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.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk