- How Theatre Educates: Convergences and Counterpoints with Artists, Scholars, and Advocates, and: Languages of Theatre Shaped by Women, and: Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theater History
Oscar Wilde once made a provocative claim about the unlikely connections that theatre enables: "The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life." The contributors to these three volumes of essays examine, in disparate ways, how practitioners of diverse art forms clash and converge in making theatre. In each book, the authors analyze how the goals and compromises embroiled in making theatre for public audiences often lead to deep transformations in participants' understanding of the borders between "performance" and "life."
The thread uniting these collections is a focus on pedagogy: How does theatre educate, and what can it teach us about producing substantial voices for the dissident fears, desires, and possibilities that its creators cannot readily articulate in daily life? However, each takes up a distinct arena of nonconformist performance, analyzing the histories, methodologies, and subjectivities of the artists involved. In Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theatre History, Kim Marra and Robert A. Schanke build on their previous book, Passing Performances (University of Michigan Press, 1998), gathering critical and biographical essays on notable stage personalities who made their mark before Stonewall. Whereas Passing Performances studied how same-sex desires influenced the professional lives and artistic sensibilities of "leading players," Staging Desire attends to "the careers of noted playwrights, lyricists, critics, and designers" (3). Shaping theatrical representations from offstage, these less conspicuous practitioners faced different risks and opportunities than their more visible, often more powerful counterparts.
But where do we look to uncover how figures such as Clyde Fitch, Rachel Crothers, Mercedes de Costa, Djuna Barnes, Cole Porter, Eric Bentley, Lois Fuller, and Jean Rosenthal used their behind-the-scenes roles as strategic positions from which to inscribe or embody unconventional desires? Contributors use a historical approach that combines letters written by selected artists, [End Page 192] the queer nuances of their plays or lyrics, and the sexual politics couched in their criticism and visual designs, slowly building "circumstantial cases" (9) about private lives. While admitting that ethical questions surface about revealing intimate details that subjects "fought hard to conceal" (4), they contend that "sexuality permeates peoples' beliefs, actions, and social relations; it is not only a question of whom they desire but how they see and function in the world" (5).
Significantly, Staging Desire also demonstrates "the specificity and diversity of sexualities through time," departing from common "constructions of a monolithic, unchanging 'homosexuality' that [...] denies people their individual differences" (6). Divided into three sections, "Playwrights and Lyricists," "Critics and Audiences," and "Designers and Dancers," each traces how practitioners worked within and against the conceptual frameworks of normalcy and deviancy that defined their times. For example, 19th-century critics James Oakes and Adam Badeau tactically used their reviews to express "manly love" (241) for the actors they adored, and their critiques were lauded as properly patriotic forms of "attachment and comradeship" (252). Yet by the early 20th century, passionate displays of same-sex attraction "came to be read, when seen at all, through an increasingly homophobic lens" (252). Eric Bentley took decades to "come out of the closet" in print.
Collectively, these artists embraced theatre as a "primary means of containing as well as expressing [...] transgressive desire" (43). However, the forms such negotiation took in their work are contingent on gender, class, ethnicity, and "collaborations with performers" (382). Each passed as white, though many...