Homosexualities in the English Theatre: From Lyly to Wilde

Homosexualities in the English Theatre: From Lyly to Wilde

Homosexualities in the English Theatre: From Lyly to Wilde

Homosexualities in the English Theatre: From Lyly to Wilde

Synopsis

Scholars have given increasing amounts of attention to the place of homosexuality in different periods of English cultural and literary history. This book is a broad survey of representations of homosexuality in the English theatre from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. It draws on scholarship from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, history, psychology, literature, and drama. The first chapter provides a background for the book by discussing the nature of same-sex behavior in the ancient and medieval worlds. The chapters that follow discuss such topics as sodomy and transvestite theatre in the Renaisssance; female transvestism on the English stage during the 17th century; bisexuality in 18th-century drama; the rise of English homophobia and the proliferation of lesbian relationships in England between 1745 and 1790; the homophobic context of English theatre during the Romantic Movement (1790-1835); and the rebirth of interest in Greek thought and its associations with same-sex poetry,,drama, and pornography in the Victorian era (1840-1900).

Excerpt

In "Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior, Identity, and Artistic Expression," James M. Saslow suggests that male bisexuality in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was consistent with the adult man's position at the top of a social system that granted privilege to patriarchy, age, and power. Within this system, boys were considered interchangeable with women because of the still "feminine" physical characteristics of beardless, high-voiced, smooth-skinned adolescents (92). This situation is compounded by the fact that adult bisexual men who played the active role in homosexual sex did not consider their behavior a deviation from the adult masculine norm (99). The male-dominated apprentice system by which boys from the ages of twelve or thirteen lived with the master was an acceptable (though covert) system of homosexual love since boys were interchangeable with women.

The theatre in the English Renaissance clearly replicates this model. Boys, considered female surrogates were easily accepted on stage as women. They were under the tutelage of some master--either choirmaster or adult actor-- and were practicing their craft, playing an accepted role in the social system. A similar argument can be advanced for prostitutes or fine artisans. So long as the boys were recipients of sexual advances, in or out of character, they fall within the accepted paradigm of an adult male system of dominance.

At the same time, however, Jonathan Dollimore argues that the very role that the boy actor played, though understood within the hierarchy, violated that system since the boy was often not only pretending to a role beyond his station (i.e., playing adult men of various social stations, in adult clothing) but pretending to a role beyond his sex, which sex, which is clearly forbidden by the Bible in Deuteronomy 22:5. In Th 'Overthrow of Stage-Playes,John Rainoldes, himself a transvestite actor at the age of seventeen, argues that the boy transvestite destroyed the fragile moral restraint containing an anarchic male sexuality; the boy incited his male audience into every kind of sexual excess. In seeing the . . .

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