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Representations of gay men

Posted on 18 February 2012 Written by

Commenting on gay theatre can become a minefield fraught with sweeping generalisations, unfounded assertions and downward spirals into emotive ranting. Why, then, would a theatre commentator like myself wish to enter such volatile territory?

Quite simply, because there is still an entire mass of gay men who lack representation on the British stage and screen. I am one of them. We are the gay men who fail to recognise ourselves in the stereotypes frequently portrayed in theatre and television alike, who have different interests and desires to those depicted in heterocentric narratives and who feel that our stories are just as important as the comedic tales told about us on our behalf. We want a voice.

And when theatre, gay or otherwise, fails to give its audience what it demands then discussion is absolutely necessary to resolve the problem. Take any popular soap, for example, and you’ll find that gay men almost always come with a full-bodied camp persona. The exceptions to this rule, of course, are the men who initially started their roles as heterosexual so that viewers can see how men who act straight inevitably fall into a drunken depression when faced with the prospect of being confirmed “fairies”. EastEnders offers two relatively recent examples of such limited characterisations: they presented a character who supposedly shocked everybody by coming out because, of course, how could a man who is straight-acting and Asian (don’t even get me started on the lack of gay characters from ethnic minorities) be homosexual? His character left his wife, defied familial rejection and religious ridicule so that he could be with his new male partner. Needless to say, despite all of these sacrifices audiences watched both men continuously split up, drink themselves stupid, consider affairs and question their sexual identities. Whilst gripping for some, the storyline was a mockery to serious gay relationships.

From a personal perspective, I am engaged to my long-term partner and my relationship has never led to any of the above. Granted, soap operas exaggerate the drama of everyday life but they also rely on maintaining a relatability factor that just isn’t available for most gay men. Unsurprisingly, the depiction of this gay relationship failed to impress equal rights organisations such as Stonewall, which has reported that realistic gay characters are present in just 0.6% of British television.

Celebrating camp can exist alongside more intelligent depictions of gay men

In truth, the majority of gay men live very comfortably with their sexuality and – shock, horror – many even possess mostly characteristics that are usually attributed to their heterosexual counterparts. Of course, there is no denying that there is also a sizeable portion of the gay community who do shine with camp flair, who proudly own the title of “queens”, and who indulge in shopping and gay clubbing as many stereotypes reflect.

Being and celebrating camp is by no means a bad thing; it’s the essence of the beginnings of a strong gay arts community and it comes with a lifestyle which appeals to many. To that extent, venues such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Above the Stag offer some highly entertaining performances that are integral to maintaining the bonds between LGBT people, and I thoroughly recommend attending Duckie at the RVT on Thursdays for a spectacular night out. Equally, the West End hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert should be noted as a triumph for gay theatre and it was undoubtedly one of the most entertaining musicals to have enjoyed a successful run in London. The major concern is not the success of Priscilla et al, but rather the lack of an equally popular alternative approach to life as a gay man.

One major concern here is the issue of funding. In a recent interview with gay playwright, Matt Ian Kelly, I was told how his gay-themed work had been refused support from certain leading gay venues in London as it failed to feature enough nudity. To put it frankly, such venues are perpetuating the fallacy that gay men only want to see gay theatre that involves (at least) topless twenty-something men. I am certain that I am not alone in finding this approach to gay theatre both superficial and highly offensive. Fortunately, Kelly’s work is now in production with the support of Greenwich Theatre, which successfully recognises that gay audiences have a genuine hunger for intellectual, engaging work. As such, perhaps it’s time for gay practitioners to look elsewhere for funding; perhaps the limited representations of gay men are so entrenched that some of London’s renowned gay venues are themselves becoming outdated.

Where do we go from here?

With this in mind, now might be a good time to question when and how these new voices could emerge. History tells us that minorities in Britain debut in theatre and on screen as a comedic device. In the 1970s, Asian actors and actresses could seldom hope for a starring role in a lead production, and those who were offered the chance were most likely to find themselves in a comedy about race and nationality. As society progressed and supposedly became less racist (in the not-so-short space of 20 years), members of ethnic minorities were faced with the new challenge of petitioning against stereotypes in the media i.e. the fact that black characters on television in the 1990s were so frequently portrayed as criminals.

Working on the premise that the gay community is on a similar track to acceptance as ethnic minorities, history places us at the tipping point between inaccurate and factual representation. The first televised gay kiss was now 25 years ago and British drama has surely worked its way through offensive comedy characters and stereotypes. As such, the following year or two could give rise to a fresh wave of intelligent gay theatre, but it requires the support of actors, playwrights, venues and even bloggers. Ultimately the responsibility rests on the current generation of gay practitioners to make a change and now, as the UK is in the midst of discussing the legalisation of gay marriage, could be the perfect timing for any bright, young sparks to step up and make themselves and their experiences known.

