Solving the Queer Problem Play*
In search of a queer dramaturgy outside of the hegemonic, heteronormative model.
*Part One of a Three-Part Essay.
What is queer culture? How is it defined, interpreted, and thus performed? Theater, like all literature, has long been a medium for artists to work through struggles both personal and societal. The intersection of the two ideas- queerness as a cultural narrative and theater as the ideal medium to present cultural narrative- should have led to the creation of a uniquely queer theater, but it didn’t. The marriage of idea and content between queerness and theater should have amalgamated into inimitable queer theory, but it hasn’t. There is a desultory and reactive queer style of theater that has created a queer identity only by default. We will examine how queerness evolved from villainy and weakness into a short-lived liberation. The liberation, unfortunately for some queer characters, came drenched in vice. Queer men and women would drown their societal problems in alcohol, sex, and despair. Then the AIDS epidemic swept through the gay community calling for an even more urgent type of drama, which led to a deep sense of tragedy and loss, the effects of which are still not fully realized. Which leads us to the current state of queer theater, which is focused on the question: who’s story is more valid? Performance pieces are becoming more relevant than written text.
Jeffrey D. Mason writes in the introduction to the edited collection Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater that the stage “becomes a site of this struggle, a platform where players and audience may enact conceptions of identity and community, where ‘America’ becomes both the subject and the consequence of artistic, cultural, and social negotiation”1. The issue we’re looking at here is the development of internal versus external struggle in both identity and collective culture. It stands to reason then, based on the evidence of what canonically stands as queer drama, that queer theater is in fact not queer at all. Born out of the heterosexual writer’s attempt to dramatize the performative, tragic, and ultimately problematic internal landscape of the LGBTQ+ world, the narrative was taken over by queer artists who continued in the same vein. Therefore, we can conclude that queer drama/queer theater, in its written form, is a heteronormative medium sometimes written with queer characters. Performance art is a slightly different matter, wherein the text is abandoned for the singular and perhaps narrow focus on individual performance. Therefore, in 2019, for many queer artists, there is a cursory and anachronistic focus on queer performance over the written text for the purpose of creating something wholly queer. Likewise, theatrical criticism focuses on production over the script itself, creating an imbalance of critical discourse on the underlying issues of queer drama, which would invariably lead to further exploration of cultural identity. The Postmodernist’s inability to deal with dramatic texts, due to the increased nature of meta and hyper-theatrical reproductions of the victim narrative has transformed drama into a closed art form, a casualty of a discursive war 2.
Queer artists mostly now write and perform in works meant to counter the hegemonic culture, and in doing so, have ironically created The Queer Problem Play. The Queer Problem Play is a popularized narrative where the main obstacle of a queer character gets tied directly into his or her or their identity. The narrative for queer characters in theatrical storytelling, and this refers to the written text, is twofold; queer characters can be secondary in a heterosexual play, and their sexuality, though probably heightened, does not have to be an obstacle. When a queer character becomes the protagonist, however, the main conflict of the play will most likely be linked directly to said character’s queerness, thus making the indirect but unmistakable statement that queerness is an obstacle one can and must overcome.
Those of us who make queer art, or identify as queer artists understand that, up to this point in our collective literary history, the representation of queerness is not cultural as much as it is an obstacle. We can easily explain this by the culture that surrounds us in modern-day America. Tolerance is new and acceptance further off still. Before the postmodern world of identity politics and an ever-expanding canon of inclusion, heterosexual and closeted queer writers created a kind of mythology of tragedy for queer characters. This tragedy morphed into an angry reaction, which caused a reactionary theater to take place. The reaction to the hegemonic culture, artistically, was to counter it rather than reject it. We make queer theater out of the existing oppressive forms that predate the queer liberation movements, and so have created creative accommodations. This means that queer artists take part in their own assimilation by agreeing to continue the heteronormative styles and stories that have historically served to only promote the dominating culture which created the current day Queer Problem Play. Even in the face of rejection from the dominant culture around us, the social need for acceptance translated not only in social settings but also in artistic circles. Sentiment against otherness was reiterated by the NEA during the George H.W. Bush presidency, for example, when funders became more averse to supporting art that shocked bourgeois and straight sensibilities, which meant they rarely funded queer art or artists, and ever since that time the NEA no longer distributes grants to individuals, only to groups or organizations, and there is even a decency clause now included1. The solution: reject theatrical forms that promote myopic views of queerness and create a new form of theater specifically meant as representation.
