The Stonewall Inn Riots (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
After Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was produced in 1968 and gained a following, gay drama came out of the closet in which it had endured for decades. This was the first openly gay play to be staged in New York the year after the state of New York relaxed its ban on presenting homosexuality onstage. The second event that paved the way for gay drama through the remainder of the twentieth century, the Stonewall Inn riots, followed close on the heels of the production of The Boys in the Band.
The gay liberation movement in the United States sprang to life in 1969. On June 27 of that year, a tactical force of the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay gathering place in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Such raids, which had been a form of perpetual police harassment of gays, were frequent in New York and other large cities. They usually resulted in the arrests of a few people, causing them embarrassment and inconvenience, even though the charges against them frequently were dismissed. Records of these arrests, however, generally remained in police files and could be a source of concern for years to come among those who had been arrested.
June 27 was different from most Friday nights at the Stonewall Inn. The gay community was in mourning over the death of one of its icons, Judy Garland, five days earlier. Civil disobedience was in the air and had hung heavily over the country for some time as...
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Before Stonewall (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
In the first twenty-five years of the 1900’s, Britain and the United States were shaking loose from the moral strictures that had pervaded and inhibited public life during the long reign of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, who was monarch from 1837 until her death in 1901. In the United States, an increasing bohemianism was sweeping avant-garde artistic circles. In New York, this bohemianism was centered in Greenwich Village and in Harlem, where the Harlem Renaissance was taking shape.
A tolerance for sexual freedom began to replace the Victorian restraints that had contributed to the downfall of Oscar Wilde toward the end of Victoria’s reign. The Bloomsbury Group , which flourished in London, was peppered with male homosexuals and lesbians, among them some of the most gifted writers, artists, and intellectuals of that period.
The plays of Noël Coward, particularly The Vortex (pr. 1924) and Design for Living (pr. 1933)—while they did not deal explicitly with homosexuality—skated close to the edge in implying the subject in ways that homosexuals in Coward’s audiences could scarcely miss. Among straight people, his naughtiness passed as “high camp” rather than out-and-out homosexuality. Throughout Coward’s career, his plays were peppered with homosexual lyrics, such as “Mad About the Boy” in Words and Music (pr. 1932) and “Matelot” in the revue Sigh No More (pr. 1945). British...
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Lesbian Plays of the 1920’s and 1930’s (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Early twentieth century society was somewhat more accepting of lesbianism than it was of male homosexuality. Closeness between two women was not considered unusual. Nevertheless, the subject was clearly controversial and probably resulted in Lillian Hellman’s not receiving the 1935 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for The Children’s Hour (pr. 1934), which is generally conceded to be her best play. Because only one Pulitzer Prize in Drama can be awarded in a given year, the Pulitzer drama jury, which had several excellent plays to choose from in 1935, sidestepped the issue and awarded the 1935 prize to Zoë Atkins for The Old Maid (pr. 1934).
The Children’s Hour focuses on two teachers, Karen and Martha, who have been close since college. They teach together in a school, where Mary, an emotionally disturbed student, accuses the two of having an “indecent” relationship. Karen, having a deep and genuine concern for Mary, recognizes her emotional problems. In the end, it is proved that the girl’s accusations are false, but the veil of suspicion that has descended upon the two teachers has utterly destroyed them. The thorny ethical questions with which the play deals are compelling, but the taint of lesbianism made the play a controversial offering in its time and resulted in its being banned in Britain, although it was performed on Broadway in the United States.
Predating The Children’s Hour by fifteen...
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Latent Homosexuality (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Much of the prominent drama between the 1920’s and the 1960’s made veiled allusions to homosexuality but dealt with latency rather than with the overtly homosexual characters that were to occur in later plays. In The Unknown (pr. 1920), W. Somerset Maugham speaks lovingly of a friend lost in the war, but this sort of love more nearly reflects veneration than homosexuality. J. R. Ackerley in The Prisoners of War (pr. 1925), set in an internment camp in Switzerland, presents Conrad, whose complicated emotions are almost certainly linked to homosexuality. However, this is not the story of a love affair between two men. It is an account of the emotions that Conrad feels for the handsome young Grayle, who, presumably having no sexual interest in Conrad, shuns him.
