Performance, Theater, and Dance Studies

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As noted by Peggy Phelan in Mourning Sex (1997), "one of the deepest challenges of writing about performance is that the object of one's meditation, the performance itself, disappears" (p. 3). Performance, theater, and dance scholarship is thus often uniquely situated as among the only material artifacts of an otherwise ephemeral event. Scholarly and popular books, journals, and essays, as well as editorials, feature articles, and performance reviews in mainstream, independent, and special interest press (including LGBT media), serve as forums for the political, critical, theoretical, and historiographical debate and acclaim of performance works. The original performance, theater, or dance event, made indelible through the subsequent distribution of criticism that it provokes, serves as the basis for the writing of history.

Scholarship on the Pre-Stonewall World

Much theater, dance and performance scholarship marks the Stonewall Riots (1969) as a turning point in American cultural history. Prior to 1967, in fact, explicit representations of LGB people were often prohibited on the American stage, due to the enforcement of the Comstock Laws of 1873 ("act for the suppression of trade in, and circulation of, obscene literature and articles of immoral use"), as well as the Wales Padlock Act of 1927, which gave explicit power of arrest to the New York police department for the suppression of "homosexual" representations on the American stage. Notwithstanding violent police raids, often resulting in arrests and imprisonment, many theater works dealing with LGBT desire were produced in the late nineteeth and early twentieth century. Kaier Curtin's We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage (1987) offers a critical analysis of gay and lesbian representation before Stonewall and, in particular, during this period of extreme moral censorship that has come to define this first part of the century. Curtin notes that more than two dozen "illegal" LGB plays were produced from 1920 to 1940, though some received limited runs—Mae West's Sex (1926) and Edouard Bourdet's The Captive (1926), for example, experienced police raids on the very same night. Curtin notes that plays with lesbian themes were often over-looked by legal authorities as such desire was unrecognizable to a large part of the theater-going public. Female impersonation, moreover, existed almost entirely unscathed, as queer desire was not attached to popular vaudeville performance traditions. When Mae West's comedy The Pleasure Man (1928) appeared on Broadway with cross-dressing male characters, however, it was quickly banned.

Long before the LGBT liberation movements of the post-Stonewall era, a progressive advocacy movement existed, promoting that free speech be extended to the American stage. Don Shewey notes in Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays (1988) that as gay and lesbian characters began to emerge in more plays, the continued repression of homosexuality in American culture produced a queerness often only intelligible "between the lines" and often consisting of largely negative representations of homosexual characters as "unhappy" and "pathetic" (p. xiii). Many scholars observe that, in early century works, gay and lesbian characters were often killed or killed themselves at the end of a play, reinforcing the notion that GLB people were isolated and hopeless. Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934), for example, concludes with a suicide, as one woman professes her love for another woman and then promptly takes her own life. A large part of the historiography of early LGB desire in performance thus centers on examining dialectical relationships between censorship, repressive imagery, pubic feelings about LGB people and LGB resistance. Alan Sinfield, author of Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (1999), quoting scholar Richard Dyer, notes, "How anything is represented is the means by which we think and feel about that thing, by which we comprehend" (p. 3). Sinfield argues that "theatre was one of the places where psychological ideas about sex circulated" (p. 75). Though usually covert and often negative, public representations of same-sex desire contributed to the creation of public consciousness about homosexuality and the emergence of queer discourse.

The establishment of the "House Un-American Activities Committee" (HUAC) and the ensuing witch-hunts of the McCarthy era in the 1950s placed homosexuals, communists, and other so-called "un-American" groups under even greater pressure and more serious national suspicion. LGB plays continued to emerge in this era, but some LGB artists, particularly playwrights, created increasingly veiled representations of LGB themes to protect their reputations. Some scholarship, such as David Savran's Communists, Cowboys, and Queers (1992), has been devoted to unveiling the queer tropes in historically mainstreamed mid-century works by such artists as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Robert Anderson, Lanford Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Edward Albee. Other scholarship charts the relationship between the culture of moral censorship and the emergence of a "downtown" and regional theater scene. Shewey, for example, notes that when in 1958 Joe Cino opened the now famous Café Cino (which featured works by Oscar Wilde, William Inge, Noel Coward, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Doric Wilson, Lanford Wilson, and Robert Patrick, to name a few), it was also "the accidental birth of Off-Off Broadway" (p. xiv), paving the way for such downtown venues as Judson Poets Theater, La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS), The Glines, as well as countless organizations outside of New York.

