Queerness in British Drama between 1890-2000

A Study of Plays by Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, Mark Ravenhill and Jonathan Harvey

Thesis (M.A.), 2004
141 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

Notes on Abbreviations and on Quotations from the Plays

0. Introduction

1. Theory
1.1. Drama Theory
1.2. Discourse Theory
1.3. Queer Theories
1.4. Some Preliminary Definitions

2. Handbag and The Importance of Being Earnest
2.1. Figure Conception and Characterisation in Handbag and The Importance of Being Earnest
2.1.1. From the Margins to the Centre: Backstage Characters
2.1.2. The Absent Father and the Disruption of the Patriarchal Order
2.1.3. Concepts of Artificiality, Naturalness and Normalness
2.1.4. Notes on the ‘Primacy of Language’, on the Consumption of Food, and on ‘Bunburyism’
2.2. Discourse and Language Use in Handbag and The Importance of Being Earnest
2.2.1. The ‘Interview Scene’
2.2.2. Ravenhill’s Vision of Lady Bracknell: Augusta O’Flaherty
2.3. Brief Summary of Interim Findings I

3. Handbag and What the Butler Saw
3.1. Figure Conception and Characterisation in Handbag and What the Butler Saw
3.1.1. Heteronomous Identity: The Case of Geraldine Barclay
3.1.2. The Self as Reproduction of the Other and a ‘Post-queer’ Potential: Phil/ Eustace and Cardew
3.1.3. Dr Rance and the Ridiculousness of Stating Unnaturalness and Abnormality
3.2. Discourse and Language Use in Handbag and What the Butler Saw
3.2.1. Captivated by Cliché
3.2.2. Exclusion Strategies: Allegations of Madness, Perversion, Anarchism and Delusion
3.2.3. Bodies and the Marketplace: Discourse in Handbag
3.3. Brief Summary of Interim Findings II

4. Handbag and Boom Bang-A-Bang
4.1. Figure Conception and Characterisation in Handbag and Boom Bang-A-Bang
4.1.1. ‘Norman No-Mates’ from Upstairs: Excluding the Gay Fellow
4.1.2. Steph as a ‘Queer’ Character
4.2. Discourse and Language Use in Handbag and Boom Bang-A-Bang
4.2.1. Three ‘Queer’ Kinds of Cliché
4.2.2. ‘Queering’ Discourses Violence, Morbidity and Death Different Realities, Roles and Identity Flirting with ‘non-PC’ and Obscenity: Sexism and Misogyny

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

Appendix ‘Matrix Correspondences’

Anhang: Kurze Zusammenfassung der Arbeit auf deutsch

Notes on Abbreviations and on Quotations from the Plays

For complete references of the plays see ‘Works Cited’

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The abbreviations above are used for all quotations from the primary works. In the text, The Importance of Being Earnest is abbreviated to Earnest, What the Butler Saw to Butler, and Boom Bang-A-Bang to Boom

Since not all of the plays are divided into acts and scenes, quotations from the plays are rendered differently. Common to all is the reference to the respective page number

Quotations from The Importance of Being Earnest are rendered as follows: (IBE: 27, I, 490), with the first (Arabic) number referring to the page, the second (Roman) number to the act and the third (Arabic) number to the line

Quotations from What the Butler Saw are rendered as follows: (WBS: 418, II), with the first (Arabic) number referring to the page, the second (Roman) number to the act

Quotations from Handbag are rendered as follows: (Hbg: 150, sc. 2), with the first (Arabic) number referring to the page, the second (Arabic) number, preceded by “sc.”, to the scene

Quotations from Boom Bang-A-Bang are rendered as follows: (BBB: 199, I), with the first (Arabic) number referring to the page, the second (Roman) number to the act

Quotations from other plays are rendered in analogy to the above, depending on whether the particular play is divided into acts and/or scenes and whether line references are provided or not

The turn of phrase ‘my emphasis’ is abbreviated to ‘my emph.’, ‘emphasis sic’ is abbreviated to ‘emph. sic’

0. Introduction

This thesis deals with one particular aspect of British drama between the 1890s and the late 20th century: ‘queerness’. ‘Queerness’ is a term that in the last two decades has come to be used predominantly to refer to manifestations of homosexuality, male and female, and otherness (for definitions see below). The introductory remarks are preceded by a list of abbreviations indicating the system by which references to the plays are made. The first chapter introduces drama theory, discourse theory and ‘queer theories’ as the major theoretical approaches applied in the play analyses. The first chapter also presents the working hypothesis. The theoretical part will be concluded by some preliminary definitions of ‘homo­sexuality’, ‘queerness’, ‘heteronormativity’ and ‘other­ness’. Chapters two to four each offer analyses of particular plays, the terminology of which follows Manfred Pfister’s The Theory and Analysis of Drama (2000).

In total, this study concentrates on four examples: The Importance of Being Earnest (premiered 1895, published 1899) by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), What the Butler Saw (1969) by Joe Orton (1933-1967), Boom Bang-A-Bang (1995) by Jonathan Harvey (1968-) and Handbag (1998) by Mark Ravenhill (1966-). The main part of the discussion consists of three chapters that offer play analyses. Each of them contrasts Ravenhill’s Handbag to one of the three former plays in chronological order. Hence, the second chapter compares Handbag to Wilde’s play, the third chapter examines Handbag in contrast to Orton’s play, and the fourth chapter juxtaposes it to the 1990s play Boom Bang-A-Bang. The general emphasis will lie on language use. It is under this aspect that concepts which keep recurring in the plays – such as identity and alterity, naturalness and artificiality, sameness and otherness, and of course queerness – will be looked into. The three chapters dealing with drama analysis (ch. 2-4) mirror each other in structure: An introductory part is followed by a section on figure conception and characterisation, which in turn is followed by a section on discourse and language use.

The fifth chapter provides a brief summary of the major findings. The biblio­graphic­al and penultimate part comprises all works cited. The concluding part contains an appendix. In addition, a brief summary in German is attached to the study.

1. Theory

In this thesis three theoretical approaches are applied: drama theory, discourse theory and ‘queer theories’. It is in this order that they will be briefly introduced.

1.1. Drama Theory

As far as drama theory is concerned, the terminology follows Manfred Pfister’s The Theory and Analysis of Drama (2000). To this day there seems to be no other companion to the theory of drama which is as detailed and at the same time as concise as Pfister’s. The main foci of the discussion are figure conception and char­ac­ter­isation on the one hand, and discourse and language use on the other hand. Hence, the two chapters from which most of the technical terms are borrowed are chapter five “Dramatis personae and dramatic figure” (Pfister 2000: 160-195), and chapter four “Verbal communication” (Pfister 2000: 103-159). The following is an incomplete and simplified account of only some basic ex­pres­sions and concepts of drama theory following Pfister. I will be chiefly concentrating on the terms ‘figure’, ‘expressive function’, ‘referential function’, and ‘appellative function’ of dramatic lan­guage, ‘explicit-figural self-commentary’, ‘implicit figural self-commentary’ and outside com­ment­ary, as well as ‘internal’ and ‘external communication system’. As a last point, attention will be drawn to the specific status of fictitiousness that dramatic figures occupy.

Concerning figure conception and char­ac­ter­isation, only two aspects will be mentioned here. Firstly, being fictitious, figures are of an ontological status different from that of real persons (Pfister 2000: 160ff.).[1] While the set of information about real persons is infinite and open to change, the set of information about figures is finite and closed. On the one hand, this means that relevance must be ascribed to each piece of information about each figure and that it is possible to tabulate all relevant qualitative features of the figures in matrices of contrasts and correspondences (Pfister 2000: 166-170). On the other hand, this also entails that dramatic figures are of ‘fragmentary quality’, meaning that the char­ac­ter­isation of dramatic figures can never be as detailed as that of the characters of novels (Pfister 2000: 162). This is partly due to the relative brevity of plays in comparison to novels and partly to the fact that figures are not described but that they represent themselves, namely through dialogue and action. This brings us to the second sig­nifi­cant difference between dramatic figures and both real persons and the characters of novels: Dramatic figures are compelled to speak. The reason for this is obvious. Apart from action, dialogue is the prime mode for rep­re­senting figures. It will be seen that in each of the four plays, on which the discussion focuses, action is subservient to verbal communication.

