Oxford’s Queer Turns

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Image above: Promotional still from Inspector Morse episode ‘Twilight of the Gods’ with John Thaw as Morse (left), John Gielgud (centre), and Kevin Whateley as Lewis (right). © ITV / Rex Features (reproduced with permission).

Images below: Programme from Marlene Dietrich’s appearances at the New Theatre, 14-19 November 1966 (inscribed, by its original owner, with the titles of the songs she sang).


Scholars have long recognised historical associations between the entertainment professions and queer sexualities in Britain dating back to the Renaissance. London’s music halls, theatres, and cinemas earned themselves notorious reputations both as platforms for representing gender and sexual variance and establishments where queer people could meet. The lives and loves of famous queer actors and singers such as Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud, and Ivor Novello are also relatively well known. Such important aspects of queer history, however, are by no means limited to London’s theatre scene. With its long tradition of student and professional theatre, Oxford has long provided platforms for queer performers and performances.



What a Drag!

One of Oxford’s first intercollegiate drama societies was the Shooting Stars. Formed in 1866, the group boasted some talented actors including Oriel’s Martin Luther Cumming (son of the prominent Presbyterian minister John Cumming). Cumming had matriculated at Oriel in 1861 but fared poorly academically; his name was eventually removed from the College’s Register in 1866. Notwithstanding, Cumming shone with the Stars, particularly in female roles.

For four years, and to rave reviews, the Stars performed lively classical plays and burlesques as part of the week-long festivities which accompanied Commemoration and on other occasions through the year. In the spring of 1870, however, several of the Stars were implicated in the sensational case of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton—Fanny and Stella—who were arrested for ‘conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’ when leaving London’s Strand Theatre in full ladies’ evening dress in April 1870.12 The ensuing trial was a cause célèbre, occupying the attention of the press for many months.

As the scandal unfolded, several of the Stars were accused, as one later commentator put it, of ‘raising a scandal by disguising themselves in female attire, and disgracing their colleges by unseemly public behaviour’ and of ‘a connexion with a set of London blackguards’. Boulton had, in fact, acted in Oxford with the Shooting Stars in June 1866 and befriended Cumming. Just weeks before the scandal broke Cumming had accompanied Boulton and Park to the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. After a warrant for his arrest was issued, Cumming absconded to Brussels. He is known to have resided in one of the best hotels but was required to leave Belgium as he had no papers and could not provide evidence of his means of existence. When he was called upon, he had his hair in curling papers. There is no trace of evidence relating what happened to him thereafter.

Following the scandal, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor prohibited theatrical productions within the jurisdiction of the University. An anonymous letter in The Oxford Undergraduate’s Journal (8 June 1870) states that the grounds on which this prohibition rested was clear to all. It reads: ‘recent disclosures have led people to suppose that performances of this kind are calculated to encourage the grossest enormities: they are to be regarded as a cloke for vice’. There was no more drama at Oxford for a decade.


The Aesthetes of OUDS

The Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) was founded in 1885 and still thrives today. The company began to assume a central role in Oxford’s queer history from around the late-1920s after the University’s Wildean aesthetes of the early-1920s had gone down. Notably, many of Oxford’s known queer alumni of the 1930s involved themselves with OUDS and/or college theatrical productions, a significant shift from what had gone before (certain ’20s aesthetes, including John Betjeman and Emlyn Williams, were involved with OUDS before its ‘queer turn’ but student drama was not generally an activity pursued by Oxford’s aesthetic crowd as a matter of course until after the ‘Brideshead generation’ had moved on).

With a nosedive in general attitudes towards Oxford’s aesthetes, it was Oxford’s flourishing culture of drama which increasingly accommodated the University’s young gay male undergraduates with aplomb through the 1930s. Student theatre at Oxford was potentially a springboard for a career on the stage and thus attracted aspiring young ‘theatrical types’ to the University. The major OUDS productions were attended by London’s leading actors, directors, and critics. Several prominent actors of the day, otherwise unconnected to the University, were invited to work with Oxford’s young thespians. High-profile actresses (among them Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Vivian Leigh, Margaret Rawlings, and Jessica Tandy), in particular, were imported to play female roles. Still, OUDS through the 1930s was a haven—the last outpost—for interwar Oxford’s bespoke brand of queer chic. Lamenting how he felt ostracised as a heterosexual poet at Oxford, Louis MacNeice (Merton, 1926-1930) stated that in order to get on in OUDS ‘it still helped if one were or pretended to be homosexual’, a situation which, he wrote, prevented him from joining the company. In his biography of John Gielgud, Sheridan Morley described OUDS as ‘a distinctly homosexual society with some very good-looking young men’.