Before we create a true queer theater, we must first identify, delineate, and understand queer culture. The queer umbrella is substantial and comprises people of all races and nationalities, however, when we look at queer representation in theater, and indeed literature, we see little diversity. To even suggest there is a queer canon is to categorically misunderstand the heteronormative stronghold is still in place in almost all of queer literature. That performance and theater helped to create a visible queer community has directly led to the existent cursory theory about queer drama, vis-a-vis, the Queer Problem Play. Perhaps queer theory or any attempt to extrapolate on queer culture has abandoned the theater which initially served as a place for the expropriation or commodification of queer culture. The reproduction of representations, by transforming a cultural practice into an entity that is then reproduced under the label of “alternative”, not only causes an identity effect but, simultaneously, negates the absence of all that is excluded in theatrical representation2. Misguided representations, or representation, from anyone outside the group being represented, will always, by default, exclude cultural significance, and therefore, always leave behind a stain3.
For queer theater artists, the question of representation becomes one of cross-cultural barriers and sensitivities toward race and gender, creed and religion. Counter-culture, or opposition to the dominant hegemonic culture has, again by default, become queer through its obsession with over-identification. Therefore, for the postmodernist, the cultural fight has become the right of the individual to claim a label, rather than a shared cultural history/identity. So, queerness may be a set of labels, rather than a set of cultural ideas- at least up to this point. Theater could lead the charge in changing how queerness is represented, but not if the practitioners of the medium remain ignorant of, or subservient to the long-held style of traditional theater. Queer theater could become a style of theater independent of heteronormative theatrical modes. In order for this to happen, queer culture must become the thing that is being represented, and not just the thing that is reacting to the hegemonic culture from which it sprung. This by no means is to suggest that there are no queer theater artists in the world today trying to seek queerer interventions. Krzysztof Warlikowski, a prominent Polish theater director has had a profound impact on representation in Poland. He constructed a queer counternarrative in 2013 with his Warsaw Cabaret, wherein he used the medium of the cabaret to eschew tradition, to break the fourth wall, and alter the medium to a queer sensibility. Warlikowski believes that culture is a dialectical field for political thought and action rather than a stable set of moral values and traditions4.
An imposing challenge with creating queer theater is that it has never been classified as such by a collective sense of queer culture, but rather by insurmountable obstacles of queerness. Confronting homosexuality, which was the first queer problem, theatrically speaking, didn’t enter the world until after the 1920s. Then, from the 1920s until the 1980s, queer characters were usually sensitive, suffering artist types who were given way to depression, vice, and suicide. Gay men especially, since there is a much larger canon of gay literature aimed at the male homosexual experience, are historically depicted in literature as men who could not exist in a straight world. Gay men were, and often still are, seen as weaker-physically, psychologically, and socially- than their heterosexual male counterparts. This wasn’t looked at as a distinction between straight and gay, but as a limitation of queer men who were, and again sometimes still are, seen as somehow less than male. Both heterosexual and homosexual writers depicted homosexual men in this way. By treating a man’s homosexuality as a lessening of manhood, in a medium dominated by men, and one that has supposedly accepted queerness no less, how does such representation feed a social collective unconscious, especially of other queer artists who aspire to a life making their art in the theater5. The answer is exactly why and how we have a Queer Problem Play problem playing out in theaters today.
