After endless weeks of January it’s finally February and whilst our friends across the pond celebrate Black History Month, here in the UK it’s LGBTQ+ History Month. We champion LGBTQ+ artists all-year round, but we wanted to use this opportunity to take you on a whistle-stop tour of Queer theatre history in the UK and shine a light on the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.
But, what do we mean by ‘Queer’? Well, once a derogatory slur, it’s now an umbrella term reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community and - for the purposes of this blog - means someone who is not heterosexual and/or does not conform to the established ideas of sexuality and gender. It’s also important to say that Queer artists have existed throughout history and, as a society, we’re still very much at the beginning of bringing these stories into the mainstream. Moreover, there is not one singular ‘Queer’ experience or narrative. There are certainly commonalities in experiences, but we do a disservice to the complexity of LGBTQ+ stories by conflating everything. Part of the beauty of the Queer community lies in its diversity and its rejection of heteronormativity. ‘Queer theatre’ doesn’t have to be defined being a ‘play’ or ‘musical’. Queerness exists in all mediums: in drag, dance, burlesque, circus, cabaret etc., and we are seeing these lines blurred more and more often with new shows incorporating aspects of all disciplines. So, where do we begin?
It’s often forgotten that up until 1968, British theatre was at the mercy of censorship. All plays intended for public performance had to be approved and licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which was a legal requirement under the Licensing Act of 1737 and the Theatres Act of 1843. Essentially, this was to prevent anything indecent, offensive or blasphemous taking place in theatres; censorship was particularly strict on homosexuality.
Whilst openly or overt Queer work was banned from our stages, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Elements of Queerness can be seen in the works of Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Twelfth Night) as well as in the actual performances of his plays with men cross-dressing (as women were banned from performing until the 1660s). Check out Goran Stanivukovic’s book Queer Shakespeare, Desire and Sexuality for more on this. The act of cross-dressing in theatre has been popular since the Medieval period and is a particularly important part of one of Britain’s most-treasured traditions – panto!
Queer activities were merely pushed underground particularly during the Georgian era with the proliferation of Molly Houses in the 18th and 19th centuries. The clampdown on ‘morality’ came during the Victorian era, which ushered in an openly hostile environment towards ‘deviants’, perhaps most evident in the treatment of writer Oscar Wilde.
The aggression towards Queerness pervaded throughout society in the first half of the 20th century yet, in spite of this, Queer nightlife flourished in London with well-known Queer-friendly bars and cabarets including The Cave of the Golden Calf and The Shim Sham Club. Frequented by artists, writers and musicians, The Shim Sham Club was also a reputed safe space for Queer Black and Jewish patrons. Check out this great article on Bohemian London to learn more.
During this time, there was also an increased persecution of Queer people in the United States, yet, like in the UK, the arts were a centre of resistance, particularly in the successful plays The Drag by Mae West and The Captive by Édouard Bourdet, the latter being one of the first plays to deal with lesbianism. It’s also interesting that some of the most famous and respected playwrights and performers of the ‘30s - ‘50s were Queer (whether publicly ‘out’ or not), including John Gielgud, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, and Terrence Rattigan to name but a few. It’s as if Queer people were only acceptable within certain parameters, set and defined by straight people.
Attitudes towards homosexuality showed signs of change when the Wolfenden Report was published in 1957, which recommended for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. However, it was still impossible to show same sex relationships on stage. Despite this, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop Company staged Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey here at Stratford East in 1958. Ground-breaking in many ways, Delaney’s play evaded censorship and featured Geof, a gay student (played by Murray Melvin) who lives with protagonist Jo and helps her through her illegitimate pregnancy. This marked a change in depicting gay people with sensitivity rather than as a joke or miscreant.
When homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 (and 1981 in Scotland, 1982 in Northern Ireland), Queer artists were no longer under the threat of legal persecution. Whether the public actually wanted to see Queer work was another question. As a result, Queer artists were confined to the fringes – both of society and the theatre landscape. 1967 was also the year that influential Queer playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his partner. His black comedies and satires would go on to inspire countless artists (check out Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane).
The 1970s saw the emergence of Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company, whose aim was to counteract the prevailing perception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like. Performing at theatres, festivals and working men’s clubs across the country, their sell-out first season took place at InterAction’s Almost-Free Theatre in Soho and included plays Thinking Straight by Lawrence Collinson and Ships by Alan Wakeman. Read more about Gay Sweatshop’s fascinating history here.
Artists Jane Boston, Tash Fairbanks and Debs Threthewey created the band Devil’s Dykes, later Bright Girls. They were part of the company that formed Theatre Against Sexism and then in 1979 the feminist theatre company Siren. Venues such as The Drill Hall (now RADA Studio) were dedicated to platforming gay, lesbian and bisexual work. Other key shows of the ‘70s include Martin Sherman’s play Bent and Richard O’Brien’s musical The Rocky Horror Show, which began life at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1973 before going on to become one of the most influential cult classics of all time.
