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Feminism and Homosexuality in Theater Essay

Feminism in theater has a very close relationship with the depiction of homosexuality onstage. Playwrights and performance artists who advocate feminism have seen theater as a powerful tool to make the public understand their views. The work of artists such as Lillian Hellman, Holly Hughes, and Anna Deavere Smith shape the discussion of feminism and homosexuality in the theater. Lillian Hellman was a playwright who’s known for plays that discussed the psychological and social manifestations of evil.

Her work was revolutionary because she created strong female characters at a time when men ruled American theater. On the subject of homosexuality, Hellman’s most relevant work was “The Children’s Hour” (Champion and Nelson 156). While “The Children’s Hour” sends a powerful message on the topic of homosexuality, Hellman herself wasn’t a homosexual and her work may have reflected her attitude toward the subject. Hellman described the play to a reporter as “not really a play about lesbianism, but a lie (Griffin and Thorsten 27). ” According to Hellman, the bigger the lie, the better it gets.

“The Children’s Hour,” which opened on Broadway on November 20, 1934, painted a grim but clear depiction of Hellman’s view. “The Children’s Hour” is about the lives of two young women who opened a school for girls. Eventually, their lives are gradually ruined when one of the students accuses them of lesbianism. The characters of Martha Dobie and Karen Wright were realistically rendered by Hellman, resulting in a Broadway hit that would have 691 performances. This was a milestone of an achievement since America at the time was very conservative and homosexuality was a taboo subject (Griffin and Thorsten 27).

Homosexuality was so taboo a subject in the Western world that the play was banned in Chicago, Boston, and London. While the play earned critical success in France and New York, it wasn’t awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1935 because the subject matter was still thought to be too sensitive at the time. Critics from New York however, protested the refusal of conservative bodies in the theater industry by forming the Drama Critics’ Circle. The organization has since then presented its own awards for plays they thought were relevant to art and society (Griffin and Thorsten 27).

Hellman’s guardedness toward the issue of homosexuality is reflected on the play’s morality, which though clearly controversial and shocking at the time, was nevertheless morally acceptable to the majority of audiences. One glaring example of this is the fact that in the play, the accusation that Martha Dobie and Karen Wright were engaged in a lesbian relationship was simply a lie. An archetypal malicious teenager named Mary Tilford who studied in the school for girls fabricated the story. In fact, Karen was engaged to Dr.

Joe Cardin, whom she really loved. Martha may have really been a lesbian in the story, but fearing for her sexuality, she committed suicide after revealing her thoughts and feelings to Karen (Griffin and Thorsten 28). Despite her sensational plays often associated with left-wing politics and feminism, Hellman considered herself largely a “moral writer. ” The issue of homosexuality was primarily just a tool in the story to illustrate Hellman’s view that good people sometimes bring about harm because of their unwillingness to challenge evil.

Karen was clearly painted in the play as a heterosexual and Martha seemed to have paid for her crime (homosexuality) with her life. Aside from reaffirming the norms of American society at the time, the play also apparently satisfied the morality of the conservative audience (Griffin and Thorsten 28). “The Children’s Hour” may have shied away from directly defending homosexuality, but it nevertheless showed the gradual opening of society to the broader roles of women. Martha and Karen were women who earned their own money, thus sending a message that they were independent and had some sort of power to satisfy their desires.

These female characters were different from another of Hellman’s characters named Regina in “The Little Foxes. ” While Regina depended on others’ money and the things she got from her manipulation of men, Martha and Karen had the education and administrative skills which led to the success of the all girls’ school they founded. Joe, Karen’s partner, also symbolized the growing number of egalitarian men at the time. He was very supportive of his partner’s wish to continue her career after their marriage and he also respected her dedication to the school she co-founded.

He even defended Karen and Martha to his aunt after Mary’s mother convinced other parents to take their children out of the school because of the lesbianism charge (Griffin and Thorsten 28). In effect, while the play was hesitant to probe the reality of homosexuality more deeply, it did affirm in the audience’s mind the expanding role and power of women in society. Hellman might have been too guarded about lesbianism, but performance artist Holly Hughes was definitely vocal about her views about homosexuality and homosexual relationships.

