Our Love Is Here To Stay II

The 1800s: How Long Has This Been Going On?

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, last revised 2011)

"How Long Has This Been Going On?"

During the 19th Century, theatre people were viewed by most of Western civilization as undesirables. Respectable hotels and boarding houses posted signs proudly announcing "We Don't Let To Theatricals!" In the world of extremes that was and is the theatre, eccentrics and social outcasts have always had a natural home. Gays of the 1800s had something resembling a safe haven in theatre. In a business where actress Sarah Bernhardt blithely announced that she slept in a coffin, no one really cared if a supporting actor was "that way," or if an effeminate dresser twinkled with admiration as he assisted the leading man into a costume.

Even though there is no known documentation of a visible homosexual presence in variety or minstrelsy, it is reasonable to suggest that a closeted element existed in these forms of musical theatre. Gays have survived in the military, professional sports and mainstream churches, so their predecessors could certainly have contended with the indignities of heavy makeup, lousy acoustics and rowdy audiences. (Hmmm . . . sounds like a night in any contemporary dance club . . .)

"The Overture Is About To Start"

Did you know that the Broadway musical and the term "homosexuality" were invented almost simultaneously? Pure coincidence perhaps, but one that musical queens can delight in.

As we explain at length elsewhere on this site, musicals as we know them evolved as part of a gradual, international process. Skipping the early origins of musical theatre in ancient Greece, the modern musical theatre had its beginnings when Jacques Offenbach (in Paris) and Johann Strauss (in Vienna) sent operetta waltzing and can-canning its way across Europe. At the same time, America stumbled upon a slipshod but lively musical theatre of its own. The Black Crook (1866) had little plot, lousy songs and lots of spectacle. There had been many American musicals before this show, but The Black Crook was the first one to earn millions of dollars at the box office. It spawned a host of stage spectacles with fantasy themes, known as extravaganzas. American audiences made these early musicals a thriving part of what was then referred to as "the show business." (However, it proved impossible to export extravaganzas -- audiences outside the U.S. had no interest in them.)

The year after The Black Crook took New York by storm, Germany's Karl Ulrichs became the first person in modern times to publicly announce an attraction to his own sex (a tendency he called "urning"). A few months later in 1867, German-Hungarian sexologist Karl Maria Kertbeny introduced the word "homosexuality" in an anonymously published pamphlet. Some readers were scandalized, but others saw this as the first ray of light in the intellectual darkness

Gilbert & Sullivan

Offenbach's operettas eventually inspired the British, whose homegrown musical theatre had been as unsophisticated as its American counterpart. Beginning in the 1870's, lyricist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan perfected English operetta, making it just as tuneful and far wittier than the continental version. Although marketed as "comic operas," the works of Gilbert and Sullivan were musicals. Thanks to librettos with lasting comic themes, H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) The Mikado (1885), Pirates Of Penzance (1880) and The Gondoliers (1889) can still entertain audiences more than a century after their debuts. In Patience (1881), Gilbert and Sullivan gave audiences the first flaming effeminate lead character in an English-language musical -- Reginald Bunthorne.

Bunthorne was a biting spoof of the sexually ambiguous aesthetes (exemplified by Oscar Wilde, etc.) who simultaneously delighted and scandalized Victorian society with their effeminate gestures and passionate devotion to art and beauty. This humorous fop appeared on stage in a tight dark velvet suit, with outrageous long hair and a lily clutched in his limp-wristed hand. His mincing walk, flailing wrists and simpering expression were instantly recognizable as those of a stereotypical homosexual. To placate Victorian sensibilities, G&S made a point of having Bunthorne pursue women, even though he's more feminine than any of his official amorous targets. In the carefully worded patter song "Am I Alone And Unobserved," Bunthorne confesses his aesthetic pretensions are a "sham" designed to win public admiration --

And everyone will say
As you walk your flowery way
If he's content
With a vegetable love
That would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly
Pure young man
This pure young man must be.

However, when Bunthorne is ultimately spurned by the women who once worshipped him, he clings to the only dependable things in his life -- his affectations and a limp lily. Straight or gay, Bunthorne is the most outrageous male character the mainstream musical stage would see until a full century later in La Cage aux Folles (Herman 1983). According to The Alyson Almanac (New York: Alyson Publications, 1990), Sullivan "made no secret of his homosexuality," but I must note that in my decades of research, I have not found any evidence to back this extraordinary claim.

Gay men of a certain class were a visible presence in London's Victorian-era audiences. We have documentation of a recognizable claque of musical theatre queens at one of Gilbert and Sullivan's gala opening nights. A critic in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News described the following scene in "the pit" (which Americans call orchestra seats) at the 1884 London premiere of Princess Ida

The young men were all excitement, and greedily looked out at the arrivals in the stalls . . . Each young man was armed with a large pair of opera glasses, in some cases rising to the proportions of telescopes lashed together. These were leveled all round with eager competition to criticize the poor wretches in the stalls; and certainly where the young men gain their various and curious experiences and information from is a mystery to me, but they gabbled away until Sir Arthur took his seat in the orchestra, and then they settled down for the night's business, where we will leave them.

Gays and Broadway

American musical comedy was thriving by the 1880s. Harrigan and Hart's musical farces were distinctly American in their sound and point of view, which depicted minority groups fighting like hell but always resolving things democratically in the end. Where were the queens? Sadly, we are not sure. The theatrical veterans of this era were gone before public discussion of homosexuality was possible, and no private diaries have surfaced. But some circumstantial evidence is coming to light.

In the groundbreaking Gay New York (New York: Basic Books, 1994), George Chauncey documents the long-neglected story of New York City's homosexual community before World War II. He confirms that there was a visible homosexual presence in late 19th Century New York City, but hangouts were frequently suppressed due to public outrage. Mainstream society could accept the existence of prostitution, grinding poverty and blatant political corruption, but it refused to tolerate "deviant" lifestyles. Outside of a few scattered bohemian enclaves like Greenwich Village, homosexuals were forced to remain invisible. That situation would soon change.

Next: 1900-1940 - Life Upon the Wicked Stage