It’s Just a Stage: The Evolution of Gay Theater

PT2005

Scene from Proud Theater’s year-end show, 2005. Proud Theater is an LGBT+ youth theater group. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

In today’s theater the “love that dare not speak its name” is finally being spoken, loudly, and in speech after speech, play after play. As Time magazine opined after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, “the love that once dared not speak its name now can’t seem to keep its mouth shut.” It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when there were no “gay” plays, when the only gay characters were merciless stereotypes, and when playing a homosexual in the movies or the theater signaled the death knell of an acting career. Only desperate actors, hoping for some kind of break, would take on such desperate characters.

One of the goals of the theater as art is to “hold a mirror up to nature”, as Shakespeare said, to look at ourselves by looking at others. But if nature is denied, if we are told there are no canaries in the forest, then we don’t go bird watching. So it has been throughout most of theatrical history. When it came to finding gay and lesbian characters in drama, they were nowhere to be found. Until very recently queer characters in plays simply did not exist. Thus, there was no chance to examine them and see what they told us about ourselves. When they did start to appear it was as doomed beings, emotionally strangled to death, or as outrageous caricatures, prancing queens with wrists that fluttered more than Tinkerbell’s wings. Over time, gay roles slowly advanced from caricatures to characters, but for years their essence still lurked somewhere in the subtext of their lives.

Today that is not necessarily the case. There are not only queer characters, but entire plays made up of nothing but gay or lesbian characters or themes. Somewhere along the line, very much like African-American theater, we went from invisibility to stereotyped appearances to acceptance to occasional celebration. In February of 1999 the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation released figures noting that there are now more than two dozen gay and lesbian characters on television, a medium where only about a dozen years ago Tony Randall was not able to survive even as a closeted gay man in Love, Sidney. The theater has always been ahead of television. There are many more than a scant two dozen gay characters from which to choose in the modern theatrical canon. We are now far enough along, in fact, that we may now begin to create gay plays of critical self-examination.

How and when did this change? When did it not only become okay to have gay characters and gay-themed plays, but to celebrate gayness, to show it to the world in almost all of its manifestations? Could Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi have been performed in 1910? In 1920? Definitely not. It couldn’t even have been conceived at that time, though there was at least discussion of homosexuality in intellectual circles by the 1920’s.

Corpus Christi in 1930, 1940? No, but by then some writers at least had the idea that they should explore homoerotic issues. That was the period of poet Hart Crane and others who quietly and bravely examined their lives in the secret languages of their own souls and even, occasionally, of the well-hidden gay subculture. Lillian Hellman’s monumental work, The Children’s Hour, was produced in 1934 to wide critical acclaim and huge popular success. Though others had preceded it, most notably The Green Bay Tree, Mae West’s The Drag, and a few other minor works, The Children’s Hour was really the first successful “gay” play. Interestingly, most of the early “gay” plays were about gay men or lesbians, but not by gay men or lesbians. Perhaps America didn’t believe we could be trusted to tell the truth about our own experiences and lives.

In the 1950s Harry Hay and friends were beginning the gay rights struggle in this country with the Mattachine Society. Allen Ginsberg was howling about naked madmen and cocks and endless balls. Novels were highlighting gay characters. But there was also Korea and Joe McCarthy and in that atmosphere live theater wasn’t quite ready to deal with all the gayness in its own midst. Certainly Corpus Christi could not have been written then, although there was at least room for Tennessee Williams’ closets full of masks and a gay sensibility the likes of which had never before been seen on stage. There were at least hints of a gay theater to come.

1960? Probably not even in the turbulent and radical 1960s or during the 1970s sexual revolution could the play have been written. The decade of the Sixties was a time of major societal change and the decade that saw the beginnings of the modern gay rights movement with the Stonewall Riots. But the gay movement was fledgling and still a fringe movement. For most of America there were larger issues to resolve. There was no time to listen to gays demanding rights. While America was occupied with black civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, the Sixties and Seventies did at least see the beginning of a move toward a gay theater with plays such as The Boys in the Band, by Mart Crowley and, by the end of the Seventies, Bent, by Martin Sherman.

1980? Perhaps, but not likely. 1990? Barely. 2000? Yes, with the right group, in the right city, with the right promotion and political maneuvering.

Corpus Christi would not be possible today were it not for all of its predecessors, even if they were works hammered out in the closet. Contemporary lesbian and gay theater runs parallel to the political climate. It stands as a mirror, reflecting the political advances of society. The problem with this, of course, is that true art paves the way. It is ahead of its time, not parallel with it or behind it. Historically gay theater has lagged behind the time it lives in and for which the performances are given. It takes each new advance in the political arena and expresses it in theatrical form, after the fact. It doesn’t anticipate. That is why, since the advent of the modern gay rights movement, there has been a proliferation of gay plays and playwrights, primarily in the more accepting 80s and 90s.

A couple decades ago, the 1970s saw a large number of one-act plays by openly gay writers such as Robert Patrick. There were also a large number of independent, small theaters scattered all over the country, like The Magic Theater in Omaha, Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, the Organic Theater in Chicago, Changing Scene in Denver, and on and on, places that were willing to take on controversial subjects without apology. Most of these theaters, however, premiered works that were often never again seen anywhere else and oftentimes with good reason.

Similarly, the 1980s saw the development or growth of specifically gay theater groups, such as the Madison Gay Theater Project, San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros, Chicago’s Lionheart Theater, and others. These groups performed only gay and lesbian works by gay and lesbian writers, in order to provide a place for the gay voice to be heard.

