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French Theater  
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Today, in France and Quebec as elsewhere in the western world, gay men and lesbians frequently appear on the stage, in dramas and comedies that explore the complexities of homosexual life. Making visible in public what was once hidden and replacing oppressive stereotypes with a wide range of characters of flesh and feeling, the theater has been and remains an important instrument of liberation.

But far from being a recent phenomenon, the presence of same-sex loving characters in French theater dates back to the seventeenth century, at a time when public manifestations of homosexuality were extremely rare. The plays featuring these strange creatures-- and , pédérastes/ and gouines were just some of the names then given to gay men and lesbians--are thus very important sources for the history of homosexual culture.

Cross-dressing Comedies of Errors

Isaac de Benserade's Iphis et Iante, the first French play to feature a homosexual character, was staged in Paris in 1634. Inspired by one of Ovid's Metamorphoses, it tells the story of Iphis, a young woman raised as a boy by her mother. All who know her secret are greatly troubled at her deep love for another girl, the beautiful Iante. Iphis herself wonders why she has a "heart that nature has fashioned differently from the others," but will nevertheless marry Iante in the course of the action.

Lesbian love is here portrayed mockingly, as in the wedding night scene in which Iphis, in spite of her exertions, leaves Iante cold. The tone reflects the lenient attitude of the times. Lesbianism is perceived as necessarily imperfect, practiced for lack of something better and thus of little consequence. This attitude, as well as the ending in which Iphis is transformed into a boy by the intervention of the deus ex machina, surely explains the lack of scandal the play caused.

This benign view of lesbianism will continue in the French theater until the late nineteenth century, except for a few periods of moral and religious intolerance, such as in 1702, when a scene of cross-dressed women flirting with each other led to the closing of Nicolas Boindin's comedy Le Bal d'Auteuil.

Although male homosexuality was condemned forcefully and could be punished by burning at the stake, many comedies of errors were also staged in which cross-dressing males were wooed by other males to great comic effect, as in Louis de Boissy's La Feste d'Auteuil (1743) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Narcisse (1752).

Théâtre de Collège

Male same-sex affection sometimes appeared in school plays. The Jesuits were very keen on having their students perform each year as an exercise to give them poise and train their memories, but this was a controversial practice, as stage actors were seen by many as morally corrupt.

(Actors were excommunicated by the Church and did not have full civil rights until the Revolution. For most of the eighteenth century, they were under the direct rule of the Gentilhommes de la Chambre (Gentlemen of the Bedchamber), royal officers who allowed them to escape the constraints of their families and indulge in sexual freedom that did nothing to help their reputation.)

Hundreds of plays without female characters were written specifically for schoolboys, usually inspired by the Lives of the Saints or by the Bible, the most popular theme being the story of David and Jonathan. Spectators were sometimes shocked by the homoerotic undertones, so much so that authors such as Father Pierre Brumoy, whose play Jonathas et David ou le Triomphe de l'Amitié was performed as far away as Canada in 1776, had to warn in his prologue that the story was about "saintly friendship" and not that which "resides in hearts prone to crime."

Sodomitical Banter and Slander in Libertine Theater

The most fascinating plays of the eighteenth century are erotic farces that directly challenge the notions of sin, crime, and nature that were used to condemn homosexuality. They are part of the large corpus of libertine literature in which the materialistic philosophical reasoning of the Age of Enlightenment is put in the service of sexual liberation.

Although these works were never staged in the public theaters, they circulated widely in manuscript and in underground editions. Only a few were presented in the private theaters of rich and liberal-minded patrons, such as the Duc d'Orléans, the great-grandson of Monsieur, the homosexual brother of Louis XIV.

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Isaac de Benserade penned the first French play to feature a homosexual character in 1634.
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