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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 883-884
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It is a commonplace to assert that "the media" in the last thirty years has been an important arena for articulating, challenging, reinforcing, or just plain acknowledging dissident sexualities, specifically homosexuality. The importance of Alan Sinfield's Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century is, in part, Sinfield's reminder that the theater has been and continues to be just as complex and contested a space for the representation of sexual dissidents as, say, the modern novel or contemporary television. Theater is, of course, an anxious subject for many, and for gay men especially, given the stereotypical association of the stage and queer sexuality. The association is often made by those who want to marginalize both, and Sinfield's helpful survey of a vast number of plays, some performed and some not, reminds us how important stagecraft is to modern culture and how representations of gay men and lesbians helped script that stagecraft, whether explicitly present or not. "It is indeed central to my argument," Sinfield reminds the reader at the outset, "that theatre generally has been shot through with images and practices of queerness" (4).
Most of the book is a survey of pre-1970s work, revealing the erroneous [End Page 883] assumption that most of that work, because it dealt in indirection, did not deal with queer topics at all. I found Sinfield's frequent references to contemporaneous critical responses to the plays illuminating and entertaining. Students of the theater will appreciate his glosses of little-known playwrights and their creations. The chapter on just who in No‘l Coward's audience got his entendres, doubled or not, and on how straight-identified, middle-class audiences were made to feel that they were in on a joke that they also knew they weren't quite getting, seems right. "For those who wanted to hear it," Sinfield asserts, Coward "contributed specifically to gay subcultural formation" (107). Further elaboration of the making of that "knowing subculture" (106) would demand an examination of Joseph Litvak's key book on homosexuality and sophistication, Strange Gourmet: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel, in concert with Sinfield's exposition.
Specialists on American theater know all too well that there is no clear, bright line of cultural demarcation to be drawn between New York and London. Sinfield acknowledges this and does not try to make a simple distinction between the United States and the United Kingdom. Present are investigations of Oscar Wilde and Coward, of course, with treatments of Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman, and some wrangling with Joe Orton—all folks one could not ignore in any treatment of the theater, especially queer theater. The seventeen chapters of this thorough book, however, use those names to orient a reading of theater culture generally, along the way showing the importance of the stage in articulating society's sexual other.
My one criticism of Out on Stage is that Sinfield decides to draw what he admits is an "arbitrary" line around theater as a performance art, to the exclusion of everything from pantomime to musicals. An understanding of the porous ways that representations flow from music to text to performance to culture would need, at the very least, to gesture toward these important practices, which influence the work on or behind the stage. This is, admittedly, a small problem for a large study. The outrage and anxiety evinced by television and print commentators when the 2003 Tony Awards "came out"—with a play about gay baseball players (full frontal nudity!) and eight of those Tony's joyously bestowed on John Waters's Hairspray—underlines the necessity for an account of the centrality of the theater in queer cultural life, which is to say, the life of the United States. Sinfield's book will prove another important reference.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill