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French Theater  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  

One of the most provocative is L'Ombre de Deschaufours (i.e. The Ghost of Deschaufours, Anonymous, 1739). The action is set in the underworld, where the main character, an infamous sodomite burned at the stake in 1726, argues with the ghosts of the policemen of Paris who were specially assigned to the surveillance of parks used as cruising grounds and as hangouts of male prostitutes. Its author was undoubtedly very familiar with an already extensive homosexual subculture.

Other plays, such as Les Plaisirs du Cloître (Anonymous, 1773) and L'Esprit des Moeurs au XVIIIe Siècle (Mérard de Saint-Just, 1789), have outspoken characters who defend homosexuality by listing famous homosexuals, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, or Julius Caesar; by evoking civilizations that gloried in a practice unjustly seen as a vice; or by simply stating that "all tastes are in nature: the best is the one we have." Behind this outrageous banter is a clear intent to challenge prejudice.

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Another vein of pamphlets and plays aims at satire if not slander by revealing the homosexuality and debauched lives of playwrights, actors, and actresses. Already in La Fameuse Comédienne (Amonymous, 1688), the great Molière was pictured as having an affair with his protégé the actor Baron--not an unlikely accusation in view of Molière's close friendship with the famous musician Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was well known as a sodomite.

During the French Revolution there was an outburst of such attacks not just on the theater world (Les Variétés Amusantes, Anonymous, 1791, Les Coutumes Théâtrales, Anonymous, 1793, Les Pantins des Boulevards, Anonymous, 1791) but also on the aristocracy, especially the queen who is accused of lesbianism in La Journée Amoureuse ou Les Derniers Plaisirs de M[arie] Ant[oinette] (Anonymous, 1792). Such satires periodically reappear well into the twentieth century.

Théâtre Libre and Fin-de-Siècle Extravagance

Even though homosexuality ceased to be a crime in France in 1791, the police and judicial apparatus cracked down on it with unprecedented vigilance at the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, using morality and decency laws to oppress homosexual expression of all kinds. For the next hundred years only one play, Balzac's Vautrin (1840), will have a homosexual character, and his homosexuality is so cryptic as to be far from obvious to most spectators.

In 1891, however, homosexuality returned to the public eye, due to a series of public scandals--including raids on baths, arrests in lavatories, trials of literary works such as Baudelaire's lesbian poems, etc.—that made it impossible to ignore.

A group of young artists led by André Antoine had recently founded the cooperative Théâtre Libre to experiment with new forms and controversial themes. They had promised their friend Gabriel Mourey that they would produce his lesbian drama, Lawn-Tennis, but upon reading it, they considered it too risky and dropped the project.

More daring was the actor Édouard de Max, whose career also began in 1891. He specialized in roles of decadent emperors, such as Nero and Heliogabalus, and went so far as appearing almost naked on stage in Jean Lorrain's Prométhée (1900). Praised by some as the greatest actor of his time and attacked by others in virulently homophobic reviews, his private life was no secret.

Édouard de Max was as extravagant as his friend Sarah Bernhardt. He surrounded himself with a court of young homosexual artists whom he patronized. André Gide wrote his homosexual play Saül for him in 1898, but no theater would produce it until 1922. Another promising artist whose career was launched by de Max is Jean Cocteau.

In 1908, a third young artist, Armory (pen name of Carle Lionel Dauriac), wrote a mildly satirical comedy titled Le Monsieur aux chrysanthèmes whose main character is a blend of Oscar Wilde, Jean Lorrain, and Édouard de Max. Armory hoped that de Max himself would play the title role, but he refused.

In spite of difficulties finding a lead actor, and fears that the police would ban the play as they had recently banned Colette's lesbian pantomime Rêve d'Égypte the previous year, this first frank depiction of homosexuality on stage in many years proved a great success, opening the way for the future.

A Brief Golden Age

The period between the two World Wars was an age of homosexual militancy in Europe. But whereas this movement was politically organized in Germany, in France it was centered in the artistic world.

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