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Modern Drama  
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Censorship of Homosexuality on Stage

During the modern period, overtly gay male characters were rare, in great part as a result of censorship laws. In England, until 1968 all plays presented in public theaters had to be approved by the office of the Lord Chamberlain. One of the taboos the Lord Chamberlain's office was most interested in safeguarding was homosexuality.

In New York, the Wales Padlock Act was created to penalize any theater owner who allowed the presentation of homosexuality on his stage. Other cities had obscenity laws that could be invoked against any dramatic representation of a homosexual.

Coding by Gay Playwrights

Because of these legal sanctions, most representations of homosexuality were coded, as it is in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which can be read as a play about the oppression of a sexually transgressive character by a white heterosexual male who has decided what and who will be allowed in his house literally and metaphorically.

Edward Albee's early one-act plays, The Sandbox (1958), The Zoo Story (1959), and The American Dream (1961), and his 1964 full-length play, Tiny Alice, can be easily given gay readings.

Homosexual playwrights enabled lesbians and gay men in the audience to endow the plays with gay readings, which were encoded in the text and in the erotics of the stage presentation; for one crucial aspect of gay male drama, closeted or uncloseted, is the presentation of the male as object of the audience's gaze and desire. From Oscar Wilde's Salome (1895) to A Streetcar Named Desire and other plays by Williams to Edward Albee's The American Dream (1958), it is the male who is looked at and judged as sexual object in gay drama.

Open Presentations of Homosexual Desire

A few landmarks in modern gay drama openly present homosexual desire. Many of these early gay dramas were written by authors, most of whose famous work was in other genres but who were drawn to the erotics of theater to best represent homosexual desire.

André Gide's Saul

André Gide's Saul, written in 1896, may be the first modern gay drama. It was not published until 1906 and not produced until 1922 by Jacques Copeau at his famous Vieux Colombier. Saul justifies its pervasive through the authority of the Bible and the distance of history.

We first see the Hebrew king with his favorite, the beautiful young cupbearer, Saki. King Saul has not slept with his wife since the conception of the supposed heir to the throne, the frail Jonathan. Saul is visited by demons who themselves offer homoerotic temptation to which the king succumbs.

When the strong, beautiful David appears on the scene, Saul and Jonathan both fall in love with him. Saul shaves his beard so that he will look younger and more attractive to the young hero. Saul knows that he is "a man of desires" who loves David's strength and "the movement of his loins," but David adores Jonathan.

Saul is paralyzed by prophesies that his son will not succeed him on the throne and discovers that David is God's chosen to be the next king. David, who dreads the thought of kingship, ultimately must accept the crown as he stands over the corpses of Saul and Jonathan.

As in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II (1594), kingship means renouncing one's homoerotic desire. Saul's inability to fight the armies of Philistines at his gates and his succumbing to his demons are caused by his placing his desire before his duties as king.

David dreads his inevitable kingship because of what he will have to give up to be king: his love for the frail Jonathan. At the end, David stands by the corpses of Saul and Jonathan. This tableau is emblematic of his victory over desire and passivity. All desire in Saul is homoerotic, yet that desire is at odds with heroic action or God's plan.

J. R. Ackerley's The Prisoners of War

J. R. Ackerley's only play, The Prisoners of War (1925), is considered to be the first British play to deal openly with homosexual desire. Ackerley actually wrote the first draft of the play while he was interned in Switzerland in 1918 during World War I. It was produced by a private theater club in the summer of 1925 and, amazingly, was vetted by the Lord Chamberlain for a West End production.

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