Solving the Queer Problem Play*
In search of a queer dramaturgy outside of the hegemonic, heteronormative model.
*part two of a three-part essay
Part Two: The Hegemony Strikes Back
The white, homosexual male narrative dominated the queer canon for decades, and I will make the argument that even though the gay white male narrative feels outdated and liminal, a sentence which, in and of itself, is an enormous problem, nearly every mainstream queer story, regardless of race or gender closely follows a traditional heteronormative style of theater. Queerness was a reaction to the dominant culture, rather than a culture all its own, and no matter who the participants, from a formalist dramaturgical point of view- that is if we only examine the text as having no political identity or agenda- there is very little distinction between any of the letters in the initialism LGBTQ+ when it comes to how their stories are theatrically retold. If we examine the early days of cross-dressing in New York City all the way through to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, we can see the attempts that were made to usher in a new queer theater, and how each time led to a stronger hegemonic hold on the queer narrative.
In the Closet (1920s-1960s)
In the 1920s and 30s in New York City, queer was becoming not only accepted but also celebrated. Straight and queer patrons would fill Harlem Drag Balls, Basement Cabarets, and Lesbian speakeasies, and queer men and women could exist in public as their queer selves amidst a heteronormative society that was taking part in the newly formed queer culture. It was such a large queer movement it was forging its own language, customs, folk histories and performance art, in fact by the 1920s, gay performers had moved from the fringes of society to becoming the darlings of Broadway1. Theater began producing queer content regularly, such as Mae West’s The Drag (1927), and Edouard Bourdet’s lesbian play, The Captive (1926) This era could also be referred to as the first period of queer awareness, as queerness was being used as a theatrical and performative metaphor for self-knowledge 2. Likewise, subaltern groups would confront the homogenous identity of the nation and turn to counter-hegemonic representations meant to counter the dominate culture and aim at more pluralistic notions of life in America3. Unique to this time are the stories, the nuggets of a true culture that began to emerge. It was not just an anti-culture that was being explored as a new means of historical content. That is to say, queerness wasn’t just seen as an aberrant reaction to heteronormativity, but a culture all its own. So, what happened? Some scholars point to the economic crash at the end of the 20s as the beginning of the change in American identity. Such changes in the hegemonic culture included a move toward a more conservative, morally rigorous America. Censorship laws began to permeate the arts including theater and film. Anti-homosexual laws cropped up in big cities, pushing the now “out” community quickly back into the cultural closet. The number of arrests of gay men at this time in history jumped drastically. This anti-gay sentiment continued into the 1940s and 50s when McCarthyism swept the nation and the world. The repercussions of being “exposed” as homosexual was more severe than a contemporary reader can even begin to fathom4.
Some groups continued to fight the establishment, and the 1950s saw the forming of such groups as The Mattachine Society and The Daughters of Bilitis, both of which fought to further the queer cause. The biggest issue with taking on the establishment was the fear of losing everything because of the discovery of one’s true identity. Therefore, the collective knowledge of queerness was shifting rapidly. What this meant to theater and performance art at the time was that representation was all but impossible. The fear of being exposed and thus destroyed because of one’s sexuality led to the creation of the tragic queer character. And though these characters are easy to identify, and we can sympathize with queer writers who felt compelled to degrade their own community because it was the only way they could write any queerness at all, hindsight doesn’t erase the damage that prolific artists and plays caused an entire generation of LGBTQ+ people. The self-knowledge metaphor saw queer characters coming to terms with queerness as an excruciating problem, laying the groundwork for generations to follow.
We needn’t look further than two of the most significant plays dealing with homosexuality of this era- Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Lilian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934). For Brick, the protagonist of Williams’ drama, it is his homosexuality that causes all the pain of his life. It’s his moral character that’s in question, and he must resign to his fate and suffer this affliction as an unhappy drunk. Likewise, for the female teachers in Hellman’s play, the issue must stay hidden, subverted, must never be allowed to become public knowledge without destroying their lives. The result, though a fight for truth like most tragic heroes, is heartbreaking in both cases. The fight for equality had barely started before it was quashed in an unyielding and imperative manner. The queer issue from the 1940s until the late 1960s is not that the world sees queer characters as “less than,” it’s the fact that these characters are culturally and legitimately morally bankrupt. The audience, most likely, will now see the flaw of queerness as being erroneous in and of itself2. This was right smack in the heyday of theatrical naturalism, when modernist writers were using theatre as a platform for deep, philosophical and psychological exploration through verisimilitude- the need to reflect real life as accurately as possible. The audience should see him or herself reflected on stage. This style was outrageously popular and would soon propel cinema and television into the large-scale entertainment it still is today. The 1930s-1960s saw the most influential American playwrights to date, from Eugene O’Neill to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Lorraine Hansberry. And, because naturalism was so popular, it sparked, as all literary movements do, a rejection of it, and there was a rising popularity of new and exciting forms of theater, most notably the absurdist movement which brought the likes of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco into the mainstream conversation. But what was the queer character’s place in this conversation? Even for the queer writers who hinted at the persecution of such representation, queerness was still in the closet, and the queer characters still tragic. The real world culture and theater remain closely linked. American audiences craved naturalism; to see themselves represented in honest and genuine ways. This validated the middle and lower classes, struggles that most people dealt with day-to-day. But what does it say to an entire group of people who were only written into the genre as broken, weak, and tragic? If this was truth reflected in art, then queerness was an incurable affliction.
Many writers near the end of this period were, in fact, trying to shape a new kind of queer theater, and while most of them failed to change the conversation in the long run, they gave us some wonderful starting points, some of which we should absolutely look back to and re-claim as foundations of genuine queer theater. Joe Cino is perhaps the most influential figure in the attempt to re-queer theater, as we’ll see in the next section. William Inge is one playwright whose attempts to divert from convention proved too difficult to realize. We mostly know Inge for his mainstream naturalist works, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. He also won an Oscar® in 1961 for his screenplay of Splendor in the Grass. His plays almost all deal with repressed sexuality and characters needing to conform to social norms. One scholar pointed out that his ability to write characters slipping in and out of fixed gender roles was directly related to his suffering as a closeted queer writer in one of the most virulently anti-gay decades in American history5. Some of his later plays would deal with queer characters, most of whom were written as stereotypes. But he only had one play that openly dealt with homosexuality, in 1962, he wrote The Boys in the Basement, which was about a man dealing with his homosexuality. It is largely melodramatic, almost satirical, and doesn’t really work dramatically. It’s more of a self-reflective rant, a mixture of stereotype and internal rage5. During his life, critics often pointed out the queer leanings and subterfuge in his writings, through characters who had flaws of sadism, repression, and blatant stereotypes. Culturally, this suggests that queerness was something that was dramatically impossible to represent without the element of shame. For the rest of theater, during Inge’s lifetime, queer characters mostly remained closeted and tragic. Inge himself remained closeted in his life and committed suicide in 1973 in Hollywood. He is mostly remembered as an author of Middle-American standards.
By the time Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band opened in 1968, it was just as much a reaction to the lack of queerness in theater as it was an ironic attempt to counter homophobia by adhering to the cultural hegemony that created it. And, in a way, the piece is complicit with and a perpetrator of stereotypical views of gay men. After the queer days of Harlem at the turn of the century, the new moral imperative driven by fear and authoritarianism up to the late 1960s, queerness was still subverted, tragic, and culturally masked. What happened next would begin a change that was long overdue and all too brief.
