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Evolution of Contemporary Gay Theater

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October is Coming Out Month and to mark the occasion, the editors at The Juilliard Journal asked faculty member Roger Oliver to reflect on the evolution of gay themes in theater. 

Robert Sella as Prior Walter in the April 1992 New York premiere production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches at Juilliard.

(Photo by Jessica Katz)

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It seems almost inconceivable today, with the abundance of openly gay playwrights and gay-themed plays, that less than 50 years ago a drama critic for The New York Times felt the need to call for “social and theatrical convention” to be “widened so that homosexual life may be as freely dramatized as heterosexual life, may be as frankly treated in our drama as in contemporary fiction.” The impetus for Stanley Kauffmann’s 1966 article was his contention that three unnamed “reputed” homosexual playwrights—clearly identifiable then and now as Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee—were presenting a “badly distorted picture of American women, marriage, and society.” Although Kauffmann’s premise is highly debatable, he does end up advocating that the gay playwright be free to write about himself and his world without having to “disguise his nature.”

Less than two years later a play opened in New York that portrayed gay life onstage in a way it had never been before. In the words of another Times critic, Clive Barnes, it was “by far the frankest treatment of homosexuality I have ever seen on the stage.” Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band made theatrical history for gay theater just as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, being performed at Juilliard this month, had done in the previous decade for African-American drama. 

The Boys in the Band played 1,001 performances Off Broadway and was then filmed by William Friedkin with the original cast, marking a cinematic milestone as well. Over the years critics within the gay community have criticized Crowley for presenting stereotyped characters and an excessively negative view of gay life. Yet this play, staged a year before the Stonewall riots that are often cited as the beginning of the modern gay civil-rights movement, portrays the humor and resilience of the characters as well as their pain.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of a new production of The Boys in the Band in New York, New York Times writer Patrick Healy interviewed several openly gay playwrights about the ways in which they had been influenced by The Boys in the Band. For Tony Kushner, “It was the first time I saw gay men represented in any other way than as a pathetic fuddy-duddy old bachelor or a figure of complete hatred and mockery.” Larry Kramer commented on the professional aspect of the play, noting that “it showed me as a writer, as a gay person, as a gay writer, what was possible in the commercial theater.” Doug Wright responded, “Personally it helped me to stop hiding. It showed me that there was a world where I could talk to other gay men and write about gay people and live in a manner consistent with myself.”

Two of the first “gay plays” to be performed on Broadway could not have been more different and established a pattern of diversity and the exploration of the past as well as the present that continues to this day. Martin Sherman’s Bent opened in London with Ian McKellen in 1979 and then in New York with Richard Gere. Sherman dramatized, in fictional form, the plight of gay men in Nazi Germany who were arrested and sent to concentration camps for their sexual orientation. Bent not only brought to audiences’ attention tragic historical events of which they may heretofore been unaware, but provided a symbol for the modern gay movement in the pink triangle, which became a badge of pride rather than opprobrium as it had been under the Nazis.

In a completely different vein, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, originally produced in 1978 and 1979 as three separate plays by La MaMa E.T.C., became a one-evening trilogy Off Broadway in 1981 and 1982. It moved to Broadway later in 1982, ran for more than 1,200 performances, and won Tony Awards for Fierstein in both the best play and best actor in a play categories. A contemporary comedy about a gay man’s relationship with his lover, ex-lover, mother, friends, and adopted son, the play touched on such topics as gender identity, coming out, gay bashing, and gay parenting well before these issues were being discussed and analyzed the way they are today.

When Fierstein’s next Broadway production—an evening of three one-act plays titled Safe Sex—opened in 1987, the gay community had been galvanized by the AIDS pandemic that was causing widespread devastation through its ranks. Just as AIDS transformed the gay community as a whole, it transformed gay playwriting as well, becoming an almost unavoidable source of subject matter. The irony that AIDS made the gay community more visible than it had ever been before was not lost on Ghee, one of Fierstein’s characters in Safe Sex: “Now they know who we are. ... We’ve found our voices. We know who we are. They know who we are. And they know that we care what they think. And all because of a disease. A virus. A virus that you don’t get because you’re Gay, just because you’re human. We were Gay. Now we’re human.” 

Two years earlier two major nonprofit Off-Broadway theaters had produced plays that represented the opening salvo in the theatrical war against AIDS. One of these works, As Is by William Hoffmann, presented at the Circle Repertory Theater and then moved to Broadway, was more personal in nature, portraying a man with AIDS and his relationships with family, friends, business associates, and an ex-lover who stands by him throughout his illness. To show the widespread effect of AIDS, however, Hoffmann intersperses the scenes of his narrative with choral voices that present a variety of perspectives and responses to the pandemic.

While Hoffman wrote of AIDS primarily with sorrow and compassion, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the longest-running production ever presented at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, is suffused with anger and outrage at the lack of response to the crisis by the medical establishment, politicians, society as a whole, and the gay community itself. Based on Kramer’s own experiences as an early gay activist and founding member of Gay Men’s Heath Crisis (G.M.H.C.), it is part polemic, part call-to-arms, and part love story—The Normal Heart pulled no punches in confronting its audiences with the enormity of AIDS and its devastation of the gay community. 

Although many successful plays dealing with AIDS followed in the 1990s—including Terrence McNally’s notable Love! Valour! Compassion!—none had a more profound and lasting impact than Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the first part of which, Millenium Approaches, was given its New York premiere in 1992 at Juilliard when Kushner was a playwright-in-residence at the School. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama and two successive Tony Awards for Millenium Approaces and Perestroika, it was later filmed by Mike Nichols for HBO with a cast headed by Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and is currently opening the Signature Theater season devoted to Kushner’s work. Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National ThemesAngels in America mixes historical and fictional characters, humor and heartbreak, to dramatize not only the effect that AIDS had on gay Americans but how they are inextricably bound into the fabric of American life.

Certainly AIDS is not the almost unavoidable topic of gay theater today that it was 20 years ago, but it continues to be addressed and many playwrights are investigating both positive and negative aspects of gay history. In the 2009-10 season one play, Looking for Billy Haines, sought to acquaint audiences with a real-life, openly gay actor whose successful film career in the early days of Hollywood was ended when he refused to live in the closet and pretend to be straight. Another play, The Temperamentals, told the story of Harry Hay and the founding of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations established in the 1950s. This past summer the New York International Fringe Festival presented Veritas, dramatizing a witch hunt designed to drive gay men from Harvard in the 1920s and The Twentieth-Century Way, based on an incident in which the Long Beach, Calif., police department hired actors to entrap gay men in public restrooms in 1914.

While the case can be made, as Patrick Healy did in an article earlier this year in The New York Times, that gay theater today focuses more on personal relationships than political and social issues, the genre has arrived at a point where it is impossible to categorize it in any particular way. Geoffrey Naufft’s Next Fall does present a crisis precipitated by an accident rather than a health crisis, but it also dramatizes the tensions in a relationship where one man’s religious beliefs prevent him from being open about his sexuality to his family. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, an English play that centered on the relationship between two men and a woman, showed the contrast between life for gay men in the 1950s and today. And on the horizon is Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which opens at the Public Theater in March 2011 and promises Kushner’s usual mix of the personal and the political. Whatever their differences in time period, subject matter, and point of view, most of these plays combine comic and serious elements—perhaps the only generalization about gay theater, both then and now, that can ultimately be made with any degree of certainty.

 

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