Friday book: The influential role performed by pink plays

Out on Stage: lesbian and gay theatre in the twentieth century

by Alan Sinfield

(Yale University Press, pounds 20)

IN 1993, the Evening Standard published an article by its former theatre critic, Milton Shulman, headed "Stop the Plague of Pink Plays" - a title cynically designed to equate gay-themed theatre with another "gay plague" that then exercised the tabloids. Shulman was standing in a long and dishonourable tradition. Ever since the Puritans, theatre has been castigated as a hotbed of sexual deviance. One early pamphleteer, Philip Stubbes, complained that "everyone brings another homeward of their way, very friendly, and in their secret conclaves covertly they play the Sodomites or worse".

Role-playing - and, in particular, sexual role-playing - has always disturbed the moral guardians. Elizabethan boy actors were merely the most visible expression of a profession that was traditionally regarded as unmanly. On the other hand, their counterparts - the 17th- and 18th-century actresses who took the popular "breeches roles" - were accused not of mannishness but of harlotry. The widespread equation of the stage with homosexuality continues to this day. Ian McKellen has declared that one of the chief reasons he became an actor was that "I'd heard everyone in the theatre was queer".

Following on from Nicholas de Jongh's pioneering Not in Front of the Audience, Alan Sinfield has produced a fascinating account of the theatrical representation of gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians since the days of Oscar Wilde, whose trial for ever linked the stage and sexual perversity in popular consciousness. He sets the theatre within the broader context - the radicalisation of the intelligentsia at the end of the First World War; the sexual adventurousness of servicemen during the Second; the encroachment of Bohemia into conventional society - that enabled gay culture to flourish.

Although he asserts that his concern is not to establish a pantheon of gay writers, but rather to explore "the production and circulation of concepts and images", it is inevitable that these are primarily drawn from the work of familiar figures. Wilde is discussed, along with the absurd claim by a modern academic that Algernon's Bunburying "blatantly calls forth the image of a promiscuous sodomite" - in which case, Lady Bracknell's handbag must be a symbol of castrating female genitalia. Coward is portrayed as successfully managing to "flirt with sexual dissidence while trying not to let it take decisive hold of popular perceptions". On finally exposing a lifetime of deception and sexual compromise in his last play, Song at Twilight, he insisted that the life in question was not his but Somerset Maugham's.

Maugham himself is given considerable space, but short shrift, for a succession of plays in which queerness is encoded as scandal (and a mercifully forgotten drama in which he endorses marital rape). Elsewhere, Sinfield offers neat analyses of Rattigan, Albee, Orton, Hellman, old uncle Tennessee Williams and all. Nevertheless, he is most intriguing when least expected - as in his accounts of Robert Graves's published but unperformed play But It Still Goes On, in which one character is found doing "disgusting and horrible" things on Hampstead Heath (in 1930!). The much-reviled William Douglas Home's forgotten prison drama, Now Barrabas, anticipates the more explicit couplings of John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes. Most surprising of all is to learn that Philip King, best known for the Peggy Mount farce Sailor Beware, wrote three trail-blazing gay dramas which, from Sinfield's account, would certainly bear revival.

Sinfield's critique is both authoritative and provocative. He finds more to admire in The Boys in the Band and less in Angels in America and Bent than most commentators. Out on Stage is as well written as it is well researched, although Sinfield sometimes lets his sensibilities run away with him, as in the inaccurate equation of Wilde's stigmatised Mrs Erlynne with Judy Garland and the suggestion, even in parenthesis, that Queen Victoria might have been "protecting her sisters" by feigning ignorance of lesbianism. All in all, this is an excellent study of a century of theatre in which "pink plays" have been pervasive - even when they have paraded under different colours.