The pink ticket

From the National Theatre to the Sheffield Crucible, gay plays are this season's sell-out shows. What makes them so popular? asks David Benedict
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'm shocked. No, really. A couple of weeks ago I went to what I believed to be a safely old-fashioned West End comedy and what was I presented with? An older man fighting with his young male lover and a merry-go-round of partner-swapping lesbians. This utterly engrossing spectacle was Noel Coward's 1926 play Semi-Monde.

'm shocked. No, really. A couple of weeks ago I went to what I believed to be a safely old-fashioned West End comedy and what was I presented with? An older man fighting with his young male lover and a merry-go-round of partner-swapping lesbians. This utterly engrossing spectacle was Noel Coward's 1926 play Semi-Monde.

Of course, if I really had been offended by gays onstage, I could have looked elsewhere. Yet, with Joseph Fiennes and James D'Arcy cavorting about as Edward II and his lover in Marlowe's tragedy, the classics clearly couldn't be trusted. What about a new play like Jonathan Harvey's Out in the Open at Hampstead? No, that had three gay men, a lesbian wannabe, and a male kiss in the first two minutes. How about The Bush? No, Jonathan Hall's Flamingos had a cast of five men in Blackpool, all gay. Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth at the Royal Court? Uh-uh. The pivotal character is gay. Neil Bartlett's production of The Servant at the Lyric Hammersmith? Don't be daft. How about the Donmar Warehouse? David Mamet... he's never written a homosexual character, has he? He has now: Boston Marriage is about two lesbians.

Happily for homophobes, most of those have just finished their (sold-out) runs, but watch out ­ several are coming back. Jonathan Harvey will even have a double whammy when Out in the Open returns just as Closer to Heaven, his musical with the Pet Shop Boys set in a gay nightclub begins previews at the Arts Theatre. Oh, and Edward Albee's Finding the Sun is receiving its British premiere at the National and that has two gay men in it. It's enough to make you mutter the words "Milton Shulman".

Pardon? Milton Shulman was a superannuated commentator on the London Evening Standard when in September 1994 he caused a stink with an article headlined "Stop This Plague of Pink Plays". Spookily, then, as now, there were two Harveys, an Elyot, and productions at the Lyric, the Donmar and the National which had as a common denominator "an interest in or obsession with the lifestyle of homosexuals". Paradoxically, Milton seemed worried about breeding. "It is not gay plays that bother me, it is the growing volume of them."

Despite his zealous efforts, playwrights have perversely continued to write about those people that little Milton's parents warned him about. But my favourite part of his deliciously absurd diatribe was his closing clarion call: "It is time managements encouraged playwrights to concern themselves with the complex permutations of love and tears among heterosexuals."

But theatre is positively ridden with narcissistic, proselytising heterosexuals. Someone like Alan Ayckbourn seems congenitally unable to write a play without including a self-confessed married person. His casts are often made up entirely of people shamelessly parading their predilection for the opposite sex. And he's not alone. Tom Stoppard only moved beyond the twilight world of the heterosexual in 1997 when he fictionalised the character of the frustrated homosexual AE Housman in The Invention of Love. Although little is known about the causes of heterosexuality, writers suffering from the condition use drama to pursue a limited career where their private sexual preference dictates their work. Worse, they assume all audiences share their taste and insist on preaching to the converted.

Facetious though that agenda reversal may be, such criticisms are regularly levelled at playwrights focusing on their gay sexuality. Straights dislike being criticised or ignored, which is why with men in most critical positions, lesbian writers are, at best, routinely patronised. They're already in the second division by virtue of being "women writers". Lesbianism lands them in an even more remote subset. Sarah Daniels once had the temerity to write Masterpieces, an angry play about the appalling behaviour of men, and has never been forgiven. Patrick Marber writes about the appalling behaviour of men and is applauded for self-lacerating honesty.

It's actually well-nigh impossible to find a self-styled "gay playwright". The classification is widely disliked by writers who see it as being both hugely divisive and constricting. "I am a writer and I am gay but that kind of categorisation is a way of belittling the writing," says Kevin Elyot. "You're brushed aside so that the discussion can move on to 'serious' writing." This is not just that Groucho Marx-ist business of not wanting to join a club that will have you as a member. "I've got almost nothing in common with other 'gay writers' other than orientation. Someone like Jonathan Harvey is of a different generation and pursues his own ideas. No better, no worse, just different."

In 1966, at the height of his fame after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee was famously attacked by the all-powerful New York Times critic Stanley Kauffman. He, Tennessee Williams and William Inge all allegedly had subversive designs on American morality via disguised homosexual dramas, "a two-sex version of the one-sex experience". Albee remembers reaching for the phone. "I called up Tennessee. 'I didn't know those women you wrote were really men,' I said. 'Nor did I.'"

Albee dismisses the dangerously demeaning idea of categorisation. "Two of the men in Finding the Sun are gay, but it's not about being gay. I don't know what a gay play is. Is it by a playwright who happens to be gay? Is it a play with gay themes written by a straight writer? Or with gay characters? It's such an imprecise term and a limiting one. I'm male, white, educated, old-ish ... I can think of probably 30 minorities to which I belong and I'm defined by them all, not any one of them. No writer should be limited by anything except his ability."

In a former life I was the artistic director of the theatre company Gay Sweatshop, so I know gay plays exist. They mostly come in two models. Those aimed exclusively at gay audiences ­ the American versions are filled with cute guys in and out of their Calvin Kleins ­ and those which explain us to the world. Thus the two gayest plays in the language are Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Coward's Still Life, better known in its 1945 screen incarnation Brief Encounter. Stage censorship expressly forbade homosexuality but both plays are written by homosexuals addressing profoundly gay experiences.

Theatre censorship collapsed in 1968, yet for years, gays on stage either flapped their wrists or slit them ­ usually both. The current explosion of gay writing makes up for years of theatrical invisibility. And why choose drama as the medium? Because homosexuals have been acting since puberty. Being gay means growing up as two people, the person you are and the one you act for public acceptance.

But there is clearly still a reluctance to be cordoned off as a "gay playwright" and a glance at these plays currently filling the West End suggests that "lesbian playwright" is an even more controversial term. Of course the patronising sub-division of "gay plays" shouldn't really exist at all. There should be good writing and bad. And I'm really looking forward to the day when a playwright's sexuality is no longer seen as the determining factor.

'Semi-Monde': Lyric, W1 (020 7494 5045); 'Finding the Sun': RNT Cottesloe, SE1 (020 7452 3000) from Wed; 'Closer to Heaven': Arts, WC2 (020 7836 3334) from 15 May; 'Mouth to Mouth': Albery, WC2 (020 7369 1730) from 16 May; 'Out in the Open': Hampstead, NW3 (020 7722 9301) from 22 May