19 Comments For This Post

  1. Daniel Marshall Says:

    For those of you interested, I’m also the editor of The Gay Stage. We’re an online platform for gay arts and politics discussion. You can find us at http://www.thegaystage.com.

    Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed the article!

  2. Paul C Says:

    Pretty much in agreement. Last year I watched with some horror a play called Downtown, written by a gay man, and whose depiction of LGB people – had it had a wider audience – would surely have set LGBT equality back decades. I certainly didn’t recognise the camp, superficial, promiscuous portrayals given on stage. I think my point is that these stereotypes will continue until we – who refuse to be stereotypes – start writing about the real world.

    Another play, a nasty little piece called Out Westgate, some nonsense about a woman being impregnated with her brother’s semen after he “docked” with he boyfriend(!)got me so angry I wanted to thump the writer, who happened to be sitting in front of me.

    Is this really the behavior we want to give the rest of the world as an example of LGB life? Personally, no.

  3. Daniel Marshall Says:

    Hi Paul,

    You’re entirely right to feel frustrated by the current lack of varied depictions on stage. It remains incredibly difficult to find more than a couple of plays (at most) which deal with the true multitude of serious issues faced by the gay community in 2012.

    That’s exactly why we, the gay community, need more writers and more sponsors to enable a greater level of truth shown on stage.

    I also think it’s interesting that you note the duty practitioners have to the gay community with regards to how LGB people are perceived by wider society. Like you, I have found myself disturbed by “what people must think” after seeing certain less tasteful productions.

    Ultimately it’s down to current practitioners to take action if this is something we feel passionate about.

  4. Jon Bradfield Says:

    Thanks for this piece.

    To sound like a pompous artist for a moment: I co-wrote three pantomimes for Above The Stag. They were not exclusively gay shows, particularly the most recent, but something that felt very important and special was that we were able to put a gay romance and a gay hero at the centre of each.

    For many of us, pantomimes are a key introduction to theatre, and for those of us who grow up to be gay we do so having never seen gay characters at the heart of these formative, universal stories. Our shows were for adults, not children of course, and it would be incredible to think that mainstream family shows might one day occassionally have a central hero or heroine who happens to be gay.

    I think there is a pressure on some theatres to programme on a sex-sells basis, but when a venue has no subsidy and relies on sales to survive, programming a couple of shows a year that tick that box (even superficially) is one way of reaching a crowd, particularly when you think of the nature of the gay media whose coverage and advertising is key to gay theatre’s success.

    There’s a question of what is gay theatre? Is it theatre that features gay characters? Are Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and The Habit of Art gay theatre? Is My Beautiful Laundrette (in which ideas of Thatcherism and race are far more significant than the central characters’ sexuality)? is it plays about gay history? Is it fabulous cabaret and musicals that somehow appeal, for whatever reason, particularly strongly to gay men? One of the most interesting plays that the Stag produced was Busted Jesus Comix, which was not a “gay” play at all. It was about a teenager who was fined £3000 and put on 3 years probation for drawing a comic that was ruled to be “obscene” by a Florida court. Nobody gay in it but it was about the non-straight, the boundaries of society, the acceptable.

    Labelling something “gay theatre” is a double edged sword. It’s a very clear way to find a certain audience – the right audience, perhaps. It’s also a way of ensuring that it won’t be taken seriously in some quarters. (As a loose aside, much of Margaret Attwood’s output meets any definition of “science fiction” but if it were packaged as such it would not be read or reviewed as widely).

  5. Paul C Says:

    My view is that The History Boys and The Habit of Art aren’t “gay theatre” (whatever that is), nor is My Beautiful Launderette or Beautiful Thing. What they are are intelligent representation of gay relationships within mainstream theatre.

    The aforementioned Downtown was specifically targeted at gay men and was there purely to titilate – there was no forward-moving narrative, no message to take away, other than “hedonism rules and we’re all going to Hell in a hand-cart”. I think there’s huge potential in writing more like History Boys, et al. I’d like to have seen the panto (pantos are usually camp enough in themselves!) just to see what was done with it.

  6. Jon Bradfield Says:

    @Paul C

    There’s the thing. By what you say, any play that is a good play is then not gay theatre, though it’s really a question of context. You could programme Beautiful Thing, My Beautiful Laundrette and The Habit of Art together in a season and it would be a “gay” season but separately you wouldn’t define them as such.

