced the drag- and allusion-heavy dramaturgies of much subsequent gay theatre. For example, through his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Charles Ludlam convulsed audiences until his death in 1987 with such works as his drag Camille (1974) and Gothic spoof The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984) – a 1998 revival of which sold out Off-Broadway under the direction of Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s longtime lover and successor. Encouraged by audience interest in these ventures, gay theatre troupes outside New York, such as San Francisco’s Rhinoceros and Gay Men’s Theatre Collective, began to flourish as well. While the Cino and Ludlam began to galvanize gay audiences, far more diverse masses flocked uptown to over 1,000 performances of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), an instantly notorious play which spectators alternatively declared either the first ‘true’ portrait of homosexual misery or a gallery of dated stereotypes. This debate, which overlooks the play’s fairly progressive notions of gay relationships and effeminate-male courage, has followed Boys through a controversial film adaptation (1970) and a hot Off-Broadway revival (1996). As with A View from the Bridge, audiences continue to scrutinize staged maleness; witness the continuing amazement that Cliff Gorman, Boys’ original Emory, could convincingly play Crowley’s queen despite his heterosexuality.
Following Boys and the Stonewall Riots (1969), gay characters began to appear in mainstream drama that did not posit tortured (or torturing) homosexuals as its wrenching raison d’être. However, such works as James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s A Chorus Line (1975) and Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box (1977) feature quipping queens who do encourage audiences’ associations of homosexuality with constant carnival. In Terrence McNally’s The Ritz (1974), David Rabe’s Streamers (1976), Ira Levin’s Deathtrap (1978) and Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979), gay protagonists figure within the lurid mises-en-scène of a bathhouse, a deadly army barracks, a murderous playwright’s cottage and a Nazi work camp, respectively.
Fittingly, the arresting visuals of drag and disease helped audiences to process emerging themes of homophobia and AIDS. Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1982) and book for La Cage aux Folles (1984) posit a politics of gay pride against a backdrop of glittering gowns. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) and William M. Hoffman’s As Is (1985) plunged American audiences into AIDS’s visceral horrors by staging the shouting, shattered bodies suppressed in spotty journalism. In Jerker (1986), Robert Chesley updated Bent’s infamous sex talk by having his characters masturbate on stage, even while demonstrating their vulnerability to AIDS.
By the early 1990s, the commercial demand to see gay bodies and to hear gay wit prompted such acclaimed Broadway musicals as William Finn’s Falsettos (1992) and John Kander, Fred Ebb and McNally’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993). Tony Kushner and Terrence McNally shared the Best Play Tony Award four years running with Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1992, 1993) and McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) and Master Class (1995), his Valentine to gay icon Maria Callas. Off-Broadway, the drag performance troupes Split Breeches and Bloolips presented Belle Reprieve (1991), their queer take on A Streetcar Named Desire, to strong reception; Pomo Afro Homos enjoyed considerable vogue for their Dark Fruit (1992). With The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (1992) and My Queer Body (1992), David Drake and Tim Miller drew substantial audiences to autobiographical queer monodramas.
Watchers of gay drama have made themselves into spectacle through heated politicking over McNally’s Corpus Christi (1998). Protesters (and counter-protesters) ironically mounted their own fiery drama by excoriating Christi’s suggestion of sexual involvement between Christ and his disciples. The play’s tepid reviews provided a startling anticlimax to months of anticipatory demonstrations. Clearly, American investment in the staging of male homosexuality did not languish as the century drew to its close. No other framed body allows spectators so ripe an opportunity to exercise their critical muscles.
from Neill Bartlett, Michael R. Schiavi, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).