A Short-Lived Liberation (1960s-1980)
Caffe Cino, founded by Joe Cino in Greenwich Village in 1958, is widely considered to be the place where Off, Off Broadway was born. For our purposes, we can see it as one of the most significant pioneers of the Queer Theatre movement when political theater was about to turn the theatrical and cultural world on its head. When Joe Cino started his café in the late 1950s, it was illegal to depict homosexuality on stage. In the era of McCarthyism and Cold War escalation, censorship luxuriated in the glowing demand for moral authority. Fear of succumbing to the immoral fate of nationalist ideas was ironically causing more and more governmental interference. America was enveloped in fear, and it began to permeate everyday life. Not only were there increased censorship laws, but institutionalized paranoia led to a culture of wiretappings, witch hunts, and a spike in religious affiliations. Before the 1950s, wherein America sought a return to a morally righteous society, Hollywood created The Production Code which heavily censored films. As for the stage, in 1935, The Federal Theater Project was created. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Project was the first and only time the government would regulate American theater. It ultimately failed and would be seen as a marker for how governmental control should not influence artistic content. Joe Cino opened his café in the late 1950s and by the early 60s Caffe Cino became known as a place where avant-garde, experimental, and queer performances could be nurtured and performed for both queer and heterosexual audiences. The Caffé’s breakout hit was Lanford Wilson’s drag play The Madness of Lady Bright (1964), which was essentially a monologue delivered by an aging drag queen. It was so popular it drew critics and theatergoers alike, Neil Flanagan, who originated the titular character, received an Obie award. The revival of Lady Bright was also the last show that would play at Caffe Cino. In 1968, a year after Joe Cino committed suicide, Caffe Cino shuttered its doors. A tragic end to an immensely important queer theater pioneer6. As for the queer legacy he left behind? How many modern-day queer artists know about Joe Cino and his Caffe?
1968 would also see the first production of Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, a problematic Queer Problem Play that would prove to serve as a catalyst for queer theatre for the next fifty years. The effects of this type of queer play still resound. It shows queer characters battling deep issues of self-hate, self-harm, and isolation. The message of the play, from a dramaturgical perspective lays all the inherent conflict on the sexuality of each character. Here, the message is that gay men, who choose to live out in the open, will struggle to find any valid place in society, and certainly not with each other. It is the latter point that makes the play a catalyst, or starting point of true Queer Problem Plays. Boys is the first successful gay play about gay men who are all out of the closet. It was written at a time when the liberation movement was about to explode. The result of the cultural effects of being queer, up to this point, meant that most queer characters were subverted, closeted, or hinted at by queer authors. Once Crowley’s play happened it sparked a shift toward representation. Gone were the days of hidden queerness, and we entered the era of sovereignty. Boys largely shaped the way queer characters could be written for a mass audience. If we examine the script from a formalistic approach, we can draw the conclusion that the gay men of Crowley’s world are largely one-dimensional, and antagonistic of one another. Surely, the performance of these characters would serve as a time-capsule of a pre-liberation world of intolerance and cultural infancy. However, in 2018, the revival saw that these characters are still relevant, can still be performed with heightened tragedy and performative stereotypes. This is a flaw of the culture that created such archetypes, but also a lack of alternative theater. 1968 to 2018 saw almost no change in theatrical styles nor in representation of queer men. Still, on the precipice of national awareness- Stonewall was only a year away- Boys posed questions and issues that brought queerness into a mainstream conversation. And for other, less successful plays that followed Stonewall, the conversation was naturally shifting toward a less stigmatized, less one-dimensional form of representation. And even for the original run of Boys there was a small backlash from gay audience members who saw the representation as being too close to the stereotypes they were fighting to change. However, the commercial success of Crowley’s play meant that homosexual characters, gay male characters at least, would begin appearing much more frequently in all aspects of pop culture.
Following Crowley’s wild success with Boys in the Band, gay theater was largely dealing with existence out of the closet and issues of survival and exposure. Gay subject matter soon became ubiquitous to the New York City Theatre scene and from 1968 until the beginning of the 1980s, gay plays and playwrights would crowd the marquees and offer sometimes sensitive, sometimes bold new works that would, without many exceptions, fall under the newly created, but as yet unnamed Queer Problem Play. Plays like The Ritz by Terrence McNally (1975), James Kirkwood’s P.S. Your Cat is Dead (1972), Harvey Fierstein’s Fugue in a Nursery (1979), and John Hopkin’s Find Your Way Home (1974). These plays also serve the community as Coming Out Plays, a series of Queer Problem Plays that dealt with, for the first time, the struggle of queer survival, rather than tragedy, in a heteronormative world. And while many of these are exclusionary in and of themselves for being mostly white, the homosexual male experience was the largest voice in the LGBTQ community, most likely because the male voice was still the largest voice in theater in general. This raises another issue regarding representational writing; when a community is established there must be people included and people excluded from that group. However, starting in the late 1960s, the conversation was shifting and being “out” was the main focus, which was a huge cultural leap forward. This particular movement in the community was so short-lived and urgent that it’s only in hindsight that we can really see how many different people were excluded from this movement. Again, this is the issue of subverting queer theater to fit into, or be accepted by the so-called “traditional” theater world. It was a man’s game, so gay men led the charge.