Scholarship on the Stonewall and Post-Stonewall Eras

Many scholars agree that Mart Crowley's landmark play The Boys in the Band (1968) is to gay theater what the Stonewall Riots are to the LGB liberation movement. In Boys in the Band, a game of truth facilitates revelations of gay desire as well as gay self-loathing. Despite its pathologizing perspective on gay life, The Boys in the Band, like the LGB liberation movement, marks a turning point in queer cultural history after which being openly LGB is increasingly valued. In this sense, queerness, notes Sinfield, follows a Freudian trope, as something a person is, and "coming out" is what a person does to mark this passage in self-actualization. As Boys in the Band enjoyed unparalleled popularity in its time, many scholars have focused attention on the ways in which Boys in the Band affected the emerging genre of gay and lesbian theatre as well as a changing landscape of American culture.

If Boys in the Band represents the first "out" characters on the American stage, then The Theater of the Ridiculous, founded by Charles Ludlam (hailed "our great antecedent" by playwright Tony Kushner), represents perhaps American's first "out" aesthetic. Kate Davy's essay, "fe/male impersonation" (1994), uses the case of The Theater of the Ridiculous to distinguish "gay theater," which attempts to stage representations of homosexuality or gay couples, from a "gay aesthetic." Ludlam and his colleagues, with their famously camp sensibility, inhabit classical heterosexual narratives with their gay, costumed bodies. Camp is an intentional political strategy that employs parody and nuanced layers of signification to construct a counter-normative discourse and celebratorily queer self-representation. Davy notes that the nature of camp allows performers to play their characters with utmost earnest sincerity while simultaneously "winking" at the audience, thereby boldly inserting themselves into public discourse. Camp tactics have been adopted by other performance groups such as The Cockettes, Hot Peaches, Bloolips, Ballet Trockadero, and countless others studied by theater and performance studies scholars.

Theater and performance scholars, particularly female academics, have attempted to distinguish lesbian performance from gay male performance, as well as to historicize the marginalization of lesbian performance. Influenced by second wave feminist politics, a flowering of feminist theater collectives occurred between the early 1970's and late 1980's in New York City, as well as throughout the regional theater scene. Although these collectives varied in approach, scholars note that many collectives shared overtly political missions, as well as egalitarian and ad-hoc governing structures. Style and aestethic were equally varied, including agitational propoganda theater, or agit-prop; (such as It's Alright to Be a Woman Theater); revisionist canonical drama (such as Women's Experimental Theater, or WET); non-linear and absurdist drama (such as Maria Irene Fornes's New York Theater Strategy); and lesbian camp and parody (such as Women's One World, or WOW, Café). While many of the collectives that emerged in the 70's and 80's have since disappeared, scholars note, WOW Café stands out as still producing lesbian feminist work. Like Ridiculous Theater, WOW's lesbian performance often presents parodied versions of popular texts to knowing, insider audiences. What distinguishes much of this lesbian performance from its male counterparts, Davy notes, is the fact that the performers do not engage in "traditional" drag, but rather insist that all of the characters are female and thus lesbian. WOW lesbian performance often employs a femme/butch aesthetic, radically reconstituting drag and embodying strategies of resistance. Describing WOW performance artist Carmelita Tropicana (Alina Troyano) as a lesbian performer dragged as a feminine woman, scholar Jill Dolan, writing in The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988), points out that "femininity, in the lesbian context, is foregrounded as drag, the assumption of an 'unnatural' gender role" (p. 69). The use of a femme/butch aesthetic, Dolan and others argue, is not a mirroring of heterosexual society, but rather a rejection of the (heterosexist) gender binary offered by mainstream culture through a kind of dragging within rather than across gender constructs. Similar arguments can be found in Sue-Ellen Case's article, "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic" (1988), as well as other lesbian feminist works.