Eugene O’Neill ’s plays were notably devoid of gay characters, although in Strange Interlude (pr. 1928), the presentation of Charles Marsden, a confirmed bachelor, suggests he might be gay. Likewise, in Ah, Wilderness! (pr. 1933), young Richard is extremely sensitive and is given to voluminous reading in works not only by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw but also by Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, suggesting at least his exposure to and interest in gay elements in what he chooses to read.
Much more directly homosexual were Coward’s Post Mortem (pb. 1931), which, significantly, was not produced, and Keith Winter’s...
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Post-Stonewall Drama (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? demolished middle-class conceptions of family values, post-Stonewall drama put the finishing touches on demolishing it completely. Lanford Wilson ’s Fifth of July (pr. 1978), like other gay plays of the era, brings homosexuality up front in making its protagonist clearly homosexual, a Vietnam veteran who, having lost both legs in the war, has returned home to small-town Missouri to teach school. The gay couple central to the play bring affirmation to a family relationship that is not based on procreation. Although theirs is a family, it greatly challenges the concept of the traditional family. The same can be said of Albee’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but this play makes the point with no overt introduction of homosexuality.
The Boys in the Band paved the way for much more honest presentations of homosexuality in such plays as John Hopkins’s Find Your Way Home (pr. 1970), Simon Gray’s Butley (pr. 1971), David Rabe’s Streamers (pr. 1976), Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s A Chorus Line (pr. 1975), and Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage aux Folles (pr. 1983) and Torch Song Trilogy (pb. 1978-1979). The blatant opening sex scene of Torch Song Trilogy is living testimony to how far gay theater has come after the Stonewall Inn riots.
Dan Pruitt and Patrick Hutchison’s The...
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The Drama of AIDS (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
No single element affected contemporary gay drama as much as the onset of the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) epidemic in the early 1980’s. This widespread illness that claimed the lives of so many gay men became the stuff of which compelling drama had to be made. Perhaps no American playwright approached the topic more effectively than Tony Kushner in his pair of plays, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part One: Millennium Approaches), first produced in 1991, and Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part Two: Perestroika), produced in 1992. These plays reached wide audiences throughout the Western world and served to enlighten straight society about many salient aspects of gay existence, as, somewhat earlier, had Ron Cowen’s moving AIDS drama, An Early Frost (pr. 1985), which was aired on network television throughout the United States.
Paul Rudnick ’s Jeffrey (pr. 1993) deals with the difficult efforts of the protagonist, a food server in his thirties, to eschew the casual sex that has been so much a part of his life when the AIDS epidemic forces him to acknowledge that casual sex is no longer sensible. He essentially gives up sex until he meets Steve, to whom he is strongly attracted. Steve is HIV-positive, representing the very thing that Jeffrey most fears. Rudnick’s conclusion is that AIDS does not cause Jeffrey the greatest difficulty but...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. This consideration of musical theater and gay culture is unique in its field. The selective discography that follows the main text is particularly useful to scholars and researchers.
Clum, John M. Still Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A remarkably comprehensive study of gay theater, extraordinarily well written at a level that non-experts in the field can easily comprehend.
Clum, John M., ed. Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Gay Theater. New York: Westview Press, 1995. This collection of ten gay plays is carefully selected. It is enhanced by Tony Kushner’s foreword as well as by the editor’s preface. A good introduction to gay drama.
Furtado, Ken, and Nancy Hellner, eds. Gay and Lesbian American Plays: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993. The fullest list in existence of gay and lesbian drama up to the early 1990’s. Useful for plays that fall within its time frame.
Shewey, Don, ed. Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1988. This collection is helpful not only for the eleven gay plays it reproduces but for its valuable...
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