Thursday Book: Theatre's glass closet




THEATRE HISTORY tends to be a dark and spiritless place - rather like an empty auditorium. But, occasionally, along comes a drama-studies buff who turns on the house lights, yanks up the curtain and fills the empty seats with a lively pack of punters. Dan Rebellato's 1956 and All That shines a powerful beam into the musty corners of British theatre history. Not only does he spot a crowd of gay men lounging in the stalls, but he also spotlights a strange and fascinating emotional atmosphere.

Until recently, Fifties culture had a bad press. Before the Swinging Sixties, we imagined, everything was tight-lipped and zipped-up. Gays were "evil", sexual intercourse had not been invented and bishops still wrote letters to The Times about perverts, inverts and fallen women. A repressed and repressive era, with the hysteria of moral panics supplementing the rigour of the law, meant that homosexuality was closeted away from view.

Or was it? "In fact," Rebellato argues, "homosexuality in the Forties and Fifties, far from being nowhere, seemed to many to be everywhere." From pink-lit clubs (the inspiration for Rodney Ackland's play Absolute Hell) to Army drag revues with titles such as Soldiers in Skirts, from hints in mainstream plays to headline cases such as the arrest of John Gielgud in 1953 for importuning, the evidence is irrefutable. Rebellato's list of homosexual thesps is half a page long, a "roll-call of one generation in British theatre". But if gay men were not exactly silent, they had to speak in code.

Sometimes, awareness of such codes was comic. At one West End audition, for example, the actor finished his recital and Binkie Beaumont - king of theatre producers - leant forward and asked: "Are you queer?" "No - no, I'm not," stammered the actor. "But it won't show from the front." When homosexuality was illegal, describing it could sound puzzling, almost nonsensical.

This anecdote illustrates an acute anxiety that homosexuality could be detected through giveaway signs: a boyish face, wearing suede shoes, being unable to whistle or liking the colour green. And it is the presence of such signs - used by playwrights as broad winks to knowing members of their audiences - which makes Fifties drama such a curious place to visit. Far from being repressed, British theatre was teeming with subtle and coded sensibility.

Against this theatre of secret signs and coterie languages, the Royal Court's New Wave writers of the late Fifties - John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and John Arden - advanced the notion of a theatre of emotional truth and manly vitality. Imbued with a Leavisite ideology of "life", these writers created images of truth speaking out openly, not only against a Tory Establishment, but also in contrast to an effete theatre culture.

In this context, Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the radical turning-point of 1956, was evidence of a "blazing determination to bring human emotion back into the centre of cultural life". In a fascinating reading of the play, Rebellato shows how, despite Osborne's later attacks on gays, his work could not avoid the same devices of concealed subtext and subconscious suggestion as were used other works of the time. While it has always been obvious that there is a homoerotic dynamic between the play's anti-hero, Jimmy Porter, and his friend Cliff, Rebellato also highlights the ambiguity of Jimmy's view of Webster, the offstage queer - and points out that even the checked shirt Jimmy wore in the first production recalls the "clone look" of Fifties gay iconography.

Of course, some of the era's greatest writers - such as Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan - throve in a climate that was officially homophobic, with the censor forbidding any mention of homosexuality until 1958. What Rebellato questions is the received wisdom that their concealment of sexuality was evidence of conventionality or dullness. Instead, he argues that, in their own way, these writers were as radical as the era's legendary Angry Young Men.

So the accepted story of a virile New Wave sweeping over a neutered middle- class theatre begins to look like a myth. Most accounts of what happened after 1956 are narratives of liberation, the story being that gradually chains were cast off and gays came out of the closet. Rebellato shows that such metaphor-heavy accounts are only half-truths, and tend to obscure as much as they illuminate. He uses the more striking image of the glass closet - even when it's illegal, homosexuality can still be transparent.

With additional chapters on arts funding, theatre technicians and Britain's fraught relations with foreign drama, 1956 and All That is a brilliant and provocative re-evaluation of postwar British theatre. It will excite anyone who is not content with easy answers and wants to explore a lost age. Sprinkled with theoretical asides, this is an enjoyably readable, detailed and complex account. Postwar theatre history will never be the same again.