Queer Performance in Unsafe Spaces:
The Nance Looks Back at New York Theater's Censorious Past
The New Yorker’s Hilton Als describes Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, which made its Broadway debut at the Lyceum in 2013, as “a nearly perfect work of dramatic art, whose power derives from its equitable compassion and its unromantic view of myth” (Als, “Fairy Tales”). Admittedly, we’re diehard fans of Als – White Girls and The Women are arguably two of the most important pieces of cultural and performance critique, weaving together gender, race and history, of the last 20 years.
However, where Als misfires in his unbridled praise of The Nance is exactly what’s missing from ArtsWest’s recent production: history and compassion. The production feels almost gleefully ahistorical and, paradoxically, it forecloses the opportunity for the audience to empathize with fully developed characters. Instead, the ArtsWest production sits on the fence, gesturing to 1930s queer spaces/performance and occasionally shining light on moments of human connection between characters. It tells a dangerous and potentially heartbreaking love story, set in a fascinating moment of New York theater and queer performance history; but we neither care nor learn quite as much as we could, if only the play had more thoroughly committed to being about the complicated people, or about the complicated times.
The Nance follows Chauncey Miles (Richard Gray), a middle-aged, aristocratic, gay, Republican (yep) through the shifting theater culture of 1930s New York, in particular, Greenwich village and the burlesque/vaudeville scene of the lower-Manhattan. Chauncey works as a critically acclaimed, albeit highly self-promoting “nance” at the historic Irving Place Theater. A “nance” was a hangover stock character from the vaudeville circuit: essentially a parody of an effeminate gay man whose comedic value derives from double entendre with a (literal and figurative) straight-man scene partner or a straight-woman (often one inexplicably interested in him sexually).
The play intersperses sketches from the burlesque show at the Irving Place Theater with scenes from Chauncey’s budding love affair with the much younger, butcher, slightly dopey Ned (Drew Highlands). Given the political climate of moral righteousness and the government crackdown on “smut”, the burlesque’s future, and Chauncey’s livelihood as the “nance”, hang in the balance.
The original Playbill for The Nance suggests that the play “paints the portrait of a homosexual man living and working in the secretive and dangerous gay world of 1930s New York”. The ArtsWest production (directed by Mathew Wright) ultimately delivers in creating a dangerous feeling to the public spaces where men would cruise and pick up sexual partners in plain sight of authorities. The Automat, where Chauncey first sees the unemployed (and starving) Ned make himself a cup of ketchup soup, is the most successful space of performance in the play. Here, Ned and Chuancey must both perform a type of dragging: heterosexuality in public space. Or, at the very least, they must gesture to what seems like a parody of public masculinity: a hetero-uniform of military-inspired trench coats, newspapers, and veiled glances behind their coffee cups. The Automat is the kind of public queer-space where everybody knows the rules, the looks, and how to perform without drawing unwanted attention (from some) while soliciting attention (from others). If you know what I mean…
In the Automat, especially, the production design conveys atmospheric threat—of surveillance, if not of immediate harm. In the play’s opening moments, an occasional cough piercing an otherwise silent scene (bathed in tense red light) reminds us that the presence of others in public space means potential witnesses to punishable acts. At the same time, public space is where people meet, interact, and develop means of communication and potential intimacy. And as Chauncey flirtily informs Ned, this place is one “where the boys meet the boys.”
The Nance very effectively thematizes this line between public and private that is at once arbitrary and extremely high-stakes. It also conveys, from these set design choices to subtle movements of the actors, the constant negotiations involved in walking the line effectively: the ways that people find to be private in public (speaking in code, for example) and the ways that the public (or the threat of witness, exposure, policing) pervades intimate spaces. We see, right away, the self-policing that results from regulation (actors speaking quietly and looking frequently over their shoulders). At the same time, we see how performance—art, really—is perhaps the most effective means of subverting regulatory violence.
It is in the Automat where the audience first hears Chauncey’s refrain of “meet me ‘round the corner, in a half an hour”. Gray’s Chauncey deftly moves between the public performance space of the Automat to the (ironically) more private performance space of the burlesque stage. Gray’s Chauncey, as well as Jeff Steitzer’s Efram, account for the best work in the show. The two confidently deliver the vaudeville / “nance” sketches (here, you can tell they’ve done their research). The dialogue is good: cheap, fast, and dirty, and Chauncey and Efram kept the audience laughing throughout. There are a lot of sketches, however—understandably, the production capitalizes on the strength of these performers. But in terms of air time, these male performances feel over-represented.
