"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
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
boperetta 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 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
Wilde, etc.) who simultaneously delighted and scandalized Victorian society. 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
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
Gay men of a certain class were a visible presence in
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