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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    '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
    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