The Drama of Marriage: Gay Playwrights/Straight Unions from Oscar Wilde to the Present
Ort: New York
Verlag: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Autor(en): John M. Clum
Autor der Rezension: Michael Heinze
Umfang / Preis: 256 pages/£55.00
John M. Clum has been one of the most eminent scholars to write about the works of gay playwrights for years, and his 1992 book Acting Gay (re-issued in 2000 under the title Still Acting Gay) is a seminal work in the field of gay and lesbian studies. The Drama of Marriage is an intricate and fascinating publication of great importance, which contributes a fresh look to a number of important dramatists’ plays. Having said that, one will have to be aware of the fact that Clum’s latest book will attract criticism. It is not rooted in Queer Studies or Queer Theories but has its background in beleaguered Gay (and Lesbian) Studies, a field which is fighting for survival – or which maybe has lost the battle. Alan Sinfield’s work comes to mind, such as his Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (1999) or his collection of essays Cultural Politics – Queer Reading of 1994, which was published in a revised edition in 2005. Both Sinfield and Clum work on the basis of gender and sexual identity, a basis which has been dropped by Queer Theories since. Clum’s The Drama of Marriage is a hands-on analysis of plays and playwrights and can do without scores of theoretical texts. The primary works are the focus of the analysis as are the authors, another technique of the book which might nowadays be considered out of fashion. Clum’s approach is firmly biographical, and the results of his analysis are stunning. If this style of scholarly work is out of fashion maybe the fashion is wrong, not the writing.
As the subtitle of the volume, mentioning Oscar Wilde, already suggests, the author studies plays by male dramatists who were primarily attracted to men, but whose lives had a more or less ‘in the closet’ quality, depending on the historic context. Wilde, Maugham, Coward, Williams and Inge – to name but a few of the playwrights discussed – all wrote about heterosexual couples from a slightly different perspective than other playwrights. In seven neat chapters, which focus on one or two playwrights each, Clum examines the works of some of the most prominent British and U.S.-American playwrights, intertwining his analyses with reflections on the lives of the writers discussed. The biographical approach is vital as so many aspects of the respective authors’ lives influenced their writing and their perception. Due to anti-homosexual legislation in the U.S. and Britain many of the writers looked at in the volume were married at one time or another or kept their gay relationships under a veil – a feat much more easily achieved in their historic contexts that were not haunted by internet coverage of the smallest of details of anybody’s life. The personal approach mentioned earlier lies in the fact that Clum anchors one of the impulses for this book in his own life story. Having been married earlier in life but having been in a long-term relationship with a man for many years now, the interest Clum shows in his topic may have a similar motivation that the topics had for the playwrights. The author lists some of the questions he is going to tackle in his introduction: “Do marriages fail because couples fail or because the ideal of marriage is impossible to realize? Is true understanding between two people possible? Is monogamy unrealistic?” (p. 1). From the vantage point of the authors and their plays, Clum delves into questions of women’s lib, gender roles and stereotypes, marriage reform, gay lib and the discourse of sexual orientation. Gay marriage is discussed in the last chapter and brings the study full circle, roots it firmly in the early 21st century and underlines the importance of the works discussed for the ongoing (if not even only now really taking off) discussion of the nature of marriage.
The first chapter opens with a discussion of Cambridge cleric Edward Carpenter who is sometimes seen as one of the first theorists of women’s and gay lib. Be that as it may, Carpenter’s writings are of primal importance as the author was a well-known marriage reformer who did not shy away from publishing his – at the time certainly – most contentious thoughts. Odd as it may seem that his writings (which are mostly not drama, after all) open this book, Clum’s intention is clear from the chapter headline: “Edward Carpenter and Oscar Wilde: Ideal and Real Marriage.” Carpenter’s views of the necessity of marriage reform clash with Wilde’s couples on stage. Marriages in Wilde’s plays are always under threat; the more emotionally grounded they are, the more they are under threat – if not their coming true is at stake in the first place. Wilde’s fallen women and submissive wives manifest the traditional gender roles Carpenter questions, but Clum comes to the conclusion: “Wilde was able in his plays simultaneously to endorse and mock this ideal” (p. 39), a paradox which is maybe a reflection of Wilde’s life, married with children but (notoriously) more attracted to men. In the chapter “Somerset Maugham’s Inconstant Spouses” Maugham is presented as a linking element between Wilde and Coward, and the chapter is more intensely biographical than the previous one. Discussing not only Maugham’s dramatic œuvre but also a novel and an essay, Clum’s analysis focuses on gender stereotypes and gender roles, unearthing and illustrating the inversion of gender stereotypes which contributes so much to the power play in the marriages presented on stage. The predominantly modern orientation of Maugham’s work is highlighted in the inconsistency of romance and passion in partnerships which can still be lasting if they are companionable. The denial of monogamy as a prerequisite to a successful partnership is, for the historical context, revolutionary. Clum’s conclusion reads as follows: “The plays do […] show how a writer can be exceedingly popular while defying conventional morality and traditional gender roles” (p. 67). With the title of the next chapter, “Love or Marriage: Sir Noël Coward and Sir Terence Rattigan,” he subtly presents a paradox in British society at the time insofar as both playwrights were highly controversial but also – as can be gleaned from their knighthoods – highly valued. For Coward, Clum states that marriage in his plays is a compromise, “love and marriage in Coward’s works were always separate, the one a natural feeling that may not be connected to sexual passion, the other a repressive social institution. […] It is difficult for us now to appreciate how transgressive these plays were in their time, when divorces were not so easily acquired and divorced women were seen as tainted and dangerous. Coward’s fallen women relish their status” (pp. 75-6). Love, sex, need and partnership are the problematic stress field in which Rattigan’s plays are set. Desire and need are as much opposed to marriage and constancy in his work as the nature of love is indeterminate. In “Emlyn Williams: Growing into Marriage” Clum reaches the most controversial of his British authors, a playwright whose conviction that homosexual activity may be (what is nowadays often called) a phase, whereas the acceptance of an (imperfect but necessary) heterosexual marriage is a sign of having matured. Although Williams uses the image of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in his play Accolade, a sinister and dangerous duality of characteristics, the reader is also reminded of the Wildean Bunburying, but the lightness of Wilde’s alternating lives is amiss.
