LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #8: Ode to the Masters

Today we’d like to talk about a great author, known for his peculiar personality, a taste for controversy, and, most of all, a fluffy, orange haircut thatsummarizes his style. Don’t worry: he has never been the President of the United States of America. We are talking about Alan Bennett, an English actor, screenwriter, and playwright.

Born in 1934, he wrote his first success in 1960: Beyond the Fringe, a satirical revue who built his fame of a loose cannon, as it contained tons of caricatures of the authorities of the time under the rain of the audience’s laughter. 

The first steps of an author who showed many times not to fear to be misunderstood or considered offensive: the proof will show up in The History Boys, written half a century after Beyond the Fringe, in 2004. Maybe his hair color faded, but his talent didn’t: the play got enthusiastic reviews all around the globe, becoming a true modern classic in Italy at the Elfo Puccini, directed by Ferdinando Bruni and Elio De Capitani.

Alan Bennett.

Eight students, preparing themselves for the admission tests in the main United Kingdom’s universities, face a principal who considers their success a sign of prestige for the whole school. That’s why he decides to hire a new teacher to train his boys for their exams: Irwin, who we will discover to be gay and involved in an affair with his students, along with his elder colleague Hector. 

In a minimalist plot, brighter rather than provocative, a trait peculiar of the queer literature emerges: the guide’s figure. A kind of character who starts his journey in the poetries dedicated to the ephebes of Ancient Greece, ending in the thoughts of Mario Mieli, founder of the homosexual movement in Italy unrightfully accused to be a pedophile by the catholic right-wing, for saying children are free creatures, untouched by a society that promotes heterosexuality. Hector goes against an education that just helps to achieve good grades in university tests, pushing his boys towards an open mind instead.

That makes us think about an era in which the pandemic and the economic crisis affected education and civil rights. Closed schools, banned culture, and even more fuel into the wrath for business are sold as the parachute to save society. So, here it is our eighth challenge for the Carlo Annoni Prize participants: when your characters are drowning in their life, who helps them swim back to the top?

LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #7: Ulysses in Italy

As it took 20 years for Ulysses to come back to Ithaca, it took us seven episodes to come back to Italy. Not because the Mediterranean country needed more time to come out with an LGBT+ playwright, but because we couldn’t decide which one to start with.

After two needed honorable mentions to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mario Mieli, we went for one of the most controversial Italian authors of the last century: Giovanni Testori.

Giovanni Testori (ph: Valerio Soffientini)

Testori was born, like Sarah Kane, in a deeply religious family, who pushes him towards fascism. He collaborates with some fascist student associations during the years of WW2, in the meantime devoting himself to painting. His real, homosexual identity will be hidden for years until meeting the director Luchino Visconti, gay as well.

It happened during the Fifties’ when Testori focused on narrating the suburbs of Milan, which at the time was all but the modern, European city it is today. L’Arialda, set in the periphery, is the first drama in Italy about a homosexual couple, born from love and not from perversion, as the catholic misconception about the LGBT+ community dictated. That brought to a court both Testori and Visconti, who directed the movie.

The more one tries to shut a genius, the harder it springs back, like a water tube closed with force. A second friendship, with the actor Franco Parenti and one of the first great female directors in Italy, Andrée Ruth Shammah, let Testori see onstage his Trilogia degli Scarrozzanti (roughly Trilogy of the Tramps). The first chapter, Ambleto (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet), written in a fake 17th century French-Lombard creole, contains gay versions of Bard’s characters, surrounded by a surreal and tragicomical, Copi-like atmosphere.

After fascists, Milanese gangsters, and homosexuals, Testori finally met Christians: in the sad years after the death of his mother (1977) he felt an urge for a companion, even a religious one, and he thought anyone else needed to. His last works are religious plays, similar to the ones of the medieval age, still enriched by his style made of a blur distinction between reality and the stage.

Testori dies in 1993. Like Ulysses, who saw mages and sirens before coming back to Ithaca, the contemporary poet sailed through every sea of thought and expression, suspended between the two opposite forces of individual and sexual freedom and the catholic sense of guilt. So, here we are at the seventh challenge for the participants of the Carlo Annoni Prize: when comes the time, for an author, to experiment in its theatre?

LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #6: Pink new year!