Regarding verbal communication, the distinction between the six functions of dramatic language on which Pfister elaborates will be adhered to in the following. The six functions are the expressive, the referential, the appellative, the phatic, the metalingual and the poetic function (Pfister 2000: 105-117). However, we will be concerned here only with the first three functions. The expressive function dominates an utterance if what is being said relates back to the speaker. The referential function dominates if the utterance refers to the speech context, the situative context or the environment. The appellative function dominates if the speaker, either explicitly or implicitly, tries to exert influence over the addressee of an utterance. Nevertheless, dramatic language is characterised by poly­func­tion­ality rather than mono­­functional­ity, meaning that an utterance usually fulfils several of the above mentioned functions at the same time. An utterance which is dominated by the speaker-related, expressive function often is also an explicit-figural or implicit-figural self-com­mentary. Yet, it can also be an explicit-figural or implicit-figural outside commentary (Pfister 2000: 183-194). A brief extract from What the Butler Saw will serve to illustrate this:

Prentice [to his wife]: Could I borrow one of your dresses for a while, my dear?

Mrs Prentice: I find your sudden craving for women’s clothing a dull and, on the whole, a rather distasteful subject (WBS: 375, I).

Since Dr Prentice directs a plea at his wife, his contribution can be described as being dominated by the appellative function. The way in which Mrs Prentice reacts, however, draws attention to the fact that inherent in his question is an implicit self-commentary, namely that he would like to have a dress – for himself, as Mrs Prentice assumes wrongly. In Mrs Prentice’s reply, a dominance of both the referential and the expressive function can be detected. The referential function is due to the fact that her statement refers to the immediate speech situation, more precisely, to Dr Prentice’s request. Nonetheless, Mrs Prentice expresses her own opinion and she does so through an explicit self-commentary, commencing with “I find”. From this derives the assumption that apart from the referential function, the expressive function is also stressed. At the same time, Mrs Prentice’s remark is an implicit outside commentary, for she accuses her husband of being obsessed with women’s clothes.

Apart from this, the short repartee points to another distinction that has to be made when­ever plays are analysed. There is a discrepancy between the effect which Mrs Prentice’s reply will have on her husband and the effect it will have on the audience. It has to be assumed that Dr Prentice is troubled by his wife’s remark, since he faces the problem of either having to confess his attempted assault of a job applicant or of being accused of trans­vestism. His concern is indicated by a stage direction, namely by the explicit-authorial com­mentary “Dr Prentice passes a hand across his brow” (WBS: 375, I). By contrast, the audi­­ence will be induced to laugh, because they know that Dr Prentice does not require a woman’s dress because he has a proclivity for transvestism, but because he needs to clothe the victim of his attempted assault. The audience know this, because at this point in the play, there is a discrepancy of awareness between the audience and the figure ‘Mrs Prentice’, with the audience being granted superior awareness. Such a discrepancy of aware­ness (Pfister 2000: 49-55) and the resulting difference between the effects on the figures and the effects on the audience, is due to a more general and fundamental distinction between two com­­­­munication systems: the distinction between the external and the internal com­mu­ni­ca­tion system (Pfister 2000: 3f.). The internal communication system refers to the level on which the figures of a play operate. On this level, communication has to be regarded to take place between the figures. Both the senders and the receivers of utterances are figures. The internal communication level might be referred to as the ‘inner-dramatic world’. The external com­munication system relates this inner-dramatic world to the audi­ence. Even though on the external communication level the senders of information still are the figures, the receivers are the audience. With regard to the internal com­mu­ni­ca­tion level, one may analyse, for example, how one utterance is related to the preceding or fol­lowing utterance and to what extent language and action are related. With regard to the external com­munication system, by contrast, one may ask how the audience will react to, or are expected to react to, a particular repartee or action.

Before progressing to discourse theory, I would like to draw attention to one specific aspect in which drama differs significantly from all other literary forms, and which Pfister leaves relatively understated. I am referring to drama’s peculiar ‘dual nature’ or ‘duplicity’ as far as ‘reality’ is concerned, i.e. the phenomenon that drama participates at once in fiction and in reality.[2] In a way, drama can come ‘closer to reality’ than any poem or narration can, because each performance of a play really takes place and hence par­tici­pates in the real world. At the same time, ‘reality’, i.e. the audience’s reality, affects each per­form­ance of a play. Thus, obliquely, the play itself is affected by reality. Examples of the influence of real life on plays can be observed in the many cases in which later editions of scripts have been revised, some clearly in response to audiences’ and critics’ reactions. Further examples are the cases in which plays are revised on account of the opinion of producers and directors, who usually also have audience reactions in mind when inducing play­wrights to rewrite or even delete certain episodes.[3]

Different again from both the characters of novels and from real persons, dramatic figures are likewise characterised by a ‘dual nature’. They occupy a very peculiar status of ‘fictitiousness’: They are indisputably fictitious – as ‘figures’. At the same time, however, they are non-fictitious, or ‘real’. This is because in performance a figure never appears exclusively as figure but always also as the specific person who acts as the respective figure. The actor ‘em bodies ’ the figure.[4] Arguably, it is not least this corporeality – or ‘corpo-reality’, i.e. the reality of the body – to which drama’s oscillation between reality and fiction can be ascribed. This oscillation also goes for roles and identities. The actor enacts the role, but the influence between the actor’s identity and the role is reciprocal. Not only does the actor’s identity influence the role, but the role also influences the actor’s identity, even if the significance which a specific role occupies in processes of identity formation varies. These observations may offer an explanation for the great interest which ‘gender studies’, as well as feminist, lesbian, gay and queer studies, take in drama and other performance arts (cf. Butler 1990b; de Lauretis 1990; Wandor 1987). It is precisely the intersection of roles and identities that is at the heart of many of the theories developed in these fields. With regard to the plays which will be analysed in the following sections, we will see that the tension between roles and identities is crucial for both the respective plot developments and for many of the ‘queer’ aspects of the plays.

1.2. Discourse Theory

I am supposing that in every society the production of dis­course is at once controlled, selected, organised and re­dis­trib­uted ac­cord­ing to a certain number of procedures, whose role it is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality (Foucault 1972: 216).

‘Discourse theory’ is based on the assumption that the perception of the world is contingent on the language with which this world is referred to. Even more radically, it assumes that the world is not only contingent on, but in fact created by language, as the specific world as perceived by the individual human being. At the same time, it assumes that the language with which the individual refers to the world, i.e. the language which determines how the individual perceives the world, is not controllable by the individual. Instead, it is determined and controlled by decentralised and anonymous power structures. Very generally, discourse theory holds that no individual can make just any statement at any place at any point in time: “[N]one may enter into discourse on a specific subject unless he has satisfied certain conditions […]” (Foucault 1972: 224f.). It is the aim of ‘discourse analysis’ to construe the historical conditions under which statements can be made, or rather, under which statements have been made in the past.

The following will briefly delineate some of the major aspects and basic def­in­itions of discourse theory and discourse analysis as they have been introduced by the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Only those terms will be intro­duced here which will be re-encountered in forthcoming chapters or are of immediate relevance for the definitions of the terms that will be re-encountered. The terms I will be con­centrating on are ‘power’, ‘discourse’, ‘statement’, ‘enunciation’, ‘referential’, ‘dis­cursive formation’, ‘dis­cursive practice’, and ‘reverse discourse’. All these terms, however, are multiply inter­connected. Since the body of Foucault’s work is vast and since Foucault repeatedly revised his own definitions of recurring terms, the definitions provided here follow the ones ar­ticu­lated in only three of Foucault’s works. The particular works I am referring to are The Archae­ology of Knowledge (1972), the transcript of Foucault’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, “The Discourse on Language” (1972), and the first volume of the History of Sexuality (1990).[5] The following explanations and definitions make no appeal to complete­ness. Rather, they should be understood as an attempt to provide a greatly simplified overview of some basic, yet very complex, concepts providing the basis of Foucault’s discourse theory. Further­more, it will be indicated how discourse theory and discourse analysis may be applied in the following play analyses.

The conceptualisation of power is an even more persistent theme in Foucault’s work than the conceptualisation of discourse. Considering what has been said above about Foucault’s frequent revisions of central terms and concepts, it may not be surprising that in the course of time his concept of power underwent radical changes. While the earlier works are dominated by a negative view of power, which then is chiefly taken to be a means of repression and exclusion, the later works are dominated by a more positive view. Here, the aspect of de-centralisation is further stressed in so far as power is now seen to “underlie[] all social relations from the institutional to the intersubjective and is a fundamentally enabling one” (McNay 1994: 3, my emph.). The most important thing to note is that Foucault sees power and discourse as inextricably linked. While power is distributed and controlled by discourse, discourse is distributed and controlled by decentralised power structures:

[…D]iscourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power […]. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it (Foucault 1990: 101; cf. Probyn 1997: 139).

What this quotation illustrates is that power is understood not as an instrument at the hands of some unspecified ‘Owner of power’, but (partly) as a product of discourse. Therefore, an explanation of the central term discourse becomes inevitable.

