LGBTQ+ From Stage to Screen – a collection of groundbreaking LGBTQ+ plays and films. Features: Angels in America, Another Country, The Children’s Hour, A Taste of Honey and The Boys in the Band.
ANGELS IN AMERICA
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. Kushner began to work, drawing on his experiences of politics, sexuality, religion, and the human condition in 80s America. Set amid the AIDS crisis, the play would interweave the lives of various characters, each grappling with their own struggles while searching for meaning in a world of chaos, oppression and uncertainty. Here the ‘angels’ Kushner created served as a metaphor for hope and transformation rather than reflecting any particular religious iconography.
Angels in America is unlike any play that came before it in its sheer scale and vision; it would dissect Reaganomics and the oppression of individuals and communities as a new millennium approached. In Angels in America, the horror of AIDS is viewed through a prism of division, unity, intolerance and love as the capitalist machine continues its march.
Kushner’s play reaches beyond the AIDS epidemic as it wraps its wings around the audience, exploring what it truly means to be human. Each character’s life has differing world viewpoints, political opinions and beliefs, yet they are all united by one thing, they are outsiders in a world built on pre-defined norms. The result asks its audience to search their beliefs, motivations and bias as it urges collective responsibility in bringing about social change. Here the play confronts political and social injustice issues during the AIDS crisis and reminds us that capitalism can breed divide and cloud our compassion and empathy for one another no matter our community background.
The lavish HBO TV adaptation in 2003 would honour the play’s structure and form with an all-star cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, to name but a few. Angels in America would earn 21 Emmy nominations and eleven wins, including outstanding miniseries. However, this was far from the end, as Angel would return to London’s National Theatre in 2017 with Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane, once more winning global praise.
The sheer power of Kushner’s Angels in America sits within its broad and complex discussions on human resilience, equality, community and transformation. Its characters reflect the diversity of our LGBTQ+ communities and the challenges and differences that often divide us when we should come together. It asks us to overcome these divides, embracing those living angels around us who challenge and chip away at the walls of inequality and oppression our governments so often erect.
Not to be confused with James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Julien Mitchell’s 1981 play owes much to If… (1968) in its exploration of toxic class culture. Set in an English public school in the 1930s, the play revolves around a small group of elite students grappling with their individuality within the confines of a rigid and conformist society. Through a loose but cutting exploration of Guy Burgess, a spy and double agent, Guy Bennett, in the film, the title Another Country possibly comes from Burgess turning to Russia many years later. Mitchell would explore the foundations of British class conflict and the hypocrisy and homophobia of the elite education system – asking what made Burgess turn to communism alongside the famous Cambridge Five.
Opening with the suicide of a pupil named Martineau, caught having sex with another boy, Mitchell quickly establishes the school’s oppressive atmosphere and dangerous cultural norms. Each boy is held captive in a golden prison of segregation and conformity, where privilege is maintained through a culture of avoidance, control and dismissal. Here, Another Country excels in its deep and complex discussions on repression, political belief, sexuality and state power. Bennett is haunted by the suicide of Martineau, a boy he, too, had sexual relations with. He feels like the walls of the school are closing in around him as his sexuality becomes a barrier to his aspirations. Meanwhile, his best friend Judd attempts to fight an Imperial system of oppression and subservience from within. He cannot and will not tolerate the oppressive education system surrounding him and longs to defy the public face of the British class system, even if that means he loses his wealth and position.
In Another Country, Mitchell uncovers the arrogance and contradictions of the British aristocracy as two boys internally battle the system. One will later defect to Russia, while the other will fight in the Spanish Civil War. The original 1981 theatre production introduced Rupert Everett as Bennet and Kenneth Branagh as Judd, with the movie introducing the world to Colin Firth in 1983.
LGBTQ+ FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
On November 20, 1934, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour premiered at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York, attracting largely positive reviews as it explored themes of female sexuality that were taboo, forbidden and obscure. Despite many demanding the play come to an end, The Children’s Hour proved so popular that it was left to run. Set in a girl’s boarding school, the play would explore the true story of two schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, in Edinburgh in 1810, where one of their students, Jane Cummings, accused them of having an affair in her presence. Horrified by the allegation and closure of their school, the women sued Jane’s grandmother, Lady Cumming Gordon, winning the case. Marianne would eventually move to London, while Jane stayed in Edinburgh. Whether or not the allegations were true is clouded in mystery, but the core themes of rumour, homophobia, prejudice, and accusation still feel far too relevant today.
