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Theater 33.2 (2003) 102-105
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Stephen J. Bottoms
Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theater History edited by Kim Marra and Robert A. Schanke 2002: University of Michigan Press
Staging Desire is the second of a projected three-volume set that seeks to excavate the hidden history of gay and lesbian artists whose work in the American theater predated the liberation movements sparked by the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The first volume, Passing Performances, published in 1998, documented the lives and work of actors, directors, producers, and agents, while the current volume addresses playwrights, lyricists, designers, and critics. The planned third volume will be a biographical encyclopedia, with shorter entries for "well over a hundred figures from the full range of theatrical occupations." That task sounds monumental, but judging by the standards set in the first two volumes, the editors are well up to it.
The essays in this new collection are highly engaging and rigorously researched. Their authors faced many challenges, one of the most significant being the need to gather sufficient scholarly evidence to demonstrate persuasively that the figures discussed were indeed primarily homosexual or homoerotic in orientation. The editors note that they omitted some of the planned essays because their authors could not provide adequate evidence of their subjects' homosexuality, despite hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Even so, several of the essays do rely substantially on conjecture and probability in claiming their subjects as other-than-heterosexual. The essays on playwright Rachel Crothers and lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, for example (by J. K. Curry and Jay Scott Chipman, respectively), are careful not to apply the label lesbian to women who may not have considered themselves homosexual. Both these pieces rely instead on Leila J. Rupp's term women-committed women, and each offers a carefully argued case for seeing its subject's avoidance of marriage in this light. Certainly, one could quibble over details. As Curry shows, for instance, Crothers provided the press with extensive explanations for remaining single that would be perfectly plausible from a heterosexual woman who had simply not found a satisfactory partner. Yet Crothers lived for decades with a [End Page 102] female companion who kept her home, and while this fact alone might not hold up in a court of law as evidence of same-sex desire, neither do we have to consider a person "presumed heterosexual until proven homosexual."
Only five of the fourteen chapters in Staging Desire deal primarily with female artists, however—a fact that, as the editors note, says as much about the relative invisibility of lesbians in this period as it does about the American theater's domination by men. That said, though, the historical silence over sexual difference is such that even "men-committed men" are apparently difficult to identify in the theater before the late nineteenth century, when the clinical categorizations of sexologists first began to draw distinctions between "heterosexual" and "homosexual" behavior. As a result, almost all the essays in this volume deal with artists who worked primarily in the first half of the twentieth century or the last decade of the nineteenth. The relatively limited temporal scope of the collection, however, proves a positive virtue, for the combined essays provide a sense of the many different ways these theater artists experienced and expressed their sense of otherness during this not-so-long-ago period.
Some intriguing contrasts emerge. For example, Kim Marra's excellent essay on Clyde Fitch finds its counterpoint in Billy J. Harbin's piece on George Kelly. Both argue persuasively that these playwrights' mainstream theater work can be read in terms of a sublimation, or even a forced repression, of their same-sex desires. Fitch apparently shared a passionately physical relationship with Oscar Wilde around 1889-90, and his first play, Beau Brummel (1890), celebrated the Wildean cult of the dandy. Following Wilde's trials and imprisonment, however, Fitch's work took a telling turn toward conventional attitudes regarding gender and sexuality—a forcible closing of his own closet door for survival's sake. Marra ingeniously characterizes this shift of emphasis as a...