Dear readers, we’re sorry. It has been five weeks since the first LGBTheater episode and still, nothing about female playwrights! Not that there is a lack of them: according to a 1996 survey by AMS Planning & Research Corp., the majority of the American theatre audience is female.

How many of them do you know? Write it in the comments!

Also, there is a huge number of brilliant playwrights around the world: Yasmina Reza, Elfriede Jelinek, Lucia Calamaro, Biljana Srbljanović, Lucy Prebble, to quote a few…

It’s quite a cliche to begin with Sarah Kane, and Sarah Kane was all but cliche: the fact that a highly explicit work about war and rape such as Blasted was written by an English 24 years old girl coming from a well-being family clearly shocked the UK theater back in 1995.

Blasted, despite not truly having homosexual characters (the sex moment between Ian and the soldier is non-consensual), undirectly addresses the traditional heteronormative relation Kane stood against: the one involving a dominant man and a submissive woman. To find real love among her plays we have to wait until a gay couple appears: Carl and Rod’s relationship in Cleansed, to quote a metaphor in the text, springs through the flames of hell like a flower in the cement. Which, by the way, doesn’t prevent the whole story to end in blood and tears. 

Kane’s anty-heteronormativity is also a peculiar trait of the greatest British female writer. But, speaking about her, the Guardian’s critic Michael Billington omits ‘female’, placing her on top of an Olympus of contemporary authors, mainly men. We’re clearly referring to Caryl Churchill. In Sleepless, the last goodbye to her naturalistic period, three couples talk in their respective bedrooms: the only one who seems happy is the last, also the one made by two women, both of which we have seen in the previous scenes along with their ex-husbands. 

Also, the surrealist era reaches its top with a gay couple. The characters in Drunk enough to say I Love You? are engaged in a relation which is even too much happy, them symbolizing the USA and the United Kingdom, keeping alive their love even through wars in the Middle East and tortures with metal wires between the teeth of the dissidents. A taste for moderation Sarah Kane would have appreciated for sure.

Let’s leave 2020 with a sigh of relief and let’s start 2021 with a question for the authors wanting to participate in the Carlo Annoni Prize: which themes should face and which targets should aim to someone who wants to shock the audience? 

LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #5: A nativity scene under the rain

Holidays, but being sober. After a noticeable win streak from capitalism in the yearly tender for the Christmas period, made of sugary candy canes, Coca-Cola commercials, Mariah Carey and Home Alone, the Dickens ghost of the Traditional-25th-of-December comes back on the throne. Stuffed turkey vs M&Ms, 18th century carols vs Jingle Bells Rock and, most of all, Jesus’ saga vs Macaulay Culkin.

Every religious person knows: the tale found in the Bible is a gem, written years before the Hollywood hero’s journey. The chosen one from Nazareth born into the deepest misery becomes the archetype of both Oliver Twist and many of the Star Wars characters. Every person who suffers from discriminations can identify itself with the Messiah, regardless of its faith.

Bernard-Marie Koltès

Bernard-Marie Koltès, a homosexual playwright coming from the same era and place of Copi and Lagarce, knows how it is to be emarginated from the society. Died of AIDS in France in 1989, just 41 years old, he is today remembered for a one-of-a-kind style, widely built on a sense of suspension. Rather than the fast dialogues that became a trend among his British contemporaries, he preferred long, unnatural monologues.

The characters are often immigrants: one of the most well-known is the protagonist of Night Just Before the Forests, who can’t find anyone to host him on a rainy night. Also, the people in West Pier belong to many different races, made one from their desperation and armed with opportunism to make some profit from tragedies that happen to someone else. Black battles with dogs is often considered an African Antigone. Koltès moves the sense of loneliness and suffering deriving from his condition on people he feels are even less lucky: as an outcast takes care of other outcasts, narrating their lives (is there anything more human than that?), and doing so he speaks about his pain as well.

We wish you happy holidays and we suggest you, if you haven’t done that yet, to use them to dive into the world of this great author. When you’ll be done, you will be ready for this week’s challenge: which other social and political themes may meet a LGBT-related play?

LGBTheater – Rainbow Curtain Stories #4: Allons, playwrights de la patrie!