When defining the term discourse, one must distinguish between a broad and a narrow meaning of discourse. Unfortunately, the broad meaning of discourse, as Foucault employs it, is extremely hazy. Roughly, it may be understood as an umbrella term en­com­passing ‘anything that has been enunciated, by anyone, at any time, at any place’. It is this broad meaning of discourse that Foucault has in mind when hypothesising:

There is undoubtedly in our society […] a profound logophobia, a sort of dumb fear of these events, of this mass of spoken things, of everything that could possibly be violent, discontinuous, querulous, disordered even and perilous in it, of the incessant, disorderly buzzing of discourse (Foucault 1972: 228f.).

Discourse, in this broad sense, is thus characterised as being disorderly, discontinuous, proliferating, violent and unpredictable, in short, threatening. Due to discourse’s additional omni­presence, the human being can never escape its “awesome materiality” (Foucault 1972: 216). Strategies are required to help control the perils, the chance and disorder inherent in discourse. In “The Discourse on Language”, Foucault calls such strategies rules or systems of appropriation, limitation, and exclusion (Foucault 1972: 216, 219, 231). Above all, he elaborates on “three great systems of exclusion governing discourse – prohibited words, the division of madness and the will to truth” (Foucault 1972: 219). To these systems of exclusion, particularly to the will to truth, we will return below.

In its narrow meaning, discourse is defined “as the group of statements that belong to a single system of formation” (Foucault 1972: 107).[6] Such a group of statements “can be assigned particular modalities of existence” (Foucault 1972: 107). In other words, discourse means a set of statements which are governed by the same (discursive) regularities and which belong to the same (discursive) formation. Discourse is a practice governed by “its own forms of sequence and succession” (Foucault 1972: 169).

In order to grasp the full meaning of the definition of discourse, one has to look at the way in which Foucault understands statements, discursive formations and discursive practices. One of the major problems when wanting to apply Foucauldian terminology paradoxically arises out of the fact that Foucault often deploys terms that are part of every­day language. Yet, his use of these terms differs considerably from the way in which they are used in an everyday context. At the same time, Foucault usually omits any clear definition of his own use of these terms. An example of this is his use of the seemingly un­prob­lematic term ‘statement’. The statement is the smallest unit of discourse that Foucault examines. Very basically, the ‘statement’ (énoncé) must be distinguished from the ‘enunciation’ (énonciation). While the statement is characterised by a repeatable materiality (Foucault 1972: 102), an enunciation is unrepeatable and unique:

We will say that an enunciation takes place whenever a group of signs is emitted. […] The enunciation is an unrepeatable event; it has a situated and dated uniqueness that is irreducible (Foucault 1972: 101).

By contrast, in order that one may refer to a group of emitted signs as a statement, four conditions have to be met: (1) There must be a referential to which the signs of this group refer. This referential is not identical with the referent of a proposition. It is less concrete than this. It is does not consist “of ‘things’, ‘facts’, ‘realities’, or ‘beings’, but of laws of pos­sibility, rules of existence for the objects that are named […] within it, and for the relations that are affirmed or denied it” (Foucault 1972: 91). The referential “forms the place, the condition, the field of emergence” of a statement in that it defines its “possibilities of appearance and delimitation” (Foucault 1972: 91). (2) There must be a “set of possible positions for a subject” (Foucault 1972: 108). While an enunciation is enunciated by a single, specified speaker, a statement is made from a certain position (at a certain place and point in time), but not by one particular individual. (3) There must be a “field of co­ex­ist­ence” with other statements (Foucault 1972: 108). Every statement is contingent on other state­ments, or rather, all statements are interdependent:

A statement always has borders peopled by other statements. […] There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions and roles (Foucault 1972: 97ff.).

As mentioned above: (4) In order to be considered as a statement, a group of emitted signs needs to have a repeatable materiality (Foucault 1972: 102, 109). There need to be possi­bil­ities for the statement to be re-inscribed and transcribed (Foucault 1972: 103). Summing up the above in a greatly simplifying way, we may say that a statement is the isolated, repeatable materiality of what has been said by an unspecified speaker at a certain place and at a certain point in time, bearing a contingency on other state­ments (Fink-Eitel 1989: 58). Further­more, a single statement is not a discrete unit carrying meaning. Instead, it has to be understood as a function, more precisely as a function which “cuts across a domain of structures and possible unities, and which reveals them, with concrete contents, in time and space” (Foucault 1972: 87). Consequently, the aim of the ‘archaeology of knowledge’ is not to try and interpret statements, but to analyse their positivity. In other words, the aim is to establish when and where a specific statement emerged, and what the underlying conditions for its emergence are.

Under certain conditions statements may be connected to groups. Provided that the statements are connected and organised in accordance with certain rules and regularities, we may refer to a group of them as discursive formation (cf. Marti 1999: 40f.):[7]

Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, […] a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation (Foucault 1972: 38, emph. sic).

In short, a discursive formation is “the general enunciative system that governs a group of verbal performances” (Foucault 1972: 116). It is significant that within a particular dis­cursive formation no-one may say just anything at any time. Instead, what can and what cannot be said is determined by certain rules, i.e. the rules of formation (Foucault 1972: 38). Controlling the emergence and connection of statements, these rules overlap with what Foucault calls discursive practices. A discursive practice is

[…] a body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area, the conditions of operation of the enunciative function (Foucault 1972: 117).

Implicit in the above is that the rules determining which statements may be connected to a particular discursive formation, i.e. what can and cannot be said within a particular dis­course, are changeable. They differ from one discourse to another. Additionally, they usually change over time with regard to the same discourse. The aforementioned three basic rules, or ‘great systems’, of exclusion – “prohibited words, the division of madness and the will to truth” (Foucault 1972: 219) – might be regarded as such discursive practices. One of the most vivid illustrations of how these rules work, and, more precisely, how the will to truth works, is the example of Mendel that Foucault provides:

People have often wondered how on earth nineteenth-century botanists and biologists managed not to see the truth of Mendel’s statements. […] Mendel spoke the truth, but he was not dans le vrai (within the true) of contemporary biological discourse: it simply was not along such lines that objects and biological concepts were formed (Foucault 1972: 224, emph. sic).

Interestingly, Foucault here implies that Mendel himself was thinking ‘along such lines’ that were not part of contemporary biological discourse. The reason for mentioning this is that such implication seems inconsistent with one of the basic assumptions of discourse theory. I am referring to the assumption that the individual, who is seen to be subjected to discourse rather than in control of it, is unable to think or articulate anything that is not part of the general system of thought. The very same kind of inconsistency is also at the heart of another phenomenon, i.e. of ‘reverse’ discourse. The question of whether or not there can be any ‘reverse’ discourse is inextricably linked to the question of whether or not an in­di­vidual can think along such lines that move beyond those of the dominant discourse. It is in the first volume of the History of Sexuality (1990) that Foucault assumes that a ‘reverse’ discourse exists:

There is no question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, juris­pru­dence, and literature, of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homo­­sexuality, inversion, pederasty, and ‘psychic herm­aphrodism’ made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of ‘perversity’; but it also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homo­sexuality began to speak in [sic] its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified (Foucault 1990: 101, my emph.).

A ‘ reversediscourse, as Foucault here uses the term, is the kind of discourse that reflects and ‘re-presents’ another discourse, in that it deals with the same discursive objects, the same themes, and yet is crucially different. According to the above, the nineteenth-century ‘ reverse’ discourse of homosexuality can be regarded as a reflection and a ‘ re- pre­sen­ta­tion’ of the discourse of homosexuality as it had been introduced by psychiatry, ju­ris­pru­dence, and literature. The fact that “homosexuality began […] to demand that its le­git­im­acy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same cat­egories by which it was medically disqualified” not only means that homosexuality now had a voice. It also implies that with this voice homosexuality demanded a ‘ re- valuation’ of itself, i.e. a re- valuation of how homosexuality was thought of and spoken of. The question that arises is how the production of such a reverse discourse could be possible. Discourse theory radically breaks with the Enlightenment idea of the autonomous founding subject as the originator and master of his thoughts. Instead, it considers the individual human being to be not only subjected to, or enslaved by, but even created by discourse. Considering all this, it is unclear how a reverse discourse might emerge. It is not surprising, therefore, that in his later works Foucault parts with the assumption that reverse discourse is possible (cf. Winko 1997: 469; Kammler 1990: 50).

