The public image of gay men and lesbians has made a turbulent journey from the margins to the centre of the cultural mainstream. In most areas of culture - from film to opera, television to street parades - gayness is accepted as never before, even if this awkward embrace conflicts with gay people's everyday experience of bigotry. And while theatre has often been a particularly gay-friendly environment, this has never made it immune from the struggles over identity and representation taking place in the wider society.
In this compendious book, Alan Sinfield explores the relationship between theatre and homosexuality during the 20th century, and while he chiefly deals with Britain and America, he also makes many references to mainland Europe. His argument has two sides: first, and most thoroughly, he looks at how stage representations of gay men and lesbians have influenced popular images of them. Second, he asserts that "theatre and theatricality have been experienced throughout the 20th century as queer" although he also backtracks a little by adding "though not simply so".
In common with other academics - for example, Dan Rebellato with his superb 1956 and All That - Sinfield argues convincingly that "there was a lot more sexual dissidence in theatre than has been properly registered". Starting with Oscar Wilde and a cogent refutation of the idea that "Bunburying" in The Importance of Being Earnest is slang for sodomy, male pick-ups or brothels, he goes on to discuss not only such familiar authors as Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan and Joe Orton, but also finds strong hints of sexual nonconformity in the mysteries of Patrick Hamilton, the comedies of Dodie Smith and historical dramas by Jean Anouilh.
Usual suspects such as Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and Edward Albee are joined by more obscure writers, such as Sholem Asch, whose lesbian shocker God of Vengeance (1907) was indicted for obscenity in Greenwich Village in 1922, or Rose Franken's Outrageous Fortune (1943), which was banned in the UK. Somerset Maugham is powerfully criticised for showing queerness as scandalous; Coward admired for walking the thin line between privileged dissidence and popularity; and writers such as Robert Graves and William Douglas Home sympathetically reassessed.
Not only does Sinfield examine the West End and Broadway in detail, he also mixes snapshots of social history (for example, the role of bohemia and the sexual freedoms enjoyed by service personnel during the second world war) with accounts of dozens of plays. Sensibly enough, he avoids cliches about "gay playwrights" or a canon of "gay plays", preferring to look at how ideas and attitudes about same-sex relationships occur in many different places, and how popular perceptions of them may have changed over time. Valuably, he insists that the concept of the audience is not monolithic but fractured, and that the public reception of coded references to gayness ranged from sympathetic approval to complete obliviousness.
Sinfield's main argument is that gays were not simply victims but have always been actors in their own histories. In periods of repression and censorship (most of the 20th century), they have inevitably been represented in negative ways - as sick, degenerate or unnatural - which is not to say that they did not invent their own codes to evade the restrictions of the system, always with an eye to their sympathisers in the audience.
Emphasising the division between pre- and post-Stonewall eras, Sinfield makes a thorough search for signs of sexual dissidence in the age of censorship, when "ambiguity, discretion and innuendo" ruled the stage, but finds himself overwhelmed by the mass of material from the mid-1970s onwards. His treatment, therefore, of Gay Sweatshop's agitprop, and mainstream successes such as Ronald Harwood's The Dresser (1980) and Julian Mitchell's Another Country (1981), is noticeably less detailed than that of plays from the earlier period.
In the 1990s, Sinfield registers the change of atmosphere from one in which the press attacked the "plague of pink plays", prompted by the West End transfer of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing in 1994, to the readier acceptance of queer ideas in plays by writers such as Mark Ravenhill, whose Shopping and Fucking made the trip from studio theatre to the West End stage only a couple of years later. Fittingly, this "in-yer-face" play has gay relationships without being a stereotypical "gay play".
As Sinfield readily admits, lesbians get a bit of a raw deal in books such as this. On the one hand, they are often elbowed out by more visible gay men; on the other, even when included, the "singularity" of their experiences tends to be obscured by that of their male counterparts. Sinfield's point of view, which stresses the specificity of lesbian representations, does not overcome all of these problems, but his research -with its many examples of "manly handshakes" and "mannish hats" - suggests a whole world of sensibility waiting to be rediscovered.
Tackling as it does such a vast subject, the book may annoy Sinfield's more cautious or meticulous colleagues. His tendency to leap from one decade to another in the space of a paragraph, illustrating his arguments from an eclectic mix of sources (novels, newspapers, memoirs) can sometimes irritate and his accounts of social history, while always interesting, tend to be rather unsystematic.
But, despite such cavils, Out on Stage is always interesting, always provocative and constantly challenges its readers. Whether or not you agree with Sinfield's conclusion that for "queer people" "the drama on the stage is intimate with the dramas of our lives", this engaging, controversial and accessible book will remain an essential guide to the subject.
Aleks Sierz teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the 20th Century
Author - Alan Sinfield
ISBN - 0 300 08102 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 396