David McGillivray’s new history series concludes this week
2,500 YEARS OF GAY THEATRE ENDS HERE
Well, you know what I mean. This is the end of the series. But could we also be witnessing the end of gay theatre as we know it? Its present condition is not exactly healthy. At the beginning of his book, Not in Front of the Audience, Nicholas de Jongh wrote, ‘I wanted to investigate the ways in which playwrights, actors and directors were influenced by prevailing mythic constructions of homosexuality as the epitome of evil, danger and corruption, and how such constructions were destroyed and replaced in the aftermath of Gay Liberation.’ It now seems that, having put the record straight, playwrights have little left to say from the gay perspective and audiences don’t want to hear any more anyway.
In 2011 there’s only one type of gay show that’s commercially viable and that’s the camp musical exemplified by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Recently two excellent gay plays, Nicholas de Jongh’s Plague Over England and Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, were well reviewed but struggled after a while to fill even relatively small West End theatres. As we’ve seen from this series, gay men have long supported the theatre. But as soon as we’ve all been to see the new play that’s mainly of interest to us, it might as well close. Straight theatregoers aren’t going to keep it going.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the days when homosexuality was exciting and scandalous, the stuff of tabloid headlines, the straight majority loved a bit of gaytitillation. In 1925 the word got around that The Prisoners of War (see Part 6) was ‘the new homosexual play’ and the Royal Court box office was besieged. The Boys in the Band (see Part 10) ran from 1968 to 1969 at Wyndham’s. This was the play, as author Mart Crowley has said, that had to be written. All it shows is a group of gay men in a room talking. But this had never been seen in the theatre before. The trouble is that, more than forty years on, the average gay play still consists of camp men bickering about their boyfriends.
Many of these plays never get within a false eyelash of the West End. They’re just not good enough. But Fringe Theatre works differently. Some venues will take any play, no matter how bad it is, as long as the playwright can afford the rent. A good way of limiting the losses (these plays never make a profit) is to announce ‘Contains male nudity and scenes of a sexual nature’ on the poster. Male nudity and scenes of a pornographic nature may be available nowadays at the touch of a button.
But there’s still something additionally thrilling about sitting sometimes thirty centimetres away from a real live nude. We keep going back for more again and again. I’m not knocking it. But there’s going to come a time when nudity isn’t enough. Straight blokes have already had enough of naked women. That’s why there are no more strip clubs.
Neil Patrick Harris, who had a word of encouragement for those who’d never been to the theatre. ‘Broadway has never been broader’, he sang. ‘It’s not just for gays any more.’ But of course this was a joke.
Gay theatre now has a stigma. It’s almost as if, after Gay Liberation cleared the air, we’ve gone full circle, back to homophobia. A lot of theatregoers are now saying, ‘I’m not going if it’s about queers.’ But that’s because of the proliferation of rubbish plays in which gay boys come out, pick up other boys, have bad experiences and…er…that’s it. You’d think that The Boys in the Band, so revolutionary in its day, had stifled all imagination. Of course every so often a play comes along that bucks the trend.
Few will remember something called Fucking Games at the Royal Court in 2001. It wasn’t perfect. But it was strong meat and author Grae Cleugh had a voice. Unfortunately he seems to have done nothing major ever since. Where are the gay playwrights who are going to take over from the greats of the past, many of whom have moved to movies and TV? I can’t think of one. The best gay show I’ve seen this year is HMS Pinafore, 133 years old.
In 2005 in a piece headed ‘Why are gay plays so bad?’ one critic complained, ‘If heterosexual playwrights were inspired only by sexuality, we’d have to endure a strict diet of bedroom farces and hothouse melodramas. But just a glance at the West End shows that a straight writer is more likely to tackle a subject of universal appeal – rebellion, the family, life and death.
Until gay writers look at the bigger picture, gay theatre will continue to stagnate.’ Six years on nothing much has changed. Except that we do now have one full-time gay theatre. Above the Stag in Victoria deserves praise for sticking to its guns in difficult economic times. It’s developed a house style – frothy comedies, light musicals, panto. But it has yet to discover a talent that’s made the press sit up and take notice.
This year’s Tony Awards show in New York was hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, who had a word of encouragement for those who’d never been to the theatre. ‘Broadway has never been broader’, he sang. ‘It’s not just for gays any more.’ But of course this was a joke. Harris is gay himself and he was backed by a chorus of sailors and nuns. Theatre is still as gay as it has been for the past 2,500 years. But for the next few years it needs to be more than that. It needs to be Wilde gay, Orton gay, Tennessee Williams gay. Fierce gay.
THE CURTAIN FALLS
This series partly re-cycled the research of historians John M. Clum, Nicholas de Jongh, Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, Carl Miller, Michael Paller, Laurence Senelick, Robert A. Schanke, Alan Sinfield and Robert Vorlicky. One of the best gay theatre sites is www.buddybuddy.com. In Part 2 I said that the only Roman theatre to be excavated in England is in St Albans. In 1988 excavations at the Guildhall proved the existence of a Roman theatre in London. Its outer wall is marked by black paving stones in Guildhall Yard. – D. McG.