- The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater
This stimulating collection of essays critically examines and celebrates what, for centuries, many have deeply feared and many others have known and cherished to be true—that theatre is, indeed, the queerest art. Where other studies of queer theatre have been more literary or biographical, or period-, city-, or genre-specific, this volume casts a wider net, one thrown by both leading scholars and practitioners, in order to capture the manifold nature of theatre's queerness and to consider why diverse queer people have been so drawn to the world of the stage. But while embracing theatre as the queerest art, the editors and contributors also try unabashedly to confront the terminological problems and ethnic, class, and gender tensions that inflect the word "queer" and established dynamics of queer theatre practice.
As coeditors Solomon and Minwalla note in their preface, the volume was inspired by the 1995 Queer Theatre Conference sponsored by CLAGS (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York), an event that helped mark a decade of unprecedented visibility of lesbian and gay culture. The Queerest Art comprises 16 pieces, a mixture of verbatim conference proceedings and essays penned on reflection about ideas raised by presenters. Jill Dolan's stirring keynote address introduces the volume. "To be queer is not who you are, it's what you do, it's your relation to dominant power, and your relation to marginality, as a place of empowerment," she asserts (5). Moreover, she posits theatre as a form of historiography encompassing the cultural memory of queer people, a compelling notion given that so much evidence of the queer past was destroyed or never written down, and embodied performance and oral communication have had to be our primary forms of knowledge transmission.
In view of that legacy, it is especially significant that this volume, while not claiming comprehensive coverage, constitutes a written—and appropriately fraught—history of queer theatre. From the Puritan screed, Histriomastix, to Jesse Helms's fulminations against the NEA, to the 1998 attack on San Antonio's Esperanza Center by conservative gay men, Alisa Solomon ("Great Sparkles of Lust: Homophobia and the Anti-Theatrical Tradition") inquires into why homophobic panic throbs at the heart of age-old theatrical prejudice. Her [End Page 188] provocative answer: theatre is inherently sodomitical because of how its processes disrupt conventional patterns of seeing and knowing bodies. In their respective looks at female same-sex erotics in Shakespearean England and male same-sex erotics in the Restoration, Valerie Traub ("Setting the Stage behind the Seen: Performing Lesbian History") and George Haggerty (" 'The Man I Love': The Erotics of Friendship in Restoration Theater") try to understand the terms by which those particular pasts articulated queerness. Interrogating India's postcolonial reverence for the Western canon, Ania Loomba (" 'Porno Tropics': Some Thoughts on Shakespeare, Colonialism, and Sexuality") highlights how foreign peoples and lands in Shakespeare became a homoerotic site for the European imagination.
As the volume's historiography moves into the modern and contemporary eras, the purview of queer theatre takes a decidedly noncanonical turn, beginning with Laurence Senelick's risky attempt at a definition ("The Queer Root of Theater"):
To speak in general terms, queer theater is grounded in and expressive of unorthodox sexuality or gender identity, antiestablishment and confrontational in tone, experimental and unconventional in format, with stronger links to performance art and what the Germans call Kleinkunst, that is, revue, cabaret, and variety than to traditional forms of drama.(21)
Where Senelick cites mainly European and British examples (e.g., the Glasgow Citizen's Theatre), Don Shewey (" 'Be True to Yearning': Notes on the Pioneers of Queer Theater") shifts the scene to New York City and the "gay artistic demimonde of the 1960s and '70s," highlighting pioneering companies and venues such as La MaMa, Judson Poet's Theatre, Caffe Cino, TOSOS, The Glines, and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company...