The natural progression of the Queer Problem Play made a great deal of sense at this time, and perhaps the pinnacle of this style can be most successfully seen in Martin Sherman’s 1979 play Bent. Sherman’s play tells the story of two Jewish men who fall in love while imprisoned in a World War Two concentration camp. The play, which has some Act One problems, is laser focused in Act Two as it uses the horrors of the holocaust as a metaphor for the queer experience in the world. Not to undermine, or equate the two things, but the heightened idea that the two queer men in the story cannot survive is the clearest it’s ever been in any theatrical rendering. What Sherman does is he intertwines two tragedies, creating an impossible, but nearly perfect Queer Problem Play. It is the persecution of homosexuals in World War Two, a subject that hadn’t really been mined in 1979 when the play premiered, that will elicit empathy from nearly any audience. It is also the perfect storm for a Queer Problem Play. These characters will literally die if they expose their true natures. Was Sherman comparing contemporary life as a gay man to that of life in a concentration camp? Probably not directly, but there is an argument that the outcome for queer people in a heteronormative world was the same. It was violent, it was unsafe, it was un-survivable. And queer people were targeted during the holocaust, the pink triangles they were forced to wear have been re-appropriated in recent decades as a symbol of unity and strength. This is the perfect example of how The Queer Problem Play was a necessity in the attempts to garner empathy and try to incite political action. But also, and this is extremely important, to win over the straight audience. Plays of this nature are softer than the aggressive style of the agit-prop pieces of the 60s and 70s, if a bit more didactic, and they rely heavily on catharsis. They’re also heteronormative, not at all queer, intended as a plea for acceptance as much as a piece of representational art. The further down this road The Queer Problem Plays went, the farther from true Queer Theater we got.
The 1970s saw the gay liberation movement have its first prolific decade. It was the 70s that saw the rise of the first gay politician and hero in Harvey Milk. The first queer characters on television- Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Jodie Dallas on Soap was a huge move forward, despite the fact that his homosexuality was never really accepted, and he ends up basically forced into a heterosexual relationship. The fact that Harvey Milk was assassinated and his assassin was given a light sentence because of an unfair legal system that to this day works harder to oppress than liberate, shows that these steps forward came with several steps backwards. Queerness was, nonetheless making small, but definitive steps out of the closet and into the world. But what about stepping away from needing approval? Getting out of the heteronormative traps that created, not only The Queer Problem Play, but stereotypes that are still being written today.
Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene Fornes is one of the most prolific queer artists of her generation. Her plays, though not all specifically queer, were told from a uniquely feminist lens, and her uniquely queer female voice, for our purposes, can be seen as as an alternative to queer problems. Fornes wasn’t writing Problem Plays, she was working toward a different style and a new form. She played with naturalism in exciting new ways, because she created characters that could exist outside of contextual plot. Starting with her most prolific work, Fefu and Her Friends, Fornes strips away the self-conscious objectivity, the narrative weight and adherence to any genre by concentrating solely on the behavior of the characters. The characters serve the idea or theme of the writing rather than fulfilling the outdated Aristotelean formula of theatrical storytelling. Her characters exist in the world and try to figure out their existence, rather than trying to justify any actions. Fornes abandoned traditional tropes for the inner-landscape of characters7. Perhaps as a queer Latina, Fornes felt the need to write a more inquisitive, or intellectually curious style of theater, one that could speak to queer audiences in a new and explorative manner. Whatever her motivations, her work, indeed she herself, as Susan Sontag said, remains perhaps the “greatest unknown American Playwright.” When examining queer culture as it relates to theatre and performance, Maria Irene Fornes is an indispensable pioneer, and one whose style should be expanded upon by future queer authors.
