"A gay play?" playwright Robert Patrick wrote, "Is that a play that sleeps with other plays of the same sex?"
We think a gay play reveals one of three things in a significant way: ( 1 ) how the world views members of our diverse LGBTQ+ communities; ( 2 ) how members of our communities view themselves; ( 3 ) how members of our communities choose to engage the world around them. A gay play need not have been written by a queer author. It doesn't even need to have LGBTQ+ characters, although that may seem counter-intuitive.
For this final print issue of the Windy City Times, the paper's longtime theater reviewers have collaborated on a list of "The 25 Most Important LGBTQ+ Plays of All Time." They are not necessarily the best plays ever written ( some are, some are not ) or the most exciting plays, and certainly our choices are not the most sexually graphic plays with which the gay play genre is replete. Instead, they are plays which have something to display far more profound ( we hope ) than mere skin and body parts.
All of the plays listed here are drawn from theater of the Western World ( indeed, mostly American works ), which is to say white-dominant theater. Other ancient and contemporary cultures may have playsbroadly meaning drama, puppetry, dance and musical storytellingthat deal with LGBTQ+ characters and themes, but these are not works ( if they exist ) to which we have had access. Perhaps the future will broaden our horizons. There also are far more plays by men than women on this list, and far more gay male plays than lesbian plays; this reflects the traditional male dominance, and the limited access to theater spaces for lesbians and other marginalized communities, within Western theater.
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, 1593Some historical records call English king Edward II ( 1307-1327 ) a sodomite, and one calls Edward's favorite, Piers Gaveston, "his husband." Marlowe's problematic yet extraordinary play is openly homo-erotic as it details the fall and torturous murders of Edward, Gaveston and Hugh Dispenser, another favorite. Edward granted Gaveston and Dispenser power and privileges they flaunted, and their abuse of power is the play's overt issue rather than their otherness. Whatever, they were unacceptable to society. Possibly gay himself, Marlowe created homo-erotic themes in several other works.
La Prisonniere ( The Captive ) by Edouart Bourdet, 1926A success in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and other European cities, it was shut down after 160 sold-out performances on Broadway, where reportedly 80% of the audience was female. La Prisonniere was among the first Broadway plays to deal with lesbianism. What's more, the heroine was depicted as feminine, attractive and seductive, thereby countering the mannish lesbian stereotype and offering a protagonist much more threatening to hetero-normativity.
The Drag by Jane Mast ( pen name of Mae West ), 1927The Drag was shut down in try-outs before reaching New York, and wasn't performed until 2019. A loosely structured melodrama, it was intended to be an open depiction of gay life. West cast exclusively gay actors and allowed them to semi-improvise the script, with a drag ball final scene. The Drag was meant as a celebration of gay men, but also touched on drug addiction and violence within gay culture. West cited La Prisonniere as her inspiration for the play.
NOTE: Collectively, La Prisonniere, The Drag and another West play, Sex, led to the passage of a New York State law condemning a broad range of sexual depictions onstage, effectively banning portrayals of homosexuality. Nonetheless . . . .
Design for Living by Noel Coward, 1933New York audiences were rapturous over Coward's sophisticated menage-a-trois, written for himself and dear friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Critics and censors didn't seem to understand that Otto and Leo didn't just trade off living with Gilda. Cowardwho remained semi-closeted all his lifescrupulously avoided any overt suggestion of homosexuality, but it's there anyway.
The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman, 1934Pure poison surges through Hellman's notable drama, in which slander and innuendo wreck lives and careers. Even today, accusations of lesbianism would be ruinous if those accused ran a girls' school, as Martha and Karen do in the play, and their accuser is one of their students. Hellman reserves a closing twist about the additionally destructive power of suppressed sexuality. Although without overtly sexual situations, the play was denied performance permits in Boston and Chicago due to its subject matter.
Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson, 1953This huge stage and film hit appeared during the Lavender Scare, the federal government purge of LGBT employees which normalized homophobic discrimination policy. The play uses a boys' prep school as a metaphor, where a boy regarded as effeminate is ostracized and shamed. Somewhat melodramatic today, the play has an older woman make love to the boy to prove he's straight. It's one of the first plays to address perceptions of sexual orientation and the destructive prejudice that can ensue.
