Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Unfortunately, Clum's celebration of gay male drama's acceptance into the marketplace of mainstream American theatre and commodity culture includes only superficial descriptions and facile dramatic criticism of the work now produced in Britain and the United States. Clum says that the work "is a matter of bodies and seeing, and it is here that a discussion of gay drama must begin" (36). But except for cursory thinking about bodies early on, there's very little investigation in the book of theatrical performance as distinct from dramatic literature, and none at all of gay male performance art, which might have structured Clum's discussion of bodies and seeing very differently. And despite a reference to his colleague Stanley Fish's concept of interpretive communities, Clum writes very little about reception. He relies on the most traditional style of dramatic criticism, which mires much of the book in plodding plot summaries, thematic discussions, and his own personal response to gay plays. He writes little about the implications of form, structure, and (especially irritating) production context.
Although he cites Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick once or twice, Clum more comfortably employs a critical vocabulary focused on images and social stereotypes. He writes, "The problem for the gay character is to liberate himself from the stereotype of effeminacy without merely aping the behavior of heterosexual men. The ideal performance would be unmoored from conventional notions of masculinity and femininity -- an imaginative self-creation possible onstage only outside the framework of realistic drama" (247). Concerns with effeminacy (as inappropriate, rather than as freeing and performative, for men), self-loathing, the closet, and the liberatory gay sensibility recur alongside constraining taxonomies of gay drama that quickly outlive their usefulness. Clum presumes a stable gay male identity, and appears unconcerned about its intersections with class, ethnic, or racial categories.
Acting Gay is, however, useful for understanding the sheer number of current and historical gay texts and their place in what Clum installs as a pantheon of gay American and British dramatists. But because he only intends to describe and quantify, he doesn't guide the reader in how to consider other plays or performances in the genre, and doesn't encourage a grasp of the work's wider implications or possibilities. Clum says, "Gay theatre cannot solve the problems of heterosexism or AIDS, but it can offer a liberating vision of what it means to be gay" (276). Like a reviewer for a dominant gay press (and that's not a contradiction in terms), Clum is a professional consumer, reporting on gay male drama as a commodity in the mainstream marketplace.
Acting Gay belongs to an earlier generation of gay and lesbian studies and politics. Clum's book fixes its subject as real, true, and right (and very white and very male, simultaneously), while editors John Greyson, Pratibha Parmar, and Martha Gever's Queer Looks performs the hybridity of cultural practices for which queerness is only one site, critiquing the presumed coherence of gay discourses about representation. The cover of Queer Looks is a diptych in which an apparently white, presumably gay or queer man assumes one panel, beside an apparently Asian or Indian, presumably lesbian or queer woman. Their bodies are sectioned into five or six different sets of clothing and styles, mixed across gender and sartorial histories and implications. The cover art mixes things playfully, and aligns boys and girls side by side as well as intersectionally. Already, the book's identity categories are saturated, fragmented, and juxtaposed.
The editors' introduction to Queer Looks remarks, "We were bored with tired seventies notions of positive role models, tired of boring seventies preoccupations with classic narrative structures" (xiv). To counter older critical presumptions, Queer Looks provides an eclectic mix of materials, rigorous approaches to representation, and various vocabularies to argue for the multiplicity of queer production and reception practices. The articles move among authors' articulations of their intent, to spectators' speculations on their reception pleasures, to critical exegeses of texts. The work surveyed ranges from avant-garde film traditions (perhaps best embodied by Yvonne Rainer, whose reprinted lecture here muses on her "coming out") to "home" video practices, to critical writing that literally draws (in cartoons or fragments of illustrations) relations and ideas relevant to queer looking. Roundtable discussions overhear practitioners and critics (and those boundaries are pleasurably blurred) worrying about funding, distribution, technology, audiences, and ideas, with contention and commitment.
Queer Looks's readership is conceived broadly, assuming fluidity between the social movement and activist academics, and a variety of people who consume queer texts, as well as those who create and write about them. Categories of sexual practice are insistently crossed with race, class, and ethnic meanings and contentions. Greg Bordowitz's "The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous" exemplifies the book's postmodern critical engagement, as he reads his own work in AIDS activism and representation through the late Charles Ludlam's work with the Ridiculous Theatre. His article demonstrates the movement of history and generations in queer production and reception, as Bordowitz is "motivated to establish a comparative relation between Ludlam's theatre project and the growing body of video work to which I have contributed ... I can conceive of a relation with Ludlam within what can be described as a psycho-geographic proximity" (211).
David Savran's Communists, Cowboys, and Queers fully exploits the move from gay and lesbian studies as a stable, identity-driven, academically acceptable study and pursuit, toward queer as destabilizing not only identity categories, but the way critical research, reading and writing is conducted and related to modes of production. Cowboys, Communists and Queers offers an elegant critical examination of Arthur Miller's and Tennesee William's plays, one which performs a queer reading that doesn't pin them down to categories. Savran demonstrates how American cultural ideologies of the 1940s and 1950s used these canonical writers, and "the historical struggles these works simultaneously conceal and illuminate" (6).
Texts in Savran's hands become artifacts of cultural history read through contemporary descriptions. He says, "Because theatrical production is so deeply and intricately ideological, and because, during the postwar period, the Broadway theatre was a genuinely popular art ..., the works of Miller and Williams provide ... an unusually graphic and emotionally charged field in which to explore the packaging and marketing of Cold War masculinity for an impassioned consumer culture" (6). Savran's Foucauldian premise is that global relations during this period required "policing the American body politic" (4) in ways that inculcated appropriate performances of masculinity by creating a fear of the feminine (always redolent of homosexuality) within male subjectivity (41). He pries open the gaps in Miller's and Williams's texts, pointing out their absences and mining the contradictions in which they conduct their most pointed ideological work. He writes about two "real" playwrights, but displaces the primacy of authorship. Writing on Death of a Salesman, for example, Savran says that "by recognizing these slips and inconsistencies, the reader is in a position to comprehend the multitude of contradictions that articulate the playwright known as Arthur Miller" (74).
