- “We Will Be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre
“We Will Be Citizens,” which editor James Fisher names after Prior Walter’s prophetic curtain speech at the end of Angels in America, is an uneven addition to the literature of lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer (LGBTQ) theatre and performance studies. Although individual authors offer useful, perceptive contributions, the volume as a whole suffers from a lack of editorial rigor and insight. Fisher’s good intentions abound, but his introduction to the volume and his opening essay, “From Tolerance to Liberation,” belie a naïveté about the field and an ignorance of prior scholarship that has prepared the ground for his work. As a result, half of the volume reads as a rehash of very early scholarly perspectives, instead of pushing further into more current and sophisticated understandings of the field.
The essays collected fall across a wide spectrum of theoretical and critical acumen. The weakest summarize the plots of famous mainstream plays almost exclusively by men, repeating the by-now unconscionable tendency among similar collections to privilege gay men over lesbians. These essays fail to cite the existing literature, ignoring relevant work by Sue-Ellen Case, Lynda Hart, Kim Marra, David Román, David Savran, Robert Schanke, Alisa Solomon, and a host of other scholars who have written key texts in the field. John Clum’s early study, Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama (1992), is the only often-cited source. Their lack of engagement with foundational scholarship means that these authors reinvent a wheel that’s already been in motion for several decades.
The better essays in the volume provide far superior scholarship on work by LGBTQ artists who haven’t been fully considered previously. Jordan Schildcrout, for instance, reads Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls for what the play reveals about the symbolic power of the queer killer stereotype. Dialoguing with philosophers of evil and ethics, Schildcrout suggests that “when we make the queer and the killer into monsters, they take up residence in the realm of the symbolic, where they are endowed with extraordinary powers” (93). Schildcrout also engages Lee Edelman and Leo Bursani, queer theorists whose most recent work has challenged gay and lesbian strategies of assimilation through marriage and the military. Edelman’s book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, for example, has lately been a generative point of contention in queer studies. Schildcrout uses his ideas profitably to suggest that Silver’s play “enacts the very evil of which queer people are often accused in homophobic discourse” (that is, “the conception of queer people as detrimental to health, family, community, and nation” ) in order to deconstruct its pernicious assumptions. Challenging dominant ideology is vastly more productive than studying gay plays as pleas for tolerance and acceptance, as do several of the other essays, which reduce queer subjects to sniveling outsiders at the door of heteronormative life. Schildcrout reads Silver’s play with persuasive elegance; his reading makes me want to seek out the playwright’s opus.
Robert Gross, whose essay “The Last Gay Man” considers Silver’s Raised in Captivity against Richard Greenberg’s Hurrah at Last for how they both explore the “impoverished, gay, traumatized writer-hero” (159), offers a nuanced, eloquent exploration of mourning and melancholia in both plays to argue the necessity of public grieving for gay communities and to emphasize the importance of gay theatre to American culture. Gross proposes that by studying these two plays, “we can see how the increasing collective traumatization of gay culture in the ’90s led to increasing fragmentation, how the introduction of protease inhibitors, while introducing hope and health to many, also had the unintended consequence of sharply curtailing mourning, and that consumption increasingly became both a substitute for sexual desire and an entry into the mainstream” (175). Gross’s astute analysis thoughtfully contributes not only to LGBTQ theatre studies, but to thinking on how theatre both reflects and shapes the culture in which it lives.
Manon van de Water and Annie...