Passing Performances

Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History
Robert A. Schanke and Kim Marra, Editors
Recovers the hidden history of theater professionals who transgressed gendered expectations of their time


Passing Performances gathers a range of critical and biographical essays on notable personalities whose major contributions to the stage occurred before 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots that kicked off the gay rights movement in the United States. How these theater practitioners variously "passed"—i.e., managed unconventional sexual inclinations both on- and offstage—significantly determined the course of their personal and professional lives and thus the course of U.S. theater history.

The actors, directors, producers, and agents examined here include Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and Adah Isaacs Menken, whose personal lives and careers traded on the same-sex erotics of "true love" in the antebellum period; Elisabeth Marbury, Elsie de Wolfe, Elsie Janis, Nance O'Neil, and Alla Nazimova, whose intimate female liaisons were variously interpreted around the turn of the century; the "lavender marriages" of Alfred Lunt to Lynne Fontanne and Guthrie McClintic to Katharine Cornell; the lesbian collaborations of Margaret Webster and Cheryl Crawford; the comic antics of Monty Woolley, which negotiated codified constructions of homosexual perversion in the post-Freudian interwar years; and the on- and offstage performances of Mary Martin and Joe Cino, which resisted the paranoid enforcements of heterosexual normality in the McCarthy era. Central to these investigations are the complex connections of performances of sexuality and gender and their different implications for men and women practitioners working under pervasive sexism and homophobia.

The volume also includes striking archival photographs of the performers and their performances, and an index to facilitate the cross-referencing of subjects' intersecting careers. Passing Performances will engage both general and academic readers interested in theater, gay and lesbian history, American studies, and biography.

Robert A. Schanke is Professor of Theatre at Central College, Pella, Iowa and editor of the journal Theatre History Studies. His last book was Shattered Applause: The Lives of Eva Le Galliene. Visit Robert Schanke's website at

Kim Marra is Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, University of Iowa, and book review editor for Theatre Survey.

Praise / Awards

  • "A fascinating collection of essays about the great figures of the stage, full of revelatory information and interpretations that will entertain and enlighten theater lovers and provide and indispensable foundation for future scholarship on sexuality, the theater, and star discourse."
    —George Chauncey, University of Chicago, author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
  • "This major new contribution to American theater history spotlights some mighty queer doings as American theatrical icons creatively negotiated their eras' normalizing regimes. What these leading players desired, what they did in bed, and what they did on stage was often intimately related, these historians persuasively argue. Great stories! Careful historical analysis! What more can one ask?"
    —Jonathan Ned Katz, author of The Invention of Heterosexuality
  • "A welcome addition to recent studies that have reclaimed or uncovered knowledge about the lives and works of theatre artists from marginalized groups. The essays' frequently sympathetic, cautious marshaling of evidence from many sources is persuasive. They make interesting and often startling reading and support the editors' argument that sexuality is a vital part of an artist's work. After reading this book, it will be difficult to see the work as one did before."
    —Oscar Brockett, University of Texas
  • ". . . simply a fascinating addition to our understanding of theatre history."
    —Tom Provenzano, Back Stage West, August 5, 1999
  • "Taken together, these essays add importantly to our knowledge of a way of life that's only now passing away."
    —Eric Secoy, Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review
  • "This important anthology of fourteen essays by American theatre historians recovers major actors, directors, agents and producers from the 'legitimate' theatre as significant players in gay and lesbian [theatre] history."
    —Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix, Illinois State University, Theatre History Studies, 1999

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 352pp.
  • 17 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 1998
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-09681-7

Add to Cart
  • $89.95 U.S.