Berfrois

Uncloseting Drama and Fag Hags: Berfrois Interviews Nick Salvato

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by Russell Bennetts

Nick Salvato is Assistant Professor of Theatre at Cornell University. His first book, Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance will be published by Yale University Press at the end of November.  Currently Nick is working on a second book, tentatively entitled Performing Waste Management: A Century of Trash Aesthetics.

Berfrois

What does the term “closet drama” refer to and what does it mean to “uncloset” it?

Salvato

           The term closet drama has been traditionally used to designate a genre of plays intended either to be read rather than staged or to be performed for a private, coterie audience rather than performed publicly. I invoke this definition of closet drama early in my book—only to put pressure, almost immediately, on the transparency or stability of such ideas as intentionality, privacy, publicity, and even genre itself. Indeed, one of my central goals is to recast closet drama as an elastic mode rather than as a tidy genre, in a move that is indebted to critics who have likewise redefined melodrama as a mode.

As for uncloseting drama, that means both to perform supposedly unperformable plays and, in performance, to bring attention to the queer dimensions of the plays (and perhaps to refigure the queer dimensions of the plays or even introduce new ones).

Berfrois

          Closet drama was first popular, I believe, back in the early nineteenth-century. Why then did the genre enjoy a resurgence in the twentieth-century?

Salvato

          A number of reasons could be offered to explain the early twentieth-century vogue for closet drama. In the noteworthy book Stage Fright, Martin Puchner argues that many authors who were not simply anti-theatrical but who had a more complicated relationship to the theatre, somewhere between anti-theatricality and pro-theatricalism, turned to closet drama as a forum to work out such ambivalences about the theatre. Alongside that explanation, I propose another: namely, that authors interested in questioning norms, codes, and conventions of gender and sexuality found in the closet drama—itself a mode to question the norms, codes, and conventions of theatrical presentation—a uniquely appropriate space in which to produce resistances and disruptions; or, to put it another way, simultaneous interrogations of theatrical coherence and of sexual legibility seemed, to a number of modernists, made for each other.

Berfrois

          Was the potential for the queering of closet drama always there?

Salvato

          To a certain extent, yes. We find, for instance, homoerotic and incestuous subjects at the center of closet dramas by Byron and Shelley, just as we find them at the center of closet dramas by Pound and Stein. But I argue that there is a historical specificity to the modernist revival of the closet drama as a site for queer meaning-making. The modernists’ moment is one in which the new sexual sciences have codified a range of identities and ways of understanding identity-formation, making the task of resisting regimes of sexuality more urgent than it would have been, say, in the early or mid-nineteenth century.

Berfrois

          The book centres around Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. How do their writings exemplify closet drama?

Salvato

          Taken together, these writings offer a diverse spectrum of what we could call “closet effects.” At one end of the spectrum, a play like Pound’s Elektra or Barnes’s Biography of Julie von Bartmann is literally closeted because it languishes in an archive, its peculiarities enjoyed by (or perhaps bewildering to) a small range of readers and its potential for performance unconsidered. At the other end of the spectrum, a work like Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare is nominally an effort in dramatic criticism but is, to my mind (and ear), so invested in dialogic and dramatic unfoldings that it reads, curiously, like a play. And somewhere in between these two extremes, plays like Stein’s Byron, A Play or A Play Called Not and Now stymie our ideas about stageability because of the ways in which they do away with the typical mechanics of characterization, dialogue, stage directions, and so forth.

Berfrois

          Have performance artists been able to “read” closet drama in a closer manner than academics?

Salvato

          For the most part, they have. It doesn’t tend to occur to ambitious and imaginative performance artists that a play might be unstageable. For these artists, the opacities and under-determinations of closet dramas seem like challenges rather than obstacles to stageability. And if you want to stage something weird, you’re going to invest closely and carefully in thinking through its meanings and implications.

Berfrois

          How have the Wooster Group in particular been able to uncloset drama so successfully? 

Salvato

          The members of the Wooster Group are fearless risk-takers, but, more important, they are incredibly patient. They have established conditions that enable slow, painstaking, and evolutive processes for creating theatre. Taking their time has allowed them to be especially sensitive, for instance, to the nuances of a difficult text like Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights.

Berfrois

          You have an upcoming article, co-authored with Maria Fackler, reconsidering the fag hag. What does the term fag hag mean today?

Salvato

          For many users of the term today, fag hag doesn’t have pejorative, or at least strictly pejorative, connotations. People have reclaimed the term, much in the way that an earlier generation reclaimed the word queer, to signify, in a defiantly celebratory way, a woman who has close, affirmative relationships with a gay man or gay men—relationships that were often pathologized and misunderstood by earlier users of the term.

Berfrois

          Why has the fag hag been under-theorized in humanistic scholarship?

Salvato

          The fag hag has been treated as marginal to the already and otherwise marginal or marginalized gay man to whom she is attached and through whom she is read (if she is read at all). That double-marginalization has made her more or less unavailable to many kinds of humanistic inquiry. At the same time, the conditions for her appearance in civic life, literary representations, popular culture, and so forth have been so turbulent and evanescent that scholars would have had a hard time pinning her down, even if they had wished to do so.

Berfrois

          From Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City to the sitcom Sex and the City, how have cultural representations of fag hags altered since the 1970s?

Salvato

          One argument would suggest a narrative of progress and a movement from negative representations of the fag hag (as overweight, depressed, alcoholic and/or pining unhealthily for a gay man whom she can’t have or whom she has to trick into sex) to positive ones of a fabulous and queer-positive ally. But the very titles you introduce in your question suggest that, upon close examination, such a narrative of progress isn’t entirely tenable. For one thing, “early” representations of the fag hag (and I use the term in scare quotes because we could, with certain qualifications, trace a genealogy from Maupin’s Mary Ann Singleton back to Mae West and even further to eighteenth-century women like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu) are often just as far from negative stereotyping as more recent representations. And some “positive”, recent representations of the fag hag, like those in Sex and the City, betoken a commodification and fetishization of relationships between women and gay men (the gay best friend as trendy accessory, alongside handbag and shoe) that I find troubling.

Berfrois

          Who do you consider the ultimate fag hag?

Salvato

          That would be Liza. With a Z.