1993. Paris woke up on a cold winter morning and saw  the Luxor obelisk covered by a giant pink condom. The installation, coming from Oliviero Toscani and several associations who stood against AIDS, came just after the first cure to the pandemic that made the whole world shake, despite the belief the virus only hit the gay community.

Revealing to have AIDS formally implied a coming out. The fact that the illness, unlike humankind, made no difference between straight and not didn’t matter at all. Many positives choose not to talk: a paradox to be forced to do so, in an era when people accept deaths for drugs, but not for sex and love.

Silence and paradox: it takes two words to describe the deadly rise of AIDS. The word is soon made flesh. France, where the fire of the greatest European revolution created the Enlightenment, raises with both its rebel spirit and its poetic language two one-of-a-kind thinkers: Jean-Luc Lagarce and Copi. Both will fall victim to AIDS, still after writing down on paper these whole absurd years.

Jean-Luc Lagarce.

Lagarce, just before finding out to be seropositive, foresees his fate in his greatest work: Juste la fin du monde, meaning It’s Only the End of the World, whose movie version was shot by Xavier Dolan. A boy affected by AIDS comes back after many years to his family, to announce he is about to die. The atmosphere is burdened with tense or broken relations, expressed through nuances switching from a conventional sense of parenthood to the most trivial rage. The main character remains silent, waiting for the right moment to confess his secret.

Copi.

Copi chooses to talk about the noise instead, the chaos of those years, through lysergic trips in which mice have sex with men and women. The unsettling rattles of Beckett and Pinter are perfectly noticeable: in L’homosexuel ou la difficulté de s’exprimer characters, whose sex remains uncertain, live in a house in Siberia surrounded by hungry wolves, hoping without a chance to escape to some unexisting place. 

Two authors who narrated their era and conditions, both with naturalism and surrealism. So, this is the fourth weekly challenge for the Carlo Annoni Prize’s participants: can playwriting talk about the present days in a creative and original manner?

LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #3: Something moves

Late 19th century. Pen and ink become the tool of a new generation of female writers: names such as Woolf, Austen, and Shelley grow bigger and bigger in literature, while in the United States a black actor, Ira Aldridge, plays Othello for the first time in history. The early exceptions to the white, male artist are seldom welcome by the masses: the world doesn’t appear to be ready for such rapid change.

The early 20th century artists’ launchpad is therefore an era still vastly dominated by prejudice. William Inge, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, is one of the fathers of the LGBT theatre: still, he will never come out of the closet. He starts his career, encouraged by Tennessee Williams, whom he shares with an education highly influenced by religion, a difficult relation with alcohol and life itself, which he ended, like Williams, by his own hand. Inge’s theatre starts focusing on homosexuality from The boy in the Basement on. The title speaks for itself: as Inge was imprisoned in his ‘basement’ for life, the same happened to the work, stuck in the drawer for almost twelve years until its publishment in 1962.

William Inge

The references to homosexuality in Tennessee Williams’ plays are more vanishing. The gay characters disappear to appear: as they avoid their families, they underline how rotten are the bonds that keep them together. In A streetcar named Desire, the memory of Blanche’s ex-husband looks down on the stage like an Ibsen-kind ghost: he killed himself when his wife humiliated him after seeing him with another man, becoming the first victim of the cruelty which massacres the characters through the play.

Tom, in The Glass Menagerie, goes to the movies every night, but comes home drunk, without saying a word about where he has been. The play is almost autobiographical: the character shares with the author the name (Williams didn’t change his one until 1938) and the seriously ill sister. That’s not all: they both had an absent father and a mother tired of her life, in front of who was easier to find excuses than speaking openly.

It’s interesting to think about how clearly William Inge referred to homosexuality in his plays while never revealing it in his private life: the exact opposite of Tennessee Williams, who despite being a well-known lover boy always kept apart private life and literary works. This week’s challenge for the Carlo Annoni Prize’s participants is: how close should the writer’s life be to his or her plays?

LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #2: All the Bard’s men

We didn’t even know it was possible, but now it happened: we finally met someone who didn’t like Shakespeare in Love. Someone who thought the Weinstein case was about his brother Bob for directing such garbage: a pile of cliches, uninteresting characters, and a whole bunch of Spanish sit-com ex machinas. Someone who tried to stop us from writing this article.