The Lesbian theater movement in New York City in the late 1970s was hugely popular. This coincided with the New York Art scene movement of the 1980s. In 1980, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver founded WOW café, a lesbian theater festival. Shaw and Weaver also co-founded, along with Deb Margolin, the Lesbian theatre company Split Britches. A company that played with form and style, and took steps away from the traditional forms of naturalism and into a new kind of queer art. The European Avant-Garde movement of this era also created new styles of theater that, though short-lived, have influenced future generations of artists who have invariably infused modern works with devices and ideas from this time. Dadaism is perhaps the most unique, though incoherent, of the movements. It was meant as a means to intervene in the cultural systems that were deemed to be ruled by capitalist motivations, therefore, humanity was being slowly stripped from the world. Dadaism’s confounding style was a kind of defragmentation of art in an attempt to thwart capitalist logic. The fact that Dadaism could infiltrate theater in any capacity could only mean one thing: Theater was about to change.
Queer theater was stuck between two worlds, on one side, The Coming Out Plays were by far the most commercially successful style of queer theater, by appealing to mainstream heteronormative audiences, thus perpetuating and further establishing The Queer Problem Play. On the other side, the Lesbian theater movement, and women writers like Maria Irene Fornes were challenging theatrical norms and heteronormative culture with new and exciting theater. While Bent sort of perfected the newly created Queer Problem Play in its most traditional form, there was a movement toward a different, less tragic form being created at the same time. Another queer theatrical style that came into being in the late 70s was the creation of sexploitation plays8. At this point, the natural progression of the Wildean Dandy character had become a sexualized, targeted center of queer drama. Highly sexualized queer characters used their sexuality as a marker of their identity. And while one could argue that the queer movement was in its adolescence at the time, and therefore it’s only logical that heightened sexuality serves to be the prime marker of the culture, there is a larger issue. The culture up to this point has so many discursive, hidden elements that being “out” was a privilege not a necessity, and theater was trying to stay ahead of the popular opinions of LGBTQ+ issues, which in 1979 were hugely negative. And while queer women were less likely to be accepted by any audience, and so began to play with different styles and rely on representational art as a jumping off place, the logical next step in creating queer theater should have been a playing with form and genre in order to delineate and claim cultural identity, but for the queer world, there was a different fate in store.
The Plague Plays (1980s-2001)
There is no way, in written form, to capture the horror that was the AIDS epidemic. The political and social machinations that went into the suppression of aid, the ignorance and fear that permeated the landscape from the medical community to our educational facilities. AIDS changed the world and ripped from our community so large a number of men and women that their loss is still echoing in the long silences, in artistic and scientific gaps they leave behind. There is a void in the middle of our cultural existence that no playwright will ever be able to fully capture, though many have tried. Queer Theater, up to this point, has had its most specific and unified movement from 1983 until 2000 with what I will call the Plague Plays. There are demarcations for this movement clearer than any other, starting with Larry Kramer’s incendiary call to action The Normal Heart (1985), up to Jonathon Larson’s youth-centric Rent (1996). The pinnacle of the AIDS crisis, at least in America, is in the rearview mirror, but there is a swath of literature left behind that changed both the culture and theater in immutable ways.
The study, AIDS, Social Change and Theater, conducted by Cindy Kistenberg, showed how theater in the early days of the epidemic should have served as protest art to the gay community, but ultimately failed to respond to the demands of the crisis, successfully mobilize the community, question gay stereotypes, or affect any substantial change in government policies. The main reason for her assertion? Theater has always been too caught up in the conventions of American naturalistic drama, thus unwittingly, but inevitably reproducing the structures of both heteronormative conventions and traditional spectatorial relationship between stage and audience. Liberation from the heterosexual imperative requires rejection of “norms” even in theater9. So what can be said about queer culture and the AIDS epidemic? From a theatrical standpoint, there was a unifying call to action, and the birth of a new voice, unfortunately, the community lost so many voices that the impact will never be fully understood. There is a void in the culture.
And the void was filled, unfortunately, once again, by heterosexual writers and artists who would find commercial and artistic success in creating a palatable version of queerness by exploiting the queer communities need for validation, for acceptance, and during the AIDS epidemic mere survival. The Plague Plays began with internalized voices desperate for answers, for survival, this transitioned to a movement of AIDS plays that would challenge all queer artists, and eventually commercialism put a stop to the artistic development of the community with a new kind of queer representation: straight-washing.
Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which opened in 1985, is written with such urgency that it plays out in the same manner as something written in the horror genre. An invisible killer is targeting the gay men of New York City, and a group of warriors led by activist Ned Weeks, who is a Larry Kramer surrogate, scream and stumble toward what they hope will be an answer to why all of their friends and loved ones are dying. While it was hugely necessary at the time, The Normal Heart breaks no theatrical ground, and actually adheres to naturalism much in the same way popular queer plays had done up to that point. The difference was the politicized accusations toward government that Kramer writes into nearly every other page, and the autobiographical aspects of the play that raise it from mere fiction to a heightened form of political docudrama. William M. Hoffman’s AIDS play As Is (1985), actually opened shortly before Kramer’s play, and dealt with a group of gay friends in New York and shows the effect that the then mostly misunderstood AIDS virus has on them. It not only shows the isolation and fear the community was struggling with, it also showed the hostility and anger from people on the outside, the doctors and family members of the sick and dying. The message of the play strongly ties to the idea that gay men need partners if they are to have any support. This is culturally significant, as several AIDS plays will show the coldness and fear from the straight world, creating a need for community unlike any other time before. The main issue, theatrically is that the plays are still working in the rigid framework of naturalism. In 1984 and 85 Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco created The AIDS Show which was a collaboratively written theater piece initiated by Allan Estes, who died of AIDS before they completed the production. It was a series of scenes or vignettes dealing with the crisis, and ones that were attempting to incite the audience to awareness and action, with a strong message of survival. After centuries of queer subversion and tragedy, the narrative for the community had just started to open up to include the existence and survival of queer characters, and then the community suddenly found itself, once again, only able to write tragedy.
It is through the unthinkable tragedy of AIDS that the Queer Problem Play was actually confronted, and one writer called to action a new kind of narrative. A torch was being extended out to a new generation, and we may still be waiting for the next to fully grab it and change this landscape. That writer is Tony Kushner, and his magnum opus Angels in America- both parts: Millennium Approaches (1991)and Perestroika (1992), are arguably the most significant pieces of queer literature of the 20th century. Kushner cracks history wide open, and every aspect of Queer Theater, up to that point, is examined, rejected and reinterpreted in this nearly seven-hour masterpiece that leaves us both astounded and changed. And while the piece itself warrants an essay all its own, it is the sole fact that Kushner’s protagonist, Prior Walter, A man dying of AIDS, survives the extended duration of a seven-hour play. Not only does Prior not die, he is the hero of a journey that rivals Ancient mythologies, defying gods, and triumphing against all odds. Told in a mixture of naturalism, magical realism, Epic Theatre, and expressionism, Kushner’s play is at once transformative and accessible, and should be the jumping off place for an entirely new queer genre.
Kushner sort of stands alone in the new queer canon, as far as style and theatrical re-appropriation are concerned. If there were a new queer dramaturgy in which to study a new queer form, another entry into the new canon would also be Paula Vogel’s 1992 elegiac play Baltimore Waltz. Paula Vogel is also a singular voice when it comes to theater. She is bold, fierce, and highly original in content, idea and language. She has served both the queer and feminist lens, and in concert together the two styles create exciting and fresh styles of theater. Baltimore Waltz is a tribute to Vogel’s brother, who died of AIDS. But in true Vogel form, it’s also a wonderfully unique theatrical experience. The story is an allegorical tale about a woman dying from the fictitious ATD, Acquired Toilet Disease. The play is wonderfully theatrical in its temporal fluidity, and its reliance on hyperbole and comedy, but it’s also inherently queer, and can be seen as a direct result of the queer theater that came before it. It’s a fantasy of denial, which is inherently queer, culturally speaking. Vogel is skilled enough to understand how to grapple with the lack of a truly queer form, and instead allows the artifice of theater, and the historical queer need for obfuscating to propel the characters and the story toward a formidable and shattering catharsis. Like Kushner, Vogel’s play is one where you cannot remove the cultural implications from the text without losing some of its intrinsic queerness, but that is exactly what makes it a new kind of queer style.
