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Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans by Robert A. Schanke (review)

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 200-202 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Fifteen years ago, while in the midst of a campus "culture wars" controversy over a production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America at Wabash College, I received from a student a poem intended as an expression of support. Its last lines are directed at an anonymous gay man living in the year 2040—"You are Unafraid and Unashamed and Young. Your Body is unfettered, your voice strengthened by all our Anonymous, Unchronicled Wars"—words that came rushing to mind while reading Robert A. Schanke's absorbing Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans. In his preface, Schanke offers a 1979 quote from Yeomans ruminating in a tone similar to my student's: "Perhaps in years to come some young queen will find [my writings] in an old trunk bought at an auction, will read [them] and say, 'My God! Was that the way it was? Times sure have changed.' Let us pray for that anyway" (xv). Yeomans's prayer for changing times is much closer to reality in 2011, a fact that stands out in bold relief to a reader of Schanke's scholarly yet highly readable book on the "Unchronicled" life and career of Cal Yeomans.

Many iconoclastic artists are likely to lead lives filled with contradictions, and Yeomans is no exception. Raised by a conservative Christian family in Florida, he also had a mother who exhibited strong feminist proclivities, which allowed him to experience from an early age the deep cultural divisions of mid-twentieth-century America. The deeply conflicted (and bipolar) Yeomans ultimately emerged as a pioneer of early 1970s gay theatre. In that period he was nearly singular in his radical exploration of explicitly sexual subject matter, radical in that its frank depictions of same-sex relations were controversial even within the gay community. Despite considerable accomplishment in off-and off-off-Broadway theatres, Yeomans is little known today, even to those with knowledge of LGBT theatre history. Schanke's book goes a long way to rectify this omission.

Arguing a convincing case for Yeomans's place among that first wave of bold, gay dramatists whose plays kicked open the closet, Schanke stresses Yeomans's centrality among his peers. Better-known Yeomans contemporaries including Lanford Wilson, Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, and Robert Chesley have received somewhat more scholarly attention to date (if, as yet, too little), but Schanke also reveals much about the movement as well as the plays of Yeomans, the specific themes he explored, and what his turbulent life represents. Without question, the overtly sexual aspects of Yeomans's plays, some of which were nurtured under the guidance of Ellen Stewart at LaMama, kept his work out of the mainstream limelight, a fact true of much gay-themed drama prior to the 1980s. However, Schanke makes clear that Yeomans's achievement merits a more central place among his peers.

To understand Yeomans's work, it is essential to understand his life within the context of his work. Troubled by erratic mental health, Yeomans found his way to the stage while a business student at Florida State University, gaining experience in summer stock and at Atlanta's Pocket Theatre. Once in New York, Yeomans labored in various capacities at LaMama, but in this period his bipolarity damaged professional and personal relationships. He ultimately moved to San Francisco and there began writing plays, including his 1979 Cable Car Award-winning Richmond Jim, produced by Theatre Rhinoceros and during the first New York Gay Arts Festival. Robert Chesley called it the "first genuinely gay play" (93), and it generated considerable controversy, even within the gay community, at the time. Along with his subsequent plays, it represents only part of his creative legacy; Yeomans was also a poet and an accomplished photographer. Following a 1996 diagnosis of AIDS, he spent his final years focused on philanthropic activities, including the establishment of a professorship in his mother's name at the University of Florida, where his papers are housed. When unearthed by Schanke, this treasure trove of play scripts, poetry, extensive journals, various records of performances, photographs, and other personal effects provided an essential and invaluable foundation for this book.

The book succeeds on many levels, but...

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