Hughes was an openly homosexual performance artist and writer of various plays and books that center on the topic of homosexuality. Her work has both been debated and celebrated by artists and intellectuals. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) refused to fund Hughes’ work in the summer of 1990 because of its sensitive subject matter, which resulted in a fierce debate and controversy in the world of performance art. One of Hughes’ most controversial pieces is a play entitled “Well of Horniness.

” Lynda Hart, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that the “Well of Horniness” is both “transgressive and aggressive” because it dismantles the audience’s preconceived notions about lesbian homosexuality. The play is loosely based on a classic novel about lesbian homosexuality written by Radclyffe Hall. Hughes’ play became very successful and eventually inspired two sequels: “Part II: Victim Victoria” and “Part III: In the Realm of the Senseless (Hart and Phelan 60-61).

” The play is mostly representational, with the plot repeatedly interrupted by mock commercials and commentaries (Hart and Phelan 60-61). The memorable characters of “Well of Horniness” include Georgette, Rod, and Vicki. Georgette is Rod’s sister and Vicki is Rod’s fiancee. Vicki and Georgette are members of a sorority called Tridelta Tribads. Georgette meets Rod and Vicki at a restaurant, and Georgette soon recognizes Vicki as someone she knows from her past sorority. Vicki instantly desires Georgette and stares at her longingly.

While dining at the restaurant, Vicki drops her fork underneath the table. As she goes down to pick it up, she’s drawn instead to Georgette’s legs, which Hughes writes, were “two succulent rainbows leading to the same pot of gold (Hart and Phelan 61-62). ” The aggressive affirmation of homosexual reality masked in comedy is performed in the play as Vicki continues to give Georgette cunnilingus while Rod delivers a monologue on honeymoon getaways. In productions of the play at East Village, Manhattan, this scene is performed explicitly with Georgette in a comedic manner to Vicki underneath the table.

Vicki then gets up and says she’s feeling “a little too hot” and goes to the bathroom (Hart and Phelan 62). Rod tells Georgette that he senses “something fishy” but he can’t “put his finger” on it (Hart and Phelan 62). Georgette then replies, “I’m working on it. ” The comedic conversation happens in the context of a play that is filled with references to fish, eager beavers, muff-divers, and other terms associated with lesbianism (Hart and Phelan 62). In contrast to “The Children’s Hour”, “Well of Horniness” certainly drives home its message on homosexuality in a more direct, striking manner.

Hughes’ play doesn’t hide behind other issues or concerns such as the “lie” or “evil” in Hellman’s play, and instead hits audiences with the reality of homosexuality right away. It is this controversial nature of Hughes work that has made her notorious for conservative critics and even lesbians and other homosexuals who review her work. Hart though, thinks that Hughes’ play effectively challenges heterosexual hegemony. Its borderline messages and controversial nature opens up a “hopeful new space of visibility” for feminism and its supporters (Hart and Phelan 62).

The popular scene from “Well of Horniness” is even more notable because it shatters lesbian stereotypes. Lesbians at the time were thought of as homosexuals who generally assumed male identities. Vicki though, was already engaged to Rod and yet still desired other women. Vicki’s performance of oral sex for Georgette in close proximity to her fiance destroys any notions the audiences might have regarding lesbianism and the sexuality of women. Since the play is representational, Rod’s character mainly stands for heterosexual hegemony, which explains why the character is named “Rod” to refer to male phallic symbol.

Hughes shows that homosexual realities are happening throughout society despite the blind functioning of heterosexual institutions, such as marriage, as the play points out. Unlike Hellman, Hughes seems more concerned with homosexuality than feminism, although the empowerment of women might also be addressed by her aggressive plays. Through the clear depiction of women as freely desiring beings, Hughes is able to free women from societal stereotypes. “Women” isn’t a category of human beings who can only desire men.