The relatively tolerant culture of the theatrical profession towards camp and homo-smutty humour, drag, queer identities, and gay sex provided Oxford’s student actors with sufficiently delineated space and ideological protection for a number of the twentieth-century’s most eminent gay-identified playwrights, directors, and actors to establish themselves within the profession, even through the darkest days of LGBTQ+ repression. Terence Rattigan (Trinity, 1930-1933) appeared in a number of minor roles in OUDS productions but he established himself with the company largely through ‘Smokers’, annual in-house revues, notoriously camp and risqué, performed for the Society’s members and their guests. He delighted the crowd with his turns as Lady Diana Cootigan (a play on the phrase ‘as queer as a coot’) which aped the act of the famous drag artist Douglas Byng with which Rattigan was familiar. He also fell in with Gielgud (whom he idolised) and John Perry, Gielgud’s partner, regularly attending lively weekend parties at their secluded residence near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

Other queer members of OUDS through the 1930s who went on to achieve considerable success in film, television, and theatre include Frith Banbury (Hertford, 1930-1931), Richard Buckle (Balliol, 1934-1935), Paul Dehn (Brasenose, 1931-1934), Peter Glenville (Christ Church, 1932-1935), and Dennis Price (Worcester, 1933-1936). Another star turn at Smokers was Angus Wilson (Merton 1932-1935). In a novel interpretation of the Seven Deadly Sins, he portrayed Buggery in flame-coloured pyjamas and holding a Madonna lily to an audience which included Ivor Novello (who, incidentally, had been a chorister at Magdalen College school) and Gladys Cooper, both major stars of the day (Rattigan appeared as Treachery). Others of Wilson’s acts included an imitation of the celebrated 1933 Debutante of the Year Primrose Salt and a skit as a comic charlady singing ‘I’ve got a boy in India, so I won’t be kissed on the lips.’ Wilson’s biographer, Margaret Drabble, succinctly captures his affinity for such turns, stating ‘[h]e was a natural in drag.’ In a piece written for a 1977 compilation of reminiscences entitled My Oxford, Wilson suggests that the queer aspirations of Oxford’s young thespians did not necessarily result in unrestrained gay orgies, or, if they did, they were selective affairs:

As to the aura of wickedness that still hung round the OUDS from the ‘twenties, it never seemed to me to go further than ‘daring’ talk and camp flirtation. From my background of London promiscuity, I thought it all rather absurd. But now I’m inclined to wonder. Despite my gay chatter, I did carry a governessy aura around with me at Oxford and, for all I know, as soon as I left the parties everyone may have relaxed and started to have it off.

Whether or not Wilson’s fellow student thespians were having it off behind his back, OUDS nonetheless earned itself a reputation as a hub of queer debauch, if being somewhat disappointing in its delivery. An amusing poem in The Isis (27 February 1935), titled ‘Disenchantment’, lampoons the troupe, telling of a young man who joined OUDS having heard it was a haven of vice, only to be disappointed:

By N. A. A.

‘The stage,’ they whispered in my ear
when I was choosing my career,
‘is honeycombed with Vice.
By all means pass the time of day
observing an instructive play,
but let the play suffice;
for actors off the stage pursue
a doubtful kind of life, which you
would not consider nice.’

But feeling wilfully inclined
towards the questionable kind
of life which they deplored,
I slyly went and stole a pair
of velvet trousers, brought some hair,
unsheathed my fencing sword,
and joined the OUDS. In joy and fear
I crept into the vineyards where
the grapes of wrath were stored.

