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Features Published 12 February 2018

LGBT History Month – a chance for theatre to reinvent its queer past

Alice Saville writes on how theatre offers a way to put the past in dialogue with the present.
Alice Saville
Angels In America, National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

Angels In America, National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

Last week, Attitude Magazine made the slightly incongruous decision to start LGBT History Month with an article by Dylan Jones, titled “Young queer people shouldn’t be obliged to care about queer history – and that’s the biggest sign of success there is”. It made a lot of people justifiably furious (the closing line, suggesting that Marsha P Johnson would be swigging WKD Blue, is a masterpiece of tastelessness). But buried in it, there’s a germ of something that rings true. The idea that a lot of experiences of being queer in the past are defined by misery and shame – should young people really have to relive them, and wallow in second-hand unhappiness? Why should they have to feel lucky not to have to suffer?

This idea is especially true when it comes to stories (theatre, but also books and films). Engaging with homosexuality’s creative legacy often means swallowing uncomfortable messages. The Well of Loneliness is a 1920s classic that’s even more miserable than its title, putting forward the debunked psychosocial theory that lesbians are biologically different (‘inverted’) and hence doomed to unhappiness and isolation from society. Innumerable books, and films from romances to slashers, rehash the old convention that same-sex romance must be ‘punished’ by the horrible death of at least one party. These stories are also sunk in other prejudices: last year’s West End revival of 1968 comedy The Boys in the Band was full of self-loathing, stereotyped references to Jewishness, and constant, uncomfortable jokes about  the one African-American character’s skin colour.

The theatre world’s fondness for revivals is a strange thing: where other artforms can just dig paintings or texts out of storage, spruce them up, and put them in front of the public, reviving an old play means making innumerable decisions, and involving a huge number of people in the strange art of resuscitating a text, in finding a way to situate it between past and present. And sometimes, it feels like ‘history’ and ‘legacy’ loom too heavily. By leaving its text intact, Adam Penford’s Boys in the Band decided to prioritise the play’s ‘history’ of being written in a society where it was (more) acceptable to be openly racist, over the experience of gay theatregoers of colour.

The National Theatre’s recent revival of Angels in America wasn’t so problematic (and it was pretty wonderful to watch) but Marianne Elliot’s approach felt reverential, a resurrection of a glorious cultural moment where Tony Kushner’s play shone on Broadway and London at once.

Both productions relied on era-accurate clothes and settings to say “this is a period piece, things have changed now”. But is that really enough? To carefully recreate moments from gay theatre’s past, just lovingly and beautifully enough to breathe new life into them?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon has changed the way I see revivals. I’ve started to expect more from them. Jacobs-Jenkins wove a new narrative round the text of his source matter, interrogating it, explaining it where needed, or finding new devices to make the audience feel its weight. This energy resulted in a production that prioritised white audiences over people of colour (read Salome Wagaine’s response here). But it showed a way forward.

It feels like time to rethink how we do revivals. To see them as a way of putting the past in dialogue with the present: and to make that dialogue visible and clear on stage, rather than limiting it to the production process, where carefully made edits are invisible to audiences, or contexts are explored in notes in the programme that most will never read.

To return to the point about queer history: of course we need it. We need to honour past heroes, learn from past mistakes, to see where the faultlines in tolerance lie and understand the experiences that divide generations. But pioneering texts don’t stay pioneering. They date, and that’s especially true when our understanding of gender and sexuality is evolving at warp speed. These stories are written by the people who had space and freedom to write, they’re soaked in the attitudes of the society they sprung from, and they leave huge gaps – around bisexuality, trans and non binary identities, and intersectionality of all kinds. Which is why learning about queer history through its cultural legacy should be active, not passive.

Arcola Theatre’s Queer Collective offers a wonderful way forward: at the end of February, a large, young, queer ensemble will host five productions, in a programme that includes a revival of Corpus Christi, spliced with elements of cabaret and burlesque, two new dramas, and a collection of short plays gathered from around the world.

The very concept of a Queer Collective is a reminder of the bits of LGBT+ theatre history that don’t generally make their way back onto our stages. What return are the mainstream crossover successes, written by cis white male playwrights and able to appeal to straight audiences: like Angels, like Torch Song Trilogy,  like Peter Gill’s wonderful The York Realist (which opens at Donmar Warehouse this week). What doesn’t is the 20th century radical culture of work that surrounded them, produced by collectives like Gay Sweatshop and nurtured by venues like Arcola, The Drill Hall, and Ovalhouse, soaked in their spirit and their atmosphere. The Unfinished Histories project memorialises these groups, and their archive at Bishopsgate Institute is a treasure trove of texts that are ripe for rediscovery and reinvention for new eras.

For much of theatre’s history, queerness is something hidden in plain sight. It was a place where performers and writers were allowed, or encouraged, to cross dress, to explore sexuality in ways that was impossible in the outside world – providing they drew an elegant veil over their real lives and real relationships. The alternative and fringe theatre scenes of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s blasted this approach away, making identity-based work that was unafraid to use uncomfortable words like ‘queer’, ‘dyke’, ‘fairy’, to be explicit in a medium that had prized ambiguity. They gave LGB playwrights and actors alike a kind of testing ground, a safe space to ferment new ideas around representing gender and sexuality – one that trans, non-binary, asexual and queer people of colour generally weren’t part of, but which they badly need today.

The confrontational energy of groups like Gay Sweatshop, with their insistence on calling spades spades and gays gays, can seem dated, but a quick glance around suggests we still need it. J K Rowling recently announced that Dumbledore’s gay identity (which she announced to her fans after the books were published, to widespread approval) isn’t something that appears in the new Fantastic Beasts film. It’s a miserably disappointing decision which follows centuries of precedent in making homosexuality into something to be whispered about, known in secret fandoms, rather than made normal and open to a wide audience.

Meanwhile, revivals of ‘classic’ gay plays have a kind of respectability, comforting straight audiences with their tolerance while simultaneously reaffirming 20th century prejudices that are decades out of date. We need queer history in theatre, as much as we need it anywhere. But it doesn’t have to be about soaking up the shame, fear and marginalisation of the past: it can be about rediscovering the confrontational, activist spirit that helped people survive.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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