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Gay and lesbian theatre

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Gay and lesbian theatre Empty Gay and lesbian theatre

Post  eddie Fri Apr 06, 2012 10:48 pm

Q is for queer theatre

The gay and lesbian theatre movement has changed radically since the oppressive days of the 1950s, but could more writers rise to the challenge of contemporary issues?

Michael Billington, Tuesday 3 April 2012 15.09 BST

Gay and lesbian theatre Julia-Rounthwaite-and-Dan-008
Sex, politics, race, religion … Tony Kushner's Angels in America had it all. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Queer theatre is the accepted generic term for the gay theatre movement: one that embraces both men and women, that covers plays, musicals, cabaret and just about everything else, and which has been going strong in Britain and America for well over 40 years. The results are to be seen everywhere: on big national stages, on and off Broadway and in specialist mini-festivals such as Manchester's recent Queer as Fringe. Now might be a good time to ask: what next?

What strikes me first of all is how theatre always reflects social conditions. In the oppressive 1950s, where every play had to be approved by the lord chamberlain before it could be performed in public, British dramatists were necessarily oblique in their presentation of gay issues. The most famous example was Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables (1954), one strand of which concerns a man who claims to be an army officer; only gradually is it revealed that he is a fraud with a murky sexual past. In the original script, he was guilty of molesting women in cinemas; later, Rattigan revised the text to the story he had presumably wanted to write all along, that he had actually been involved in cottaging (unfashionable as it may be to admit it, I prefer the early version, because it allows the audience to make its own deductions). But dramatists at the time were obliged to work in code: when the hero of Emlyn Williams's superlative Accolade (1950) is accused of having sex with an underage girl in Rotherhithe, I automatically assume Williams was really talking about boys.

It's been heartening to see gay writers exploiting the freedom that came with the abolition of censorship and the relaxation of the law. While it would take too long to list everything, theatre radically changed along with social attitudes. The 1970s saw the emergence of Gay Sweatshop in Britain, founded in 1975, and the Gay Theatre Alliance in America, which burst into life not long after. In the 1980s the Aids crisis was reflected on stage in plays as diverse as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and William M Hoffman's As Is. The 1990s brought us Tony Kushner's monumental Angels in America, in which sex, politics, religion and race were all miraculously combined. And in Britain over the last 20 years writers such as Bryony Lavery, Phyllis Nagy (who is American by birth), Kevin Elyot, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Samuel Adamson, Mark Ravenhill and many others have all dealt openly and explicitly with gay themes.

So what is there to complain about in an era when plays including Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House and Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art occupy the stages of London's National Theatre, when musicals such as La Cage aux Folles combine profit with preaching sexual tolerance and when specialised festivals, offering gay plays to primarily gay audiences, continue to thrive? It's also a little-noticed fact that when Gregory Doran assumes control of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 two of our big national companies will, for the first time ever, be run by gay directors.

What I would like to see, however, are more plays on the Kushner-Ravenhill model which deal with sexuality in a wider political context. One writer who did this was Nicholas de Jongh in Plague Over England (2008), which very precisely related Sir John Gielgud's arrest for importuning to the punitive Home Office attitudes of a 1950s Conservative government. More recently, Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Faith Machine (2011) aired the heated divisions in the Anglican church towards homosexuality. And I'd have thought the rancorous schism between old and young Tories towards gay marriage would be a rich subject for drama. Novelists from James Baldwin to Alan Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher have shown that gay writers are as well-placed as anyone to plot the course of political and cultural change. I just wish more gay dramatists would rise to the challenge, so eagerly grasped by fiction writers, of relating personal dilemmas to public pressures.

Now read: Not In Front of the Audience: homosexuality on stage by Nicholas de Jongh (2002).

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004), for the connection it makes between sexuality and the state of the nation.
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