    The pantos were in many ways deeply traditional. Rude but not exclusively, and very silly, lot’s of Airplane style humour. What we find is that the stories themselves are sometimes really only a starting point. They’re quite thin for an adult crowd. Not much happens in the story of Sleeping Beauty for example, but we found by setting it specifically in 1911 and a century later in 2011 (as it turns out Matthew Bourne is doing with his!) it opened up room for playing with changing attitudes to women, sexuality, class, relationships. That makes it sounds serious – it wasn’t remotely – but by having that stuff underlying the piece it makes it richer.

  7. Paul C Says:

    John, I don’t think putting any of the above together in a “gay season” would be inappropriate at all. I’m just not sure they’re “gay plays” in isolation. When you look at Beauty Queen of Leenane, for example, do you think Irish or drama – the events could just have happened in remote Cornwall? Is Macbeth Scottish or tragedy? – again, Scotland is not pivotal to the theme. Personally I’d go for the latter, with possibly undertones of the former, but definitely the latter foremost.

    I believe theatre has an unavoidable remit – and an ideal opportunity – to educate, especially where the LGBT community is involved. We’d be stupid to turn it into a platform purely to shock and alienate!

  8. Daniel Marshall Says:

    Some great points have been raised by both Paul and Jon, and this is exactly the kind of discussion that keeps a genre going – after all, if theatre doesn’t stimulate debate then surely it starts to decay?

    On the matter of which plays do (or do not) identify as gays plays, well, it’s a very personal decision. In the same way that you might not view a comedy as such if you were to find it dull, assimilating plays into gay culture relies on a narrative/character/sub-plot that resonates with members of the LGBT community. And so a gay play does not have to be for gay people, it does not have to be about gay people, it just needs to touch gay people.

    It’s also important to remind ourselves that all genres have their bad additions and so programming a season of gay plays can only be as brilliant as the programmer. If the aforementioned plays were listed, perhaps it’s less about the genre and more about hiring somebody with taste…

    We definitely need to be aware of making sweeping generalizations about a relatively vulnerable branch of theatre and so I think, perhaps, that statements like “any play that is a good play is then not gay theatre” should be used with caution. I was once told by a lecturer to read everything I wrote as though I was trying to discredit my original point. You can see how in this instance, such a strong sentence could be used by the wrong people for the wrong cause. Something can, of course, be “specifically targeted at gay man” and remain thoughtful, beautiful and political. It just show happens that in this case it was also written to titillate. One might argue that has more to do with the demands of a venue than the wishes of a writer with integrity.

  9. Jon Bradfield Says:

    It’s Jon ;)

    I think we’re agreed and I think very few plays would be purely “gay plays”. I think few people write in that way generally. I do think there is a strand of work out there that is probably put on because it is gay, rather than because it is good, and I have mixed feelings about that. Firstly, a work may be interesting because it reflects the experiences of a specific audience, but not worth much to others, so fair play, although the best art is probably more universal.

    Am interested by what you say about educating. Yes – but education can simply be allowing an audience to grapple with the human condition as specific to them. It needn’t be about “here are things you didn’t know and now you do” it can be “here is life as you know it – but defamiliarised so you can look at it afresh”.

    That said – if you’re free Monday eve, I’m having a reading of a play we’ve written that does, I think, educate – though that wasn’t its primary intent. Details: http://www.facebook.com/events/354102661277074/ – If you’d like to come, let me know. jonbradfield78 [at] hotmail.com

  10. Paul C Says:

    Of course it’s Jon – sorry slip of the finger thru a flu-sodden haze. We’ve met/spoken several times.

    Yes, of course I wouldn’t class education as lecturing. How boring would that be? I feel the same way about theatre as I feel about Twitter – engage, don’t broadcast! Movie genres are particularly good at this – Philadelphia, Beautiful Thing, especially, but we don’t seem to have made the transition to the stage to any significant degree.

    Would love to attend A Hard Rain on Monday but not based in London (sub-human!!) and not able to re-arrange another event at short notice – sorry!

  11. Jon Bradfield Says:

    Paul:

    That’s interesting – but of the two examples you give, one was a play first. Is what you’re saying that something like Philadelphia was good at taking what was an issue about/relevant to gay people and reaching a mainstream audience hence showing them a part of life they didn’;t already know? Well film (esp if it has stars in) will always be better in some way at that in that film reaches a much larger, and demographically varied, audience. I don’t think theatre can do that quite on a large scale, although of course the impact of a play can be far further reaching than its immediate audience.

    In a purely educative sense a film or play can speak to gay people or it can speak about them – or indeed both. Theatre works differently to film though. Angels in America was the kind of piece that could only have begun life as a play, not a film.

    Daniel:

    yeah, I’ve seen plays by/for gay audiences where I’m not sure whether the titilation was the writer intending to titilate, or more a naive writer titilating himself and not realising that there was a reductive effect on his work because of it. The problem with any sexual titilation in naturalistic theatre is that in many ways it brings the focus onto the actor not the character. With nudity, it is always the actor that is naked. (An aside: the nice thing about panto is that the entire form is built around having a conversation with the audience, an audience who are at once, paradoxically, in on the act and yet emotionally invested in it, so you can get away with some very knowing titilation without it taking from the piece).

    I used “any play that is a good play is then not gay theatre” as a querying summation of what I thought Paul was doing, i.e. conflating bad theatre with theatre targeted at gay men. I think I was probably misunderstanding him though, looking at his comment.

    I’m not sure “gay” is a genre though, it’s more a theme or collection of themes. For me a genre is often something you opt into: a thriller, a romance, a whodunit. I disagree with you about comedy though. If you find it dull or unfully, it’s a dull and unfunny comedy. It’s just bad comedy.

    I think the worst and most gratuitous sterotyping I’ve seen lately was a gay character in The Faith Machine at the Royal Court. I think I understood vaguely why they wanted a hyper-gay character, but it failed in that regard to the extent that it made me very angry, not least becasue the function of the character was unquestionably to represent gay people rather than be a discrete, idiosyncratic, rounded character.

  12. Paul C Says:

    I think we’re all fairly much in agreement. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all overtly “gay theatre” is necessarily bad. It’s not something I’d choose to go to but that’s personal choice. The two monstrosities I cited at the beginning of this thread were offensive primarily because they were badly written and performed. It was just an added gall that the writers used gay relationships to titillate rather than to tell a story or inform.

    I know BT started off as a play (and a very good one) but I think that proves my point. It reached a far wider mainstream audience as a film and, hopefully, informed positively. How many questioning young people saw that and thought: “Hell, being openly gay/bi/trans maybe isn’t that bad an option after all!”. It certainly influenced me.

    True, Philadelphia was a big budget movie about how a man’s high-end life unravels when he’s diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Tom Hanks’ intelligent and poignant portrayal and Springsteen’s soundtrack probably did more to bring the issue of HIV/AIDS to the public attention in the early 90s than hundreds of Pride marches and tumbling monoliths. It’s a shame that something with such power has never made it to the stage – or if it has then I’ve never seen it. Rent and Angels in America come fairly close, I grant.

    I watched something called Bomber’s Moon recently, the story of a wartime RAF gunner, whose romance with a fellow (male) serviceman wasn’t revealed until the end. Were the audience disgusted? Not a bit of it. It was intelligently written and portrayed and – more importantly – accurately represented the relationships that still occur (although it’s never discussed) in the Armed Forces, therefore it had a recognisable context for the more conventional, ie, mostly elderly, audience.

  13. Jon Bradfield Says:

    …although without those marches Philadelphia would probably not have been made…

    I love the idea of someone watching Beautiful Thing and thinking “Hell, being openly gay/bi/trans maybe isn’t that bad an option after all!” – LGBT has its place as a collective term but…! :) – but yes. This is why it’s so awful what’s being proposed in St Petersburgh at the moment.

    I was thinking about this last night and about the tendency for smaller new writing theatre venues to programme plays that are domestic and contemporary. A lot of writers too, particularly young writers, I think follow the maxim “write about what you know” or at least set their plays in their own worlds. Apply that to gay writers, and you get a potentially very narrow set of preoccupations, primarily a) coming out and b) the supposed ideal of finding true love against a background of casual sex. Both interesting subjects, but a small part of what’s potentially out there.

    So that’s interesting you talk about Bomber’s Moon (though why was the relationship not revealed til the end?) There’s a lot of history out there I think that could be revisited, and that needn;t be gay history, just ways of including gay characters in other times or places to our own, without necessarily making an issue of it. Admittedly, there is a lack of explicit record of gay people/love/experience through history because of the secrecy with which some people had to conduct that side of their lives. But there is some, and there is also imagination. Writing about what you know can mean you apply your own knowledge of the human condition to times and people and places at a great remover.

    Our own play we’ve just finished is set in pre-Stonewall new york but also draws a little from experiences of gay servicemen in the Vietnam War and in the US military generally. Also, what about gay life in other countries and cultures? Theatre isn’t the only way of exploring such things, and I don’t know that it’s the best. But “gay theatre” could be more outward looking.