In this thesis, however, the term reverse discourse will be employed never­the­less. In accordance with the above cited passage from the History of Sexuality (1990), the term will be used in reference to discourse which reflects a particular discourse, yet ‘re-presents’ and ‘re-values’ the discursive objects of the same (cf. ch. 2.1.3.; 4.2.2.). The reason for retaining the concept of reverse discourse despite the above reservations is the following: There seems to be a dilemma at the very heart of discourse theory, which, naturally, cannot be solved here: Foucault assumes that no individual is capable of changing the prevailing dis­course of his own time. Yet, he demonstrates that in the course of time discourses under­go changes, discontinuities and transformations. It must be taken into consideration, how­ever, that there are no other participants in discourse than a myriad of individuals. The ‘dilemma’ arises out of the fact that these three observations do not go together. Therefore, instead of main­­tain­ing that the individual has no influence whatsoever on the discourse he is par­tici­pating in, perhaps one could propose the following: Discourse changes over time. Since the only par­tici­pants in discourse are innumerable individuals, the changes discourse under­goes must be on account of these individuals. Hence, a certain influence is to be attributed to the in­dividual. Only, this influence is oblique. No individual can change dis­course at will or with a specific aim in mind. The individual’s influence is not an ‘im-mediate’ one. A few more words are in order to clarify this. It seems possible for the in­di­vidu­al, albeit to a certain extent only, to transgress the rules of formation and think along lines that prevailing discourse does not provide for. Mendel is an example of this. Even though contemporary biology discourse did not change immediately after Mendel had put forward his hypotheses, and even though it did not change for many decades after­wards, it did change eventually – and arguably not least because of Mendel’s theses. Hence, we might put forward the suggestion that the individual has a certain restricted influence on dis­course, even though this influence is not subject to his own control.

I would agree with the assumption that the way in which the individual perceives the world and the way the world can be thought of, is conditioned by discourse (in the broad and the narrow sense). I would also agree that the individual himself is conditioned by discourse. Yet, I would argue that if the individual is aware of his being conditioned by dis­course, he becomes less conditioned. He does not become free, but he becomes free enough to recognise that there are fetters that bind him. He may even get a vague idea of what these fetters look like and might struggle to free himself of them. The fact that Foucault can speak of the will to truth is an example of this. He is able to recognise the will to truth and to elaborate on how this will to truth works as a system of exclusion. At the same time, Foucault is conditioned by the will to truth, as are his works, too. Yet, the fact that his works abound with revisions of his own ideas and with contradictions to his own theses, seems to indicate that in a sense Foucault managed not to surrender to the will to truth entirely. Precisely this might be one of the reasons why the perception of Foucault’s work is so difficult: because it suspends the will to truth to which we, the readers of his work, are subjected.

All this being said, I will now proceed to delineate how discourse analysis may sup­port the following play analyses. It has been mentioned above that discourse analysis aims to reveal the historical conditions under which certain statements have been made in the past. Furthermore, we saw that discourse theory assigns discourse an un­pre­ced­ented importance, a materiality and reality. Hence, two reasons for applying dis­course theory and analysis suggest themselves. Firstly, the plays I will be concentrating on have emerged at different points in time. The Importance of Being Earnest (premiered 1895, published 1899) dates from the end of the nineteenth-century, What the Butler Saw (1969) from the mid-twentieth-century, Boom Bang-A-Bang (1995) and Handbag (1998) from the end of the twentieth-century. Although it will be seen that similar concepts such as ‘otherness’ and ‘natural­ness’ reappear in all plays, the discursive formations in which theses concepts appear are quite different. Moreover, the aspect which is of major concern of our discussion, ‘queer­ness’, stands in anachronistic relation to the first two plays as will become clear below. From this anachronism arises the risk of (mis-)using terms in reference to past discourses. However, discourse theory, with its stress on the historicity of discourse, will help cir­cum­vent this danger. The second reason for applying discourse theory can be attributed to the fact that the main focal point of the analyses will be the language use in the plays. This links up with the prime im­port­ance discourse theory assigns to language: “[S]peech is no mere verbalisation of conflicts and systems of domination, but […] it is the very object of man’s conflicts” (Foucault 1972: 216).

One last point needs to be mentioned, a last restriction to be made. It is not the aim of this discussion “to say finally, what has silently been articulated deep down” (Foucault 1972: 221, emph. sic). Rather, I will aim at pointing out significant dis­con­tinu­ities, changes and ruptures between the discourses prevailing in the plays an the concepts under­lying and resulting from these discourses.

1.3. Queer Theories

Queer is a continuing moment, move­­ment, motive – recurrent, eddy­ing, troublant (Sedgwick 1994: xii, emph. sic).

[Queer’s] definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity, is one of its constituent characteristics (Jagose 1996: 1).

Of the three theories that are applied in this thesis, the so called ‘queer theories’ are the youngest, and they did not come into being until the early 1990s (cf. Kraß 2003: 17; Hall 2003: 1). Speaking in a simplifying and reductive manner, ‘queer theories’ can be seen as relatives of lesbian, gay, and feminist theories and studies. Like those they are heavily in­flu­enced by the work of Michel Foucault, particularly by the first volume of the History of Sexuality (1990).[8] Had people been presented the term ‘queer theories’ some 15 years ago, many would probably have thought it a linguistic joke, a mockery of the never-ending emer­gence of new theories out of the uni­versities’ ivory towers. The German translator team of Anna­marie Jagose’s ground­brea­king introduction to Queer Theory (1996, transl. 2001) make the novelty and the intractable character of the term quite evident when presenting their diffi­culties with finding a German equivalent for it: “Perverse Theorie” is one of the terms they come up with, which gives a fairly vivid im­pression of its troubling resonance (Genschel et al. 2001: 9). Very basically, it must be understood that ‘queer theories’, rather than forming an independent discipline or an autonomous field of academic research such as medicine or mathematics, provide an umbrella term for a par­ticu­­lar kind of interdisciplinary studies.[9] Encompassed by this term is a body of theory that “generally recognize[s] the partiality and tendentiousness of knowledge and per­spec­tives” (Hall 2003: 6) and “exposes conventions and social norms as artificial and based in a broad dynamic of power relations that often oppress sexually nonconforming individuals” (Hall 2003: 7). ‘Queer theories’ result from a certain perspective. Or rather, ‘queer theories’ start from a certain perspective from which to ask questions. They are rooted in an urge to (re)view ques­tions concerning gender, sex, and sexuality. More generally, questions con­cern­ing lit­era­ture, history, sociology, even biology, to name but a few, are being looked at from a new, a ‘queer’ perspective. This claim makes indispensable an explanation of what is under­­­stood by a ‘queer perspective’. Additionally, the aims and uses of ‘queer theories’ need to be established. In the first place, however, the term ‘queer’ itself needs to be defined.

The trouble with these tasks is that they require a clear definition of a term that refuses definition, a term that is never quite where you expect it, but always trying to escape getting tied to a meaning. Therefore, let us try to approach ‘queer’ gently, without threatening to violate it by trying to pinpoint its meaning. It seems relatively safe to begin with a very brief outline of the origins of the word ‘queer’:

The word ‘queer’ itself means across – it comes from the Indo-European root - twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart (Sedgwick 1994: xii, emph. sic).

To draw a little nearer, and into riskier territory, we may propose that today ‘queer’ is pre­dominantly used to encompass on the one hand the adjectives and nouns ‘homosexual’, ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’, and on the other hand to signify ‘strange’, ‘odd’, ‘weird’, and ‘abnormal’.[10] It is significant to note that the latter meaning usually bears a connotation of ‘otherness’. The tension between the former and the latter sense ob­viously gives some indication of the negative connotations which (still) encircle the terms mentioned first in contemporary Western heteronormative society. Referring to the usage of queer, most dictionaries rightly add ‘pejorative’ in front of homosexual, gay and lesbian. However, it should be noted that there is a great discrepancy between the meaning of ‘queer’ when it is used about a third person and, by contrast, when the speaker uses it to refer to himself.[11] There is a crucial difference between how people who consider them­selves ‘queer’ deploy the term and how others who do not consider themselves ‘queer’ use it. Comparable to a certain extent to the term ‘nigger’, ‘queer’ has undergone a radical change. While originally it was used almost entirely in reference to an ‘other’ and was meant in a derogatory way, it has now acquired self-referentiality. This gain of self-referentiality was accompanied by a striking ‘re-valuation’. As a result, when used in self-ref­erence, nowadays ‘queer’ is completely devoid of any negative connotation and in fact is connoted rather positive.

To come back to the above definition of ‘queer’, the usage of the term by ‘queer theorists’ cannot be said to be identical with either one or the other meaning. Instead, a certain indecisiveness, or even inconsistency, can be noted in the way the term is used by queer theorists. For although they hardly ever stop emphasising that in order to be queer you do not necessarily have to be other than heterosexual oriented or heterosexual iden­tified – although of course you are welcomed gaily if you are – they do seem to pre­sup­pose that you bring with you a certain kind of (sexual) nonconformity (cf. Hall 2003: 11f.). To see such indecisiveness illustrated we may turn to a definition of ‘queer’ by Halperin:

[… queer] acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’, then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative […] (Halperin 1995: 62, emph. sic).