AIDS: Challenging Political and Performance Practices

Due in part to the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, American culture experienced an increased visible presence of gay men in the public arena. In his landmark book Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS (1998), David Roman engages the relationship theater and performance scholarship has with aids, aids activism, and human rights advocacy. Roman carves out a new definition of performance criticism that discourages critical analysis based purely on virtuosity and instead reconstitutes performance and performance scholarship as part of a larger discourse aimed at social change. He coins the term "critical generosity" to describe a new praxis of criticism that exists "more than simply a procedure of critique or means for qualitative analysis" but as a "cooperative endeavor and collaborative engagement with a larger social mission" (p. xxvii).

In noting that dominant theater historiography positions Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and Jonathan Larson's Rent as the official exemplars of AIDS performance activism, David Savran, in his book A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater (2003), argues that these works are being privileged based upon their commercial success (Angels in America won a Tony Award for "Best Play," and Rent a Tony for "Best Musical," both in 1994) while earlier and less mainstreamed works, such as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1985), are marginalized despite their political significance. Savran argues that the relative success of Kushner's and Larson's works is due, in part, to their deliberate reconstitution of the gay male as normative rather than perverse. Historically, heterosexuality was aligned with normativity and thus the universal subject. These millennium musicals, however, recast the gay (white) man as universal subject, rendering "homosexual," as Monique Wittig has observed, "the axis of categorization from which to universalize" (Savran, p. 66). Since "the new queer remains a white, middle-class subject," however, these millennium spectacles, in spite of their more obvious political import, reaffirm the status quo by perpetuating a "counterfeit universal" (p. 66).

In an article entitled "Discussing the Undiscussable," which appeared in The New Yorker (December 26, 1994), dance critic Arlene Croce describes why she refused to see the performance of choreographer Bill T. Jones's Still/Here, a ballet that includes video documentary of real men living with HIV and AIDS. Since Jones is African American, gay, and HIV-positive, Croce asserts that Still/Here represents the experience of an overly particularized minority community, lacks universalism, and supports a LGB "agenda." Solo performance artist Holly Hughes, best known for her legal struggle with the National Endowment of the Arts after they defunded her award due to the "obscene" nature of her work, has been similarly accused of propagandizing. David Roman and performance artist Tim Miller, in their Theatre Journal article "Preaching to the Converted" (1995), note that the frequent accusation that queer artists make political propaganda, not art for the masses, is a dismissal deeply entrenched in a homophobic cultural paradigm and serves to perpetuate the ghettoization of LGB performance.

Reclaiming the Queer and Building Radical Multiculturalism

Queer Nation, a LGBT activist group (founded in 1990) that employed street-theater tactics in LGBT liberation advocacy, represents the public recuperation of the long-stigmatized term "queer" as a sign and symbol of empowerment. In accordance with the tenets of queer theory, which draws largely upon notions of "performativity" advanced chiefly by the fields of theater and performance studies, gender and sexuality are socially constructed "performances," and thus entirely fluid, subjective and unstable identity categories. In Geographies Of Learning (2001), Dolan distinguishes "gay and lesbian" from "queer," when she writes, "To be queer is not who you are, it's what you do, it's your relation to dominant power, and your relation to marginality, as a place of empowerment" (p. 98). Ostensibly, queer, unlike "gay" and "lesbian," is gender neutral, transgender inclusive, and an attractive alternative to some of the exclusionary identity politics linked with LGB liberation. Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (1994), for example, chronicles Bornstein's life as an MTF transgender performance artist and scholar, and further suggests the fluidity and performativity of gender and sexuality.

