Plays

Vincent River

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

After her son, Vincent, is murdered in a homophobic attack, Anita must come to terms with her loss, and the hidden fact of his sexuality, an aspect of his identity that she had refused to countenance while he was alive.

This grief and acceptance is complicated by the arrival of Davey, a battered and bruised seventeen-year-old boy, who confesses to Anita that he cannot escape Vincent's ghost. Anita believes that Davey has come to admit to the murder, but it is a deeper crime, a crime of omission, that is haunting her son's lover.

Vincent River was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2000.

The York Realist

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

When the farm labourer George is cast in an amateur revival of the York Mystery Plays he meets the assistant director John. John wants George to move to London, where he is working in theatre. George’s final decision has repercussions for others as well as himself.

Peter Gill’s The York Realist is not only a finely drawn love story, it also makes us think about the depth of class allegiances, the strength of family, and the origins and ownership of art.

The York Realist was first performed by English Touring Theatre, starting at the Lowry in Salford Quays and moving to Bristol Old Vic in autumn 2001, before visiting the Royal Court Theatre, London, in spring 2002.

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).