Howard Crabtree, the musical-comedy performer and giddily imaginative costume designer who died of AIDS in June 1996, created his final opus
When Pigs Fly as a tribute to the "Dream Curlys" of the world. You know, the ones who, in the high school production of
Oklahoma!, got cast as the lead dancer in the dream-ballet sequence and got to wear a cowboy hat and pink tights cinched with a holster. All the nelly boys left adrift by adolescent social activities who stepped into their power dancing in musicals, sewing sequins onto faux-royal costumes, or staying up all night painting original backdrops for stage sets. All the pale, bookish, androgynous, flamboyant, odd-looking creatures either born with or socialized into "a talent to amuse," no less valuable to the world than other talent, though frequently less valued.
The history of queer theater was written on the bodies of its creators. The people who could pass usually did. They pursued "careers" in the "straight" theater where fellow out-to-you/closeted-to-them agents, casting directors, and friends counseled them carefully (as Noel Coward once did Cecil Beaton) on how to avoid appearing "obvious." Some of us, though, were so gay we couldn't help showing it. In the panel discussion "From the Invisible to the Ridiculous," Everett Quinton told an attentive audience that as a kid he liked to wrap a towel around his head and makes faces in the bathroom mirror. For years, he thought he was insane, to the point of attempting suicide, until he was cruising Christopher Street one night and had the good fortune to pick up a man in whose theater company such passionate playfulness was
de rigeur. That was, of course, Charles Ludlam, who once said in an interview, "Gay people have always found a refuge in the arts, and the Ridiculous Theatre is notable for admitting it. The people in it -- and it is a very sophisticated theater, culturally -- never dream of hiding anything about themselves that they feel is honest and true and the best part of themselves."
As Randy Conner documents in his extraordinary cross-cultural study Blossom of
Bone (1993), there have been gender-variant individuals since the beginning of recorded history. Sometimes embraced and sometimes reviled by their societies, they often found their place in houses of worship as priests and priestesses, devotees and attendants to temples in honor of revered deities. When the Inquisition and other medieval sex-negative crusades set about eradicating the pagan sensuality rampant just below the surface of ostensibly monotheistic religions, it simply re-asserted itself in the semi-secular realm of the artists. Theater in particular is the art form that most methodically assembles the elements of sacred ritual -- consecrated space, designated time, community of celebrants, and preparations that consume 90% of the total energy of the enterprise.
The term "Queer Theatre" first appeared, I believe, in Stefan Brecht's book of the same name. Published in 1978, Brecht's loving, fanatical chronicle (compiled from copious diary entries) focused on a handful of phenomena from the gay artistic demimonde of the '60s and '70s: Jack Smith, John Vaccaro, Ronald Tavel, Charles Ludlam, the Hot Peaches, the Ballets Trockadero, and filmmaker John Waters. These creatures were sophisticated, ironic, prickly, highly cultured, eccentric -- a far cry from any definition of queer theater that centers on such heartfelt but essentially white-bread plays like
Love! Valor! Compassion! or one-man shows like The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.
In his book, Brecht quotes at length from an essay by George Denniston published in the journal
American Review in 1973. Denniston recalled stepping out of a bar in the theater district at midnight and spying a fantastic androgynous creature. He was so captivated that, like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, he followed this person down the street and into the doorway of a small theater, where he witnessed an otherwise forgotten queer-theater spectacle called
Whores of the Apostles.
The performance belonged, Denniston said, "neither to the masculine world nor the feminine, but to the world of the imagination. More specifically, to the imagination captured by yearning. Their play-acting was like the make-believe of children, who with a few gestures and rags of costumes, skate as it were over sunlit ice, a ground of infinite possibility; with this difference, of course: that the grown-up actors had chosen a ground of the impossible, one would say the eternal impossible. Their blasphemy, their outrageous egotism, their sense of magic may have seemed demonic, but in fact they were priestly figures, they were acting out for us the wilderness of lust and crime against which we experience our social cohesion. In the biblical sense, they enacted the scapegoat. Their method, too, for all its wildness, was a spiritual method: be true to impulse and delight, be true to yearning. It leads to catastrophe, of course, but that was already behind them, for these were not ordinary people. Or put it another way: the catastrophe, already, is behind us all. It is the death of the heart to deny it. And since there is no other ground to dance upon, why, dance upon it!"