Queerness is becoming more and more mainstream, but for some reason, the obstacle of it, is still at the forefront, and culture is never examined as the inclusive ingredient that binds us, but rather, as the thing that separates us. As we go through each time period, we will see how the stories and characters change but the medium holds strong, which, I argue, leaves queerness without a cultural foothold and is more a reaction than a representation. Therefore, it is necessary to call for a new form, an opening of the queer narrative. Establishing a queer canon for the purpose of historical preservation as much as a literary tradition. We can achieve this queer futurity if we shift focus on what queer culture might be, or could be, and how we go about embracing a new kind of queer theater so we can finally abandon the outdated and no longer necessary Queer Problem Play. First, we must examine the roots of the modern-day Queer Problem Play, and answer the question, if we can: What is queer culture?
Subversively Queer (Ancient World-1890s)
Characters of non-traditional, non-heteronormative persuasion really didn’t exist outside of Greek and Roman mythology until the twentieth century, at least not outright. Queer characters would have been seen as being deeply subversive from their heterosexual counterparts in most of early modern history. It’s not exactly fair to put a date on this particular trope because queer characters didn’t technically exist, by any name, until the 1920s. But to discount the existence of queerness before the twentieth century is ludicrous, obviously it existed, hence, it must have played a significant part in the culture we are now so desperate to uncover. Therefore, we must look at subversion against contemporary “normalcy” to understand how we arrived at the modern Queer Problem Play era.
We start in the medieval world, 14th and 15th centuries France and England. Cross-dressing on the stage was the norm, and was not categorized as abnormal or subversive. However, as one medieval scholar notes, it is impossible to undo all the blatantly queer moments that occurred between two male characters. It triggered patterns of desire, and same sex attraction3. Furthermore, all literary criticisms are absent any mention of transvestitism when analyzing any Medieval or Renaissance text. Romeo and Juliet, to an Elizabethan audience, was as a story between a young man, and a young man in drag. Unfortunately, there are no literary critiques related to the queerness of such a performance. Though unintentional, the greatest love story ever told was first seen as a blatantly queer performance piece.
In recent years, drag performance has had its detractors. Accusations of misogyny, racism, and insensitivities abound. In the current “cancel culture” meticulous ridicule of even a hint of re-appropriation will be called out fervently. But for queerness, drag performance is impossible to reduce to a cultural stereotype, simply because it encompasses a plurality of cultures. It’s no coincidence that “otherness” is the main conflict of most queer characters, it has been a cultural conflict for so long. LGBTQ+ people have not been able to exist, theatrically, without being labeled “erroneous” or “abnormal” since the inception of the very first queer theatrical trope- the drag queen. And what effect did cross-dressing have on medieval society? Can we indeed tie cross-dressing to historical queer culture? There is very little documented as to the cultural implications of this kind of publicly accepted otherness because it was just that- publicly accepted. It was a customary theatrical device that afforded theater a big hint of queerness long before it was socially acceptable. There is one fascinating account from France in 1485. It seems a barber’s apprentice, a young man with delicate features, was to play the title role in Vie et Passion de Madame Saincte Barbe. And the story goes, that he played the part so well and looked so much like a young lady, that “there was no lord in the town, clerical or lay, that did not desire to have him”3.
