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Contemporary Drama  
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Since Stonewall, gay and lesbian drama has flourished, especially in the United States.

The Pioneer Playwrights and their Venues

We define the starting point for contemporary lesbian and gay drama as the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969, though in America the pioneers of openly gay drama were already working in venues like the Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village. Caffe Cino playwrights Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, and Lanford Wilson were pioneers in establishing an American gay theater.

Gay drama developed in two different types of venue: the small theaters geared toward the gay community, where Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson presented most of their work, and eventually, the mainstream commercial or subsidized theater, where Lanford Wilson achieved considerable success in the 1980s.

Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson

Patrick and Doric Wilson were interested in holding a mirror up to their gay audiences to challenge them to seize power (Wilson) and to overcome their self-hatred and narcissism (Patrick). Both did this through sharply barbed satire.

The performances of Wilson's Street Theatre at The Mineshaft, a Greenwich Village leather and sex bar, were prime examples of gay drama played in and for the gay community. Street Theater was a celebration of the Stonewall Riots and parodies a classic by a closeted homosexual (Thornton Wilder's Our Town) and the self-hating gay characters of The Boys in the Band.

Lanford Wilson

Though the Circle Repertory Company, which Lanford Wilson founded with director Marshall W. Mason, has become a major producer of gay drama, gay characters appear only occasionally in Wilson's post-Caffe Cino plays and are central only to his 5th of July (1978), in which a gay, paraplegic Vietnam War veteran comes to terms with his past, present, and future.

Charles Ludlam

During the 1960s in Greenwich Village theaters, Ronald Tavel was presenting apolitical camp extravaganzas filled with elaborate drag and parodies of flamboyant theatrical and film genres. One of Tavel's actors in the mid-1960s was the prodigiously talented, ambitious Charles Ludlam, whom Tavel fired after the troupe presented one of Ludlam's plays in 1967.

The next year Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company presented its first production, When Queens Collide. Ludlam's plays were not intended to be politically correct "gay drama" but transgressive " theater," which both emphasized the larger-than-life theatricality he loved and offered a vision that was decidedly antibourgeois.

Ludlam's theater survived his death in 1987 and, under the direction of his lover, Everett Quinton, continues to this day. Many of Ludlam's plays have become regularly performed classics of gay drama though they lose something without his commanding presence as Hedda Gabler or Marguerite Gautier in his Camille.

Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984), in which two male actors portray all the male and female characters in a sendup of a Victorian "penny dreadful," has become one of the most popular plays in regional theater productions. The tradition of drag and camp developed by Tavel and Ludlam continues in the work of Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom [1985]) and groups like Bloolips and the lesbian troupe Split Britches.

Lesbian Drama

Lesbian drama developed not only in lesbian spaces like the WOW theater in New York but also in women's theaters around the country. Although there have been some dramas by and about lesbians in small, gay-oriented theaters, little has been produced by major theaters or has been published.

In her introduction to the 1987 collection, Lesbian Plays, Jill Davis wrote, "By comparison with the number of plays by gay men accessible in print and in Britain's larger theatres, lesbian theatre might be thought not to exist." The 25 percent or less representation of lesbian playwrights in major anthologies of gay and lesbian drama is a sign of the relative invisibility of lesbian playwrights in the commercial and subsidized theater. Lesbian playwrights have worked mostly within the networks of women's and gay theaters.

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Three pioneers of contemporary gay drama (top to bottom): Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, and Lanford Wilson.
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