Every gay homosexual queer knows the feeling of tumbling down the rabbit hole and finding yourself in the Wonderland. For many of us, making theater was the initiation into experiencing queer self; for some, it was the other way around. Queerness and theater seem inextricably linked, twined around each other like flesh and spirit.
In the 1950s and early '60s, gay culture was a secret society of introductions, special knocks, passwords, highly codified behavior, a subterranean hothouse protected from and invisible to the bland, conformist, post-McCarthy era dominant culture. There were no openly gay bookstores, gay magazines, or gay talkshows. (Of course, there were gay bookstore clerks, gay magazine editors, and gay talkshow hosts, though not necessarily openly so.) You couldn't go to the newsstand in Sheridan Square and pick up the
Advocate, Out, HX, New York Native, Honcho, or
this journal. You would not find the word "gay" in the New York
Times, or the word "homosexual" anywhere without heavy negative vibes. The Christopher Street clone hadn't been invented yet. No one paraded the streets with nipple rings or pierced septums. Theater in the West Village did not include
Dressing Room Divas, Nuns Against Filth, Cute Boys in Their Underpants, or
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. There were drag cotillions and skin shows where fairies congregated to entertain one another, but on the QT.
There were plenty of gay people creating important theater in the '50s and '60s and '70s who are never included in the pantheon when "queer theater" (or its tamer cousin, "gay theater," or that imaginary being, "gay and lesbian theater") is discussed: Joseph Chaikin, Julian Beck, Jose Quintero, Ellis Rabb, Norris Houghton, Robert Moss, Richard Barr, Tom O'Horgan, Cheryl Crawford, Lyn Austin, Eva Le Gallienne, and Marshall Mason, to name only a few. William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee had no public identity as gay men, though all were tarred in the press for their homosexuality. What theater could be more "queer"/strange than Genet's? He had a tremendous impact on American theater in the early '60s, along with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, but perhaps because his plays were much less homoerotic than his novels, he was not primarily perceived as a proponent of queer theater.
But queer theater happened because these paths had been cleared, the ground had been broken. Its emergence runs parallel to the gay liberation movement. The Stonewall rebellion wasn't the conception but the birth of an out and proud social identity that had been gestating for a decade. Queer theater grew not from scripted plays written in isolation or from the championship of entrepreneurial producers. It grew from communities of people for whom theater was more than a career -- it was a way to live.
The pioneer out gay theatermakers didn't start from a theoretical or socio-political agenda. Their theatermaking was inseparable from their personal identities, their lives, their social circles, their senses of humor, their need for love and companionship. In contrast to previous generations of gay artists and artisans who spent their lives making theater that rarely if ever reflected the dramas of their own lives, they wanted to be the same people at work that they were at home. They wanted to rehabilitate stereotypes of queers as weak sissies and psychotic bull-dykes. But they didn't want to spend all their time consciousness-raising. As artists, they struggled to fashion intimate flashes of created life. Part of their priesthood was to live out an ideal articulated by Albert Camus: "Man's work
is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those one or two images in whose presence his heart first opened."
Only in retrospect is it possible to step back and see the wider context in which queer theater emerged off-off-Broadway -- and to understand the courage it took to be that free. Since no manual had been written, the pioneers adhered to no coherent aesthetic, form, style, or content. They made theater that was outrageous and artistically ambitious. They also made three-character one-set plays and 50-minute monologues. In general, though, "excess" was not a dirty word; few queer theatermakers were minimalists. A lot of their work sifted through the debris of pop culture --
re-arranging it, deranging it, exaggerating it, taking it too seriously. That camp sensibility eventually entered the culture and got tamed in the process; nowadays, virtually all pop culture quotes other pop culture. Then it was a subversive strategy, cultural critique and identity formation disguised as child's play.
In the 1960s and early '70s, queer theater artists worked almost exclusively in obscurity, without reviews or subscription audiences or advertising. Unavoidably, they were aware of another level of theater getting more attention elsewhere. Not just under the bright lights of Broadway, either. From 1962 to 1971, for instance, the Ford Foundation invested more than $16 million in 17 theaters around the country, thereby launching the regional theater movement as we know it. No such institutional support rallied to the caused of queer cultural identity. Queer theater was built with the sweat equity and all-embracing vision of a small number of passionate individuals, including an African-American fashion designer named Ellen Stewart who started a coffeehouse and called it La Mama, a Methodist minister named Al Carmines who started a poets' theater in the choir loft of the Judson Memorial Church, and especially a chubby opera queen with a lean mean
cappuccino machine who named his cafe after himself, Joe Cino. Legendary as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway, the Caffe Cino simultaneously provided a tin-foil and twinkle-lighted platform for newly hatched queer playwrights such as Doric Wilson, H.M Koutoukas, Bob Heide, Bill Hoffman, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Jeff Weiss, David Starkweather, Charles Stanley, and Robert Patrick. Anyone who wants a vivid, thinly fictionalized, microscopically detailed description of life in and around the Cino need go no further than the nearest copy of Patrick's novel
Temple Slave, wherein all is revealed.
