Art, literature, cinema, and performing arts have seen a striking increase in LGBT+ themes and characters. Often these have challenged stereotypical depictions of queer individuals or dismissed in favour of more realistic, more three-dimensional, living, breathing, progressive queers. But there have been people left behind, people whose story is masked by this triumphalist narrative. What is less remarked upon is the fact that there exists at least one entire artistic medium – the theatre – which has also been ‘left behind’ in this progressive march towards progressive LGBT+ visibility.
Of course, there have been lots of fantastic queer and radical and dynamic LGBT+ plays – just think of Patient and Sarah, Slavs, or Fucking Men – but these plays have failed to achieve mainstream popularity. They have not entered the ‘popular imagination’ in Britain, if such a thing exists at all, in a way that vast numbers of, for instance, LGBT+ films have. Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right are familiar to most people; most educated people can take a stab at identifying Jeannette Winterson or Carol Ann Duffy. Yet, ask someone to name any gay-, bi- or trans-related show, and they will likely hesitate and concede ignorance.
It might be objected that this is explained by the fact that theatre in its entirety is not entrenched in people’s imagination. However, that suggestion is not as straightforwardly true as it might first appear. People who have never stepped through a theatre door can list off musicals, or assert that Taming of the Shrew is likely to be playing somewhere in London tonight. People know that Alan Bennett wrote plays, even if they have never sat down to a performance of The History Boys (which will be addressed shortly). It is not that theatre has failed to entrench itself in the popular cultural imagination, rather, it is LGBT+ theatre – understood either as theatre made by LGBT+ people or just as theatre explicitly focusing on LGBT+ themes – that has not made the same headway that a whole bunch of other mediums surely have.
Plainly, LGBT+ theatre does exist, certainly in the sense I have provisionally defined. However, even theatre which is LGBT+ largely tends to reinforce homophobic or transphobic tropes. With some noteworthy exceptions, theatre represents LGBT+ individuals and themes without the dimensionality and variety found offstage in the cinema and in literature. That is unlikely to just be a problem of genre. Something deeper is at work here. In The History Boys, the teacher is essentially a troubled, though nonetheless predatory, homosexual who preys on young (mostly heterosexual) boys. In Tipping the Velvet, the myth that lesbians hate men, whilst also secretly wishing they were men, is exploited. It is challenged too, but it is not challenged enough.
The stereotyping of LGBT+ individuals in theatre is best explained by the toxic tradition of parody, campness and hyper-femininity in which the British theatrical tradition is steeped. Oscar Wilde’s influence, and the trope of dandyesque camp that he is often taken to have embodied, looms large over British theatre to this day. The limp-wristed fairy remains a trope of British theatre in a manner which is unimaginable today, on television or in cinema. British theatre, socially conscious though it has assuredly become, remains enmeshed in a bourgeois and dated conception of parodic hyper-femininity with regards to gay men, and cheap 20th century mythic constructions of lesbianism. Trans people and other LGBT+ internal minorities rarely even get a look in.
We can and should demand more of theatre, alongside all other arts. Let’s continue to make sure that the arts serve as fertile ground for cultural production. It has got better. Let’s now tell people in British theatres to make it better.
Image: Alan Bennet’s The History Boys in film (credit torborgoeslondon)