  14. Paul C Says:

    And that feels like a good place to leave it. A really interesting exchange of views. I take your point about Philadelphia, Jon. It probably wouldn’t have been made, knowing how homophobic Hollywood is. Of course, we’ve both omitted to cite one example of what I believe is a perfect middle ground, La Cage Aux Folles. Camp as tits and yet it’s a powerful and very touching love story between the gay protagonists. So there is a compromise to be made if we look hard enough.

    I’ll just relate this anecdote of a very good community production of La Cage – it would easily have stood its own against professional productions – a far cry from the usual R&H fare the locals were used to. Unfortunately, nobody explained to the audience beforehand that it was a gay love story that featured a cross-dressing chorus. Many stormed out at the interval and demanded their money back. I’m not sure if they thought they’d “catch gay” if they stayed (they surely recognised some of the music!). That’s exactly the sort of ignorant attitude that I’d like to see theatre address, hence my plea that we don’t just set out to shock.

    Bomber’s Moon wasn’t really about a gay relationship. That was very much incidental to the main story, which was about a carer with mental health issues and the retired serviceman he was looking after. It was actually a sequel to another play about the carer, which I never saw. The ending wasn’t at all cheap or sensationalist. It was a nice twist, bearing in mind the elder guy’s old-school bigotry throughout the piece.

    I’ll try to get up to see A Hard Rain on Monday should it be produced – sounds interesting!

  15. Daniel Marshall Says:

    “I was thinking about this last night and about the tendency for smaller new writing theatre venues to programme plays that are domestic and contemporary. A lot of writers too, particularly young writers, I think follow the maxim “write about what you know” or at least set their plays in their own worlds. Apply that to gay writers, and you get a potentially very narrow set of preoccupations, primarily a) coming out and b) the supposed ideal of finding true love against a background of casual sex. Both interesting subjects, but a small part of what’s potentially out there.”

    This is one point I really have to challenge. The outcome of writing what you know, I think, is anything but narrow or restricted to the points you mention above.

    What I KNOW is that I can’t legally marry my fiance, because he is a man, and that my relationship is therefore seen by society as being of lesser value. The possibilities for where this alone could take a piece of writing are endless. I see the impact of a) being young, gay and engaged and b) being unable to legally marry, in all areas of my life. My relationship (as a result of my sexuality) is under constant interpretation. I can assure you that being engaged and gay offers a whole lot of (disappointingly)different responses from those my heterosexual counterparts would receive. The mildest example here is the simple fact that “Congratulations!” is so often followed by “but how?”.

    I also know that I can’t hold my partners hand in the street (in London of all places, as one of the world’s most ‘progressive’ cities) for fear of violence. I know that the effects of homophobia (from personal experience as well as a wider understanding) can dramatically change the way a person lives their life. It could result in complex familial situations being portrayed on stage, or it could result in theatrical critique of systematic homophobia – it could even result in a confrontational backlash against the institutions, religions or communities that discriminate (often with deeply offensive stategies) against gay people.

    There really is so much more to what being gay means, and the experiences that it can lead to. And I passionately believe that the gay community still has a lot of new experiences, views and politics to contribute to theatre.

    We have to be very careful about simplifying a complex matter. Coming out and finding true love are key aspects but in reality, they are merely the surface of more complex and evolving set of experiences.

  16. Daniel Marshall Says:

    Just to let you guys know, I’ve written an article in response to some of the issues raised in this discussion; ‘Defining Gay Theatre: What Makes a Gay Play Gay?’

    I’d love to hear your take on what I’ve got to say!

    http://www.thegaystage.com/2012/02/defining-gay-theatre-what-makes-gay.html

  17. becky Says:

    at least gay men are represented at all!!! as a young gay female i find it sad that there is such little representation of lesbian women in theatre.

  18. Paul C Says:

    Becky’s entirely right. Lesbians on stage tend to be either “bull dykes” or predatory vamps. I pitched a sitcom for TV, the protagonists of which were a lesbian couple, and was told that it was a line the viewing public weren’t prepared to cross! It’s not like I intended to show them doing 69 or anything – they just happened to be a female same-sex couple!

  19. Steph B Says:

    Interesting article & thought-provoking comments too.

    I saw a play yesterday evening – My Gay Best Friend – in Eastbourne and, although the title gives away that one of the characters is indeed gay, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider it ‘gay theatre’ or otherwise.

    I love theatre in general and I thoroughly enjoyed MGBF as a work in its own right. However, as it could equally be considered ‘friendship theatre’ or ‘abuse theatre’ (as these are strong themes in the play) too, I’m wondering whether any generic labelling is really helpful? Or if this plants stereotypes into an audience’s mind before viewing thereby potentially putting them off attending.

    It’s already difficult enough getting the public into ‘serious’ plays – especially in Eastbourne!

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