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Cabarets and Revues  
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Homosexuals have been attracted to cabarets, nightclubs, and coffeehouse performances throughout modern history, even when the acts presented may seem resolutely heterosexual. This may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that theatrical presentations do not contain a fixed set of signs allowing for only one interpretation.

Even though many revues, nightclub acts, and cabaret performances were not created or performed by homosexuals, gay patrons have often found in them a preferable alternative to the "legitimate" theater. Historically, cabarets and revues have been much more likely to mention (or imply) same-sex desire than the "legitimate" theater; perhaps, more importantly, same-sex desire has been less frequently condemned or criticized in cabarets and revues than in most mainstream plays.

In the public mind, homosexuality is often linked with bohemian artistic and theatrical circles. While there is nothing inherently queer about the performative, it is plausible that cabaret and other theatrical entertainments appeal to gay men and lesbians because most of them have been performing much of their lives: convincing people that they are "straight." Having a keen appreciation for performance as a form, many homosexuals have at various times in modern history found a supportive atmosphere in the many theaters, pubs, and cafés located in most major cities.

Variety Shows, Music Hall Entertainment, and Dance Halls

Early in the nineteenth century, many British taverns had a "music room" adjacent to the bar in which entertainment was performed. These variety shows presented singers, dancers, and comedians. In 1850, these entertainment lounges were separated from taverns to appeal to more middle-class, family audiences.

Despite the move, British music hall entertainment still had much to offer non-heterosexual patrons, for it often featured a "best boy" (a woman in a breeches role) and the "dame" (played by a man in drag). The fact that men were playing men, women playing women, men playing women, and women playing men on the same stage allowed for numerous double entendres, comic misconceptions, and sexual layerings.

These same conventions were employed in British pantomime, which began in the 1870s and continues to this day in the form of the English Christmas pantomime.

While the famous dance halls of Paris--such as the Folies Bergères (est. 1869) and the Moulin Rouge (est. 1889)--might seem wholly dedicated to heterosexual titillation, most of the Montmartre halls did their part to expand the sexual continuum. Nude show-girls did not appear until 1910, but female impersonators had been part of the bill since the beginning.

One of the most famous was Barbette (Vander Clyde, 1904-1973), an American acrobat who wowed audiences in the 1920s and 1930s as the "jazz-age Botticelli."

American Minstrel Shows

American theatrical sites of same-sex desire in the nineteenth century were also played out in unlikely quarters: minstrel shows. As minstrelsy evolved from a solo act to an evening-length work in the eearly 1840s, the all-male Caucasian cast members not only performed caricatures of African-Americans, some of the men also played female roles. When actresses joined minstrelsy troupes in the 1890s, they were often called upon to play male roles.

Unlike European revues, American minstrelsy added the topic of race and racialized desire to the performance of gender. While it is true that many of the race and gender illusionists of these various British, French, and American entertainments resorted to the most demeaning and freakish of portrayals, it is also true that these performances not only put same-sexed bodies in romantic situations, but they also occasionally pointed up the cultural construction of gender and race.


Given the loose structure of a revue, it is much easier (than in a book musical) to insert a same-sex allusion, or even a homosexual character, because such allusions or characters do not have to contribute to the development of an evening-long plot.

For example, Noël Coward's revue Words and Music (1932) contained the song "Mad about the Boy," in which a cockney woman, a schoolgirl, a prostitute, and a society lady sing about a handsome male movie star. For the New York production of this revue, Coward added a stanza sung by a businessman describing how he had "vexing dreams" about the boy in question.

In the 1920s and 1930s, queer allusions became a staple of the revues in New York and London. Critic Percy Hammond noted that The Ritz Revue (1924) contained so "many references . . . to topics so disorderly that one suspects Kraft-Ebbings [sic] to be hidden among the librettists."

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Performer Kaye Ballard (above) was banned from one New York club in the early 1960s because she attracted a large gay following. Portrait by Stathis Orphanos.
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