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Modern Drama  
 
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Modern drama is usually defined as beginning with the realists, particularly Ibsen, in the 1870s. It is more difficult to say if or when modern drama ends and contemporary or post-modern drama begins.

For gay drama, one can say that the dividing line between modern and contemporary drama is the Stonewall Riot of 1969, which symbolized the change in lesbians and gay men from internalizing and acting on their society's negative attitude toward them and their insistence, supported by fellow homosexuals, in asserting their own worth and pride. Having somewhat arbitrarily established these parameters, one still has not defined gay and lesbian drama.

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Gay and Lesbian Characters in Plays by Heterosexuals

Dramas written by heterosexuals about gay and lesbian characters or relationships formed a subgenre in the first half of the century. Brecht's first play, Baal (1918), featured a bisexual hero who cares far more for his friend and lover Eckard than for the scores of "bitches" he beds. His translation of Marlowe's Edward II (1923), which trades Marlowe's mighty line for slangy verse, is more overt than Marlowe's 1594 original in establishing the sexual relationship of Edward and his minion, Piers Gaveston.

Lesbian and gay characters were more likely to appear in realistic problem plays, usually as "the problem" that had to be eliminated by the final curtain. Even these plays, which were hardly gay affirming, were often considered too immoral for production.

The Captive, an American version of Edouard Bourdet's melodrama, La prisonnière (1926), caused an outcry from the moral majority of the time, and Mae West's picture of gay life in the 1920s, The Drag (1927), was not allowed across the Hudson into New York City after its tryout in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Coded Dramas about Lesbians and Gay Men

The 1930s saw two critically acclaimed melodramas about lesbians and gay men, both sufficiently coded to allow production (the love that dared not speak its name could whisper cryptically).

Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree

Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree, which was produced in London and New York in 1933, depicts the corruption of a young man by his effete, domineering mentor. Although homosexuality is never mentioned and barely hinted at, there is no doubt about the nature of Dulcimer's hold over his protégé. In Shairp's play, the most ominous signs of homosexuality are expensive taste, bitchy wit, and--worst of all--a penchant for arranging flowers.

Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour

The next year, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour presented a woman who, on realizing that her feelings for her best friend are, as destructive rumors have alleged, sexual, commits suicide. In an odd piece of dramaturgy that would be considered incompetent if the corpse in the next room were that of a heterosexual, characters go on about their business for the remaining fifteen minutes of the play as if the poor woman had not blown her brains out. After all, the poor lesbian did the only thing possible.

Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy

The 1950s gave Broadway the classic American melodrama of confused masculinity, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953), in which the sissy is heterosexual and the macho man is a latent homosexual. The noble housemaster's wife confronts her husband with his latent homosexuality and, at the final curtain, offers herself to the sensitive young man, who has been accused of being the unspeakable, to affirm his heterosexuality ("Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, please be kind"). The Lord Chamberlain banned a London production even though homosexuality is never overtly mentioned.

The Homosexual as the Problem

Although these plays are about homosexuality, they really are not gay drama. Rather, the homosexual is the problem to be eliminated by the final curtain. Nor can the numerous works by homosexual authors that do not deal overtly with gay and lesbian characters and relationships be considered gay drama. Gay drama is drama by and about lesbians and gay men.

Virtually no drama by and about lesbians was produced during this period. Women playwrights were rare; openly lesbian playwrights virtually nonexistent. In America, lesbians found acceptance in various technical areas of theater but did not see their lives represented on stage.

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Mae West (above) starred in The Drag, a short-lived play about gay life, in 1927.
  
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