The theatre world has come a long way since overt references to homosexuality were banned by the Lord Chamberlain.
With the opening of Mark Ravenhill's play Mother Clap's Molly House at the National Theatre on Sept. 4, the issue of homosexuality and the stage has come to the fore again. Yet despite some fuss from the usual quarters, the world has moved on considerably since the National staged an earlier gay play, Howard Brenton's The Romans In Britain in 1980 and successfully staved off a legal challenge by Mary Whitehouse.
Indeed, homosexuality, which used to be a taboo subject, on stage as in real life, has now become relatively accepted as simply a part of life, and in using it as a source for plays, the theatre has proved to be a reflection of society as a whole.
Gays have been accepted in the relatively bohemian world of the theatre for centuries, though there have been some leading lights of the profession — notably Sir Donald Wolfit — who made it clear that they disapproved. Whatever the backstage atmosphere, however, the fact of censorship of plays by the Lord Chamberlain's office until 1968 meant that the subject was not seen on the public stage: more adventurous plays had to be performed in small private theatre clubs. The irony was that so many of the last century's most popular playwrights — Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Terence Rattigan, Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams — were gay.
Rattigan, now often reinstated as one of the great 20th century playwrights, used his experiences and those of his friends as source material for his plays, altering the sex of some of his characters to suit prevailing morality: thus the Major in Separate Tables, who is reported in the press for 'pestering' women in cinemas was, clearly, a gay man whose sexuality and sexual offence had been sanitised for public consumption. That the play worked better with the Major being "straight" was not the point; audiences did not expect, or want, to see gays on stage. Those that did get past the censor and in front of an audience were characters whose sexuality was strongly hinted at rather than made explicit, and any gay relationships were represented — as in The Green Bay Tree, a play in which an older man eventually wrests a younger one away from his girlfriend — as essentially neurotic and unhealthy. This approach mirrored the general idea of homosexuality as an illness.
All this seems light years away from today, when gay plays are an accepted part of the London theatre world. Closer To Heaven at the Arts Theatre is a brassy, exuberant play about the drug and sex fuelled world of 2000s Soho, in which gayness is no more or less strange than heterosexual (or bi) sex.
The days of angst-filled plays about homosexual persecution, like Bent by Martin Sherman, set in Nazi Germany, have been replaced by shows like Nicholas Wright's Cressida, a backstage look at the teenage boys who played the female roles on stage in the 1630s; tragi comedies like My Night With Reg by Kevin Elyot, a comedy dealing with the very unfunny ravages of AIDS; and, this autumn, the Donmar Warehouse revives Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade in which a concert party camps it up outrageously. Even Mamma Mia!, the hugely successful Abba musical, has a (sympathetic) gay character.
Mother Clap's Molly House demonstrates Ravenhill's customary comic exuberance, and although it is overall a 'gay' play it has at its centre a heterosexual female and shows gays as just being part of the kaleidoscope of human experience: the sending up of both gay life demonstrates the self-confidence of a community that no longer needs to preach or plead for favours. It is also a sign of how far British theatre has come in the last 35 years that a major producing house like the National can stage a gay-themed play and expect it to stand or fall on grounds of artistic excellence rather than the "shock" of seeing gays on stage.
— by Paul Webb Theatrenow