19 March 1992 | Outing Old Stage Frights

The Guardian

Ian McKellen reviews "Not In Front of The Audience", by Nicholas de Jongh (Routledge)

Nicholas de Jongh, late of the Guardian, is now theatre critic for the London Evening Standard, some of whose writers have been challenged as homophobic. In his preface to "Not In Front Of The Audience," de Jongh tells us that he is gay. I hope he's keeping a diary at the office.

Meanwhile, he has recorded a dark aspect of modern theatre in his illuminating analysis of how badly British and American playwrights have portrayed male homosexuality.

His method is simple. He unravels a series of plays containing gay characters and assesses how truthfully they are portrayed. Beginning with Coward's The Vortex in 1925, he proceeds chronologically through to Kramer's The Normal Heart 60 years on. Don't rush to plunder the index, to check whether he is right about, say, Joe Orton (I think he is). You'd thereby miss long-forgotten clangers like Mae West's The Drag, which was banned before it could reach Broadway. Nor must you expect mention of the theatre or musicals. De Jongh's initial attention is on gay characters and not gay writers.

His main thesis is incontrovertible. Up to and beyond the abolition of censorship in Britain, dramatists pandered to their bourgeois audiences' prejudices: wrists were limp; degenerates threatened marriages and seduced minors; lonely misfits took drugs or their own worthless lives. The same slanderous stereotypes appeared in films of the period, and have been wittily catalogued in Vito Russo's Celluloid Closet (Harper & Row).

For decades, West End audiences were denied the truth about homosexuality, by strait-laced managements and theatre owners, allied with the Lord Chamberlain, to whose grubby, censorious papers de Jongh has had access. What is it about us gays which has been thought so threatening to the status quo and so dangerous that the popular theatre of recent past, like the popular press today, mocked us or told lies or censored all mention of us? Could it be that some straight men (though fewer women) are uncertain about their own sexuality?

Not that homophobia is restricted to heterosexuals. De Jongh points an angry finger at craven gay writers like Terence Rattigan, who disguised in his plays the homosexuality he hated in himself. On the other hand, de Jongh writes movingly about the agonised poetry of Tennessee Williams. Like all good drama critics, he is at his best in reacting passionately to plays he has seen rather than just read.

By 1967, when gay men over 21 were at last permitted to make love in private, an identifiable gay theatre was emerging from the closet. Orton's anarchic wit had introduced gay eroticism to astonished theatregoers. As a force for social change, Mr Sloane left Jimmy Porter standing.

At the first night of Orton's What The Butler Saw, on March 5, 1969, gallery hooligans tried to stop the show. I argued with some of them on the pavement of Shaftesbury Avenue during the interval and was restrained by Binkie Beaumont, the play's closeted gay producer, who for two decades had presented Rattigan et al. His generation never accepted that theatre need do more than just entertain.

That attitude was still evident in 1979, when Martin Sherman's Bent was prematurely taken off, because "it's not what we need in the West End at Christmas". In the end, Sherman's play educated the world about the Nazis' "pink triangles", whom historians had neglected. Kramer's The Normal Heart, too, used drama more effectively than any journalist to expose the lies surrounding AIDS.

These American, Jewish, gay playwrights, witty and passionate, have now, too late for inclusion in de Jongh's listing, been matched by another, Tony Kushner. His Angels In America, blazingly on show at the National Theatre, ambitiously entwines politics and religion with sexuality. At long last, dramatists are proud to be openly gay. To appreciate the bravery and maturity of their achievement, you should remember their predecessors, whom Not In Front Of The Audience deftly exposes.

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