LGBTQ+: From Stage to Screen

Q - February 2021 Edition

19 mins read

LGBTQ+: From Stage to Screen features Angels in America, Another Country, The Children’s Hour and A Taste of Honey.

Oscar Wilde once famously stated, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” It’s hard to disagree with him; after all, theatre is built on the intimacy between both actor and audience. The audience party to each breath, each tear and each laugh through a medium where space is the only division between performance, art and emotion. The raw power of live performance shaping, challenging and reflecting the social structures around us. While at the same time, giving voice to many communities and individuals otherwise silenced by oppression, perception and discrimination.

For this reason, playwrights have often found themselves at the forefront of political challenge, human rights and equality. Their work often sparking debate, ridicule, anger and excitement depending on the political world surrounding them. Of course, theatre, just like literature, film and television is diverse. However, the theatre’s role as a force for social change has often resulted in it taking the lead in LGBTQ+ representation. With many LGBTQ+ stories starting their life on stage. Each one, challenging the perceptions, knowledge and acceptance of the world outside the stage door. While at the same time, allowing the audience into the lives, emotions and experiences of LGBTQ+ people and communities.

So join us as we explore four defining LGBTQ+ plays that would become TV dramas and movies. Each reflecting a shared battle for equality, representation and inclusion, while joyously smashing the glass ceiling to varying degrees in their journey from stage to screen.

Angels in America

(Stage Debut 1991 / Screen Debut 2003)

Tony Kushner’s epic gay fantasia on national themes started its life in the late 1980s when Kushner found himself approached by a San Francisco theatre company. The company keen to explore the lasting and ongoing impact of the AIDS epidemic on community life, equality and representation. However, it wasn’t until 1993 that Kushner’s epic finally took shape. His sweeping tale of religion, epidemic, fear, politics and humanity premiering simultaneously on Broadway and at the National Theatre London.

Angels in America is unlike any play before it, the story’s scale and themes almost as vast as the sprawling auditoriums of Broadway and London. Angels not only dissected Reaganomics but reflected the fear of apocalypse that haunted the late 20th Century. The horror of AIDS viewed through a prism of division and intolerance as capitalism took hold in the western world. The play’s themes stretching far beyond the AIDS crisis at its heart, as it spread its wings in exploring community, acceptance, coercion and safety. The role of individuals, groups and society placed under the microscope in exploring what it means to love, live and belong, against a backdrop of loss, lies and oppression.

However, Angels also reflects rebirth and optimism; the hope, humour and humanity of new beginnings surrounded by a passion for life, belief and activism. Each character multi-dimensional, nuanced and grounded. Their lives layered with differing world viewpoints, political opposition, union and love. Here, Kushner takes his personal experience of 1980s life as a gay man and finds a unique heavenly voice. Simultaneously, reflecting America’s growing social division and the illusion of equality. And in doing so, Angels in America takes its audience deep into their own beliefs, motivations and ideals. The result of which is a play that affects every individual watching differently. The emotion, humour and drama on stage, reflecting the personal journey each audience member takes.

Few plays before or since have achieved this sense of journey, or its ability to dissolve the space between the stage and the audience. HBO’s 2003 adaptation honoured the play’s structure while bringing Kushner’s masterpiece to a broader TV audience. Its star-studded cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson to name but a few. With the final two-part epic going on to earn 21 Emmy nominations and claim 11 wins including outstanding miniseries. However, this was only one step in Angels’ enduring success; its triumphant return to Londons National Theatre in 2017 winning global praise.

But, maybe the enduring appeal of Angels in America sits within its political discussion. The Reagan administration haunting its story with themes of ‘Make America Great’. Themes that would ultimately return with the election and recent removal of Trump. The very notion hiding deeper meaning, as right-wing politicians seek to segregate minority communities. The vision of ‘Making America Great Again’ rooted in closing the door to equality. Here, Kushner’s masterpiece still has much to say, and in a world of COVID 19, its message only becomes more urgent.

