Katherine Charek Briggs on "Theatre & Sexuality"
Theatre & Sexuality
Reviewed by Katherine Charek Briggs
As the newest installment in Palgrave Macmillan’s theatre& series of small books, Jill Dolan’s Theatre & Sexuality offers a clear and concise recent history of LGBTQ theatre, followed by an illustrative analysis of the Split Britches/Bloolips queer parody piece Belle Reprieve (1991). Dolan’s overarching intention is to bring the queer margins of theatre into full view and “tell a richer, more complex story about how sexuality has been represented and has influenced theatre from the twentieth century to the present.” She alerts the reader to questions of gender, desire, and queer performativity that have emerged from both theatre and queer theory, tying together historical details and theoretical concepts to suggest directions in which such questions could be pursued. She does not shepherd the audience toward one perspective, but presents dissentions within the field of queer studies with a decided commitment to celebrating LGBTQ theatre and leaving the issues surrounding it open for discussion.
The book begins with a broad historical account of gay and lesbian lives in the twentieth century, then moves to a survey of queer activist movements and their impact on underground and commercial theatre. Dolan neatly organizes her text into four main chapters, three of which are broken down further into short subdivisions with descriptive section titles that inform the reader of shifts in topic without interrupting the smooth narrative of historical description and analysis. Following the overview of twentieth-century queer thought and experiences, Dolan then chronicles the trajectories of specific queer theatre companies and venues in the United States and the United Kingdom in a section about on- and off-Broadway productions. The subsequent section, “From the avant-garde to commercial theatre,” deals with gay male theatre, queer personal narrative, gender, and camp in performance, as well as issues of access to production.
Narrowing her focus in the latter portion of the book, Dolan draws on performance analysis in order to explicate one mode of queer performativity through Belle Reprieve and its playful Brechtian deconstruction of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Because the play epitomizes the book’s themes by putting “theory and practice into conversation,” this shift in scale from historical overview to individual performance enhances rather than disrupts the narrative. Dolan argues that Belle Reprieve uses vaudeville to problematize the theatrical convention of realism, to uncover problems of binary gender and compulsory heterosexuality, and to comment on the performance of personal identity off-stage. Dolan then concludes with an acknowledgement of the evolving audiences of LGBTQ theatre and, in a nod to the introductory aim of theatre&, includes a brief review of further works for the interested reader.
Through each of these sections, Dolan slowly builds on and supports her argument that sexuality is an important part of theatre production and reception. She makes this connection by focusing on the performative aspects of gender, sexuality, and activism, all of which are so vital to LGBTQ communities, while leaving many of her research questions problematized but open-ended for the reader to consider. This approach is inviting to a broad audience and situates the author as genuinely invested in creating dialogue around queer performativity. Furthermore, given the brevity of Dolan’s project, which totals 107 pages, her open-ended questioning is a canny and convincing strategy. The questions posed, such as how sexuality “bubble[s] underneath as well as within a play or performance” and how performances can be read queerly and non-normatively, make up part of Dolan’s method. She uses these broad theoretical questions to frame the historical survey first, and then works to answer them in the close textual analysis of the 1991 performance of Belle Reprieve.
The detailed work on Belle Reprieve, and on its critique of the historical involvement of theatre in a conservative representation of sexuality, is the most original aspect of this book. This work is especially notable considering the infrequency of theorists giving serious weight to short-run experimental performances: Dolan’s reliance on this piece demonstrates conviction in her plea that the audience recognize the significance of queer independent theatre. In addition, the more straightforward sections on history and LGBTQ movements are made compelling by Dolan’s provocative questions and the succinct style of the theatre& books, which required Dolan to “crystallize [her] thoughts and choose each word carefully.” With this new performance reading and novel but accessible format, Theatre & Sexuality does offer something of value to those readers who are already familiar with scholarship on theatre and gender studies.
Throughout the book, Dolan refers to foundational queer theory works to elucidate her points and to introduce concepts like ‘genderqueerness’ and ‘the butch- femme aesthetic.’ She also situates LGBTQ issues with references to popular culture and current politics, while the sections on specific theatre groups and performances read as though Dolan is relating personal experience in addition to the performance citations. Dolan’s personable tone and sociopolitical timeliness leave the reader with a relevant and approachable text, while her solid grounding in queer theory gives weight to her claims. These components all make Theatre & Sexuality a pleasure to read, supporting the assertion in the editors’ preface that these small books “should all be readable in one sitting by anyone with a curiosity about the subject.” The author writes with a clear and straightforward voice, producing a text that should be very approachable for those with experience reading about history or theatre; however, readers outside academia may want to devote more time to fully processing the broad history Dolan surveys. The text could serve well in an undergraduate course or to supplement an interdisciplinary program in theatre or gender studies, especially as background reading for a quick introduction to the intersections of performance and desire. Dolan’s argument easily stands alone in this short volume while also fitting neatly into the larger collection of nineteen theatre& books.
Theatre & Sexuality ultimately makes a strong case for the engagement of sexuality with theatrical production and performance. Dolan closes with the hope that this text “provides useful tools for thoughtful, ethical engagement, not just with LGBTQ performance, but with any theatrical, filmic, or televisual representations that teach us who we are and how to live with one another.” Potential readers should identify her book, and the theatre& series, as valuable tools for investigating the interdisciplinarity of theatre.