Up to this point, Halperin defines ‘queer’ from the perspective of the latter sense, i.e. from the perspective that comprises what(ever) is strange, weird or “at odds with the normal”. How­ever, he then restricts, if not actually undermines, this broad-minded definition when continuing: “a positionality that is not restricted to lesbians and gay men but is in fact available to anyone who is […] marginalized because of her or his sexual practices” (Halperin 1995: 62, my emph.). While the first part of the definition reads rather inclusive in that it encourages anyone who feels marginalised to regard themselves as queer, the supple­ment draws a sig­nifi­cant limitation. It makes sure that those who do feel marginalised, but feel so on grounds other than their sexual practices, are not entitled to feel queer. Hence, what starts out as a definition characterised by inclusivity ends in one characterised by exclusivity – only those who feel marginalised because of their sexual practices are included. Accordingly, it seems more to the point to say that in some queer theories ‘queer’ is used as signifying both homosexual/ gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender and strange/ odd/ weird/ abnormal rather than either one or the other. Yet, it has to be taken into consideration that as long as one links the former sense (homosexual/ gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ trans­gender) with the latter (strange/ odd/ weird/ abnormal), one still speaks from a point of view that is closer to a heteronormative perspective than to a non-hetero­normative one. This is because from a heteronormative perspective – and from this per­spec­tive only – homosexuals/ gays/ lesbians/ bisexuals/ transgenders are considered to be ab­­normal or to engage in abnormal acts. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that nowadays, some thirteen years after ‘queer theories’ had their academic ‘coming out’, definitions of what is queer tend to be more inclusive.[12] While back in 1996 Jagose, similar to Halperin, still put a lot of emphasis on “[q]ueer theory’s debunking of stable sexes, genders and sexualities” (Jagose 1996: 3), there has been a significant move towards the inclusion of other kinds of ‘deviation’ from the ‘normal’. See for example Dean’s recent (re)definition:

Those excluded from the general population – whether by virtue of their sexuality, race, class, or nationality – are by definition queer. In this way, ‘queer’ came to stand less for a particular sexual orientation or a stigmatized erotic identity than for a critical distance from the white, middle-class, heterosexual norm (Dean 2003: 240).

Particularly the second half of the definition stresses the relational character so prominent in the term queer. It is also clear from the above that queer needs to undergo changes, given that the “white, middle-class, heterosexual norm” itself is not static.

Now that the ‘meaning’ of ‘queer’ has been adumbrated briefly and roughly, we can turn to the other pressing questions. We still need to establish what a ‘queer per­spec­tive’ is, what the aims of ‘queer theories’ are, and what their possible use could be. To begin with the first question: Strictly speaking there is no single ‘queer perspective’, because a queer perspective is a contradiction in terms. The reason for this is simple, yet fun­da­mental. ‘Queer’ presupposes the will to multiplicity, to variety, to fluidity and to multi­­dimen­sionality. In short, ‘queer’ requires not one but many perspectives. It needs per­spec­tive changes and shifts, contrasting views, and altering viewpoints. What it certainly does not need, is persistence on one singular, rigid perspective. It has to be under­stood that “the rubric ‘queer’ must embrace and encourage a variety of styles, forms […], and insights none of which can claim the status of the ‘natural,’ ‘definitive,’ or ‘real’” (Hall 2003: 6). Not­withstanding these reservations, under certain conditions – and provided there is aware­ness of the problematic coupling – it may at times be useful to speak of a ‘queer per­spec­tive’. One such condition would be, for instance, to refer to a ‘queer perspective’ in contrast to one that is biased, lacking a self-critical stance, and dismissive of deviating views.

In dealing with the aims and the possible use of ‘queer theories’, we face another problem. Given their plurality and the fact that ‘queer theorists’ work in any field from literary studies to political science, in fact in any area where open-minded, flexible thinkers are invited (and even where they are uninvited), it is self-evident that one cannot speak of concrete aims shared by all who work with ‘queer theories’. What can be spoken of, however, is an urge common to all ‘queer theorists’ to call into question everything that presents itself as common-sense, and to critically examine everything that purports to be naturally given, a fact of life, and even truth itself.[13]

All this will sound familiar to anyone who has read any critical writings, whether in literary, history or sociological studies that date from between the late 1960s and today. Still, this should not be taken as an encouragement to dismiss ‘queer theories’ instantly because they simply seem to regurgitate critical enquiries made by Foucault and others (cf. below). Those enquiries are not what ‘queer theories’ would claim as their products, on the contrary, they freely admit that these are their breeding-ground. Nevertheless, it is necessary to define what is new and what is ‘queer’ about ‘queer theories’. I would argue that it is not so much the techniques ‘queer theorists’ employ that separate them from other theorists who equally try to expose norms as artificial and historical rather than natural and a-historical, but their focus, i.e. the interest they take in sexuality and particularly all kinds of nonconformity with heteronormative (hetero)sexuality. As regards the use of ‘queer theories’, this, of course, is contingent on the in­di­vidu­al who turns to them, no matter if for professional or personal reasons. For some­one look­ing for definite answers and soothing certainties, ‘queer theories’ will offer nothing but a bitter disappointment, as this is not what they are aiming at. But those looking for en­cour­age­ment to re- think the well-known, to re -view the everyday, to re- consider established belief systems, or just for permission to ask daring questions, may well find what they are looking for in ‘queer theories’.

Finally, mention should be made of the main thinkers that were and still are of major influence on ‘queer theories’. Michel Foucault has already been given expansive con­sideration, but apart from Foucault there is a large number of others to whose work ‘queer theories’ are highly indebted. Besides many others, the works of philosophers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jacques Derrida should be mentioned, as well as the lectures of psycho­analysts like Jacques Lacan (of course also Sigmund Freud, albeit via a round­about route), the writings of French feminists like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray, as well as the works of North American feminists like Teresa de Lauretis, Adrienne Rich and Gayle Rubin. Last but not least, there are theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, two of the ‘grandes dames’ of ‘queer theories’. In com­pari­son to the aforementioned, their influence is more direct and more palpable, chiefly because they keep providing ‘queer theories’ with ever new and challenging material.

Now that it has been adumbrated what ‘queer’ encompasses and what ‘queer theories’ aim at, I will finally present the hypothesis I would like to test in this study: I propose that in order for a play to be ‘queer’, it does not necessarily have to deal with homosexuality or, in fact, with any form of sexual ‘deviance’ or nonconformity with heterosexuality. Even if it does deal with one or another of these aspects, it does not necessarily have to make them explicit. It will be demonstrated in the fol­low­ing chapters that ‘ queerness’ can manifest itself in multiple ways. It can be detected in many ‘deviations’ from norms and conventions apart from such that concern sexuality. Queer­ness requires criticism, including self-criti­cism. It demands a continual questioning of norms, of all norms including those that govern gay and lesbian communities. It asks for a general mistrust towards all notions of natural­ness, normalness, common-sense, order, and, very importantly, towards all cat­egorisa­tions, not merely those that concern sexuality.[14]

It is with these basic assumptions about queerness in mind that the four plays that provide the body of material for our discussion will be looked into. It will be examined, for example, whether with reference to a play like The Importance of Being Earnest one can speak of queerness at all, given that the play predates the 1990s concept of queerness by almost one-hundred years. As to What the Butler Saw, this play repeatedly refers to homo­sexuality both implicitly and explicitly. Yet, instead of claiming that this fact alone renders Orton’s play queer, we will look at other aspects of this farce that are much more revolutionary, because they are subversive of both theatrical and social conventions and critical of the established order. Concerning the two 1990s plays, the open representation of homo­sexual relationships, or even the graphic display of homosexual acts in the case of Hand­bag, certainly allow for the plays to be called ‘gay plays’. Yet, provided that by ‘gay plays’ we mean plays about, and also affirmative of, gayness, it will have to be dem­on­strated that they are not just gay plays. It will be analysed that in both Boom Bang-A-Bang and Handbag pure affirmation is substituted for critical exploration of the gay community itself. Besides, it may be seen that the hitherto unquestioned boundaries between homo- and hetero­sexuality begin to become permeable in those two plays. Before launching into the play analyses, however, some preliminary definitions, or rather explanations, of basic concepts such as ‘homosexuality’ and ‘otherness’ need to be given.

