There is a long history of gays in theatre, going back to Shakespeare’s day, not to mention Euripides’. But when the story of the acceptance of gay lifestyles in Western civilization is told, live theatre in America will deserve a special place. Broadway has led the rest of the culture in its acceptance of gays and its early acceptance of the notion that gay romance was a story worth telling and exploring.
1895 Just days after the opening night of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, the Marquis of Queensberry accuses the gay Irish playwright of homosexuality with the misspelled note “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic]. Wilde, who is secret lovers with Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, makes the mistake of suing Queensberry for libel, bringing the matter out in the open at the height of the Victorian era, when the subject has been considered unfit for public discussion. Wilde loses his suit, leading to his own arrest, conviction and imprisonment for the crime of sodomy. The disgrace means the end of his brilliant career, and his term in prison breaks his health. He dies in exile in Paris in 1900 at age 45. Wilde’s career and life serve as an inspiration, and a warning, and a point of outrage, to gays aspiring to the stage on both sides of the Atlantic. The subject is now “out” and the genie can’t be put back into the bottle.
1896 New York is scandalized by A Florida Enchantment, a strange play about a magic seed that transforms people into the opposite sex. The story may seem laughably tame by today’s standards, but some audiences were deeply disturbed by the sight of a female actress taking on traditionally male characteristics and behavior, and a male actor gradually turning into what is supposed to be a woman, especially since the play brought up issues of lesbianism, homosexuality and bisexuality in a relatively frank way. The play also contained the first recorded kiss between two women on the American stage, which reportedly caused fainting among both male and female members of the audience. Watch a clip of a 1914 short silent film adaptation of the play here.
1904 The Broadway debut of female impersonator Julian Eltinge (1881-1941) in the musical comedy Mr. Wix of Wickham, one of the first of the so-called “nance” comics who were a staple in vaudeville to make it to the big time. Unlike his fellow female impersonator, the campy Bert Savoy, who would also later make it to Broadway, Eltinge strove to give the impression that he actually was a female, and the illusion was reportedly so convincing that he popularized the tradition of removing his wig at the conclusion of performances to show the audience he was really a man. He never married or maintained a relationship with a woman, and was widely believed to be gay, though he presented an exaggeratedly macho offstage persona and would fight anyone who suggested he was homosexual. He was so successful as a female impersonator that a Broadway theatre was named for him. The Eltinge Theatre still stands, having been converted to the AMC Empire 25 cineplex on West 42nd Street.
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