Geva’s production of the musical La Cage aux Folles based on Jean Poiret’s 1973 play of the same name (also made into a 1978 film) reminds us how far the LGBTQ movement has progressed politically and culturally in the last many decades.
The Supreme Court upheld gay marriage. Married LGBTQ people can freely adopt. LGBTQ people openly serve in the armed forces. Homosexuality is no longer diagnosed in the DSM as a mental illness; conversion therapy is largely discredited and may be banned in New York. Students can choose non-binary pronouns. One Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, says there are least three genders; another, Pete Buttigieg, came out of the closet and married his male partner.
At the time of La Cage‘s inception, gay people were struggling for basic recognition in which some of the play’s “transgressions” now feel tame. For example, for all its delicious humor, the musical mostly avoids physical acts of affection, gay sex-based jokes, and sly double entendres so as not to overshock its audience.
Set in sunny St Tropez, Georges and Albin are an aging gay couple running a glamorous nightclub in which Albin is the premier drag performer. 24 years earlier, Georges sired a son, Jean-Michel, in a one night stand. In raising Jean-Michel, Georges — who can “pass” as straight — conforms to the male role; while Albin is a flamboyant transvestive assuming the more maternal role. Jean-Michel returns from college, announcing his engagment to the daughter of one of France’s most conservative politicians, Dindon, who actively opposes drag performances and — not surprisingly — the planned betrothal of his daughter. After an improbable turn of events, Dindon relents and the marriage proceeds.
Perhaps the most extended academic study on the play/musical, Janice Marie Ventura’s Master’s Thesis Drag Queens, Mascara, and Family…Oh, My! Challenging Heteronormativity in the Musical La Cage aux Follies (Cal State, Northridge, 2011) argues that La Cage challenges heteronormativity via tropes of gender bending or blurring and its insistence that gay orientations are not inferior. Wikipedia defines heteronormativity as “the belief that heterosexuality, predicated on the gender binary, is the norm or default sexual orientation, assuming that sexual and marital relations are most fitting between people of opposite sex. A ‘heteronormative’ view therefore involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles.”
Ventura shows how La Cage‘s choice of characters and themes themselves constitute artistic or aesthetic challenges to cultural heteronormativity. La Cage was perhaps the first mainstream production featuring gay characters open about their orientation. The gay world is not secondary but, pardon the pun, given center stage. Fundamentally, the representation of two gay men raising a child was groundbreaking.
Within the play, drag represents the essence of gender blurring. The Geva audience — rapt at the magnificent skill of the dancers — cannot distinguish between the male and female players. Pronoun searching in the playbill is the only way to know. Gender as performance is displayed in a roaringly hysterical vignette in which Albin attempts to master macho poses. The experiment flops but exposes that gender is indeed learned behavior — merely a stage and we but players upon that stage. As for gender roles, Jean-Michel’s biological mother, Sybil, has abandoned and neglected him, so much so the absent mother never appears. The audience entirely sympathizes with the selfless, “feminine” Albin vs. the selfish, “masculine” Sybil.
While I agree with Ventura that La Cage challenges heteronormativity, also illuminative are the limits to those challenges. These limitations can fundamentally be seen in the portrayal of Jean-Michel. In mannerisms, affect, attitude and actions, Jean-Michel conforms to “normal” heterosexuality. He looks and acts like a typical girl crazy well-adjusted college man. There is — cannot be — any hint of anything but expected gender behavior or orientation. Any such “deviation” would introduce into the play an ideological crisis: the possibility that being raised by two gay men, especially ones steeped in gender blurring flamboyance, could in any way be “contaminating” or “corrupting” or “threatening.”
The arch conservative Dindon articulates these anxieties, pronouncing “To think – To think that a daughter of mine would get herself involved with filth like this . . . What sort of family do you think this son of a pervert could make? Being brought up as he was by two transvestite homosexuals.” Dindon’s bigotry opens the troubling possibility that “filthy” gay parents or gay grandparents can “pervert” their offspring, making for “no sort” of family.
In response to this ideological threat that posits gayness as threatening, Jean-Michel must enact undeviating heteronormativity. His conforming both challenges the bigot Dindon but also closes off imagining the play as a full-fledged exploration of gender identities. Georges and Albin can be gay but their son cannot.
Another complex limitation is the genre of farce generally applied to La Cage. While La Cage injects its characters with more depth and humanity than traditional farce predicated on borderline absurdist, highly improbable plot scenarios, La Cage’s closure only problematically challenges heteronormativity.
In the final fast moving scenes, Dondin is made to cross dress and — by the standards of heteronormativity — be humiliated. Dondin-in-drag allows us to imagine a more enlightened future, even if one that only can exist in the non-realistic genre of farce. In “reality,” Dondin-as-heteronormativity could not so easily be toppled. We cheer Dondin’s downfall. But also we perceive that the topsy-turvy farcical maneuvers are firmly unleashed in the service of assuring that the heterosexual marriage plot is happily consummated.
Observing how that play challenges — and how those challenges are limited — does not in any way detract from the bravura performance. The dancing and singing stimulated our auditory and visual organs; while comic and serious dramatic scenes stimulated our heart and funny bone. One critic has remarked that La Cage aux Folles makes us laugh so hard, we forget we are watching a political play.
Also on Geva