As "queerness" is defined less by sexual practice than by active resistance to marginalization, and "performativity" suggests that identity is a social construct, some scholars in theater and performance studies have begun to include issues of race and ethnicity, as well as gender and sexuality, in queer performance analysis and criticism. Particular attention has been given to historicizing performance by and about queers of color and cultural hybrids, including Hansberry, Wilson, Fornes, Troyano, Edgar Poma, Rodrigo Reyes, Hank Tavera, Marga Gomez, Chay Yew, Brian Freeman, the Pomo Afro Homos, Cherríe Moraga, Lisa Kron, Luis Alfaro, and others. In his article "Queer Theater, Queer Theory" (2002), Jose Munoz describes how Alfaro uses memory performance to situate himself between two worlds (Latino and queer) and, in so doing, construct his bicultural identity. Munoz points out that in Alfaro's performance Cuerpo Politizado (Politicized Body), "the family is more than just a site to run from or a source of irony" (p. 241). For a queer person of color, Munoz notes, a person's ethnic or racial identity may be as significant as one's sexual identity. Thus, a clean break from one's heterosexual family unit, signaled by a simple replacement with a gay and lesbian "family," runs the queer of color at risk of erasing an equally significant part of his or her cultural identity.

Providing a history of the Split Britches ensemble comprised of Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and Deb Margolin, Case, writing in Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance (1996), notes that Margolin, though not a lesbian, participates in queer performance praxis, reinforcing the notion of queer as an action, a mode of performance, not a state of being. Furthermore, Margolin is Jewish American, an identity highlighted in such Split Britches performances as Upwardly Mobile Home, in which Margolin sings "I Want to Be in America" (from the popular musical West Side Story) in Yiddish. In this sense, Margolin challenges notions of what Munoz has called "universal whiteness" (p. 244) by performing the role of the "white Other." Margolin's uniquely situated cultural hybridity is marked by her contribution to queer and multicultural performance, in spite of her personal identity positions as heterosexual and white.

Future of the Field

Dolan's recent article, "Performance, Utopia, and the Utopian Performative" (2001), in conversation with her earlier works, argues that performance is a place of possibility. Dolan writes that she attends performance to catch a momentary glimpse of how the world could be. Through a complex process of identification and desire, she as a spectator is alerted to her co-presence with strangers and to their collective powers of creativity, resistance, and hope.

Theater and performance scholarship has the awesome task of historicizing, theorizing, and critiquing, among other things, LGBT theater and performance. Traditional definitions of "community" are themselves queered as performance scholarship attempts to disrupt mythic notions of "a gay community" and seeks to investigate modes of performance with particular attention to such intersecting factors as race, gender, class, citizenship, and geography, as well as sexuality. At the same time, theater and performance scholarship, through its ability to reach a wider scope of people than a given performance event, creates a community of public discourse.


Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Case, Sue-Ellen. Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.

——. "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic." Discourse 11 (Winter 1988-1989). (Reprinted in The Lesbian And Gay Studies Reader. Eds. Abelove, et al. New York: Routledge, 1993.)

Curtin, Kaier. We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Davy, Kate. "Fe/male Impersonation: The Discourse of Camp." In The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Edited by Moe Meyers. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Dolan, Jill. Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

——. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

——. "Performance, Utopia, and the 'Utopian Performative.'" Theatre Journal 53 (2001): 455–479.

Munoz, Jose. "Queer Theatre, Queer Theory." In The Queerest Art. Edited by Alisa Solomon and Framji Minwalla. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Roman, David. Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Roman, David, and Tim Miller. "Preaching to the Converted." Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 169–188.

Savran, David. A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

——. Communists, Cowboys, and Queers. Minneapolis: The University Of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Shewey, Don, ed. Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays. New York: Grove, 1988.

Sinfield, Alan. Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Jaclyn Iris Pryor

see alsoaids and people with aids; albee, edward; chambers, jane; dance; eichelberger, ethyl; fierstein, harvey; fornes, maria irene; hansberry, lorraine; jones, bill t., and arnie zane; kramer, larry; kushner, tony; ludlam, charles; mcnally, terrence; moraga, cherrÍe; poma, edgar; reyes, rodrigo; theater and performance; williams, tennessee; wilson, lanford.