A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, 1958This remarkable British play, written by a 19-year-old woman, addresses class, racism, gender and sex identification, which still were mostly taboo topics in Great Britain and the USA. It portrays racial, sexual and social otherness through several characters, with a young, gay art student as the heroine's one true friend. The play isn't about being gay, but about being outside norms. This work helped change British attitudes about homosexuality ( still illegal then ).
Fortune and Men's Eyes by John Herbert, 1967This now-overlooked play limns the horrors of prison with a focus on homosexuality, sexual slavery and corrupt administration within a reformatory for adolescent boys. Lurid and melodramatic, yes, but also honest and revelatory for the 1960s and tremendously influential, produced in over 100 countries. Herbert, who sometimes did drag, incorporated his personal experiences into the play.
The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, 1968Appearing in New York a year before the Stonewall riots, this monster hit was the first commercial success to humanize gay men and their day-to-day life issues. Yes, it uses gay stereotypes and, yes, it's an apologia for being queer and, yes, it's improbable and, yes, most of its characters are unhappybut it's nonetheless a pioneering and daring work which has more to say to non-queer audiences than to LGBTQ+ viewers. Warts and all, this is a courageous work.
Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson, 1978This '70s dramedy concerns several generations of the Talley family in rural Missouri. There's absolutely nothing gay about it, and that's precisely its power: The Vietnam vet son who inherited the family home and his botanist lover just happen to be gay, and nobody cares. The matter-of-fact acceptance of their relationship makes Fifth of July a landmark; a work with a central gay relationship that's not about being gay. Wilson received a 1980 Pulitzer Prize for another play, but always felt it should have been for this one.
Bent by Martin Sherman, 1979This is, perhaps, the most widely produced play in the entire canon of modern LGBTQ+ drama, and the first to examine Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Set in 1934 Germany, it centers on Max and his coming to terms with his own gayness while a concentration camp prisoner. Filled with horrorsMax murders his own lover at one pointthe play also boasts a famous erotic scene in which the clothed lovers never touch, emphasizing the power of love and suggestion.
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers, 1980This pioneering LGBTQ+ work was the first lesbian drama with mainstream appeal. It concerns eight women at a summertime cottage complex on Long Island where love and relationships, life and death are explored. Similar to The Boys in the Band, Chambers portrays various types of queer women ( or womyn, if you prefer ), with the most important focus on a coming-out story. The work is rightly celebrated for its humor and warmth.
One by Jeff Hagedorn, 1982This one character, one-act drama was the very first play written about AIDS. It concerns a young man bewildered by his illness ( at that time still minimally understood ), seemingly passed on to him after finally connecting with his dream bartender. Wisconsin-turned-Chicago playwright Hagedorn co-founded Lionheart Gay Theatre and SYZYGY, focusing much of his work on AIDS-related stories. He died of AIDS in 1995.
Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, 1982This huge hit presented the pre-AIDS tale of drag queen Arnold Beckoff who, despite his romantic illusions or perhaps because of them, lands two handsome hunks. Of course, there are complications as Arnold pursues a sitcom style normal life with kids and a middle-class home, not the least of which is conflict with his unaccepting mother. Fierstein filled his play with laughter, and dared to make an effeminate gay man the hero, while rejecting the promiscuous gay lifestyle of '70s New York.
Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, 1978Sui generis playwright Churchill uses cross-gender and cross-racial casting, plus elements of magic realism, to utterly demolish lingering Victorian Era gender and racial stereotypes. Act I is set in 1879 Africa and Act II in 1979 London, but only 25 years have passed for the characters. Traditional feminine and masculine behaviors are skewered, and LGBTQ characters are shown both repressed and free as Churchill attempts to normalize otherness.
La Cage aux Folles by Jerry Herman ( music/lyrics ) & Harvey Fierstein ( book ), 1983A 1973 hit French farce ( 1,800 performances in Paris ) became a multiple Tony Award winning musical, and was the first LGBTQ+ experience for tens of thousands of theater-goers. Nay-sayers ask why that first impression had to center on a drag queen and a stereotypically butch/femme gay couple. The answer is that true love has neither rhyme nor reason. It's about family too, and also mocks institutionalized political homophobia. And the tunes are great!
