Gay and Lesbian Theater Analysis

The Stonewall Inn Riots

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 racial tensions, discontent over the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, and concern over the unequal treatment of minorities led to widespread protests. The boiling point was being approached in many areas in which social discontent was seething not far below the surface. On that Friday night, large numbers of homosexual men whom the police tried to herd into their vans resisted strenuously; rioting ensued.

Before Stonewall

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 The Rats of Norway (pr. 1933), which is set in an isolated boys’ school in Northumbria, where Chetwood, one of the masters, is obviously gay and notably effeminate. The play, however, does not center on him so much as it focuses on Stevan, a new teacher in the school, who treats Chetwood badly, presumably because of his obviousness, and falls in love with a female colleague.

Among the most sensitive pre-Stonewall plays that deal with homosexuality is Robert Anderson ’s Tea and Sympathy (pr. 1953). This play deals with latency rather than with any fully developed manifestations of homosexuality. A sensitive youth, Tom, the play’s protagonist, is a student at a boys’ boarding school. He has twice played female roles in the school’s dramatic productions. Now gossip is swirling around him because he was seen bathing nude with one of the school’s junior masters, who is thought to be gay. His housemaster, Bill, calls him to account for this, but Bill’s wife, Laura, in an attempt to help Tom prove to himself that he is “normal,” has sex with him. She also quite presciently speculates that her husband’s homophobia probably stems from fears about his own sexual identity.

In Tea and Sympathy, as in many of the plays of this period, homosexuality is presented as an abnormality but as...

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Post-Stonewall Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 Harvey Milk Show (pr. 1991), a musical about the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor who was murdered by a homophobic off-duty policeman, Dan White, is essentially an allegorical attack on homophobia and on the sort of hatred engendered by people such as singer Anita Bryant in her Save the Children campaign. In this play, Harvey Milk emerges as a Christ figure, working miracles on earth, being murdered for what he represents, and returning spiritually as a positive presence in society.

The Drama of AIDS

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 rather his reluctance to adjust to the compromised world that the AIDS scare has created.

The drama of AIDS essentially set out to show that AIDS is not exclusively a gay disease, a form of heavenly retribution against those who are different. This kind of drama deals with the fear and the heartbreak of an epidemic that robs people of their sexual freedom and, in many cases, of those who mean the most to them.

As gay drama has advanced, it has made the statement to broad audiences in modern society that the problem is not homosexuality but rather homophobia, a pernicious form of prejudice. It would be naïve to suggest that homophobia no longer exists, but it is probably safe to say that, partly through the efforts of drama, it has become more socially acceptable in the Western world.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 introduction, “Pride in the Name of Love: Notes on Contemporary Gay Theater.” Extensive bibliography.

Sinfield, Alan. Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Among the most inclusive studies of gay theater. Sinfield writes well and his material is meticulously organized and presented in this important book in gay studies. Extensive index of plays.