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  • The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era
  • Laurence Senelick
The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era. Edited by Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, and Robert A. Schanke. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Pp. 440. $75.00 (cloth).

Each of the issues of Magnus Hirschfeld's Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen devoted at least one essay to the putative homosexuality of some great figure from the past: Henri III, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Louise Michel, Hans Christian Andersen (in the volume under review here his name is misspelled every time it occurs). The purpose was twofold: to use documentary evidence to determine the historical relativity of same-sex feelings and to promote the cause of homosexual "liberation" by claiming illustrious ancestors. This genealogical treasure hunt devolved into the lists and potted biographies exemplified by A. L. Rowse's Homosexuals in History (1977). In most cases the latter purpose overshadowed the former. Catalogs of who was a member of the club were somehow supposed to bolster self-esteem and help crystallize sexual identity. In furtherance of the cause strict principles of historiography were jettisoned. The past was presented as the present in fancy dress, not unlike a Hollywood costume [End Page 502] epic. Nero and Oscar Wilde were lumped together as what the twentieth century called a "homosexual" because they both enjoyed physical intimacy with social inferiors of their own gender.

To attempt this kind of taxonomy for the theater is, as Dr. Johnson might say, to number the stripes of the tulip. The editors of The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy admit at the outset that the theater is traditionally a haven for homosexuality. From its inception the theater has battened on same-sex desire, cross-dressing, and gender ambiguity both in its subject matter and its personnel. Whatever their specific motivations, the age-old assaults by moralists and censors display an awareness of this fact. Even now a love of musical comedy is taken as the mark of an effeminate, and high school drama clubs serve as de facto gay-straight alliances. No reliable statistics exist on the percentage of homosexuals in the theater, but an informal survey conducted by the German homophile magazine Die Freundschaft in 1920 revealed that 75 percent of "Urnings," when asked to name their preferred profession, said "actor." The decimation of the ranks of male performers in the first wave of the AIDS crisis provided its own proof of prevalence in the performing arts, and the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts came from an awakening awareness of this presence in the public at large.

Since the editors of The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy provide a definition of "gay and lesbian" so broad as to embrace such vagaries as unacted desires, lack of interest in the opposite sex, and underground reputations, it might make more sense to distinguish who is incontrovertibly heterosexual in the theatrical sphere. What is the point of creating a biographical dictionary of "gays and lesbians" in the American theater? What is the point of using so ahistorical and indiscriminate a term? And what is the point of lumping together persons who openly flaunted their sexual tastes with those whose sexuality, directed toward whatever object, is barely evident? A voracious consumer of hustlers such as Cole Porter is an odd bedfellow for the inhibited Thornton Wilder or the all-but-asexual Alexander Woollcott.

The editors are aware of these questions and attempt to answer them in an introduction that serves as a preemptive strike. Their stated goal is "to make queer American theater history more visible and accessible by collecting in a single volume biographical entries" (1). "Sexuality permeates people's beliefs, actions and social relations, . . . how they see and function in the world" (2). "Acknowledging and analyzing the sexualities of notable historical figures not only corrects distortions of their individual lives but helps debunk negative stereotypes oppressive to all members of the gay and lesbian community." Finally, "in demonstrating the specificity and diversity...


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pp. 502-508
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