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  • Antonio’s (Happy) Ending:Queer Closure in All-Male Twelfth Night
  • Chad Allen Thomas (bio)

It is more or less common knowledge, popularized by John Madden’s film Shakespeare in Love, that in Shakespeare’s time male actors played female roles because women were forbidden from appearing on the public stage. Young men (called “boy-actors”) played romantic ingénues, such as Juliet, whereas mature male actors played comic roles and older women, such as Juliet’s Nurse and Lady Capulet. Whatever the historical context, and whatever response these performances elicited from their original audiences, the tradition of the “transvestite stage” (male actors playing female roles) has helped make early modern plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries compelling for scholars of early modern sexuality.1 Shortly after the start of the English Civil War in 1642, Parliament closed the theaters and banned public stage plays altogether; however, after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II lifted the restriction against women on the public stage, and cross-gender casting quickly became more or less an antiquated practice in the professional theater. Certainly cross-gender casting remained common enough at all-boys and all-girls schools, and even resurfaced on the professional stage as part of British pantomime in the nineteenth century, but the practice was regarded mostly as a relic of days past. In fact, when Ben Greet directed a professional all-male production of As You Like It at the Central London YMCA in 1920—the first such production in 250 years—he explicitly sought to reconstruct the historical past by capitalizing on the premise of recuperating original stage practices.2

After Greet, the next professional all-male production of Shakespeare did not occur for another forty-seven years; however, it broke with Greet’s proposition that historical re-creation was the main reason to present [End Page 221] an all-male production. The National Theatre’s all-male As You Like It (Clifford Williams, 1967) toured across Europe and the United States to great acclaim, extolling “the infinite beauty of Man in love—which lies at the very heart of As You Like It.”3 In Williams’s production, “Man in love” is a metaphor for humanity in a spiritually transcendental state, and he argues that the Forest of Arden is akin to heaven on earth, a place that “transcends sensuality in the search for poetic sexuality.”4 Yet Williams staunchly rejected the notion that his casting of men in women’s roles in this romantic comedy might be affirmative of homosexuality; of course, this is not surprising as Gay Liberation would not start in earnest until 1969. Instead, Williams insisted that his production embodied Jan Kott’s idea of “eroticism free from the limitations of the body…a dream of love free from the limitations of sex. It is for this reason that I employ a male cast, so that we shall not—entranced by the surface reality—miss the interior truth.”5 Even though Williams’s production represents a shift from cross-gendered casting as historical recreation to all-male casts in a modern, conceptual context, it nonetheless seems more aligned with the performative traditions of Panto and was lauded chiefly for its comedic effect. For example, in one of his early roles, Anthony Hopkins as Audrey yodeled and sported a blond wig styled in a big bouffant.

More recently, however, a return to the practice of cross-gender casting in Shakespeare has taken place, challenging our modern sensibilities, especially in regard to staging erotic possibility, sexual identity, and gender fluidity. As I argue elsewhere, this movement began in the 1970s at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow (or Citz), which reintroduced cross-gender casting as one of several radical aesthetics of performance in an all-male production of Hamlet (Giles Havergal, 1970). Throughout the 1970s, the Citz presented many cross-gender cast productions of Shakespeare’s plays, which, I argue elsewhere, were performed frequently within the context of the Gay Liberation movement. A few years later, in 1991, Declan Donnellan’s company Cheek by Jowl presented an all-male As You Like It that shared in the Citz’s interest in gay male culture, but...


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