Much of the important work on theatre history and dramatic literature currently being done within the academy falls under the category of “gender studies.” Responding to Adrienne Rich’s call to revise the cultural past (to “look back in gender,” as Michelle Wandor has put it), feminist critics and their progeny, especially in gay and lesbian studies, have been rewriting our dramatic heritage both by unearthing new subjects for study (the careers of Edy Craig and Elizabeth Robins, the plays of Aphra Behn and Githa Sowerby) and by offering new ways of looking at even the most canonical texts (the theoretical work of Teresa De Lauretis, Jill Dolan, Sue-Ellen Case and Elin Diamond).
Dawn of sexual candorOrder now
As this catalogue of names suggests, the task of engendering theatre has been taken up, for the most part, by feminist scholars interested both in female theatre practitioners of the past and in the creation of a feminist theatrical criticism for the present. Increasingly, male critics are turning their hands to this project. In contributing to our understanding of how homosexuality has been represented by English and American playwrights of this century, John M. Clum and Nicholas de Jongh place this formerly unspeakable subject center stage. In analyzing “the politics of masculinity” in the work of two of America’s leading playwrights, David Savran opens up new perspectives on the careers of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and, in the process, pioneers a critical form that is both admirably formalist in its precision and ambitiously political in its implications.
In the introduction to Not in Front of the Audience, de Jongh divides the history of male homosexuality on the modern stage into three eras: “the triumphalism of the Christian ethic” (1925-1958), when homosexuality was represented as the “archetype of evil”; “the later Cold War phase” (1958-1967), when “the homosexual was the model of the pathetic-unfortunate”; and “the final period” (1968-1985), during which the “negative myths, by which homosexuals were judged, began to be eroded.” Although the story de Jongh eventually tells turns out to be far less linear and far more interesting than this periodization suggests, his is primarily an eschatological history: We have emerged from the dark ages of stereotype into the dawn of a “theatre of sexual candor.”
De Jongh is at his best telling the British side of his story in a series of theatrical anecdotes. (In this respect, his book provides a useful supplement to Kaier Curtin’s groundbreaking We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Men on the American Stage.) His account of John Osborne’s fight with the Lord Chamberlain over the censorship of A Patriot for Me provides an interesting look at the last phase of official censorship in the London theatre. His record of the genesis of Martin Sherman’s Bent describes the new battles playwrights had to wage when the sources of censorship became more diffuse. As theatre critic for London’s Evening Standard, de Jongh sprinkles his history with first-hand accounts of plays in performance and personal interviews.
Clum’s Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama covers some of the same ground, but in a more idiosyncratic and ultimately more suggestive fashion. Although his book, like de Jongh’s, can at times seem both overly critical (especially of gay playwrights whose works reflect now politically incorrect ideas about homosexuality) and overly prescriptive about what a new gay theatre should be, Clum nonetheless takes a much broader and more liberating view of what gay audiences might find empowering.
For de Jongh, the theatre has traditionally “promoted plays of rigid orthodoxy, driving home messages of political, social and sexual conformity to the status quo.” He imagines audiences as passive consumers of such messages. Clum is more attuned to the quirkily subversive ways in which we appropriate theatrical experience for our own ends, the ways in which we refuse to reduce the medium to a single message. For de Jongh, homosexuality must be explicitly present in the text for it to qualify for analysis; for Clum, a theatrical event can become gay through other means–a kiss, a naked body, a bit of strategically placed drag. Hence, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation might be as “gay” as Doric Wilson’s Street Theatre, a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as observant about the policing of homosexual desire as Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy. Acting Gay offers a witty and observant commentary on how homosexuality operates within the theatrical scene and will provide a useful jumping-off place for critics of a more systematic bent.
If the studies of de Jongh and Clum read like dress rehearsal for a future engendered critique of Western theatrical practice, David Savran’s Communists, Cowboys and Queers is opening night. Deploying the critical strategies of New Historicism, feminist criticism and gay studies, Savran offers the most brilliant and sustained analysis of work by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to date.
For Savran, Miller functions as the theatre’s version of a “Cold War liberal,” while Williams performs the role of “skittish radical.” He argues that Miller’s writings reinforce, “albeit nervously and guiltily,” the stereotypes Cold War culture presented as the “natural” roles of men and women, while simultaneously revealing “the anxieties circulating around both male and female sexuality.” Williams, on the other hand, “challenges these same constructions by offering subtly subversive models of gender and sexuality.”
Savran’s historically grounded focus on “the politics of masculinity” leads him to a revaluation of often neglected texts and a defamiliarization of old standards. His reading of Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits as the most far-reaching of the playwright’s explorations of male heroism and female resistance would seem far-fetched outside the precise cultural context Savran provides for his analysis. His discussion of After the Fall and its reception offers a powerful corrective to the usual denunciation of that work.
For Savran, Tennessee Williams is ultimately a literary and theatrical surrealist whose works are to be read and produced less as depictions of character or situation than as utopian allegories of (un)imaginable sexual and political bliss. This Williams is the contemporary of Breton, Barthes and Foucault, not of Miller, Inge and Anderson. Savran offers a convincing critique of those who accuse the early Williams of offering gay characters in female drag, then goes on to investigate what for him is the radical potential of such comparatively neglected works as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel and Moise and the World of Reason.
In its recontextualization of the work of Miller and Williams within the gender politics of the Cold War period, Savran’s book successfully fulfills Adrienne Rich’s dictum that “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.”