Another Country

(Stage Debut 1981 / Screen Debut 1984)

Not to be confused with James Baldwin’s 1962 novel of the same name, Julien Mitchell’s 1981 play owes much to If… (1968) in its themes of toxic class culture; its story loosely based on the life of British spy Guy Burgess. Here, Mitchell examines class conflict, hypocrisy, homophobia and culture in the private education system. The British boarding school of the 1930s a hotbed of hidden desires, bullying and snobbery, where young men either accept a culture built on secrecy or face ostracism. Opening with the suicide of a pupil named Martineau, caught having sex with another boy, Mitchell quickly establishes the school’s oppressive atmosphere and its cultural norms. Each boy, held in a bubble of indoctrination, family segregation and privilege. While the possibility of public scandal forces the school to close its ranks.

However, where Another Country truly excels is in its discussions on difference, emotion, challenge and acceptance. The openly gay ‘Bennett’ wrapped in guilt, confusion and anger as the walls around him close in, due to possible scandal, while best friend and Marxist, Judd, sees the school as a mere tool of oppression and subservience.

Here, Mitchell emphasises the need for emotional literacy and expression in teenage life. In turn, creating a fascinating discussion on the origins of toxic masculinity, poor male mental health and homophobic bullying. One that demonstrates the urgency of class divide in maintaining power. At the same time, highlighting the damage caused to the individual and their sense of place and purpose. The arrogance and contradiction of British aristocracy and privilege laid bare as two boys accept their inability to change the system. One later defecting to Russia while the other accepts his sexuality must be hidden in achieving his goals.

The original 1981 production introduced Rupert Everett as Bennet, followed by a west-end transfer with Kenneth Branagh as Judd, with Colin Firth taking over the role in 1983. And it was both Everett and Firth who would star in the film adaptation of 1984; Another Country marking both men’s first major film appearance.

The Children’s Hour

(Stage Debut 1934 / Screen Debut 1961)

The impact of American playwright Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour is rarely discussed in LGBTQ+ film and theatre history. On November 20, 1934, the play’s premiere at the Maxine Elliott Theatre New York attracted largely positive reviews. While at the same time taking a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling that had banned themes of sexuality from the New York stage. With Hellman’s play proving so popular the powers that be had no option but to let it run. Therefore, when the opportunity to transfer her play to the screen came knocking, there was a possibility and hope the same level of rebellion and challenge would surround the film.

However, William Wylers 1936 film adaptation These Three found itself subject to a strict Hays Code; the lesbian relationship airbrushed away. And despite the slight relaxation of the Hays Code his second attempt at a dutiful adaptation in 1961 The Children’s Hour, did not fare much better. Both film versions ultimately failing in making a groundbreaking leap forward in Lesbian stories on screen. However, does that mean we should completely disregard both film versions of The Children’s Hour in discussing the LGBTQ+ journey from stage to screen? For me, the answer to this question is simple, no. And let me explain why.

To Wyler’s credit, he was determined to bring Hellman’s story of accusation, rumour and illicit love to the screen. A story Hellman had adapted from a real-life event in Edinburgh in 1810. The case in question relating to a young student named Jane Cumming, who accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair in their pupils’ presence. And while Wyler found himself constricted by a damaging American code of decency on screen, he did manage to thread many of the plays core themes into his 1961 movie. Shirley MacLaine later stating that Wyler’s film was not as powerful as it could have been because of his trepidation. And the resulting film indeed chose nuance over a direct indication of the love held between her character and that of Audrey Hepburns.

Despite this, The Children’s Hour holds a vital role in the history of LGBTQ+ stories on screen. Its screenplay, clumsy, yet reflective of a society where ‘gay shame’ reigned supreme. The Children’s Hour reflects a Hollywood desire to give voice to queer stories while demonstrating its inability to understand and listen to the voice and experience of gay women. But, in reflecting the shame, panic and trauma that surrounded many hidden lesbian relationships, it continues to be a fascinating, yet confused example of Hellman’s groundbreaking slice of theatre.