Clum has been following a strong chronological line throughout these chapters which is only broken for changing the literary background from British to U.S.-American authors. The following chapters are just as chronologically stringent as the previous ones. Keeping to British and U.S.-American authors en bloc underlines the developmental stages of dramatic presentations of marriage within their context. (The set of production shots illustrating vital scenes in some of the plays discussed in the book underline the bipartite structure of the study.) It is only in the last chapter, which deals with gay marriage in the present, that Clum switches between the British and U.S. contexts, once again to the advantage of the chapter as it highlights the cultural and sociological effects of globalisation. Chapter 5 looks at playwrights Clyde Fitch and George Kelly under the title “Spunky American Wives and Domestic Monsters,” in which is also neatly encapsulated the paradox present in these two authors’ works: “These two playwrights offer interesting portraits of repression and expression of homosexuality in the early twentieth century. […] The work of both playwrights focuses on women” (p. 114). The focus on the female characters of the plays analysed leads into questions of gender roles and identities just as much as of Wildean aestheticism, Dandyism and camp. Fitch having had a close connection with Wilde also links the two parts of the book, this kind of cross-referencing being a vital part of the study. Clum does not look at British and U.S. contexts in isolation; the intertextual as well as interpersonal is of equal importance. About Kelly, Clum writes: “Maugham wrote about marriage to discount its validity. Kelly sees it as a necessity, but as something that withers when it is taken for granted” (pp. 137-8). “1950s Marriages Sweet and Sour: Tennessee Williams and William Inge” may sound rather flippant as a title for the next chapter, but the round-up of Williams’ characters very soon puts the emphasis on the serious subject matter: “A list of marriages in Williams’s plays is a catalog of male impotence and, often, violence […] and female sexual frustration” (p. 145). All the more vital is the fact that the author concentrates on Williams’ comedies. As concerns Inge, Clum looks at “the ways in which Inge both critiques middle-American ideals and supports the sex/gender system of his time” (p. 158). In the case of both playwrights, Clum also discusses the dichotomy between the convictions and principles of the playwrights and the need for financial success on the stage. It would be inappropriate to discuss William Inge’s works without casting a look at the film scripts he is probably best known for. Clum does so in analyses intricately linking the stage and film versions of Inge’s scripts and thereby points out the playwrights intermedial approach to his work. With “Edward Albee: Marriage as Vaudeville” Clum brings the reader to the present. In this chapter, he discusses marriage in Albee’s plays between the two poles of acceptance of routine and illusion in the later stages of a marriage and the need for radical change. Clum’s presentation of The Goat is impressive as it drives home the cataclysmic change from the ideal family of the beginning of the play to complete and utter shattering of relationships and convictions. “One of the issues The Goat takes on is the limits of liberalism in the face of transgressive sexual behavior” (p. 187). Albee’s transgressiveness is based on the shattering of the good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, moral/immoral dichotomies of social systems; and when they are shaken (or even destroyed) people’s perceptions of themselves are at risk.
An intermedial approach is – once again – the successful way into the last chapter of the book, “Gay Playwrights, Gay Husbands, Gay History.” From the launching pad of the 1972 U.S.-American telefilm That Certain Summer and the 1961 British film Victim, Clum casts a brief but concise look on plays from playwrights as varied as Drew Pautz, Tony Kushner, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Jonathan Harvey, Samuel Adamson, and Terrence McNally. Brevity is of the essence, but the discussions are concise and surprisingly in-depth, and they magnificently draw the reader’s attention not only on state-of-the-art theatre but also bring the concept of marriage full circle by adding the aspect of gay marriage. “However, the same questions that playwrights pose in their depictions of heterosexual marriage pertain to gay marriage” (p. 207), and why, indeed, should they not?
John M. Clum’s The Drama of Marriage. Gay Playwrights/Straight Unions from Oscar Wilde to the Present casts a look at important interconnected issues revolving around the concept of marriage. Unique is the vantage point of playwrights whose own sexual orientation was or is partly or entirely towards men. This not only legitimates but necessitates the strong biographical approach Clum has chosen. The volume is immensely readable, garners important results by way of an incredibly dense tour de force, and animates the reader to delve deeper not only into the works but also the life stories of the playwrights discussed. Primary text and author are always the focus and are honoured in this way. These texts are no negligible examples for theoretical constructs, they are the essential matter of the book. John M. Clum’s publications are seminal works in their field, and this latest volume is a gem.
Diese Nachricht wurde redaktionell betreut von Stefanie Kuhn.
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