Queer Dramaturgies: Fiction, gayness, history, and inheritance
Dramaturgy is a slippery term: it can mean one thing or another, it is used differently in various contexts and it exists in a flux of tangibility and ethereality. Add queer to that, an equally thorny term caught between a vastness of meaning, and you’re left scratching your head trying to figure out what on earth you’re doing when you venture into the work of a queer dramaturg.
On the one hand, I can cop out of an explanation or an attempt to untangle the vague term by simply saying that it is impossible for me to not do queer dramaturgy. As a queer body, my phenomenological experience is queer, as such my sense of the world is a queer sense, I cannot help but bring that perspective into what I do because that’s all I truly know. Sure, I have enough knowledge of the heteronorm to play along with it, but it doesn’t always make sense to me, and I don’t want to have to feel like I’m returning to the symbolic closet to cater to someone else. If anything, that’s just boring.
But what’s the point in writing about queer dramaturgy if you’re not going to attempt to express what it means to you, and what the practice could look like. So below are my musings on the topic, pulling out four key-threads that I feel weave together in my practice. To contextualise that practice, and perhaps explain why these threads are particularly relevant, I should say that my professional explicitly-queer dramaturgical work has been conducted for Teater Dictat, a queer Swedish theatre company. The projects have also predominantly dealt with classic texts: looking at kings, history, and the concept of “the canon”. And with that in mind, here come my ABCs of queer dramaturgy… or rather: FGHIs.
Fiction • Gayness • History • Inheritance
To further the image of threads, these four themes are best visualised as knotted in a messy tangle of relation. They co-exist, feed into each other, and often pull one another further into my practice of queer dramaturgy. My practice to date does not have one without the others. Fiction is a tool, gayness is a state of being, history is a perspective, and inheritance is a theme.
Fiction is an important tool that queers reality in a world which values “truth” and “fact”. Fact and fiction have been made oppositions in this rhetorical binary and ultimately the current societal structure has utilised fact to legitimate heteronormativity whilst dismissing anything that goes against it as fiction. As a result of this, queer people have to work twice as hard in order to be validated as legitimate by using those same structures to prove ourselves as fitting into the Western rational world. Whilst certainly an important process in fields such as the sciences and medicine, I question the need to live up to these expectations in drama; a realm that was built on fiction. Especially when working with historical drama.
History is a key subject that perpetuates ideas of accuracy and fact. However, our knowledge of historical events is mostly built up on perception, human biases, and societal assumptions. The heteronorm’s adamancy for “fact”, and modern periods of homophobia, have led to the destruction and invisibility of queer history. Queer people often have to look between the lines, fight for acceptance of romantic relationships, and trust their own experiences when interpreting an historic experience which just “feels” eerily similar. And so we use fiction. Fiction liberates us from having to stand up to narrow-mindedness. Fiction gives us the freedom to create our own worlds in which we can proudly and safely exist. Fiction provides us the opportunity to re-write history on our terms, not someone else’s. And fiction has a power to affect change; why else are the benefactors of the monarchy and a crippling class system so concerned with Netflix’s The Crown blurring fact and fiction?
When working with the history plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, it is clear that you are handling works of fiction. Their historical source is typically just one book: Holinshed’s Chronicles, which documents history that happened long before Holinshed was writing. Shakespeare and Marlowe also had no qualms about cherry picking parts of those histories for entertainment’s sake. People don’t actively look to these writers as sources of historical knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that the plays don’t inform much of what we think about these historical periods. As such, fiction and history are closely entwined and that gives a dramaturg full freedom to find the moments of queerness without the need to rely on ideas of accuracy or fact.
Within my work so far, the queerness of my focus in typically gayness. Whilst this has also taken in feministic perspectives, especially with my development of Margaret de Clare in Den Andre (Edward II), gender-queerness is not something I have particular experience with, so will instead focus on the queerness of sexuality, and predominantly gayness. Through the tool of fiction and asynchronicity, my dramaturgy has been able to explore the creation of an alternative world in which gayness is a norm, and the cultural signifiers developed alongside gayness form the very fabric of this subversive reality. Whilst this has been a concerted dramaturgical approach within Teater Dictat’s artistic direction, this model is how we’ve all acquired our queer inheritance. This is how queer history has been built, and that becomes our heritage.
Fiction becomes our inheritance because the normative ways in which non-queer folk gain their heritage isn’t always open to us. Our alternative family structures mean that things are passed down to us via alternative methods, our history within different global contexts has been eradicated through active genocidal agendas. Shakespeare’s Hamlet ends with him asking for his story to be told, and it is only through our stories being told, whether historically “accurate” or not, that we continue to exist and inherit a world that belongs to us too.
To me, a queer dramaturgy is weaving the tapestries of narrative with these threads, repairing what has been actively broken, refusing the power of “fact” to luxuriate in our own realities, and generating a wealth of queer history and ‘soon-to-become-history’ for future generations to inherit.