Charles Ludlam wasn't the first to attempt to fuse high artistic aspirations with lowbrow popular forms. Many of the writers and directors and creators associated with the Caffe Cino and La Mama as well as queer theater pioneers Jack Smith, Ron Tavel, and John Vaccaro were well-read, extremely sophisticated and cultured individuals making theater that operated on many levels. Nevertheless, Ludlam was both extraordinarily talented and exceptionally articulate about what he was doing. Both his theoretical essays and manifestos (which Steve Samuels compiled in a valuable volume called
Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly) and his prodigious output as theatermaker had an incalculable effect on a succeeding generation of artists eager to be their gay selves and make excellent theater. Harvey Fierstein, Charles Busch, Tony Kushner, and David Greenspan -- among many others -- absorbed aspects of Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater and brought them to a wider audience than those who were fortunate enough to see Ludlam's own work.
It must be said that Ludlam assembled and cultivated an extraordinary company of versatile, highly resourceful, one-of-a-kind performers who have carved their own profiles on the Mt. Rushmore of Off-Off-Broadway and queer theater. They include Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan, and Everett Quinton, who assumed artistic directorship of the company after Charles' death in 1987. Even Ethyl Eichelberger, a prodigious creator of his own solo "one-woman" extravaganzas, was never more powerful onstage than when he was directed by Ludlam. Sad to say, the Ridiculous is a company that has been not simply decimated but virtually obliterated by the plague of our time. Its AIDS casulaties include Bill Vehr, John D. Brockmyer, and Georg Osterman as well as Eichelberger and Ludlam himself.
Theaters such as Doric Wilson's TOSOS and Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company coexisted in time and proximity with the lesbian theater
Ana Simo co-founded, Medusa's Revenge. And yet they may as well have been on different planets. They occupied completely distinct social circles and aesthetic realms, with no conscious or unconscious solidarity around any shared notions of something called "queer theater." Nor did they have or particularly seek connection with feminist theaters in New York such as Womanspace, Interart, or Spiderwoman. Medusa's Revenge was formed out of the need for a small group of lesbian immigrant Latinas to hold onto some kind of identity in a culture that reacted to their existence with a vacuum of validating images. Personal survival -- survival of the soul and the spirit -- drew them together, and out of that came the cultural products. Their suffering and their paradoxical freedom to create helped pave the way and to create at least a rudimentary model for the next generation of friskier, more culturally secure young dykes to follow or depart from. The WOW Cafe, which began as a festival and evolved into an ongoing theater, bloomed from the energy and talent of women such as Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, Carmelita Tropicana, Sarah Schulman, Holly Hughes, and the tribe who would eventually become known as the Five Lesbian Brothers.
(For an entertaining close-up picture of East Village lesbian life and the WOW Cafe, read Sarah Schulman's novel
Girls, Visions, and Everything.)
By the early '80s, an entire generation of queer artists had already established several working models of how to go about making queer theater. When Harvey Fierstein won Tony Awards both for
Torch Song Trilogy -- each part of which had first appeared at La Mama -- and then for his libretto for the Broadway musical
La Cage aux Folles, it seemed like out gay theater had hit the mainstream and was here to stay. Still, outside of New York, the resources, the know-how, and the like-minded company were not automatically at hand. Without a Ford Foundation flying artistic directors around to see how one another worked, gay theater companies such as San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros, Los Angeles's Celebration Theater, and Seattle's Alice B. Theatre had to do their share of reinventing the wheel -- or to give that effort a more positive spin, each had to evolve in a grass-roots way out of its existing circumstances rather than reproduce some New York model.
One thing that might truthfully be said, though, is that the women and men who created queer theaters where none existed before were looking for a place where their gayness was seen not as an embarrassment, a hindrance, or worse but as the golden thread in the fabric of their lives. As Charles Ludlam put it, "the best part of themselves."
The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, November-December,
**This essay first appeared in "The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater," edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla, published by NYU Press.