gay theatre

gay theatre
   The gay liberation movement of the 1960s, the decriminalization of homosexual acts between adult males in 1967 and the removal of the Lord Chamberlain’s theatrical censorship powers in 1968 combined to create fresh possibilities for the development of gay theatre. Central to these was the formation of Gay Sweatshop in 1975, a company devoted to producing gay and lesbian theatre by gay practitioners for gay audiences. While playwrights such as Joe Orton and John Osborne had made headway during the 1960s in dramatizing ‘alternative sexualities’, frequently portraying the homosexual as victim or vamp, the new gay theatre, not unlike feminist theatre, sought to dramatize sexual identity and oppression in its historical context, implicitly articulating the need for change—revolutionary or otherwise. Noel Greig’s As Time Goes By (1977) explores gay male history in three sections—late Victorian England, Berlin in the 1930s and New York prior to the 1969 Stonewall riot—an epic form which combined in performance the traditions of ‘drag’ and ‘camp’, a political and celebratory theatre.
   Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979), about two homosexuals in a concentration camp, produced by the ‘flagship’ Royal Court Theatre and subsequently receiving a West End run, indicated a change in attitudes in both producers and audiences. However, the impact of both the AIDS pandemic and Clause 28, a law forbidding the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality—resurgent homophobia while recasting the homosexual as victim— received an initially muted theatrical response. Significantly, it was the work of American playwrights Larry Kramer and Harvey Fierstein which received the greatest interest during the 1980s, an influence which culminated in the Royal National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s international hit Angels in America (1994). Subsequently, critically and commercially successful playwrights such as Kevin Elyot, Jonathan Harvey and Mark Ravenhill demonstrated the benefits of a return to the ‘wellmade play’, exploring themes of loss, ‘coming out’, sex and consumerism. More experimental theatre practice was to be found in the work of Neil Bartlett (Gloria Productions), in dance, physical theatre and live art (for example, DV8, Adventures in Motion Pictures).
   In 1997, the Arts Council of England withdrew funding from Gay Sweatshop. Shifting attitudes have also led to the reappropriation of gay playwrights from the past such as Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan. A ‘gay theatre’ was transformed into a ‘queer theatre’.
   Further reading
    de Jongh, N, (1992) Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage, London: Routledge (informed survey, particularly the final three chapters).
   JOHN DEENEY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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