Bleak disillusion! God who knows
the surest way to punish those
who greedily devour
forbidden fruit, devised a plan
again to punish sinful man
and foil the Tempter’s power.
For when, across forbidden ground
I reached the vineyards—hell!—I found
the grapes of wrath were sour.

No flame-like men with molten eyes,
loose sex, loose morals, looser lies,
lush feelings, cactus wit;
no orgies, no titanic rage,
no rapid glitter of ‘the stage,’
no squalor—not a bit;
like ordinary snobs they sat
in silent gluttony, and ate.
I let them eat and sit.

‘The stage,’ I whisper in the ear
of people choosing their career,
‘is bourgeois to the core.
By all means pass the time of day
observing an exciting play,
but do not ask for more.
For actors off the stage pursue
a dullish kind of life which you
would simply find a bore.’



Great Knights Out in Oxford


Noel Coward

Noël Coward plays have been performed in Oxford on innumerable occasions. The man himself appeared for one week only in February 1943, entertaining wartime Oxford with three Coward classics at the New Theatre. Dennis Price was also in the cast.


As mentioned above, John Gielgud (1904-2000) was intimately associated with Oxford Playhouse (in its original site on Woodstock Road where his career was forged during the 1920s and in its present location) and with the New Theatre. Although he was never a member of the University, Gielgud was closely involved with OUDS, with which Gielgud made his directorial debut with a production of Romeo and Juliet in February 1932. Just prior to this, he had a short but passionate affair with James Lees-Milne (Magdalen, 1928-1931). ‘For six weeks I was infatuated with him’, Lees-Milne later recalled in his diary, ‘[t]hen it passed like a cloud.’ The affair was largely conducted in the relative safety of the lavish Spread Eagle Hotel in Thame, an upmarket town about thirteen miles from Oxford and a favourite hang-out of Oxford’s queer aesthetes.

At both the Playhouse and the New Theatre Gielgud was involved with dozens of productions as both actor and director throughout his long career. He also made notable television appearances in overtly Oxford settings in the original television production of Brideshead Revisted (1981) and in the Inspector Morse episode ‘Twilight of the Gods’ (1993). The Oxford History Centre holds a remarkable collection of printed ephemera from most of Gielgud’s Oxford productions.

Gielgud’s place in British LGBTQ+ history is assured. On 20 October 1953 he was arrested and outed by the press for soliciting sex with another man in a public lavatory in Chelsea. The episode may have played a significant part in the convening of the Home Office’s Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (the Wolfenden Committee) in 1954.

He was cremated at Oxford Crematorium.


In 1958 a legend of British cinema, Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999), appeared at Oxford Playhouse in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Jezebel. The Playhouse had been going through a rocky financial patch and Bogarde had offered to do the play for nothing, partly as a favour. The actor’s union Equity, however, insisted that he take the minimum actor’s wage—£7 a week—for the production.

The play opened on 22 Sept and ran for two weeks. After the Oxford run, the play ran for a week at the Theatre Royal, Brighton where Bogarde fell gravely ill. The problem was partly caused by a long-standing problem: Bogarde’s stage fright. ‘It’s sickening,’ he wrote to friends, ‘but I really have to face the fact that the theatre is not for me.’ Jezebel would transpire to be his final play.


Ian McKellen (b. 1939) has performed in Oxford on several occasions throughout his distinguished acting career. At the Playhouse he appeared in The Lark (August 1961), Caesar and Cleopatra (1961), and The Promise (November / December 1966). On 22 January 1984 McKellen performed his acclaimed one-man show Acting Shakespeare in aid of Save the Children. On 26 May 1991 he was also one of the performers at a gala evening, hosted by Ned Sherrin. In 2019 McKellen returned to the Playhouse for two nights, 30 April and 1 May, to perform his one-man show, staged for his eightieth birthday year.

McKellen with Judi Dench in the Oxford Playhouse production of The Promise (courtesy of Ian McKellen).

At the New Theatre McKellen has acted in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1972), King Lear (as Edgar, in 1974), and, in October / November 1991, the celebrated RNT production of Richard III (reproduced below is the cover of my programme).

Ian McKellen - Richard III - 2

Also in 1991, McKellen took the post of Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University, engaging with students across several events during the post’s year-long duration.

Daily Information, 14 October 1991


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