The Miracles de Notre Dame par Personnages is a collection of plays written in fourteenth-century Paris. Two of the plays feature female characters who cross-dress so they may live their lives as men. In the play Yde et Olive, a woman takes on the persona of a man to avoid an incestuous marriage with her father. The main conflict in these early plays centers on the need to reveal the “body” of these female characters, hence, their femininity becomes the “problem”3. Creating this kind of problem out of the feminine, further cemented the foundation for The Problem Plays that will become all the rage once the Naturalism movement of the late nineteenth-century takes hold of European and American drama. This “otherness” is the main obstacle of the character, meant to reflect nature, therefore, we can deduce that otherness in the same era was deeply problematic, and most likely a driving force of one’s identity and thus deeply suppressed. Otherness, for a medieval European audience, would have been anyone that wasn’t a heterosexual, white, Christian male. As we move through history, otherness continues to serve as the basis for conflict, but before we move on, there is one more fascinating account of early modern cross-dressing that exists outside the theater, and hence may serve as a piece of the cultural puzzle. There is documented evidence that King Henry VIII partook in cross-dressing. Edward Hall, a historian during the reign of Henry VIII wrote of several occasions when King Henry donned feminine attire. One account states that Henry, along with twelve other men, came to the Queen’s chamber dressed in women’s garments, perhaps with the intention of mockery, or perhaps as a pseudo-sexual aberration meant to arouse sexual curiosity. Either way, we could construe this act as an assault upon the Queen’s character, more specifically her female identity, but also as a desire for sexual inversionary symbolism and a need to embrace “otherness”3. It was also, no doubt, a replication of the performative nature of drag performances that were the customs of the theatre. It was common to see men in drag at the theater. Therefore, for queer men and women of the time, it would have been a subversion of their desires and tendencies by “playing” with gender, sex, and identity in a performative sense. This could very well be the foundation for early modern queer culture, the subversive element of supplementing same-sex desire through recognition of the sexual identity of the opposite sex, and this might still be the case. We need only look to a modern play, film, television show, or performance piece to see they still depict drag characters as highly performative and sexual. However, the price for this so-called normalizing of performative transgressing was the de-humanizing of it. In order for the hegemonic culture to “allow” such diversions, they made accommodations of acceptability to keep queerness out of the equation. History has blurred culture and performance together, and now the two are inextricably linked on this point. Rather than the exploration of different masculine femininities and feminine masculinities that are becoming more and more acceptable so long as you claim the label “gender-fluid.” For whole groups of people, drag can only be seen as expropriating, or misogynistic, or for drag kings, an attempt to take back the heterosexual male mythology because of penis envy. The negatives on both sides seem to agree that drag, in most configurations, reinforces patriarchal and heterosexist assumptions about sex and gender6. Drag performance rose from necessity, rather than identity, and it was the first in the performative tropes that we can look to in our examination of queer culture. The late nineteenth century would see the next big movement in queer theater/performance.
Out in the Open (1890s-1920s)
Perhaps the most famously queer playwright, Oscar Wilde, never wrote a single queer character, at least not one who was self-identified. He is, however, credited with the popularizing of the archetype known as The Dandy; an effeminate, sharp-tongued trendsetter who bucks conformity and mocks society all while being young, beautiful and fabulous. The Dandy prizes physical appearance above most else. Wilde was a self-proclaimed professor of aesthetics and notoriously preoccupied with youth and beauty. Wilde also famously created what he called “bunburying” in his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, which allowed the Dandy character Algernon to exist with a complete social duality, he could have a public/pious, and a private/impious persona. Scholars have since pointed out that it was Wilde’s own queerness, his own need for such duality, that motivated him to dramatize such duplicity for the stage. At the turn of the century, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Hence, subversion and secrecy were necessities. A second brick in the queer culture foundation? Subversion gave way to total duality; Survival in their society dictated that queer men and women possess two versions of themselves. And so, while the dandy was Wilde’s not-so-subtle mocking of his contemporaries’ social flaws, it may have also unknowingly helped shape queer culture. The Dandy had some agency and power, but these were spawn from the superficial, he was young, beautiful and acerbic. For queer men that means the queer people with the most agency and power should be young, good looking, sharp-tongued and directly engaging in the rejection of social norms7. The idealism of Wilde’s views toward beauty bleeds over into the representation of queer characters, which then bleeds over into the culture. Be younger, be better looking, be wittier, be the best at what you do, to deflect from your “otherness.” Queer men and women cannot excel in society in any true sense because they are aberrant, therefore they can excel in fashion, in their words, and their attitudes can be to mock rather than conform. The cultural piece of the puzzle suggests that Wilde’s homosexuality motivated the duality and superficiality of characters in his plays, which modern-day audiences and scholars interpret as inherently queer. What does this mean for queer theater? It means a trend. Queer characters and playwrights still follow in Wilde’s footsteps as far as the creation and performance of superficial, acerbic and trendsetting queer characters. We can find this very queer ideal in nearly every character in Boys in the Band, but we can also find it in hundreds of other plays, some examples are: Burn This by Lanford Wilson (1987), Love! Valor! Compassion! by Terrence McNally (1994), Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick (1993), La Cage Aux Folles by Jean Poiret (1973), The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell (2008), and The Judas Kiss by David Hare (1998). It’s also everywhere on television: Will & Grace, and Modern Family are particularly guilty of relying on the stereotypes of superficiality and highly performative queerness. Both shows are still airing new episodes as of the writing of this essay. So why the stall? Why have the early representations of queerness, the Dandy and cross-dressing, both of which require duplicity, secrecy and subversion, not been altered to represent the culture instead of repositioning the earlier representations of the sub-culture? Perhaps an answer will come as we move into the next significant cultural queer performance movement.
