Playing It Straight, But Not Before 1869

Smooth foperators. Via /
Smooth foperators. Via

When an actor is asked to “play it straight,” the assumption is that there is an inherent quality of heterosexuality that they can imitate — an assumption that somewhere, out there in the world, “straightness” is a tangible, innate, quantifiable human feature. This is not now, nor has it ever been, true. There has never been an attempt to find any physiological or scientifically quantifiable aspect of mankind that signifies “heterosexual.” Indeed, in the long heteronormative flurry to identify a “gay gene,” society and science forgot to look for the “straight gene.” Straightness, heterosexuality, the caveman throwing the cavewoman over his shoulder — “traditional sexuality” is an invented human concept. And that has profound implications for how theatre and film craft and present sexual identity for and on the stage and screen. For example, it would be inappropriate to ask an actor in a production of Romeo and Juliet to play Romeo as “straight.” As the historian and writer Hanne Blank tells us, “[I]t has…only been possible to be heterosexual since 1869.” In that year, Karl Kertbeny created the concept of an innate sexual identity as part of his effort to defeat a proposed German statute criminalizing sexual acts between men.

Karl Kertbeny

Kertbeny hoped that thinking of sexuality as an innate “state” instead of simply actions, be they of homosexual or heterosexual nature, the populace would vote against denying people basic rights. However, and as often happens with new ideas, the plan backfired: culture and society certainly adopted Kertbeny’s terms and concept but without ensuring people’s legal rights. Then, after the concept wound its way through specialized medical texts and laws against vice, the concept was ultimately re-packaged by Freud and other psychologists as more or less the sexuality dichotomy we know today.

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Like Kertbeny, Freud also situated sexual desire within the core makeup of a person. With backing from medicine, law and psychology, sexuality then became considered a state of being, not simply actions or preference.

Blank wrote:

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This made it possible, for the first time, to speak of heterosexual feeling, whether or not heterosexual behavior was involved.

In other words, people no longer engaged in heterosexual acts, they were a heterosexual. This is important because by examining these developments, we begin to understand that heterosexuality is not a physiological fact but a cultural narrative. It is an ideal that we, as a society, crafted and nurtured. Therefore, dramatic characters from before 1869 cannot be considered “heterosexual” because the quality did not exist. To repeat: we did not invent “heterosexual,” we invented the concept. As Blank puts it:

If…the attribute we now call ‘heterosexuality’ were a prerequisite for people to engage in sex acts or procreate, chances are excellent that we would not have waited until the late 19th century to figure out it was there.

So Romeo, created by Shakespeare in the late 16th century, cannot be played as “straight.”

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Sigmund Freud

Now, this doesn’t mean that Romeo isn’t sexually attracted to Juliet: it’s obviously incredibly important that he is. But Romeo does not need a quality of heterosexuality to be attracted to her; if he did, given that the concept did not exist at the time that Shakespeare wrote the play, then the play would never have been successful in the first place. Think about it: is sexual identity required for sexual action?

Before the concept of heterosexual and homosexual, people obviously engaged in myriad sexual actions. While these actions may have been linked to a person’s moral standing, they were not thought of as an indelible aspect of their physical body or personal identity. In the time of Shakespeare, it may have been considered morally appropriate for Romeo to desire sexual relations with women. But that desire, in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience, would not have been linked to a sexual identity dictating those desires.

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Contemporary adaptations of pre-1869 plays should consider all this. It can be easily argued, of course, that pre-1869 characters should be played “straight” as part of the adaptation process. This is a fine choice — as long as it is recognized as a choice; that a creative team decides that a character will have a certain sexual identity. As with all dramatic choices, it must be supported by the text and the production’s aesthetic goals. And that is where I see a major flaw in most productions of older texts: a persistent assumption that, absent overwhelming contrary evidence, a character must always be “straight.” Does it serve the production (or the text) to make this assumption? I argue no, it does not.

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As the concept of heterosexuality — indeed, of any sexual identity — was created in a specific place and time, it is high time we stop treating it as a performative given. Again, assigning a sexual identity to a character is a dramatic choice; you need a clear mandate from the text and the creative approach to that text to make it. Acknowledging this choice, rather to make an assumption or ignore a restriction, gives the creative team options for character and story development. Blatantly assuming a character is “straight” unless they blare their homosexuality not only ignores history and the complexity of human sexuality, it is, therefore, poor stagecraft.

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When we concede that pre-1869 characters cannot just be played as heterosexual, we even include the fop, the fey stock character of the Restoration era. While the fop could have been played originally as attracted to men, he could not have been played as “homosexual” because, as we have seen, the concept did not exist; that sexuality is intractable, based in the physical body or connected to an identity, was not a part of the civic or social consciousness of the audience (or the actors, or the playwright). Acknowledging these facts in the context of a production could make things more difficult, but I would argue that instead it could lead to a far better understanding of such characters and plays. If we treat sexual identity as the highly diverse, historically bound quality it is, we may more effectively connect with an audience that, in our own time, has largely begun to question once again the very concept of sexual identity itself.