Many of these kinds of groups have already died off after outliving their usefulness. In a period of assimilation, gay and lesbian patrons now demand that gay works are performed in conventional theaters and conventional theaters are looking for more audiences. They will go where the money is. When March of the Falsettos is one of the biggest plays off-Broadway, it is a sign that there is money to be made, and producers will follow the parade.

It is not only gay patrons that will go to gay plays though. General theater audiences accept gay plays now because the larger society is more generally accepting of gay and lesbian people now. Gay theater can thank political advances for its existence. As gains have been made in the society, gay theater has fared better. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better fare. Much of it, in fact, has been fairly uninteresting. In retrospect, the Tony-award winning Torch Song Trilogy is not a great play. It’s fun, and entertaining, but not great theater. It won the Tony for daring to be unabashedly gay, not for being great theater. Harvey Fierstein is known more for being an open queen and for historically thanking his lover on the televised Tony awards than for being a playwright.

If gay theater were truly bold and powerful as art rather than commerce, it would have been created with or without greater political acceptance. In fact, it would have preceded the political advances that allow it now to flourish.

I believe that theater is political (indeed, that art is political), although I am currently trying to make my own art more personal. If that includes politics, so be it. But a theatrical troupe that consciously avoids controversial material so as not to offend anyone is offensive by its very nature. The theatrical globe is large enough to have room for insipid musicals and inane melodramas as sheer entertainment, and there is joy in performing and watching them as such. But a conscious decision to be apolitical is a political decision, and a cowardly one at that. One does not create gay theater in a political vacuum. The act of creating gay theater is a political choice. As long as any minority group is oppressed by the larger society in which it exists, any art from that group has to be political art, simply by looking at the oppressed group, and thus, examining the oppression, even in some small way.

So gay theater, even trite gay theater, is by its very nature political. But gay theater has never been comfortable embracing its political nature. There have been exceptions, of course. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is extremely political, albeit reactionary. The politics of the play, however, despite Kramer’s good intentions, is also its downfall. The playwright allows himself, through his main character of Ned, to not only get up on a soapbox, but to stand on a carton of soapboxes, screaming at his audience to wake up. Didacticism may be necessary on the Village Square, but it doesn’t play well in the theater. For theater to be anything but an intellectual exercise it must have characters made of flesh and blood rather than cardboard. Words must come from the hearts and minds of the characters rather than be imposed by the author. Characters that are political mouthpieces are political mouthpieces and not characters.

Despite this, audiences still went to see The Normal Heart and made it a success around the country. Today, however, I don’t believe it could be successfully produced. Like Torch Song Trilogy, it doesn’t hold up very well. In retrospect the play was successful because it gave people the chance to actually identify with gay characters. It was didactic and emotionally manipulative, but for one of the few times in history the gay characters were sympathetic without being pathetic. Audiences, especially gay audiences, who supported the play very well, were hungry for sympathetic gay characters. Also, and perhaps more importantly, for the many, gay and straight, who had already experienced the horror of watching friends die of AIDS, the play served as a purgation, a support group, and a call to arms. It was an expression of anger and a catharsis.

Politically and as gay theater it was progress. Compared to the underlying simmering sexuality of Tennessee Williams’ closeted characters in the 50s or the nasty, self-hating (but bitingly funny) queens in Boys in the Band, the characters in The Normal Heart were characters one could like and with which one could identify. Kramer’s extremism forced identifiable and likeable gay characters onto the American stage and once that was done there was no retreating. Other playwrights could then write dramas in which they didn’t have to worry about the fact that the characters were gay. They could concentrate on the play itself because by then the acceptance of gay characters had been established.

Martin Sherman’s Bent also gave us characters that were real, and did so half a dozen years before The Normal Heart, though like most of the gay characters in 20th Century theater and literature, they were tragic characters. Without Bent, Larry Kramer probably could not have succeeded at getting The Normal Heart produced. But the characters in Bent, aside from their tragic natures, were placed in a historical context and thus removed from the modern audiences watching them. Though Bent was essentially a political cry for acceptance it was almost anthropological in its approach, unearthing and studying its characters from a distance and after a significant passage of time had elapsed. While the characters were real they were also of the past, which allowed the play’s straight audience to separate itself from conspiracy or guilt and its gay audience to believe that the same thing couldn’t happen to them. Kramer’s play, on the other hand, threw the guilt at the feet of its straight audience and forced its gay audience to acknowledge that, yes, the play’s events could also befall them. The characters were mostly human, modern, and likeable. I believe, faults and all, it may have been the watershed play of gay theater.

Between the triteness of Torch Song Trilogy and the tragic characters of Bent, between the untruths of the straight writers who used to speak for us and the soapboxes of Larry Kramer and the gay theater groups, between the closets of Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams and the in-your-face shock value of Corpus Christi, lies a challenge for today’s gay theater. The challenge is for gay theater to come into full maturity, to just be, to hold a mirror up to nature and look deeply at the reflection, to see the smiles and the tears, the youthful lustful abandon and the wrinkles of age, to look at ourselves fully and honestly and to truthfully reflect what we see and what we are. We no longer need to be accepted. We no longer need to shock. We no longer need to explain ourselves. We no longer need to write gay theater for straight audiences, to inform, shock, or justify ourselves. Instead, we need to write gay theater for ourselves, to use the theater to examine the stages of our own lives and the spirit of our souls.

Note: This was originally written as a speech to be delivered to Frontiers, a gay men’s social group, for their annual meeting. It was written sometime around the year 2000.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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