By the time Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, AIDS plays were ubiquitous to the theater scene. Harvey Fierstein’s Safe Sex (1987), Jeffrey (1993) by Paul Rudnick, Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995) by Terrence McNally, and countless others that are now recognized as markers of the theatrical response to an epidemic that decimated a community, a community that had barely just began to recognize itself. Then Rent comes along and stirred a new generation of artists and audiences alike. What Larson’s musical does for queer theater must be looked at as separate from how it affected queer culture, because it drove home a specific message of conformity and code-switching, the effects of which, nearly twenty-five years later, can still be seen. For Rent, as one scholar points out, the queer characters are admonished to the sub-subplots. A black man and a Puerto Rican drag queen fall in love, and the queen dies. The response to the accepted tried and true hegemonic queer narrative, queers can’t survive. Then there’s Mark, the HIV-negative guy whose wife leaves him to pursue a lesbian relationship with an African-American woman, but the catch here is that the lesbian couple does nothing but fight10. The disharmony of their lives cannot be reconciled away from the heteronormative, which is what Rent is, a white- and straight-washed appeal to heteronormative sensibilities by recognizing minorities for the clichéd stereotypes they’ve always been written as. So the pinnacle of AIDS plays is a full-on return to the cultural closet. Disgusied by the appearance of queerness, the material itself is actually as heteronormative as it gets.
The Plague Plays were a community’s attempt to turn the struggle of AIDS into a highly charged call to political action. And writers like Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, and many, many others took up the artistic mantel and changed what queer theater could be forever. However, the stronger hegemonic culture stepped in and took over the claim, and yes, Rent, is a huge part of the reason why. The existence of homosexuality was no longer the “problem” for queer drama. Instead, what was happening at this time, was a fake public queerness was being created to sell a narrative to both queer and straight audiences. The hegemonic culture would, once again, take over a marginalized group of people by placating, manipulating, and falsely convincing the world they were representing queerness instead of what they were actually doing, misrepresenting it. How did they do this? They sold an image of queerness to LGBTQ+ audiences that satisfied their emotional needs, while simultaneously selling an acceptable image of queerness to straight audiences that satisfied and calmed their fears and opposition toward queer identity- these are fake queer stories10. Fake queer theater, film, and television aim to make heterosexual audiences feel good about their liberal and open-minded attitudes towards queer people. You don’t have to think very hard to come up with an example of this. It’s everywhere in pop culture now. And why not? Artists, producers and studios often get hugely rewarded for stealing minority narratives. The most damning part of all of this, however, is not that heterosexual writers expropriated queer narratives, while queer people had to settle for misguided, insulting, and false representation, but that many, many queer artists abandoned their own culture, their own community to partake in the straight-washing of a culture that hadn’t even been properly represented yet. The AIDS epidemic took so many voices from the queer artist community and left it so vulnerable that maybe the natural response was to look for allies and surrogates in the straight world which led to the misguided narrative that we now have. But the issue is very real, and very damaging to any preservation of culture. The AIDS epidemic pushed the community farther back than it did forward and the outcome was to surrender the narrative. Surrender the identity. Surrender the culture. Done and done.
Now the new Major Dramatic Question: How do we get it back?
1 Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 2019.
2 Hornby, Richard. “Gay Plays.” The Hudson Review, vol. 57, no. 2, 2004, pp. 278–284. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4151422.
3 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.
4 Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 2019.
5 Johnson, Jeff. William Inge and the Subversion of Gender: Rewriting Stereotypes in the Plays, Novels, and Screenplays. McFarland, 2005.
6 Stone, Wendell C. Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of off-off Broadway. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
7 Marranca, Bonnie. “The Real Life of Maria Irene Fornes.” Performing Arts Journal 8, no. 1 (1984): 29-34. doi:10.2307/3245402.
8 Helbing, Terry. “Gay Plays, Gay Theatre, Gay Performance.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 25, no. 1, 1981, pp. 35–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1145342.
9 Kistenberg, Cindy. “Aids, Social Change, and Theater: Performance as Protest.” Choice Reviews Online 33, no. 11 (January 1996).
10 Schulman, Sarah. Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1998.