Drag Balls of Harlem in the late 1800s through the 1920s prove to be a significant player in the theatrical and cultural history of queerness. In the late 1800s, and following the turn of the twentieth century, the Drag Balls of Harlem became a tourist attraction and were, in fact, attended by thousands of people from both the hetero and queer communities. What was happening was a shift in the paradigm of the social construct of sexuality. It had been a long time coming, and for queer men and women in larger urban areas, it meant that visibility, though performative and newly sexualized, was becoming a reality. This was particularly true in the Drag Balls of Harlem. New York City from the late 1880s until the 1920s was a changing queer landscape. Tourists and locals alike would crowd into the bowery to get a glimpse of the drag queens that filled the halls. It was also true that heterosexual and queer clientele could, for a price, fulfill sexual fantasies with the drag queens, and in fact, it was not seen as a homosexual act for a heterosexual man to purchase an evening of sex with a drag queen8. The Drag Balls were not only a place where queer men and women could gather and perform, but they were also pleasure and vice palaces where alcohol and sex flowed freely. This is an important piece of cultural history, the gathering of queer people together meant reliance on the combination of alcohol, performance, and sex. From the performance perspective, it was a new kind of performance art; it took the early cross-dressing tradition and reappropriated it to be a specifically queer performance. This is where culture and performance meet. Consider, the African-American drag queens of the early twentieth-century Harlem, they could be showcased as feminized by a hegemonic straight culture, which in turn, places a feminization upon the queer black performer, a stigma which a homophobic, white hegemony would demand. Since women were subjugated and perceived as objects in a culturally acceptable way, then queer men could “perform” feminine behavior in this same vein. Queer drag performers were free to express hyper-sexualized femininity, and she could draw power from it to control any man that fell under her spell. This means the drag performance became an act of defiance as much as it was an act of expression and a kind of expropriation of feminine power. Drag queens would seek to out-women women. It views women as marketable commodities to a hegemonic straight, white, male audience; and queer performers of color, not just African-American, but Latina as well, would use the platform of performance to grab a hold of what was becoming an idealized identification9. Drag King’s wouldn’t find their voice in any large significant way until much later, in fact, the term “Drag King” didn’t even appear in any printed form until the 1970s. However, one can postulate that the underpinning provocations that advanced the early twentieth-century drag queen are analogous to many of the movements that arose from the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, particularly in the queer world.
For the Drag Balls of Harlem, the main issue we now see in hindsight, is that the idealized identification that was transpiring in those balls was a reaction to a hegemonic culture that would soon, and for decades, turn its back fully on these queer communities. The drag balls and drag queens of the era were also reliant on the hyper-sexualized nature of femininity and performative “otherness” in public. And finally, drugs and alcohol became the norm in queer social settings. Thus, the attempt to re-appropriate the drag ball culture has led to its current-day iteration of catty, back-stabbing, ultra-vain representations of drag queens as being vicious, cutthroat and ultimately hateful. Queer bars and clubs often host drag performances that still hold on to the traditions of disparity that lead to the need for such performance. Playwrights still write drag queens and kings as satirical more often than cultural, and it’s easy to see why when we look at cultural tradition. Rupaul’s Drag Race has made drag culture more a part of the mainstream conversation, and while it relies on the same stereotypes and highly performative nature of the early days of Harlem Drag Balls, it also pits the queens against one another and the audience eats up the drama. This plays into the hegemonic conformity that made drag such a novel attraction a hundred years ago. But from a performance stance, one could argue, drag is a call toward “normalizing.” The attempt to place queer identity into a gender binary to explain an aberration more closely resembles assimilation than self-expression. This is where gender fluidity can and should become more and more integrated into queer theater and performance. It removes the onus of branding gender identity based on an antiquated binary, and frees both the writer and performer to create cultural, rather than reactionary narratives.
