- Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure by Sara Warner
Sara Warner’s award-winning Acts of Gaiety has received a good deal of critical attention and praise in the three years since its initial publication. Winner of the Outstanding Book Award by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in 2013, that same year it was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Studies, and received an honorable mention for the prestigious Barnard Hewitt Award of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). Given these numerous and well-deserved accolades, my aim in this review is to contribute to the scholarly conversation already in progress, rather than reprise what has already been said.
In about a dozen pages of preface, Warner lays out the theoretical framework around which the book is organized and explains her original taxonomy. She defines acts of gaiety as: “comical and cunning interventions that make a mockery of discrimination and the experience of social exclusion” (xi). Warner convincingly argues that such acts, which include “zap actions, pageants, parades, spectacles, kiss-ins, camp, kitsch, and drag” (xi) are essential modes of performance that engender mirth and merriment, while simultaneously lobbing a powerful, often scathing, critique regarding the treatment of sexual minorities by the dominant culture. These moments of activist, political performance are celebrated as jubilant, gleeful responses to serious social struggle. In other words? You have to laugh, or else you’ll cry your eyes out.
Warner identifies two foes of gaiety: homoliberalism, the hard right turn the LGBT movement took in its quest toward equality, and the elision of time. Homoliberalism, with its emphasis on traditional, conservative values such as marriage equality and the nuclear family, views gaiety as a threat to its goal of reinscribing the hegemonic norm and encouraging assimilation over diversity. With the elision of time, Warner argues that “the queer canon is almost devoid of representations of lesbian sexuality, and it is sorely lacking in depictions of women laughing, joking, or camping it up. This absence reinforces the stereotype [End Page 97] that dykes are dowdy and dogmatic, solemn and strident” (xviii). Warner contends that acts of lesbian gaiety from the sixties, seventies, and eighties have largely been forgotten and ignored by subsequent generations of activists, and subsumed by the homoliberal agenda. Her goal then, using five in-depth case studies, is to recover these gleeful acts as agents of revolutionary social and political change.
Before turning to the individual events, Warner provides a concise, thirty-page introduction to the field of queer performance studies. She succinctly weaves together political history and current events, tracing the origin of the word gay from adjective to identity, while highlighting major queer artists and moments in the modern LGBT movement. As an overview, it could easily be extracted and assigned to undergraduates as a helpful primer in any number of theatre courses. Although the specialist reader will benefit more from the body chapters, this introduction is accessible to even the most novice reader, making it eminently useable.
The five case studies are meticulously researched using a variety of archival and primary source material. In chapter one, Warner focuses on the “Scummy” Acts of Valerie Solanas, and primarily on the 1965 play Up Your Ass, correcting many persistent scholarly errors that have been made about Solanas’s life and work. Today, sadly, Solanas is typically identified only as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Warner, however, identifies her as the author of the “earliest, most provocative, and profoundly seditious lesbian feminist play in the history of American drama…a riotous and uproarious parody of heteronormativity, racial stereotypes, and gender roles” (32). Easily her strongest chapter, this case study showcases Warner’s strengths—groundbreaking archival research, keenly situated within theoretical and historical context, and sharply observed commentary that is both humorous and biting.
The remaining chapters tackle: anti-marriage “zaps” by lesbian feminist collectives; the anti-assimilationist antics of Village Voice critic and columnist Jill Johnston (one of the...