Rather than looking for positive images in the presumptively classical narrative structures in Williams's work, Savran proposes that "throughout his work for the theatre of the 1940s and 1950s, homosexuality appears -- ever obliquely -- as a distinctive and elusive style, in every word and no word, as a play of signs and images, of text and subtext, of metaphorical elaboration and substitution, of disclosure and concealment -- in short, as textuality itself" (83). Clum argues about Williams that "awareness of the potential for rejection from one's `audience,' led to a series of performances of the closet.... Williams was compelled to write about homosexuality, but equally impelled to rely on the language of indirection and heterosexist discourse. Gaining the acceptance of that broad audience meant denying a crucial aspect of himself" (166). Savran doesn't locate homosexuality in such humanist biography, nor does he attempt to read Williams's characters through a "gay lens."
Instead, Savran sees homosexuality in the exchange between reader and spectator, and author and text, in Williams's persistent, "winking" hints at other readings. Savran proposes, for example, that "a `camp' reading of Williams will not simply `reverse' gender because it will be based on the assumption that genders and sexualities are not produced in opposition and therefore cannot be `simply' reversed. Rather, a `camp' reading will pay particular attention to problems of coding and language, to innuendo and gossip; it will make elaborate substitutions and delight in the capriciousness of spoken and performative languages" (118). This is an exemplary, effective methodology for queer reading.
The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin, is a fabulously fat book that collects 42 key articles from this multidisciplinary field. The book's sheer weight demonstrates its legitimacy, its insistent worthiness to be adopted as a textbook for new courses infiltrating academia. The collection mixes classics with less well known but equally provocative articles, and stages productive contradictions among its critical positions. For example, Adrienne Rich's influential, now historical "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" -- in which she argues for identifications among women along a continuum of lesbian identity -- collides with Gayle Rubin's "Thinking Sex" -- in which she argues that feminism might not be the most appropriate or encompassing theoretical strategy for describing sexual practice, and that lesbians might more profitably align their politics with gay men. The Reader provides other contentious juxtapositions, covering work written in the last twenty-odd years. Radical feminist Marilyn Frye bumps up against the post-structuralist strategies of Teresa de Lauretis, and Jonathan Dollimore reads differently through Kobena Mercer's work on sexuality and race. Sasha Torres theorizes sexuality and representation in popular culture, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano deploys her critical practices within Cherrie Moraga's critical/creative/poetic/theatrical writings. Taken together, these contributions describe how quickly and profoundly the field has changed.
Although many of its selections are fundamental to the field, there's something staid about The Reader, especially when regarded in tandem with Queer Looks or Communists, Cowboys, and Queers. The choice to retain "lesbian and gay studies" in the title marks it, perhaps, as more cautiously academic. (And although many people of color contributed, the anthology's more conservative structure makes it appear peculiarly more "white" than the eclectically styled and inclusively, multiply peopled Queer Looks.) The editors' introduction seems defensive: "We have reluctantly chosen not to speak here and in our title of `queer studies' ... because we wish to establish the force of current usage.... Just as the project of seeking legitimate institutional and intellectual space for lesbian/gay studies need not render less forceful its challenge to the scholarly and critical status quo, so our choice of `lesbian/gay' indicates no wish on our part to make lesbian/gay studies look less assertive, less unsettling, and less queer than it already does" (xvii).
The personal writing that gives Queer Looks its immediacy is excluded here, in favor of "scholarly and critical essays that convey the intellectual intricacy and cohesiveness of current work on the academic side of lesbian/gay studies" (xvii). As in other recent collections in critical theory and identity studies, no one in The Reader specifically analyzes performance, with the notable exception of Sue-Ellen Case, whose widely anthologized, influential article, "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic," has made her a crossover artist on the academic charts. But the critical methodologies used here to study other objects can all usefully be applied to theatre and performance.
Looking at these four books together, I can't help noticing that they also illustrate the vexed, generational relationship between feminist theory and queer theory in which sexual practice is the organizing principle. Rich, Audre Lorde, and Frye occupy places in the weighty academic Reader, but in Queer Looks, which is especially adept at saturating its critical, representational, and identity categories with intersections and multiplicities, feminism as a practice gets explicitly slighted in not a few essays. What political or academic judgements operate here?
And in what ways does gender power (and whiteness) continue to operate in theatre studies, when the first two books (or four, if I include Kaier Curtain's We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians and Nicholas de Jongh's Not in Front of the Audience) on gay theatre in the United States and Britain focus primarily on white gay men? What needs to be revised in the production and distribution of knowledges and practices to facilitate the next book on queer and/or lesbian theatre and performance by, for example, Sue-Ellen Case, Kate Davy, Lynda Hart (whose recent Fatal Women might, too, cross the charts), or Peggy Phelan (even as Unmarked doubts the usefulness of "lesbian" as a site for political efficacy)? I know that at least these writers have projects in progress; what about other scholars, whose work has yet to circulate widely? After reading and considering these four books, and very much appreciating especially Savran's, I simply long to hear more from the women (lesbians? feminists?) working in queer and/or lesbian theatre and performance studies.
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|Title Annotation:||Gay & Lesbian Queeries|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video.|
|Next Article:||The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader.|