As Is by William M. Hoffman and The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, 1985Opening Off-Broadway just weeks apart, these two hit plays put a human face on AIDS and on the inaction of medical and government authorities to address it, in substantial part because of institutionalized homophobia. The plays are tremendously important today as documents of the time and mindset, and were tremendously important because of how widely they were produced in regional theaters across the country. They also both happen to be bang-up dramas that really grab an audience.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner, 1991One of the great works of 20th century world drama, it incorporates elements of magic realism in an epic about American politics and the threat of neoconservatism, brilliantly using the 1980s AIDS crisis as its framing device. Written during the Reagan Presidency, and peopled with real and fictional gay characters, Angels in America challenges political power which attempts to narrowly define what it means to be American. We need this play now more than ever! The arch-villain of this work, the real-life closeted Roy Cohn, was mentor and teacher to the young Donald Trump.
Marvin's Room by Scott McPherson, 1990Chicago playwright McPherson shot to fame with this play as he was dying of AIDS. Although without gay characters or situations, it was McPherson's deeply compassionate, quirky-funny response to the AIDS crisis. Focusing on a small extended familymother, her two sons, her two sisters and unseen dying grampsthe play is about family responsibility, fear/acceptance of mortality and healing emotional wounds. Marvin's Room is simple, spellbinding, often funny and heartfelt and just begins to reveal the writer McPherson might have become.
Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally, 1995Another "gangbang" in which a cohort of gay men spend summer holidays together in Upstate New York. Most characters are showbiz professionals, which makes this one of McNally's most personal plays. The boys in this band are witty, wise, funny, lonely, hunky, devious and self-centered. No apologia here; good, bad or ugly, they are who they are in this strong expression of being gay in the early 1990s. McNally's 1998 Corpus Christian allegory about a gay Jesus and Discipleswas a runner-up for this list.
I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, 2002A one-person play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, a transgender woman who survived the Nazi and Communist regimes in Berlin after killing her Nazi father during WWII. Her home became a gathering place for East Berlin's repressed LGBT community, although her actions were not always supportive. This tale of an ultimate survivor requires the solo actor to play 40 characters. A transgender actor played the role for the first time in a 2016 About Face Theatre revival.
Take Me Out by Richard Greenburg, 2002An extremely important "what if" play, Take Me Out concerns Darren Lemming, the charismatic mixed-race slugger for the New York Empires, who could win the pennant. When Darren comes out, he quickly comes into conflict with the team's star relief pitcher, a Southern-born, racist homophobe. When written in 2002, no Major League Baseball player ever had come out publicly during his career ( has any done so yet? ). Despite extremely serious plot twists and themes, Greenburg tempers the play with brilliantly funny passages for which he is known.
The Color Purple by Marsha Norman ( book ) and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray ( music and lyrics ), 2004Alice Walker's miraculously simple but profound tale was a hit as a novel, film and Broadway musical, with Celie's discovery of sexuality, love and self-love through a lesbian romance at the center. Set within a Deep South rural Black community of the early 20th century, Walker's work and powerful characters have an authenticity that carries into this musical.
The Temperamentals by Jon Marans, 2009Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it! Before Stonewall, before Gay Lib there was the Mattachine Society, the first sustained LGBTQ+ rights organization in the United States, founded in 1950. This well-written docudrama chronicles the founding of the Mattachine Society and the relationship of co-founders Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich. This play helps us know our roots, and honor those who went before us.
Fun Home by Lisa Kron ( book, lyrics ) and Jeanine Tesori ( music ), 2013This Tony Award winning musical is based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical work, and was the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, let alone an adolescent coming-out story. Filled with much humorkids have fun playing in the family funeral parlorFun Home turns serious as Alison comes out and seeks her father's acceptance, forcing him to confront his repressed homosexuality. Almost like A Star is Born, the success of one seems fatal to the other in this landmark work.
Bootycandy by Robert O'Hara, 2014To be young, gay, Black and precociously self-aware in late-20th century America; such is the situation for the autobiographical hero of Bootycandy, a serious, satirical work disguised as a comedy about sex, Black culture and race relations. Its tools are laughs, exaggerated acting and comic-strip style ( as directed by O'Hara himself at the Windy City Playhouse in 2017 ). Sissies will love it, but not prudes or the faint-of-heart. A rare insider look at Black homophobia ( in part ) and white stereotypes of gay Black boys ( in part ).