- Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans
In Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans, Robert Schanke argues convincingly for the inclusion of Cal Yeomans in the canon of playwrights associated with the gay-theatre movement of the post-Stonewall era. To date, Yeomans has not received as much scholarly attention as other gay playwrights, such as Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Robert Patrick, Terrence McNally, Doric Wilson, Robert Chesley, and Tony Kushner, to name but a few. To redress this omission, Schanke thoroughly reconstructs Yeomans’s life and work, situating him within the cultural moment of the 1970s and ’80s and examining his plays in relation to the discourses of the gay-liberation movement and the AIDS crisis.
Drawing from interviews with several of Yeomans’s friends and co-workers, as well as his diaries, photographs, letters, poetry, and plays, Schanke presents a biography that opens up into a cultural, social, and historical analysis of Yeomans’s work. The book is organized chronologically into ten chapters, with titles representative of Yeomans’s writing style, such as “Horrible Misfit,” “Pornography? Why Not?” and “Living with a Death Sentence.” Through an insightful examination of Yeomans’s life and work, Schanke convincingly establishes him as an equal among his peers.
Schanke begins by reconstructing the playwright’s life in great detail, beginning with his privileged up-bringing in the conservative American South of the 1950s. As Schanke discusses, Yeomans came of age in a religious environment that made him struggle with his sexuality, inducing feelings of estrangement and inferiority that haunted him throughout his life (chapter 1). Schanke also meticulously details Yeomans’s discovery of drama while studying business at Florida State University and his early work as an actor and acting teacher at the Atlanta School of Acting and Workshop Theatre, which he founded with Fred Chappell in the 1960s (chapter 2). This experience led to an invitation to join Ellen Stewart’s renowned La MaMa theatre in New York City in the 1970s, where Yeomans developed an experimental style that incited Stewart’s objections to the explicit homosexual nature of his work (chapter 3). As this episode suggests, Yeomans’s artistic vision was uncommon, and sexual expression became a crucial part of his life and work that he was not willing to stifle. Writing to a friend who was offended by the frankness of one of his plays, Yeomans explained that sex was “one of the great mysteries & motivators of life filled with humor & splendor and pathos” (qtd. on p. 102). The challenging nature of his work and artistic temperament (he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder) not only damaged his personal and professional relationships, but also led him to be institutionalized at various mental hospitals.
In chapters 4–6, Schanke recounts Yeomans’s move to San Francisco, where he was drawn by the production of two of his plays, Richmond Jim and Sunsets: A Beach Trilogy, and by his friendship with the playwright Robert Chesley. There, in the emerging gay theatre of the 1970s and ’80s, he rose to success with his frank and explicit portrayals of gay male sexuality. Richmond Jim, for example, which premiered at the newly founded Theatre Rhinoceros in 1979, tells the story of a young man from the South whose sexual encounter with an older man in Manhattan introduces him to the world of bondage and leather sex and turns the naïve youth into a menacing leather man. Sunsets, which premiered in New York City in 1981 and was followed by the production in San Francisco, consists of three short plays set outside a public toilet on a deserted beach in Florida where lonely men search for love.
The final chapters of the book detail the premature end of Yeomans’s career when, with the advent of the AIDS crisis, his sexually explicit material became taboo (chapters 7–8). Schanke recounts these years as [End Page 625] professionally frustrating for Yeomans, who rarely found production outlets for his plays—even for staged readings of his work. Yet Yeomans refused...