It’s quite astonishing to think that up until now, we haven't seen an anthology of queer performance throughout history.
From the platformed stories we do see in the mainstream on stage and screen, you could be forgiven for thinking that all queer theatre is gay theatre.
But there is so much more to the queer canon than Angels in America and The Boys in the Band (no shade intended, these are both fantastic works). If we’re going to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of queer theatre and performance in all it’s glory, we should do so within the full rainbow spectrum of creativity.
The Oberon Book of Queer Monologues pulls together more than a century’s worth of English-speaking queer performance, starting in 1907 and working its way up to 2017. Oberon Books, a publisher specialising in drama and performance, decided that artist Scottee was the one for the job.
Scottee has been a well known figure on the London performance art scene for a long while now. His work centres on ideas of outsiderness, race, sexuality, class and gender and he often challenges the way society seemingly wants to root for the underdog, but all so effortlessly others and shames people who don’t fit the mould.
“I’d been thinking a lot about my history, my lineage, about where I come from and what it is to have a hidden history before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967,” he says. “So then I started to think, well, maybe this is a timeline. I didn't want people just to think this is a book just for actors or performers. We’re using the form of monologue to be able to tell a history of the community and using queerness as an umbrella term.
“As the history goes on we start to see other identities coming in and we start to see more vocal trans histories, we start to see more vocal queer histories and reclaiming of that word. That queerness starts as an insult and ends as a reclamation.”
He read more than 200 pieces during the collation process, and settled on 41 monologues, including one from his own opus. During his research process, he came across the forgotten works of well-known artists, monologues from plays that never made it to the stage or were removed for causing too much of a stir, and pieces by his contemporaries that he didn’t even know they had written.
The main thought running through his head was: “How do I create a book where I get a balance between those who are never heard and those who I can’t ignore?”
Angels in America had to make an entrance, of course: “You can’t really ignore those pieces because they are part of the history.
“If we’re looking at queer America, Angels in America is always pushed forward, but why not Penny Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!?” which centres around the 60s-70s New York art scene bringing in themes of family, feminism, pornography, AIDS, prostitution and censorship. Since 1990, it has been performed more than 1,500 times, continually evolving and updating with each show. It’s a hugely influential piece of theatre that many don’t know about.
The book opens with an extract from The God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, written in Yiddish in 1907 and translated into English a couple of decades later for a Broadway transfer. Its central Jewish, lesbian romance saw it being the first play ever to stage a kiss between two women on a Broadway stage, and it was halted after six weeks, the cast and crew being arrested for obscenity.
But despite the historical context of the play, the extract itself is remarkably tender. Scottee says he wanted to look at history through the eyes of queer performance, rather than talk about the specific politics of the time.
“So much of queer history is about when my community have interacted with the judicial system or when my community has had to put their neck on the line for their equality,” he says. “[The book] doesn't dictate the partial decriminalisation, it doesn't dictate who those political leaders were. It’s the personal political, this is what I am. It feels like an easier read than reading a whole bunch of reports about when the police decided to arrest people because of sexual or gender identity.”
He talks about some of the iconic historical works and figures from Mae West’s The Drag to Martin Sherman’s devastating Bent, which shines a light on the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany and first played at the Royal Court Theatre in 1979.
Pieces like this are crucial because they are part of “a collective queer grief”.
“It’s a trauma that’s carried within the community that often isn't spoken about. We are seeing the discussion happening within the community, but the recognition from the wider world about what the community went through I don’t think is really there. Pieces like that help us hammer that home and help us understand and help me understand what the community has gone through and understanding that grief that I didn’t experience. Because of the people in the community and because of activism, I haven’t experienced that grief, but it’s important that we are aware of it.”
Scottee does have his own experiences of hardship as a queer man, which come across in his featured monologue from The Worst of Scottee. The extract he chose from his one-man show centres around fatphobia, body image and misogyny.
“It’s about the bullied. It’s about what it is to exist in gay culture if you’re a fat person. It’s not like you’re accepted. It’s like the same bullsh*t that comes from mainstream cultures and mainstream society, it’s just amplified in queer culture.”
Giving visibility to those often overlooked, is an important theme here: “What I’ve learned after 10 years in this game is that there is a real lack of working class visibility let alone working class, queer visibility. There are a bunch of artists in this book that range from Joe Orton’s 1964 The Ruffian on the Stair to Travis Alabanza in 2017, that I can go ‘yeah, we are working class queers’. It gives me goosebumps to be able to think that there’s a working class, queer kid who picks up this book and goes ‘hang on, there are lots of similar stories in here’.”
For queer performers, he is “really passionate that this is a piece that allows them to perform a little less, that they’re able to pick this book up and go: ‘Yes, retweet, amen, I agree, I understand this.’”
His curation of the book is part of a wider tendency towards creating spaces for outsiders like himself. He hosts a night called Naff Drag at the Hackney Showroom because of a “frustration with a lot of gay space that is inaccessible, that is full of trans misogyny, or misogyny, that excludes those that don’t look like the acceptable faces of homosexuality.”
Naff Drag occurs around landmark events, such as New Years Eve and Pride, which he feels can be exclusionary to some members of the queer community.
“It isn't going to be a space where you give each other dirty looks, it’s a space where you look at each other and ask each other if you’re ok. The reason I create those spaces is because I know what it is to be the outsider, to be pushed out, to be the weirdo, so I want to create a space where those of us who are pushed out can become the centre of attention in a really brilliant, beautiful, celebratory way.
“If we look at the Oberon book and Naff Drag, there’s the same politic there. It’s about going, who’s left out? Who isn’t being heard? So, as much as possible, I’m trying to create a space where we can celebrate Pride, but we can celebrate those of us who are often excluded from the super-expensive mainstream events, that have experienced fatphobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism in those spaces.
“We’ll create our own little utopia.”
The Oberon Book of Queer Monologues is out on June 28
Naff Drag is at Hackney Showroom on July 7