A still from the 2018 Broadway revival of The Boys in the Bandtwitter.com/elfje2011

Writing about queer theatre is deceptively tricky. It isn’t an artistic or aesthetic movement, because it arises out of something more innate than theory. It isn’t a time-based genre because queerness is in many ways atemporal, yet it is inescapably linked with its production context. How then to talk about it; as a linear progression, maybe? There are certainly milestones of Western queer theatre which deserve study and attention for the boundaries they broke, though not a guaranteed place on the stage indefinitely.

Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), one of the first major productions about lesbians written by a lesbian, was built on decades of underground and fringe female queer theatre. It emerged alongside other theatre in the 1980s, like the WOW Café collectives such as Split Britches, who aimed to abolish both the performers’ and audience’s assumptions of heterosexuality. Another play in this vein was The Boys in the Band (1968), one of the earliest plays to translate the gay male experience with the intention of accurately representing it on stage. The men are wracked with self-loathing, which is projected onto their friends and masked thinly with a veneer of wit; the tragedy is only increased re-watching it in the 21st century, which transforms the play into a time capsule of gay male self-perception before Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic.

“Evidently, then, queer theatre of the 20th century consisted of more than plays that focused on explicitly queer themes.”

In recent years plays with queer themes, characters and concerns have begun to reject more naturalistic forms, rightly seeking to go beyond a representation of the queer experience through a straight lens. After all, the ‘reality’ much naturalism claims to participate in is deeply bound up in the straight codification of society. Plays like The Writer (2018) radically push the boundary of form, hoping to express queerness outside straight structures, or at least, as outside as it can possibly get. But does a queer play have to have overtly queer concerns to be described as such?

The case of The Deep Blue Sea is an interesting one; Terence Rattigan (himself gay) wrote it as a play about a gay male affair and edited a later draft to depict a heterosexual affair in which a wife leaves a husband. However, despite having a heterosexual couple at the centre of the narrative, The Deep Blue Sea is very much a gay-coded play – one can easily imagine Hester Collyer’s deep depression and alienation being experienced by a gay man. The play retains a character who it is heavily implied is gay and has suffered social ostracization as a result; this character is the only one who appears to share Hester’s alienation from the world and provides her with companionship. It is impossible to watch or read this play with knowledge of Rattigan’s homosexuality and original intentions without reading the pain, alienation and suicidal thoughts in the play as linked to a queer experience of life in the 20th century. Yet the play itself is not a ‘queer play’ by any other conceivable definition, due to its focus on love between a heterosexual man and woman. Evidently, then, queer theatre of the 20th century consisted of more than plays that focused on explicitly queer themes – it also consisted of works produced by queer practitioners which had to be made superficially conformist.

“...theatre has a responsibility to continue to push the boundaries that the majority of society consider settled.”

In recent decades, some queer theatre practitioners have also rightly begun to re-think assumptions about gender. Following trends in queer academic literature, there has been an increase in exploration of gender non-conformity in plays. Jordan Harrison’s Log Cabin is particularly engaging, as it examines the cultural divide between LGBTQ+ characters whose rights are largely guaranteed (affluent cisgender gays and lesbians) and those whose rights are still under-recognised by the law and society at large – in this case, a trans man. This is important: it would be easy to stage The Boys in the Band indefinitely and bask in the glow of gay liberation achieved thus far, but theatre has a responsibility to continue to push the boundaries that the majority of society consider settled.


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On a similar note, while there have been great strides forward since the 20th century, queer BIPOC characters are still severely underrepresented in plays. Playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney have, in recent years, produced ground-breaking work, like the Brother/Sister trilogy and the play upon which the Oscar winning film Moonlight was based. These fertile themes and identities in new writing have the potential to redefine what ‘queer theatre’ means. As white cisgender practitioners broaden their scope and are joined by BIPOC, trans and non-binary practitioners, a whole new exciting world of potentially powerful queer theatre opens up. While ‘queer theatre’ – such as it is – should never cease to tell the story of the oppressed and the marginalised, I hope it may be able to do so in a new paradigm, becoming more celebratory and, occasionally, joyful – treating queerness, in the words of Jose Munoz, as a horizon.