Passing Performances: Conference Opens Closet of American Theatre

Coincidentally, CLAGS’s one-day symposium “Passing Performances: History, Evidence, Identification” occurred just as Hollywood’s biggest film star publicly rejected the long-standing and wide-spread claims that he is gay. In a high-profile legal battle that concluded this past fall, Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman settled their libel suit against a London tabloid, which asserted that their eight-year marriage is actually a ruse constructed to conceal Cruise’s alleged homosexuality. The couple reportedly settled for more than $500,000, and they hoped to quash rumors once and for all that their marriage is a sham. Even in this “post-Ellen” era, the suit reflects the entertainment industry’s insistence on an unwavering heterosexual ideal. “Outing” celebrities in a culture fixated on this ideal can be fraught with sticky legal and ethical challenges. “Passing Performances/’ which took place at the The Graduate Center, CUNY’s Proshansky Auditorium on October 23, was presented in conjunction with the publication of Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History, published by the University of Michigan Press and edited by Robert Schanke and Kim Marra. The conference was comprised of three panels, which showcased the research of eight of the fourteen prominent scholars represented in the book. The panels explored the impact of same-sex erotic desire on the careers of significant theatre personalities before the Stonewall riots launched the gay rights movement in 1969. The participants discussed the ramifications of “outing” theatrical subjects and grappled with the complicated questions associated with their historiography.

For example, what difference does it make to American theatre history that another famous couple, Broadway’s most popular twosome from the 1920s through the 1950s, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (although admittedly no one would ever confuse them with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), actually had their own lavender marriage? Why does it matter if Mary Martin, the sweetheart of the American musical theatre, was most likely bisexual? And even more crucially, what constitutes evidence of same-sex desire among theatre practitioners, and how do historians research, document, and find the appropriate terminology for that evidence? These were just some of the fascinating and sometimes contentious questions that were raised during the day-long conference. The symposium began with opening remarks by Jill Dolan in which she addressed the key issues affecting the changing fields of theatre studies and queer studies. “Passing” and “outing” in show business, for instance, have become even more disputable terms as the effects of Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out in 1997 are still being measured, analyzed, and debated. Dolan explained that current work in queer studies can refute the erroneous notion that popular performers are necessarily heterosexual. The uncovering of same-sex erotic desire among theatre personalities, Dolan stated, also offers a unique perspective on the ways in which historical subjects have negotiated their unconventional sexualities on-stage and off. The first panel, “Historically Queer Genders and Sexualities: Contemporary Perspectives on the Nineteenth-Century American Stage” looked at the careers of two actresses who excelled in playing men’s roles. Noreen Barnes-McClain (Southern Illinois University) discussed the all-too–brief life of Adah Isaacs Menken, the cigar-smoking, free-spirited, bohemian actress who was most famous for her cross-dressed leading role in Mazeppa (1861 ), the popular melodrama based on Lord Byron’s poem. Denise Walen (Vassar College) examined the career of Charlotte Cushman, a renowned actress who was particularly successful in her portrayal of an uncommonly (for the 19th Century) masculine and passionate Romeo. Lisa Merrill (Hofstra University) moderated the panel. This was followed by “Evidence, Identification, and Queer Celebrity in Twentieth-Century American Theatre.” Lesley Ferris (Ohio State University) looked at the work and relationship of actress Katherine Cornell and director Guthrie McClintic and discussed the uneasy alliance between theatre history, gossip, and rumor. The extraordinary career of the flamboyant Joe Cino, the father of Off-Off-Broadway with the establishment of his legendary Caffe Cino, was described by Douglas Gordy (St. John’s University). And Monty Wooley, who is now most famous for his portrayal of Sheridan Whiteside in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), was the subject of Billy Harbin’s (Louisiana State University) presentation. Jay Plum (The Graduate Center, CUNY) spoke on Cheryl Crawford, the producer of such musicals as One Touch of Venus (1943), Brigadoon (1947) Paint Your Wagon (1951), as well as a key figure in the formation of some of the most important theatre collectives in the twentieth century, including the Group Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre. Stacy Wolf (George Washington University) scrutinized Mary Martin’s “unconventional femininity” in such musicals as South Pacific (1949) and The Sound of Music (1959), in addition to her signature role as the boy who refuses to grow up in Peter Pan (1954). Robert Vorlicky (NYU) moderated the panel. The final panel, “Privacy, Prevarication, Presumption: Publishing Passing Performances/’ examined the intellectual challenges of how one thinks about “outing” historical subjects. In particular, the panel articulated the legal, ethical, and academic issues editors face while working on this kind of project. Participants included the editors of Passing Performances, Kim Marra (University of Iowa) and Robert Schanke (Central College), with LeAnn Fields, editor at The University of Michigan Press, and Jill Dolan, who is co-editor, With David Roman, of Michigan’s “Triangulations” series. Martin Duberman, CLAGS’s Founder and Distinguished Professor of History at GSUC and Lehman College, provided the closing remarks to the symposium. Duberman stressed the important groundwork laid by the conference in its staging of a conversation that artfully combines traditional theatre history and progressive queer theory. The work enables further research on the ways in which issues of sexuality intersect with the making of theatre. “Passing Performances” above all reflected CLAGS’s commitment to providing a basis for future discussions about reclaiming, unveiling, and documenting the contributions of lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgendered individuals throughout history.