Director William Wyler was fascinated by the themes at the heart of Hellman’s play, and in 1936 he adapted the play under the title “These Three.” The bravery of this adaptation was apparent, especially in a Hollywood system where onscreen discussions of sex and sexuality were avoided due to the strict code of decency. As a result, These Three would tentatively step around many of the core themes in Hellman’s play. Therefore 1961 would see Wyler return to the play for a second time with The Children’s Hour. Of the 1961 version, Shirley MacLaine would later state that “Wyler’s film was not as powerful as it could have been because of his trepidation”. However, for all its faults, Wyler’s 1961 adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirly MacLaine does hold an important place in the history of LGBTQ+ filmmaking. Its screenplay reflects a society where ‘gay shame’ reigned supreme, and while it may not directly combat some of these themes, it’s an important stepping stone on the road to representation.
A TASTE OF HONEY
In the spring of 1958, one play would shake the foundations of British theatre and the future of British cinema. The play was A Taste of Honey, a coming-of-age drama that started its journey in the mind of an eighteen-year-old Salford girl named Shelagh Delaney. Drawing on the gritty reality of northern working-class life in Britain, Delaney completed her play in a fortnight before sending her rough draft to the renowned theatre director Joan Littlewood. Littlewood saw potential, and both women homed and perfected the play before it premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on the 27th of May 1958.
Set in the 1950s, Delaney’s 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 US sailor, briefly in port while her mother disappears with a younger man leaving Jo to fend for herself. But as Jo and Jimmy’s relationship deepens, Jo finds herself pregnant, and Jimmy proposes marriage before returning to sea. However, as Jimmy departs, Jo faces the prospect of becoming a single mum – the social taboo of her predicament wrapped in social isolation and racism.
Searching for a safe place away from home, Jo finds lodgings with Geoffrey, a gay man she knows. However, when her mother returns, Jo’s newfound security, belonging and love is threatened by discrimination, isolation and fear. Delaney’s play placed issues of racism, homophobia, sexism and class centre stage and, in turn, tore up the rulebook of British theatre, upsetting many in the process. However, for audiences, A Taste of Honey offered something radical and fundamentally real in construct. As a result, A Taste of Honey would be immortalised on screen in 1961; however, its themes concerned censors, and it would earn an X rating like another groundbreaking movie in the same year, Basil Dearden’s Victim.
A Taste of Honey is also groundbreaking in its gay representation. Richardson ensured Geoffrey (Murray Melvin) sat proudly at the heart of A Taste of Honey. In the hands of Richardson and Melvin, Geoffrey is a rounded, complex, real gay character who would provide early 60s cinema audiences with their first relatable gay lead. Richardson, Melvin and Delaney ensure no lazy clichés in Geoffrey’s journey with Jo. Here we are offered a young man forced to endure the homophobia surrounding him as he lives his life discreetly in public and openly in private – the relationship he builds with Jo based on a foundation of trust and belonging in a society of instant judgement and oppression.
A Taste of Honey was a groundbreaking coming-of-age play and movie that bravely explored themes of sexuality, sexism, race, class, and the multiple layers of social oppression inherent in many communities. Delaney and Richardson placed British society and its class construct under the microscope for all to see and, in doing so, gave birth to a whole new movement in cinema.
LGBTQ+ FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
THE BOYS IN THE BAND
In 1968 an off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley challenged and changed the portrayal of gay men on stage, The Boys in the Band. Its bravery and intimacy would earn the play a ‘cutting-edge’ label in the landscape of gay theatre due to its discussions on internalised homophobia and the painful journey to self-acceptance for a whole generation. Crowley stated, “The self-deprecating humour was born out of low self-esteem; back then, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness.”
By 1970 The Boys in the Band had leapt from stage to screen, with William Friedkin in the director’s chair. However, despite its initial success on stage, the film suffered from a mixed appraisal, with some stating it was narcissistic, while others condemned it for taking gay liberation backwards rather than forwards. However, as the years have passed, Crowley’s work has received reappraisal, with a long overdue Broadway revival in 2019, celebrating its 50th anniversary. This revival would star Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins while holding on tight to the themes of internalised homophobia that sat at the heart of the original play. In 2020, this Broadway revival arrived on Netflix as a new film adaptation starring the same cast.
The play is a chamber piece focused on a group of gay male friends who come together on a stormy Saturday night in the small New York apartment of the paranoid Michael. However, Michael didn’t plan for the arrival of Alan, his friend from college. Alan has no idea that Michael or his friends are gay. As the drinking steps up, the frivolity of the party soon takes a darker turn as mind games, sexual tension and secrets are revealed, leading to a night of dangerous revelations and unmendable burnt bridges.
Looking at The Boys in the Band through a modern lens, it would be easy to think that gay male life has moved on from the world reflected in Crowley’s play; after all, we have won legal protections, marriage rights and an equal age of consent. But in truth, while we have indeed come a long way since 1968, poor mental health, alcohol consumption, and drug use continue to haunt our community’s progress. Much of this is due to the internalised fear we bottle up during childhood and adolescence.
The Boys in the Band continues to reflect these challenges fifty years after its stage premiere through a narrative unafraid to explore the fears and anxieties many gay men keep locked away. The result is a play and its subsequent films that remain far more relevant today than many would like to admit.