In contrast, we have the women of the burlesque company: Sylvie (Ann Cornelius), Carmen (Jasmine Jean Sim), and Joan (Diana Cameron McQueen). We lump them together since there was little done to distinguish them, aside from some lengthy dialogue from Sylvie about her Communist leanings. The women seem an afterthought—and not self-consciously so. Cornelius, Sim and McQueen deliver strong performances, limited only by a script and production that render their characters one-dimensional, and lacking the gestures toward complexity that are granted the men. This could have been, maybe, an opportunity for implicit commentary on the complicated gender politics at work within the burlesque scene; missing that, we are left simply wanting more from and about these women. We are also left wondering why, in a town like Seattle—full of talented burlesque performers—there is no actual burlesque in the production.
The major historical current running through the play itself is the inevitable shut-down of the burlesque circuit, and thereby the “nance” act, in Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s attempt to “clean up” New York (pre-1939 world’s fair). La Guardia’s support of the anti-obscenity movement has been mythologized as an effort to regulate the morality of the New York stages. This is, in some sense, true. Burlesque shows caught the eye of religious and government authorities in Depression era New York largely because of their booming popularity (due to affordability) in contrast with conventional theater. Of course, what the play suggests is that La Guardia’s efforts to shut down the burlesques are unique in the long history of anti-obscenity campaigns in New York City. This is largely untrue.
Anti-obscenity campaigns during the interwar period in New York city flourished under the auspices of the 1926 Wales Padlock Law which prohibited plays and performances “dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or perversion”. The law, broadly applied in countless cases of “indecency” on the New York stages, was not declared unconstitutional until 1976. In cases where the law itself was not used to silence specific performers or plays, police raids on any public space (bars, dancehalls, theaters) were used to oppress public spaces with any legible performances of queerness.
Chauncey’s politics and subsequent ambivalent relationship to the state-backed violence against artists, activists, and gay men is further complicated by his arrest just before intermission. In the midst of a performance, where he has been warned that Paul Moss (commissioner for performance licenses and real-life historical figure) is present, Chauncey goes full-“nance” and kisses Efram on stage in an act of defiance against censorship.
After the trial Chauncey plays an uneasy defender of free expression; it’s almost as if he regrets his choices as the play progresses. But Chauncey’s Republicanism has served as a confounding point throughout—if meant to complicate him as a character, it does so at the expense of (even more interesting) historical accuracy. A fervent Le Guardia supporter, Chauncey believes that when La Guardia gets reelected as mayor the crackdown on the burlesque community will stop. However, La Guardia was not a conventional Republican; his union-dominated anti-Tammany group supported FDR for president. Once the unions side with La Guardia’s anti-obscenity restrictions, the “nance” act is doomed. To confuse things further, Chauncey hates Roosevelt and the Federal Theater Project – an initiative aimed at providing economic relief to directors, playwrights, actors, technicians, etc.
In the play, the death of burlesque / vaudeville does not seem like an inevitability, rather, a symbol of La Guardia’s morality politics and suppression of queer performance spaces. However, some historians of interwar burlesque argue that the art form was already dying. Nineteenth century burlesque developed as a “subversive entertainment form…that challenged the patriarchal gender system” (Friedman 204). But by the 1930s Robert Allen argues that burlesque was no longer a threat to the social and cultural order, thus efforts to suppress it on moral grounds were essentially beside the point (282). Instead, the Depression-era regulation of burlesque venues was an economic and political cause, rather than a moral one; government agencies were in cooperation with the mainstream theater community who felt threatened by the success of more affordable entertainment options.
What this play gets right is the importance of understanding the various ways in which anti-obscenity laws were used to suppress the artistic work of the marginalized group de jour. This idea is pulled straight from the zeitgeist. For example, Paula Vogel’s new (and breathtaking) play Indecent follows the lives of the acting company connected to Sholem Asch’s seminal Yiddish drama God of Vengeance which premiered on Broadway in 1923. The cast and producer of the play were put on trial for obscenity, due in large part to the rain-filled love scene between two women, and ultimately asks the audience to question the limits of the censorious mind: what is decent, what is obscene, and how queerness / otherness is made legible and defined through art.
The Nance poses these questions in its own way—in a way that is, ultimately, a lot of fun. Artistic Director Mathew Wright and the ArtsWest team are a theater to watch – they aren’t afraid of big ideas, challenging scripts, and provoking their audience.
Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill, 1991.
Als, Hilton. “Fairy Tales.” The New Yorker, 29 April 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/29/fairy-tales-4, Accessed 1 Jan 2018.
Friedman, Andrea. “The Habits Against Sex-Crazed Perverts: Campaigns against Burlesque in Depression-Era New York City.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1996, pp. 203-238.