1.4. Some Preliminary Definitions

As has been briefly pointed out above, the attempt to define terms such as ‘queerness’, ‘homo­sexuality’ and ‘otherness’ proves a dilemma for anyone seeking to apply ‘queer the­ories’. On the one hand, such definitions are prerequisite for ‘queer theories’ to be developed. On the other hand, the attempt to define what ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’ is means that one has to retain and employ what ‘queer theories’ try to subvert and what they seek to get rid of: categorisations. However, there are only two unsatisfactory possibilities: (1) To use the terms even though they are deficient, misleading, and partly at odds with the aims of ‘queer theories’; (2) not to use the terms and consequently be unable to talk about the concepts behind them, ergo be cast into silence. Since there is no opportunity for critical reflection in silence, the only option seems to go for the first alternative. Nevertheless, I would like to stress that what follows in the next section should be taken as descriptions of how the different terms are employed in this thesis rather than definitions. If they are taken as definitions, they should be understood as preliminary.

Homosexual(ity), Heterosexual(ity), Gay(ness), Lesbian(ism), Straight(ness)

Like the term queer, homosexuality is a historical term that cannot be used with reference to whatever historical period. Coined in 1869,[15] its emergence predates the term ‘hetero­sexuality’ and coincides with the paradigm shift articulated so famously by Michel Foucault: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (Foucault 1990: 43). In other words, being called a sodomite meant that one was said to do a particular kind of action. Being labelled a homosexual, however, meant to be a par­ticular kind of person. The category of the ‘homosexual’ therefore has to be considered as an identitarian category. The invention of the term homosexuality concurs with the “medicalisation of homosexuality – a transition from notions of sin to concepts of sickness or mental illness” (Weeks: 1996: 50).[16] While it hardly needs mentioning that since the emer­gence of the concept of homosexuality its implications have undergone radical changes, it should be noted that it was not until the last third of the twentieth-century that homo­­­sexuality ceased to be considered an illness.[17] Since ‘homosexuality’ and ‘homo­sexual’ still bear medical connotations, some queer theorists disapprove of their usage and demand a differentiation “between ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ on the basis of whether a given text or person was perceived as embodying (respectively) gay affirmation or internalized homo­­phobia” (Sedgwick 1990: 17). I would like to point out that I will not adhere to this dif­­­fer­­entiation, nor do I presuppose internalised homophobia when applying the terms homo­­­­­­sexual or homosexuality. This decision is based on the fact that the term ‘gay’ usually excludes female homosexuality and that it arguably can only be applied to male homo­sexu­al­ity in contexts subsequent to the Stonewall riots and the beginnings of the gay liberation in 1969 (cf. Hall 2003: 23ff.; 41f.). In the following, where the term ‘homo­sexu­al­ity’ is employed it refers to both male and female same-sex desire or same-sex sexual encounters. However, its reference is not restricted to homosexual- identified persons. The term ‘hetero­sexuality’, will be em­ployed when referring to non-same sex desire or non-same-sex sexual encounters. ‘Gay’ and ‘gayness’ will be used in analogy to homosexual and homosexuality. Yet, gay and gay­ness will be employed only with reference to the period from the last third of the 20th century up to today and with restriction to male homosexuality. ‘Lesbian’ and ‘lesbianism’ will be used as their female equivalents. ‘Straight’ and ‘straightness’ will be used in analogy to ‘heterosexual’ and ‘heterosexuality’, yet again only with reference to the period from the last third of the 20th century up to today.


Recalling what has been said in the previous chapter about the shifting meaning of ‘queer’, the noun formation ‘queer- ness ’ seems to be a linguistic monster, an ‘impossible word’. While it has been claimed that ‘queer’ tries to resist and undermine categorisations, that it is fluid, changing, and without any fixed essence, the suffix ‘-ness’ tries to tie it to a state, a substance, an essence. This is because one must surmise that ‘queer ness ’ is the state of being queer, with all the implications of immobility, unchangeability, and rigidity. Not dis­regarding but keeping in mind these reservations, the term ‘queerness’ will be used never­the­less. It will be used in reference to the many different forms and possibilities of ‘being queer’. Queerness is not used as a synonym for gayness or lesbianism. It denotes at once more and less than those. It is more than gayness or lesbianism because it does not suf­fice to be gay or lesbian in order to be queer. In addition, queerness entails being (self)crit­ical and willing to question persistently all that is held to be of common-sense. At the same time, queer­ness is less than gayness or lesbianism, because one does not necessarily have to be gay or lesbian in order to be queer. There is no statute that would deny queerness to ‘straights’ a priori – as long as they oppose heteronormativity.


The term ‘heteronormativity’ refers to a particular way of normative thinking. Hetero­normativity

[…] designates all those ways in which the world makes sense from a heterosexual point of view. It assumes that a complementary relation between the sexes is both a natural arrangement (the way things are) and a cultural ideal (the way things should be) (Dean 2003: 238).

The terms heteronormative and heteronormativity will be used in reference to discourse which marginalises, discriminates against, or even excludes individuals on the basis of their non-compliance with ‘compulsory heterosexuality’.[18] It is significant that such non-compliance or ‘deviation’ does not have to concern sexuality. It might also be a ‘deviation’ from under­lying belief systems. For example, heteronormative discourse will try to marginalise dissidents of the patriarchal order, no matter if homosexual or non-homosexual.

Otherness, Identity and Alterity

What is referred to with ‘otherness’ is the quality of what is perceived as ‘other’ from the perspective of a specified self. ‘Other’ is used to signify that which is perceived as crucially different, and typically also strange. It has to be noted that the term usually is not used altogether neutrally. Often, it bears a negative connotation: “The construction of Otherness can be detected at the root of much injustice and suffering […]” (Corbey/ Leerssen 1991b: xvii). The ‘other’ is defined ex negativo from the self, it is considered to be what the self is not:

The other is other because s/he is focalized by the self of the observer. While the self is in the position of focalization, the other is by definition the object. […] The other is used as screen on which ideals or terrors can be projected, or as location to which problematic feelings about the self can be displaced (Van Alphen 1991: 15).

At the same time, the ‘other’ is essential to the self, because the self requires an ‘other’ to delimit itself and to be(come) itself. The other is essential for the formation of selfhood. In order to account for the necessity of the other for the formation of the self, we may turn to Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ (Lacan 1973: 63-70; cf. Bristow 1997: 83-89; Roudinesco 2003: 30-33). The following account is incomplete and extremely simplified.

The mirror stage (stade du miroir) occurs between the sixth and eighteenth month of life. At this stage, the infant is far from being able to fully master his own body. However, on seeing his own reflection in a mirror, the infant perceives the image of a bodily unity which he takes to be himself. This very image that the infant perceives is what Lacan calls the ‘ o ther’ (with a small ‘o’). The infant identifies with the image of himself, thus anticipating the bodily unity the image presents. He recognises himself for the first time as a whole. Yet, this recognition is a ‘ mis recognition’, for the infant mis takes himself for the image of himself. What this implies is that the self does not begin to form an identity or a notion of selfhood until he is confronted with an other, i.e. the image of him­self. This ‘other’ has to be distinguished from another ‘ O ther’ (with a capital ‘O’). The other ‘Other’ is the person who carries the child, i.e. usually the mother or father. This second ‘Other’ comes into play because when the infant identifies with the image he perceives, he demands that this (mis)recognition be verified by an ‘Other’. By turning his gaze to the ‘Other’ for verification, the infant requests verification of himself through the ‘Other’. This request is made non-verbally, yet it is already structured like language. It is at this moment, therefore, that the infant enters into language, i.e. enters into the symbolic order (Lacan 1973: 50f.; Pagel 1999: 50f.; Hiebel 1990: 57ff.).[19]

However, the constitution of selfhood is not a one-time action. In fact, it should be considered as an ongoing formation process in constant need of repetition rather than a state that can be reached. Therefore the relevance of the other for the constitution of the self is obviously not restricted to infancy but accompanies the individual throughout his life: “Otherness will not go away: we know the world by subdividing it in spheres that we do or do not identify with” (Corbey/Leerssen 1991b: xviii).

To sum up what we mean by other and otherness: Although the self perceives as other what he perceives as alien to himself, identification as this same self would not be possible without an other. ‘Otherness’ and ‘selfhood’ as well as ‘otherness’ and ‘sameness’ are relational terms, neither of which has any meaning without the other.

The terms ‘alterity’ and ‘identity’ are closely related to otherness and sameness :

‘Alterity’ can broadly be defined as discourse on the otherness of people, particularly people outside one’s domestic ken. ‘Identity’ is the affirmation of who we are by contrasting nearly every element of our way of life with that of others. The self-other dialectic is the core of the debate on alterity and identity: they invest each other with meaning, one does not go without the other (Voestermans 1991: 219).

