Something I often find annoying about biographies is their blatant attempts to shape our responses. Either the writer crafts an homage, believing the subject is beyond reproach, or barely concealed antipathy creates a portrait that is diminishing. Such is not the case with Robert A. Schanke’s current treatise: Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans. Schanke scrupulously details his tumultuous life and career, never hesitating to elaborate for the sake of balance and fairness. Describing an incident in which Yeomans denounced Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Schanke suggests the possibility that Cal was speaking as much from jealousy as critical acumen. Schanke goes to great lengths to give us a genuine feel for Yeomans’ personality, without stooping to adoration or character assassination.
Born June 13th, 1938, in Crystal River, Florida, Calvin Lee Yeomans was (as you might imagine) not surrounded by enlightened individuals. Raised in a very conservative Christian environment, in a time when erotic connection between men was understood even less than it is today, he struggled with feelings of inferiority and alienation. After his first year of college in North Carolina, he transferred to another, more cosmopolitan university in Florida. Over the next few years, his love of theatre took hold as he found increasingly more prestigious jobs with cast or crew. When he couldn’t find stage work, he paid the bills designing window displays, teaching and modeling. Eventually his avid interest in drama resulted in drafting plays and an invitation in the 70s to join Ellen Stewart’s renowned Theatre La MaMa in New York City. Despite the supposedly progressive mission of La MaMa,Stewart strenuously objected to the frank nature of Yeomans’ work.
Cal Yeomans was heroic in a most unorthodox sense. Like Lenny Bruce, he was very possibly ahead of his time, in the use of graphic content and text. Like the groundbreaking standup comic, he died much too soon, and paved the way for those who came after him. And also like Bruce, his unwillingness to compromise may have been partly to blame for his lack of traditional success. Ironically, the wealth he enjoyed in later life never made it necessary for his shows to earn money, so he had no motive to compromise. While you couldn’t say he died in obscurity, he never joined the canon of queer playwrights whose names are immediately recognizable: Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Terrence McNally and Kushner to name a few. In addition to his strong personality, other factors may have contributed to his limited experience with fame. He struggled most of his adult life with profound emotional disturbance, jeopardizing the dogged persistence any writer needs to prevail in the long run.
Though critically acclaimed, pieces such as Richmond Jim, The Line Forms to the Rear andIn the Shadow of a Rainbow, were often considered too explicit, for even gay theaters. Just as a number of his shows were on the verge of being staged, the AIDS epidemic broke, and they were cancelled; perceived as encouraging promiscuity. A quality that made Yeomans’ scripts so astonishing was their ability to validate queer sexuality by enacting it on a stage, thus removing the shame factor. However successful he was at achieving this goal, calling Yeomans an iconoclast is like saying Gertrude Stein enjoyed the company of women. His unapologetic approach fundamentally challenged the attitude and expression of the Queer American Theatre of his contemporaries. Richard Schanke’s biography is an engrossing, melancholy, though ultimately optimistic text that suggests a compelling, alternative way of gauging a writer’s success. Whatever Yeomans’ flaws or setbacks, the Queer Community owes him an undeniable debt. And perhaps a place in the pantheon.