A Taste of Honey

(Stage Debut 1958 / Screen Debut 1961)

While Hollywood struggled to reflect queer stories on screen due to the oppressive Hays Code, theatre marched forward. And one play was destined to shake the very foundations of British theatre forever, its impact still discussed today as a defining moment in diversity on stage. The play in question, A Taste of Honey, started its life in the mind of an 18-year-old Salford girl Shelagh Delaney. Her inspiration born from a viewing of Variations on a Theme by Terence Rattigan. In writing A Taste of Honey Delaney not only gave voice to female working-class experiences but provided the catalyst for the “kitchen sink” realism movement.

Drawing on the gritty reality of working-class northern life in Britain, Delaney completed her play in a fortnight; sending her rough draft to the renowned theatre director Joan Littlewood. From there, the play was homed and perfected by both women before taking to the stage at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on 27 May 1958.

Set during the 1950s, Delaney story centres on Jo, a seventeen-year-old working-class girl, and her unreliable mother, Helen. Jo begins a romantic relationship with Jimmy, a black U.S sailor in port, while her mother disappears with a younger man. And as Jo and Jimmy’s relationship deepens, Jo finds herself pregnant. Attempting to do the right thing, Jimmy proposes marriage before going back to sea. However, this also leaves Jo to face the prospect of becoming a single mum in his absence. The taboo of her predicament reflecting the discrimination faced by unmarried mothers and the racism inherent in British society during the 1950s.

Searching for place and belonging Jo finds lodgings with Geoffrey, a gay man she knows. However, when her mother returns, Jo’s newfound security is threatened by discrimination and fear. In a play that placed issues of racism, homophobia, feminism and class, centre stage. Joyously and bravely tearing up British theatre’s unspoken rulebook, and upsetting many white, privileged men in the process. However, for audiences, A Taste of Honey offered something new, radical and different. And by 1961 Delaney’s play would find itself immortalised on screen without being watered down or amended for censors; earning an X rating as a result.

Director Tony Richardson was already a significant force in both cinema and theatre on agreeing to adapt A Taste of Honey for the screen. Throughout the pre-production process, Richardson worked alongside Delaney; ensuring her play received an accurate translation from stage to screen. Bringing with him a passion for the British ‘Free Cinema’ Movement. His work, challenging the constraints imposed on cinema by class-based discrimination in media. As a result, the final film allows Delaney’s play to break free of the confines of its ‘single set’ staging; embracing Northern culture, landscapes and urban life in further building its impact. But, despite the beauty and enduring power of A Taste of Honey in both cinema and theatre, it is rarely discussed as a defining moment in LGBTQ+ representation.

While Wyler floundered in bringing lesbian relationships to the screen in The Children’s Hour, Richardson ensured Geoffrey sat proudly at the heart of A Taste of Honey. In the hands of Richardson, Geoffrey is rounded, complex and real in construct. His character, providing early 60s cinema audiences with their first relatable gay man on screen. Here, there are no lazy cliches, no playing for laughs or simplistic stories. Geoffrey is forced to endure the homophobia of the world surrounding him. His life as a gay man discreet in public, and open in private. The relationship he develops with Jo built on mutual trust and a sense of belonging. Both characters outsiders as they step from their front door; their meek apartment, offering security from a world of discrimination, harassment, and oppression.

Within these themes, A Taste of Honey is groundbreaking and continues to speak to modern audiences. Delaney’s exploration of the interface between equality characteristics both assured, ahead of its time and urgent. Here, sexuality, womanhood, race and class merge to create multiple layers of social oppression. The similarities and shared experiences of minority groups sitting at the heart of a message embedded in the fractures created by class, opportunity and oppression. Making A Taste of Honey one of the defining plays and films of the 20th Century. Its core themes still relevant in our 21st Century world, where social segregation based on wealth continues to grow.

Explore more: Death in Venice – Visconti’s Masterpiece at 50, Trans Trailblazers, Beautiful Thing: In Conversation with Jonathan Harvey

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