As we enter the 1980s, moral reformer Mary Whitehouse attempted to prosecute director Michael Bogdanov for his production of The Romans in Britain by Howard Brenton at the National Theatre for procuring an act of gross indecency as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 1956. The prosecution lost, but there were further attempts at censorship throughout the decade. Queer work and writers persisted regardless with plays such as Sarah Daniels’ Ripen Our Darkness, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean and Harvey Fierstein’s acclaimed Torch Song Trilogy.
The first play produced in Britain to address the AIDS crisis was Louise Parker Kelley’s Anti Body in 1983, years before any film or TV series. A wealth of work came in the following two decades that defined the gay experience of HIV and AIDS with artists such as Neil Bartlett and plays including Robert Chelsey’s Night Sweat, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (the first play about AIDS in the West End), Janet Hood and Bill Russell’s Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens as well as Tony Kushner’s monumental Angels in America.
In 1988, Jackie Kay’s Twice Over was Gay Sweatshop’s first play by a Black playwright and helped raise the profile of the women’s company within Gay Sweatshop. Kay’s other influential work includes Chiaroscuro (recently revived by Bush Theatre). 1988 also saw Gay Sweatshop’s widely celebrated play This Island’s Mine by Philip Osment.
Perhaps partly down to the likes of Danny La Rue in the ‘70s, we also began to see the transition of Drag from the nightclubs to the theatres in the ‘80s with Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s La Cage Aux Folles playing the London Palladium in 1986.
The ‘90s saw a stream of important Queer works such as Phyllis Nagy’s Weldon Rising, Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg, Jonathan Larson’s Rent, Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation to name but a few. It was also the decade of the ‘in yer face’ movement with dramatists such as Mark Ravenhill and his play Shopping and Fucking. The Drill Hall continued to be a centre for LGBTQ+ shows, including work from performance artists Djola Bernard Branner, Brian Freeman and Eric Gupton, otherwise known as Pomo Afro Homos (Postmodern African American Homosexuals) – their show Fierce Love played at the venue in 1992.
The turn of the century saw a continuation of gay plays as well as new venues specifically dedicating their programming to Queer work, including Above The Stag (founded in 2008). Key shows included Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the Boy George musical Taboo, Jonathan Harvey and Pet Shop Boys’ musical Closer to Heaven, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, Joe DiPietro’s Fucking Men and Nicholas de Jongh’s Plague Over England. There was also the hugely successful Australian musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
In 2012, Jo Clifford became the first openly trans playwright to have a play in the West End with her adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Prolific playwright Rikki Beadle-Blair had several plays performed here at Stratford East including Bashment in 2005, which tackled homophobia in the hip-hop scene. He would later write and direct Summer In London in 2017, which was the first full-scale show to featuring an all-trans cast on a mainstream stage in the UK. In 2015, The Lyric Hammersmith staged Laura Wade’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping The Velvet showcasing an upfront and unapologetic celebration of sexuality.
In the last few years we’ve seen several Queer productions hitting the mainstream including a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance and blockbusters Kinky Boots, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Death Drop and &Juliet.
We also have performance artists and theatre makers including Travis Alabanza, Le Gateau Chocolat, Temi Wilkey, Tabby Lamb, Scottee, Mika Onyx Johnson, Chiyo, Alexander Luttley, Daisy Hale, Debbie Hannan and Zachary Hing who are now shaping our perceptions of Queer work and making waves in mainstream venues. Plus, Queer bars like The Glory, Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club continue to pave the way as training grounds for emerging Queer talent.
But what’s next? It’s obvious that major progress has been made since the days of censorship with Queer stories being told on our stages. However, the work is far from done. There is still a lack of voices from marginalized sections of the LGBT+ community, particularly trans/non-binary voices, working class voices, disabled voices and Black, Asian and Latinx voices. Our physical spaces may currently be shut, but it’s never too late to start learning, reading and sharing more work by Queer artists.
By Holly Adomah Thompson and Sean Brooks
LGBTQIA+ events, shows and companies:
- Omnibus Theatre's Time London Identity, a series of free workshops to connect young people with innovative LGBTQIA+ professional artists - more info here
- Theatre Queers Meet Up, a fortnightly event hosted by Tabby Lamb for queer, trans, non-binary and GNC folx in theatre - more info here
- Panti In High Heels in Low Places by Panti Bliss is available to stream via Soho Theatre On Demand - more info here
- The Queer House, an artists agency and producing house for queer creatives - more info here
- The Drag King Cast, a new podcast from the award-winning, all women and non-binary Drag King collective Pecs Drag Kings - more info here
- Outbox Theatre, a company which collaborates with LGBTQIA+ creatives to tell stories in bold and exciting ways. Known for And The Rest Of Me Floats at Bush Theatre - more info here
- The Black LGBTQIA+ Therapy Fund to help Black queer people receive accessible, professional help for their mental health - more info here
- Moonlight Experiences' crowdfunder to raise funds to change the perception of LGBTQIA+ culture through tourism and nightlife - more info here
- LGBT Foundation, a national charity delivering advice and support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities - more info here
- MindOut, a charity seeking to improve the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ communities - more info here
- AKT (Albert Kennedy Trust) an LGBTQIA+ youth homelessness charity working with young people aged 16-25 - more info here
- Centred, a community organisation run by diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people to provide activites, historical content and volunteer opportunities to their community - more info here