In this study, identity is only partly analysed with regard to its relation with alterity. Partly, it is examined in its relation to roles, i.e. social and gender roles.

Finally, it should be noted that heterosexuality and homosexuality are concepts that are formed along such lines of sameness and otherness, identity and alterity. From a hetero­sexual perspective, ‘the’ homosexual is usually perceived as crucially other. Conversely, from a homosexual perspective, ‘the’ heterosexual is usually perceived as crucially other. One of the aims of ‘queer theories’ would be to eventually put an end to the under­lying assumption that sexual difference makes people different. Ultimately, the aim would be to demonstrate that it really is ir relevant which person of which sex, age, social status, colour, religion, nationality has sex with, desires, or loves which other person.

Having said all this, we can now turn to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Mark Ravenhill’s Handbag.

2. Handbag and The Importance of Being Earnest

I don’t actually know who I am […] (IBE: 30, I, 547).

I’m nothing. I’ve got no name (Hbg: 195, sc. 9).

Identity is always a fiction […] (Hall 2003: 46).

From an early 21st century perspective the Victorian system of moral values and conventions is frequently perceived as so utterly unlike one’s own that it looks as if it be­longed to another culture rather than merely to another epoch. This is chiefly because “[m]ore than any other period in history, the Victorian era provides us with images that are the reverse of what we are now” (Ra­venhill as qtd. in Sierz 2001: 143). Among the images, or rather the keywords, most frequently cited in connection with the Victorian era, are “narrow-mindedness, sexual priggishness […] and an emphasis on social respectability” (Abrams 1999: 329), all of which we are proud to have long since overcome. It is a little surprising then that Mark Ravenhill chose to adapt Oscar Wilde’s The Im­por­tance of Being Earnest and turned it into “The Im­portance of Being Some­­­one”,[20] considering that adaptations cannot be based on con­trasts alone. Just as a simile needs a ‘tertium comparationis’, an adaptation needs a set of cor­­­res­pon­dences in addition to the differences. Apart from this, it has been suggested that since

[…] farce functions by profaning approved moral, sexual, so­cial, and familial codes it flourishes only in periods of sta­bi­li­ty when such codes are the received dogma of the audi­ence. […] It is difficult to succeed with farce today [i.e. the end of the 1980s and later] be­cause there are so few ironclad moral and social taboos to which the ma­jo­rity of an audi­ence subscribes […] (Booth 1988: 149).

This might explain why Handbag falls into two entirely different halves, not only in terms of its plot and time scheme, but also in terms of style. It is conceivable that in the face of the 1990s – a period that was characterised not only by presumably the greatest sexual free­­dom people have ever been granted, but likewise by a “moral vacuum” (Ravenhill as qtd. in Sierz 2001: 124) – the farcical Victorian part could not stand on its own.

Considering that both Handbag and Earnest deal with questions belonging to parts in which the disparities between then and now seem greatest, na­me­ly questions concerning sexuality, the class system, the gender system, as well as con­cepts of reality and identity, it seems remarkable that Ravenhill “encouraged the audience to make comparisons between the past and the present” (Sierz 2001: 142). This encouragement results from the doubling of roles: Except for one, each actor appears both as a Victorian character and as a character of the ‘present plot strand’.[21] An ana­­lysis of certain aspects of the two plays therefore will not only try to outline the most striking parallels between the plays, but also indicate some perhaps un­ex­pected si­mi­la­ri­ties between the two periods.[22]

Even before the curtain is drawn or the script is opened, Earnest has already begun to let identity be perceived as constituting a pro­ble­m, or at least as something worth thinking about. I am not referring to the pun on earnest vs. Ernest, but to the use of ‘being’. This ‘being’ draws attention to a certain tension between ‘being’ in the sense of ‘to be’ on the one hand, and ‘being’ in the sense of ‘to pose as’, ‘to behave as’, or ‘to pre­sen­t oneself as ’ on the other hand. Thus, right from the very outset the suspicion is evoked that what things, or rather what people, ‘are’ might not be identical with what they seem to be. Additionally, one should not fail to notice the irony inherent in the fact that it is the title of a farce, of all dramatic arts, that explicitly refers to earnestness. Due to their different socio-cultural context, a late Victorian audience will have had other asso­cia­tions in view of a title alluding to earnestness than a late 20th or early 21st century audience will have, for whom ‘earnest­ness’ is not a prominent keyword. It is worth recalling that one of the most prominent fea­tures of the Victorian moral land­scape was an un­bridge­able gap: While on the one hand the ideals of (moral) “earnest­ness” and “curiously exagge­rated […] truth-telling” were aspired to (Ku­cich 1994: 5; cf. Kohl 1980: 421), on the other hand there was the dis­il­lu­sion­ing reality in which double-standards and hypocrisy reigned, especially where sexuality and sexual mores were concerned (cf. Bristow 1992a: 5; Seeber 1999: 223). Considering that this very “ideal of earnestness – with its aura of zealous effort, sincerity and high serious­ness – becomes in the end [of Earnest ] a word signifying the opposite of what it means” (Powell 1990: 121), it seems reasonable to assume that this title, which ostensibly is just a pun, is in fact the first neat example of the subversive power hidden behind the mask of wit. It re­mains to be seen that with Earnest Wilde transgressed multiple norms and conventions and made fun of “vir­tually every­thing the Vic­to­rians [held] sacred – love, marriage, fa­mi­ly, work, po­li­tics, religion […]” (Dawick 2002: 15; cf. Eltis 1996: 175 ; Gagnier 1986: 110).

Tellingly, while in Wilde’s earlier plays, such as A Woman of no Importance, the influence of melodrama is still strong, in Earnest the style is purely farcical. Farce, not coincidentally, is the dramatic form in­extricably linked with iden­tity. Mistaken, assumed, or con­fu­sed iden­tities, as well as de­ceit and dis­guise, have always been common, and in fact essen­­tial, fea­tures of farce (cf. Dawick 2002: 15).[23] In many aspects, how­ever, Earnest deviates considerably from the ste­reo­ty­pi­cal nine­teenth-cen­tury farce as established by Georges Fey­deau in France or Arthur Wing Pinero in England (cf. Marcoux 1988: 131, 134; Smith 1989: 20ff.). The usual farce,

[…] after getting its laughs from mixups [sic] of identity, ends by restoring all characters to their right names and true positions. Indeed the masqueraders are made to repent their false re­pre­sen­tations as a violation of the good order and just standards of society. […] In The Im­por­tance of Being Earnest, how­ever, there is no such de­cay of lying – no decline into the or­dered serenity of custo­ma­ry life and conventional views (Powell 1990: 120, my emph.; cf. Davis 1988: 126).[24]


[1] In order to stress the ontological difference between figures and real persons – as well as between figures and characters of novels, cf. below – the characters of plays are usually referred to as ‘figures’. Since, however, this thesis is concerned with plays exclusively, the terms ‘figure’ and ‘character’ are used interchangeably in the forthcoming chapters.

[2] I use the term ‘drama’ throughout this thesis, even though ‘theatre’ may appear more suitable at times, for example when talking about aspects that are specific of theatrical performance. I stick to the term ‘drama’, nonetheless, in order to emphasise the fundamental difference between drama and the other arts that are purely literary: Drama always transcends the printed text, even if the respective play is never once performed or is not even intended for performance (like the ‘closet drama’, for example). It is necessary that the recipient who does not see the respective play performed strives to envisage the characters, the action, and the setting.

[3] Examples of this are the editors’ hints to the “bowdlerized ending” of What the Butler Saw (WBS: 448, II) and to the deletion of the ‘Gribsby Episode’ in the case of The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde 1995: 84-91).

[4] Following the conventions of the dominant order, I usually use the male form and male personal pronouns when referring to collective names such as ‘actor’, ‘playwright’, ‘person’, ‘individual’ or ‘infant’. This is a concession to clarification and simplification, never­the­less such conventions are being criticised in this thesis.

[5] The inaugural lecture was delivered December 2, 1970. The French transcript and the English translation were published in 1971.

[6] In order to keep apart the broad and the narrow meaning of discourse, discourse in the broad sense will henceforth be referred to as ‘discourse (b.s.)’. Discourse in the narrow sense will be referred to merely as ‘discourse’, since it is this latter use of discourse that emphasis will be put on.

[7] As was the case with the term statement, Foucault starts defining discursive formation by forming four hypotheses: Statements belong to the same discursive formation (1) if they refer to the same discursive object (Foucault 1972: 31), (2) if they are enunciated in a similar style, i.e. in a similar system of transcription (Foucault 1972: 33), (3) if they employ the same system of recurring and coherent terms (Foucault 1972: 34), (4) if they are concerned with the same persistent issues (Foucault 1972: 35). Afterwards however, one by one these hypotheses are withdrawn again.

