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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 321-322
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What do the scents of sex and money and the texture and materiality of Fire Island's seemingly un-closeted vacationers have to do with a study of queer theatre in America? David Savran's visceral preface sets up an intellectual journey that will tackle the conflicted relations between spectatorship, cultural production, and queer politics. His mode of engaging these issues is as supple as his sites of analysis are varied. Written over a ten-year period, this collection of essays strategically combines informal anecdotes with academic inflection, "examining the popular next to the elite, the sacred next to the profane, the aesthetic next to the economic" (ix).
Savran's approach hinges on a belief in the "singular importance of an economic analysis of culture and society" (x). However, he quickly expands what it means to assess queer cultural production from a financial standpoint: "To (re)construct the context of a play or performance, I am obliged to defamiliarize it, to analyze its historical location, and to map the different cultural fields in which it takes positions" (ix). His reasons for launching this inquiry on Fire Island become clearer as readers discern the complex layers of anxiety, desire, and socio-economic struggle "that produce—and are produced by—what we call American theatre" (25). Just as the island "is a place of restless dissimulation in which what you see is never quite what you get" (vii), so too are the competing fields of art, commerce, class, and entertainment that underlie American theatre-going.
The first section of this two-part book takes up "Historical Pageants." Cognizant of money's intimate ties to sexuality and social hierarchies, Savran investigates why the term "middlebrow" came to define the caste of people who frequented America's post-World War II theatres. During the 1950s, a period marked by the "unprecedented availability of luxury goods, both utilitarian and decorative" (5), traditional oppositions between highbrow and lowbrow failed to account for the unparalleled range of cultural consumption within the United States. In an effort to distinguish highbrow's genteel patrons from the deviant, often feminized subjects who consumed that "promiscuous mixture of commerce and art, entertainment and politics . . . erotic and intellectual" (15) stimulation known as theatre, "middlebrow culture" was coined.
Whereas highbrow art depends on "its purported refusal of commodity status," and its ability to signify "cultural purity" (5), theatre increasingly signals cultural anxiety. Savran explains: "Middlebrow producers, consumers, and critics alike are always looking over their shoulder, always fearful of encroachments from above or below . . . always trying to negotiate between creativity and the exigencies of the marketplace" (10). Interestingly, he identifies this paranoid category as "useful for theorizing the predicament of theatre in the United States" (17). Throughout his first section, Savran traces theatre's "ebbing popularity, its steady decline as a vital force on the American cultural scene" (17). However, he also explores a more ironic phenomenon: the rise of queerness as "a way of elevating what used to be called lowbrow entertainment" (78).
Even today, queerness provides "a frisson of danger . . . a whiff of high style," remaining "one of the most efficient ways of accruing cultural capital" (78). In an effort to fathom abjection's paradoxical cachet on Broadway, Savran assesses Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals. His analyses of South Pacific and Rent demonstrate how this genre consistently deploys queer and racialized subjects to reassure middlebrow audiences of their liberal values: they [End Page 321] are paying, after all, to empathize with the oppressed. Huey Lewis and the News contend it is "Hip to be Square," but Savran illuminates why the opposite is true: on American stages, it's hip to be black and gay—hipper still if you're also HIV-positive. Just don't ask Broadway's well-heeled spectators for anything more than applause!
Turning to a more promising theory of theatre's relation to queerness...