In a move of altruism-cum-hacking, the Angels in America marketing team have made sure that LGBTQ issues are to be very ‘In’ next week. With their direction, the Union will hold a debate on gay parenting; Hertford and Trinity have both agreed to host Queer Bops; film screenings, talks, even pub-quizzes are to be held in celebration of all things queer. It certainly beats a flash-mob flyering combo in terms of public enjoyment. With The Laramie Project, Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical, Another Country, and many more productions that centre on LGBTQ characters hitting Oxford this month, a previously under-represented community are getting more and more much needed spotlight time. But if the spotlight doesn’t hit the actor in the right place, we don’t see all of them. Sometimes, when all that’s important about their character is their sexual orientation or non-conforming gender identity, the only thing in focus is their genitals.
Of course, the term ‘LGBTQ’ encompasses a huge number of individuals with a vast amount of different orientations, identities and experiences. It’s not genre, or a catch-all term, so no one play can sum of up all of these experiences. For example, I think we can disregard the idea that a whole audience, consisting exclusively of gay men, sits and watches Dog Sees God, and thinks, “Wow, this could be my life. I AM Beethoven.” It’s reductive to think that there is a ‘gay’ experience, so the idea of a ‘gay play’ is rather condescending. Yet, by using this term, we can acknowledge the common theme, and understand that these are all plays which contribute something to the representation of anyone who comes under this umbrella term – and this can be quite a scary idea, especially if you feel that these presentations are off kilter with reality yet with the weight of art, have the ability to change people’s thought about that subject.
This is what makes plays that focus upon issues within the gay community difficult to deal with in a truthful way. In many art-forms, the problem of HIV+/AIDS is so often twinned with the gay or bisexual men that even the allusion can feel like a perpetuation of the stigma that already surrounds the community that was lambasted in the media for ‘causing’ it. But, by keeping silent on the issue, especially by stifling the people who feel most directly affected by it, the only voices that are heard are the ignorant ones. Simon Devenport, co-producer of Angels in America feels that the play “aligns the anxieties faced by HIV/AIDS sufferers and the homosexual community with humanity as a whole [by] considering notions of justice, religious belief, social confinement and stereotyping”.
It’s not that all playwrights forget that they are writing about people when they depict gay characters but, if we look at a lot of the musicals and plays that Wikipedia, with an air of authority, says are “LGBT”, a lot of them only include one gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans character. Often, to write a characters as gay or trans is a lazy attempt at fleshing out a character or creating tension within the play. Theatre works by putting two or more opposing forces in conflict with one another. Most characters can be distilled into that one personality trait (like ‘hubris’) that they have that causes them to carry out one or more actions that drive the play to its end. It can be a little close to the bone to think that a character’s ‘fatal flaw’ is homosexuality. Take Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Children’s Hour. Granted, these are all plays written before the 1960s, so maybe by the time we get to The Boys in the Band in 1968, we might hope that it really is no longer “the way it is in plays. Not all f****ts bump themselves off at the end of the story!”
Theatre tends to outstrip all other art-forms in presenting us with aspects of our society that we shied away from addressing. Playwrights are always looking for the next taboo subject. Homosexuality has long since ceased to become shocking in the eyes of the art world but the way that theatre on the subject addresses the prejudices that we like to think have been eradicated allows us to view the world from a perspective that we thought we ‘had covered’. Lucy Shenton, co-director of The Laramie Project (a play compiled from 200 interviews with residents of the town of Laramie, Wyoming, after a hate crime against a young man) explains that the play “uses both the glorification and condemnation of homosexuals to reveal deep-seated social prejudice […] It creates a piece of truths and revelations – transcending the original topic to explore ideas about our views, society, sexuality and judgment.” On the other hand, we have so many plays and musicals which celebrate LGBTQ culture, without trying to make a political statement or reach some great big artistic plateau of verisimilitude. A celebration can come in several different forms, appealing to the diversity within this community, making every piece of new-writing, every revival and every tour another chance for another story to be told.
This can – and should – only be a good thing.
PHOTOS/ Oxford Playhouse and LSE Library