[8] As regards the time span in which ‘queer theories’ emerged, the 1990s, this is not so much because by the beginning of this decade the above mentioned theories had lost their influence, but because of the 1980s AIDS crisis. The rapid spreading of the HIV virus required a re-conceptualisation of sexualities. What was needed was a conceptualisation that would break with identity-based concepts of homosexuality, in order that men who were not homosexual-identified but had homosexual encounters, could be addressed and reached by anti-AIDS campaigns (cf. Dean 2003: 241; Jagose 1996: 93-96).

[9] I prefer the plural ‘queer theories’ – without capital letters – because there is no such thing as ‘one single queer theory’, no unitary theory. What there is, are “many different voices and sometimes overlapping, sometimes divergent perspectives that can loosely be called ‘queer theories’” (Hall 2003: 5).

[10] For definitions of the terms homosexual, gay, lesbian, otherness and heteronormativity – or rather, for an explanation of how these terms are used in this thesis – see ch. 1.4. The enumeration of the ‘meanings’ of queer follows the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, The New Collins German Dictionary, and The Penguin Dictionary of English Synonyms and Antonyms, entry ‘queer’.

[11] Sedgwick takes into consideration that “there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person” (Sedgwick 1994: 9, emph. sic).

[12] Hall states that “[t]he first high-profile use of the term ‘queer theory’ was in a special issue of the feminist journal differences from […] 1991” by Teresa de Lauretis who “[e]dited and entitled [the issue] ‘Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities’” (Hall 2003: 55).

[13] I would like to add here that I have scruples using the term ‘queer theorists’. This is less because it never is clear whether it is the theorists that are supposed to be ‘queer’ or the theories they employ, but because such a label seems to be opposed to everything that is “anti-identitarian” about queer (Dean 2003: 240). These scruples are not restricted to ‘queer theorists’ but also to the terms ‘gays’, ‘lesbians’, or ‘homosexuals’. What these scruples point to is a dilemma that underlies any study of ‘queerness’. I am speaking of the double-bind of having to apply labels while arguing that to apply labels is what ‘queer theories’ seek to put an end to. It is the dilemma of maintaining categories while claiming that categories are entirely ‘un-queer’. I am aware that the words available to me at least partly undermine what I seek to argue. For example, to refer to people as ‘queer’ means to mark them as ‘other’, which strictly speaking is very un-queer (cf. ch. 1.4.). Yet, the only alternative would be to be silent. Yet, this would be un-queer, too, since it would mean to stop opposing normativity. So let me conclude this digression by quoting from Beckett: “you must go on, I cant’ go on, I’ll go on.” (Beckett 1958: 132).

[14] Even though unfortunately it cannot be done here, there is a second hypothesis that would be worth testing: the thesis that not all plays which deal with homosexuality or other stigmatised sexualities are ‘queer’. This thesis would be based on the assumption that ‘queerness’ requires more than self-identification as a member of a minority group in terms of sexuality. Queerness is not a state one can claim to occupy. It requires mobility and activity – predominantly that of the mind. To name but two examples that could be used to test this thesis I would like to mention Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg (2001, orig. 1994) and Charles Dyer’s Staircase (1966).

[15] There is uncertainty as to who coined the term. While Kraß maintains that it was the Swiss Karoly Maria Benkert (Kraß 2003: 14), Halperin claims that it was the Austrian Karl Maria Kertbeny (Halperin 2003: 212).

[16] For three brief but detailed accounts of the history of homosexuality, I refer to Weeks (1996: 41-63) Halperin (2003: 171-220) and Gowing (1997: 53-64).

[17] It was only in 1975 that the American Psychological Association (APA) deleted from its statutes the paragraph which defined homosexuality as ‘mental-health impairment’ (Zimmerman 2000: 615f.).

[18] The term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ was coined by Adrienne Rich in 1980 (cf. Hall 2003: 45). Contemporary Western society is not only characterised by phallocentrism, but also by heterocentrism, meaning that it is firmly based on male dominance on the one hand, and heterosexuality as the only sanctioned form of sexuality on the other hand (cf. Rubin 2003: 34, 39-47).

[19] Lacan’s account of the mirror stage is much more complex than what is presented here. It needs to be mentioned that the mirror stage is also used by Lacan for a re-conceptualisation of the Oedipus complex introduced by Freud. In Lacan, it is not the ‘real’ father who is of significance, but the ‘name-of-the-father’ (Lacan 1975: 89), i.e. the pure signifier. The name-of-the-father is the representative of the familial order, of the incest taboo, and of the symbolic order (Hiebel 1990: 59). The infant’s entrance into the symbolic order coincides with the emergence of the unconscious. According to Lacan, the unconscious is structured like a language: Condensation is likened to metaphor, displacement to metonymy (Lacan 1975: 36f.; cf. Bristow 1997: 87). To come back to the Oedipus complex: Lacan solves the difficulties of adjusting the castration complex to the girl’s development by introducing the idea of the phallus as prime symbol: On realising that the mother desires a third, i.e. the phallus, the boy and the girl infant begin to long for having and for being the phallus (cf. Lacan 1975: 119-132; Hiebel 1990: 60). As Lacan perceives it, the subject, therefore, “is by definition a subject of desire” (Bristow 1997: 99).

[20] This was the first production’s subtitle of Handbag (Müller-Muth 2002: 219). The title Handbag can be read in various ways: Firstly, it clearly refers to Lady Bracknell’s famous outcry “A hand-bag?” (IBE: 31, I, 558) in the face of Jack’s confession that he was found in a handbag at Victoria station. Secondly, it has been pointed out that ‘Handbag’ is a kind of house-music and that the play’s music in the first performances was indeed ‘Handbag’ (Sierz 2001: 141). Thirdly, the figure Tinky Winky of the ‘Teletubbies’, who usually carries a handbag, is supposed to be “a cult figure for clubbers, who was denounced as gay by American preacher Jerry Falwell in 1999” (Sierz 2001: 141). In scene 11, Phil copies the way in which the ‘Teletubbies’ talk (Hbg: 202f., sc. 11).

[21] Caryl Churchill employed the same device in Cloud Nine (1985b, orig. 1979), which also shares with Handbag the two-strand plot and the homosexual characters, and which could possibly also be viewed from a ‘queer perspective’.

[22] I would like to point out here that I do not treat Handbag as a representative play of ‘in-yer-face theatre’. Following Aleks Sierz, by this term I understand a type of avant-garde theatre that has emerged in London in the middle of the 1990s. Typical ‘in-yer-face plays’ are Sarah Kane’s Blasted (2001b, orig. 1995), Joe Penhall’s Some Voices (1998b, orig. 1994) and, of course, Ravenhill’s own plays Shopping and F***ing (2001c, orig. 1996), Faust is Dead (2001d, orig. 1997), and Some Explicit Polaroids (2001e, orig. 1999). Common to these is the fact that they all establish a new form of the ‘theatre of sensation’ (Sierz 2001: 4), which is “more blatant, more aggressive and confrontational” than other contemporary plays (Sierz 2001: xii). It might be worth testing whether a ‘queer potential’ might reside in fact in each ‘in-yer-face play’ because of such plays’ various transgressions of theatrical and social norms. The reason for not considering Handbag under the heading of ‘in-yer-face’ is that I take this play to transcend even the brand-new ‘conventions’ of ‘in-yer-face theatre’. For example, the violence so prominent in ‘in-yer-face plays’ is missing here, and apart from this, most ‘in-yer-face plays’ are not exactly famous for exciting laughter – which, however, at least Handbag ’s farcical half does.

[23] For a brief but thorough account of the history of farce I refer to the first chapter of Davis (1978: 1-24), for an account of the characteristics of farce I refer to the first chapter of Smith (1989: 1-16).

[24] It is also Powell who provides an excellent account of the ‘sources’ of Earnest, the most significant of which is Lestocq and Robson’s Foundling (cf. Powell 1992: 108-139). What makes this account so valuable is the demonstration of how Wilde’s wit subverted not only truisms but equally contemporaneous farces: “Indeed Earnest […] strategically reverses the elements that matter most in the earlier farce [ The Foundling ]” (Powell 1992: 118).

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Queerness in British Drama between 1890-2000
A Study of Plays by Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, Mark Ravenhill and Jonathan Harvey
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
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queerness, British drama, queer, British theatre, censorship, queer theories
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Hanna Kubowitz (Author), 2004, Queerness in British Drama between 1890-2000, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/367460


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