Instead, it’s a fuzzy category that mostly refers to female human beings who may desire any sex and express that desire in different ways. Overarching Hellman and Hughes’ work may be the amazing work of Anna Deavere Smith, performance artist, playwright, writer, and professor. Smith has received numerous awards and is widely known for her performances which have her assuming the identities of more than twenty people. Smith employs few props, such as chairs and tables to differentiate identities in her performances. All the identities she plays are real people who are interviewed beforehand about a social issue.

The result of her lengthy monologues is a stunning commentary on the differences that fracture a community. One of Smith’s most popular acts is called “On the Road,” which she has been performing since 1982. In one of her performances, Smith interviewed twenty-five men and women from Princeton University on subjects such as the university’s eating clubs which are exclusive to men, assault against women, and the condition of black students among others. The fifty-minute dialogue that results from this research entertains and delights audiences at the same time.

Smith usually invites her subjects to attend her performances and their reaction is usually positive. Many of them even laugh out loud when they recognize their own selves in the numerous identities performed. Some of them though, get unsettled when they see their views juxtaposed with others from the community (Hart and Phelan 35). This unsettling of the self may be one of the main goals of Smith in structuring her acts through such a unique manner. According to Smith, her goal is “to find American character in the ways that people speak (Cohen-Cruz 148).

” She said that the spirit, imagination, and the challenges of the time can then be captured by inhabiting the words of the people in the community. Unlike other actors who try to project realistic characters on the stage, Smith’s emphasis is more on the filtering of the self through a single actor. She doesn’t assume that she has all the experiences of her subjects, but that she can learn many things from these experiences (Cohen-Cruz 148). Feminism has been one of the subjects of Smith’s performances for a very long time.

In one Princeton performance entitled “Gender Bending,” Smith reminisced how women from Seven Sisters colleges had been imported to Princeton throughout history to provide weekend entertainment for members of fraternities. Feminist definitions of the body, the AIDS crisis, and modern literary representations of homosexuality are also discussed in the show. Smith tackled all these issues by impersonating the subjects she interviewed and playing them onstage (Hart and Phelan 37). In a way, Smith’s work is closer to reality than both Hellman and Hughes’ work because it merely projects the voice of real people onstage.

What makes Smith’s performance more striking though than a simple video recording of interviews is that only one face speaks for all of the subjects. Through this technique, Smith is able to erase the immediate symbols of color, gender, and other characteristics of her subjects. Without the physical characteristics that differentiate one subject from another, audiences are forced to consider each subject’s view as a part of a unity that is the community. Stereotypes are then magnified as audiences realize that differences are oftentimes imaginary and unjust.

Instead of masking the call for the empowerment of women through discussions about “evil” such as what Hellman did, or aggressively attacking the audience with controversial representations of lesbians such as what Hughes demonstrated, Smith is able to give voice to real women by simply putting their views side by side with others from the community. Smith puts real context in her performances, which makes the issue more immediate to viewers. Her acts send the message that gender discrimination is really happening right now and many people are unconsciously participating in it.

They call for an immediate response to pressing social issues while entertaining audiences at the same time. For ordinary citizens, norms in society are always difficult to challenge, let alone break. Revolutionary works by Hellman, Hughes, and Smith are very valuable in that they help people to cross the bridge, so they can see the other side. While some audiences may dislike the oftentimes crude and vulgar images in their work, their act of watching alone is enough to gradually bend the norms of society. Norms always have to be challenged so that society’s morality and humanity doesn’t remain oppressively stagnant.

Once taboo subjects are discussed, they cease to haunt the people concerned and become an issue for everyone. As modernity pushes people to think more about the effects of gender on society and the self, feminism and homosexuality will continue to be relevant topics in theater and other forms of art in the future. Hellman, Hughes, and Smith’s work will also continue to shape the discussions on these topics. These three brilliant writers represent different sides of the spectrum and their work should be read by anyone interested in exploring the relationship between feminism, homosexuality and theater arts.

Works Cited Champion, Laurie and Emmanuel Sampath Nelson. American Women Writers, 1900-1945: a Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. Cohen-Cruz, Jan. Local Acts: Community-based Performance in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Griffin, Alice and Geraldine Thorsten. Understanding Lillian Herman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Hart, Lynda and Peggy Phelan. Acting Out: Feminist Performances. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.


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