Drag might be called a tradition at this point, and the use of cross-dressing in modern day queer theater comes with a familiar set of tropes and issues. And because so much of the early days of American Drag was populated by queer performers of color, there is a cry against racial expropriation when a white queen’s performance appears to be the reproduction of what has now been classified as racially specific. But herein lies the cultural paradox: what is the responsibility of the current queer playwright or theater artist? Is drag a queer expression? Apart from the racial aspects that still permeate the modern-day drag character, there are issues of self-isolation, vanity, and cruelty. So, is drag a cultural tradition meant as nothing more than a reaction to the hegemonic straight culture, or is it a culture steeped in deep racial and female inequality and works as an intersection for those two histories? Or is it inherently queer and meant to evolve just as society does? And if so, what’s the next iteration? What worked in Harlem in the 1920s, needn’t be the performance style that works in the forthcoming 2020s. It’s time artists looked at the reactionary causes of performance and utilize them as empowering tools of representation rather than countering anything. Taylor Mac’s Twenty-Four Decades of Popular Music, wherein the performer re-tells the history of the United States as seen through the Queer Drag Queen lens, may be the best theatrical example of how reactionary culture can and should lead to radical reform in the actual culture by performing it as a cultural tool. Mac’s performance piece forces the audience to adjust to the lens of the performer/writer. Rather than playing as a reaction to the dominant culture, it creates a space where the queer drag lens is the point of entry and the performance is created by a queer artist in collaboration with and intended for a queer audience. This doesn’t mean the heterosexual audience is alienated, on the contrary, it’s more welcoming than a reactionary piece because it’s not anti-hetero, it’s pro-queer, and a positive is always easier to accept than a negative. There are other examples of a move toward a new queer theater. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out serves to reclaim the power that the African-American drag balls really had, and uses the medium of theatre to highlight the performative, the cattiness, the inevitable stereotypes that get leaned into and used repeatedly. McCraney is an exciting voice in Queer theater, he writes with heightened awareness; he knows that he sits at the intersection of culture and history and seems to be interested in shaping the narrative of what’s next, rather than just creating Queer Problem Plays.
Queer culture as it relates to how queer artists have created theatrical pieces and texts is, so far, heavily influenced by Elizabethan cross-dressing and subversion, the Wildean Dandy- the need to stand out as beautiful and sharp, and the performative and sexually idealized. Queer culture up to the 1930s was taking shape as something, though hidden in plain sight, about to burst wide open. However, a move toward family values, perhaps ignited by the fear of annihilation from a nuclear attack and two violent World Wars will change everything, and instead of bursting out of the closet, there will be a cultural need, for the sake of survival, for the queer community to retreat back into it.
1 Galella, Donatella. “Articulating American Voices” America in the Round: Capital, Race, and Nation at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage. University of Iowa Press, IOWA CITY, 2019, pp. 155–191. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvd7w7gp.9
2 Graff, Torsten. “Gay Drama / Queer Performance?” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2001, pp. 11–25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41157625.
3 Sponsler, Claire, and Robert L. A. Clark. “Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama.” New Literary History 28, no. 2 (1997): 319–44. https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.1997.0017.
4 Lease, Bryce. “In Warsaw’s New York: Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Queer Interventions.” Queer Dramaturgies, 2019, pp. 35-51.,doi:10.1057/9781137411846_2.
5 Hornby, Richard. “Gay Plays.” The Hudson Review, vol. 57, no. 2, 2004, pp. 278–284. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4151422.
6 Escudero-Alia, Maite. Long Live the King: A Genealogy of Performative Genders. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
7 Glick, Elisa. Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol. SUNY press, 2009.
8 Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Basic Books, 2019.
9 McClintock, Anne. Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.