So why are we talking about it anyway? Shakespeare in Love tells about the creation of Romeo and Juliet: our dear William must write and direct the famous tragedy he chooses a young actor for, who, we will find out, is a girl dressed as a man. Let’s not forget it was forbidden, at the time, for a woman to play on stage. The movie narrates about the Bard by using a device he himself utilizes in The Merchant of Venice: the character (Portia) dressed as its opposite sex.

So, the worm of doubt starts shaking: did Shakespeare, the movie one, fall in love with his actress when he finds out she’s a woman or before, during the audition? We know the original Shakespeare to be married, but many of his sonnets are directed at a male figure, such as the notorious Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a Summers day), furthermore appearing in the movie.

Not everyone agrees this is sufficient proof for an outing. The idea that, in the Renaissance, it was accepted that a straight man praised another man’s beauty is quite widespread. Still, let’s keep in mind the opinions of many historians were forged in times when bisexuality was even less accepted than today.

On the other hand, someone who never denied his homosexuality was Pietro Aretino, who openly called himself
a sodomite”. In the comedy
Il Marescalco he writes about a farrier (“Marescalco”, in 16th century Italian) forced to marry a woman he doesn’t want, since he’s “Coy with women as a moneylender with the expenses”. The efforts of the other characters lead to nowhere. The nurse who praised how joyful marriages are gets answered: “To take syphilis instead of a wife, that’s lesser pain”. That may look like anything but the complaints of the man about his wife at the pub, but we know enough about Aretino’s private life to suppose this time it’s different. By unveiling the bride, finally, the farrier finds out she is just a male page with a dress: he discovers the joke, is happy about that, and sighs of relief.

If the character losing its costume, in modern-time Shakespeare in Love, “saves” the protagonist from a gay affair, in Pietro Aretino’s play he is saved from a heterosexual one. An author ahead of his times, who now throws the second challenge to our participants: how cross-dressing in theatre can speak about a society where dressing up, figurately, can save one from prejudice

LGBTheater – Rainbow curtain stories #1: Were the Greeks already ahead of us?

I’m not gonna lie: during my high school years, ancient Greece was my ace in the hole to win the discussions with homophobes. I mean, dear Xx_WhitePride86 going on hating on the forums, aren’t you having a little hard time trying to convince me “gays ruined the society” while one of the flourishing eras of history was known to be queer-friendly? 

Still, there was a big hole among the evidence in my favor: theater. Classic-era theater seemed not to have a place for homosexual or bisexual heroes, who, on the other hand, were more than frequent in poetry and epic. Not that my pal Xx_WhitePride86 actually cared. I must confess I was still quite upset about it.

The book Homosexuality in ancient Greece (1979), by K.J. Dover, contains long and deep analysis on the few known fragments of ancient poetry, such as Theognis’ ones for his lover Cyrnus and Anacreon’s for Bathyllus, mentioning theater little to zero. It’s nonsense to think that homosexual love was widely accepted but not represented on stage, keeping in mind the Greeks considered theater as a tool to promote the society’s values, central in raising citizens, who even had the duty to attend to some shows. 

Actually, among the great dramatists, the one who went the closest to talking explicitly about homosexuality was Euripides. But he didn’t do that as a dramatist, but as a character in the play Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes, who used to make fun out of notable people in his works. The lines the playwright from Athens makes him say are directed to his colleague Agathon, and by reading them with the current sensibility, they look like an article published in The Sun.  

So the tables have turned? Greek theater didn’t just support LGBT+ issues, but was homophobic too?

A recent publication of the well-known Carleton College says: no. The digs to the poor Agathon weren’t on his sexual preferences, but about his feminine look and his ‘passivity’, both sexual and emotional. This alone would be enough to say Aristophanes was not a homophobe; we could, at least, say he was the produce of a macho, patriarchal society. Still, let’s not forget comedy has, as a genre, often no heroes the audience identifies its values with. Euripides and the even more ‘bigot’ kingsman are ridiculed several times, sometimes for their very obsession with masculinity. 

So, it looks like between the 4th and the 5th century B.C., homosexuality was accepted enough to even joke about it. The first LGBT+ dramatist in the book, as far as we know today, wrote comedies. That’s why the inspiration we hand out this week to the prize’s participants is: can we talk about rights, homophobia, and discrimination, even by getting a laugh from the audience?