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Modern Drama  
 
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Interned in a hotel in Mürren, Switzerland, with fellow wounded or ill officers, twenty-four-year-old Captain James Conrad is on the verge of a mental breakdown. Frustrated by inactivity, bored in this hermetic environment, he has lost the routine that enabled him to repress his homosexuality. As a result, he cannot hide or control his feelings for a callow young lieutenant.

A gripping social and psychological study of young British gentlemen at odds outside their own society, The Prisoners of War also is unique in its candid presentation of repressed homosexuality in an all-male environment. One soldier remembers his childhood fascination with the Theban Band, the Spartan soldiers who fought alongside their lovers.

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When Conrad is accused of not appreciating "the fair sex," he answers, "The fair sex. Which one is that?" Whereas Conrad's unrequited infatuation is the last straw leading to his breakdown, another couple plan an idyllic postwar life together in Canada.

Noël Coward's Design for Living

Noël Coward wrote only one full-length comedy in which homosexual desire is a motivating factor. Design for Living (1933), first presented in New York with Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne, chronicles the trials and tribulations of a peripatetic ménage à trois that travels, over the play's three acts, from Paris to London to New York City.

The central character, Gilda, finds that she is in love with two men, Otto and Leo, who were a couple before either of them became attracted to her. The only resolution for the conflicts, jealousies, and unhappiness of this equilateral triangle is for the three of them to live together.

The butt of most of the play's jokes are the respectable people who cannot understand or approve of this "three sided erotic hotch-potch." Although many in the first audiences were somehow capable of overlooking the clear references to Otto and Leo's love for each other and saw Coward's comedy as being only about the love of two men for the same woman, a post-Stonewall audience, particularly one who knows the private lives of the playwright and his two fellow actors, sees clearly all three sides of the triangle.

Homosexuality in Nonrealistic Drama

Modernism in drama comprises two parallel lines: realism, which remained dominant in English-speaking countries, and various strains of non- or antirealistic theater (expressionism, futurism, surrealism, and so on), which had closer ties to the major schools of modern painting and sculpture.

Federico García Lorca's The Audience

Federico García Lorca clearly felt that the dramatic representation of homosexual desire would require a different form from the lyric realism he used for his tragedies of heterosexual repression. (Though clearly Lorca's series of dramas about women destroyed because of transgressive sexual desire were an expression of his own place as a homosexual in Spanish society.)

His one extant openly gay play, the late, unfinished The Audience (its published English translation is inaccurately entitled The Public), was written in 1930-1931, but revised again shortly before his murder in 1936. One of Lorca's last social appearances was a private reading of The Audience for friends a month before he was arrested and executed, as much for his homosexuality as for his political sympathies.

The Audience was one of a group of plays Lorca wrote under the rubric "Impossible Theater." Using surreal images and elaborate stage magic, and focusing on themes forbidden on the stage, like homosexuality, Lorca told friends he wrote these plays for the future. These plays remained in manuscript form during the poet's lifetime and all but The Audience were lost or destroyed.

In The Audience, a theatrical director is confronted by a series of bizarre dream images and transformations. In the fluid dream world of the play, characters switch costume, gender, and identity with startling rapidity. Though the play allows for a number of interpretations, a gay reading is inescapable.

Throughout the play, men embrace and challenge one another to rip off the mask that forbids their love. The theater is the world of masks, including those of closeted homosexuals. The audience is the feared, judging world that would rip apart the true (homosexual) self.

Yet, the play asserts that love and sexual desire know no boundaries of gender. Romeo and Juliet may be man and woman or, in performance, man and boy. Shakespeare is regularly invoked as the creator of a world of gender fluidity: "If love is pure chance and Titania, Queen of the Fairies, fell in love with an ass, then, by the same reasoning, there wouldn't be anything extraordinary about Gonzalo drinking in the 'music hall' with a boy dressed in white sitting on his lap." The Audience is a call for a sexual revolution that would lead to the liberation of the human imagination and spirit.

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