Straight Theatergoer, Closeted Plays

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Straight Theatergoer, Closeted Plays

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 9.3 (Summer 2016)

I review theater in Baltimore. It recently came to me that the three productions I had most recently covered were all gender-bending or queer in treatment or subject matter. Specifically, over a one-month stretch I reviewed: 1) a somewhat lumbersexual all-female As You Like It; 2) Hick, a dramatization of the lesbian affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and newswoman Lorena Hicks; and 3) a revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a memoir of life at ground zero as AIDS hit the gays of New York. I had not set out to focus on gender-bending or queer plays; these were simply what came around and hit this reviewer’s plate.

To put it mildly, it was not always thus.

Not At All, Or Very Carefully

I started my theatergoing on my seventh birthday in 1956, when my mother and stepfather took me to see The Comedy of Errors in an open-air production at the Toledo Zoo. I immediately wanted more. As fate would have it, I was growing up in Ann Arbor, a theater-besotted town. I was also fortunate enough to have a Broadway aficionado father whom I often visited in his apartment on the Upper West Side or at his Catskills vacation home near an old-fashioned summer stock theater. This all created a perfect setup to pursue my theater obsession, and I took full advantage.

Right from the start, I kept every program. Going back and reviewing each of them now, as I have recently done, I am struck not merely by the absence of explicit GLBT subject-matter but by its paradoxical abundance under the surface. In retrospect, there was a huge closet at work: a closet that obscured or concealed not merely gay theater creators themselves but also the work they did. But being a young straight boy in a society that granted scant official recognition to queer sexuality in any form, the emanations from the closet either did not register with me at all, or, if they did, they merely confused me.

Virtually none of the performers or creators in my youth self-identified as gay or lesbian. Even when it was really known to the cognoscenti, as in the cases of Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward (not the same thing as being known to a teenaged Midwestern boy, let me add), there was no explicit acknowledgment, at least not in the years I’m speaking of. (Williams, his guard perhaps let down because he was drunk at the time, finally sort of came out in 1970 on David Frost.)[1] But if you’re a creative soul, particularly a playwright, and you’re in the closet to one degree or another, how do you write without referencing a central issue of your life or showing where you stand with relation to it? Either not at all, or very carefully.

The “not at all” camp included Cole Porter, Noel Coward (in this period at least), William Inge, and Terrence Rattigan. You can see Anything Goes, Hay Fever, Bus Stop and Separate Tables and never once be confronted by even the thought that there might be such a thing as homosexuality. Some strange versions of heterosexuality surface in Bus Stop and Separate Tables, perhaps, but not homosexuality.[2] These then-omnipresent theatrical creators had completely erased the subject of gayness as such. There might be little things implicit in the margins of their work. For instance Porter in his lyrics is openly scornful of monogamy; that kind of unconventionality might imply openness to other things. Maybe.

Those who did decide to speak in any way to homosexual life or concerns did so with extreme care. There were various degrees and modes of careful.

Dog Whistle and Sleight-of-Hand

There was, to begin with, the “dog-whistle” technique. The classical instance for me is West Side Story. Like most kids my age, I got acquainted with the musical first via the 1961 movie. I caught a student revival of it at the University of Michigan in 1966. Much later, I came to understand it had been the product of four gay or bisexual men: composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Given the era and my own naïveté and inclinations, I saw and was entranced by the updating of the straight love story of Romeo and Juliet. Someone I later understood to have been a budding lesbian in my high school class was entranced by something else: the character Anybody’s. I knew she wanted badly to play that role, and (so I heard) lobbied our school to stage the show. I just did not get it. To me, Anybody’s was a tomboy whose name implied heterosexual availability, and not a very interesting role. To my classmate, I’ve come to realize, Anybody’s was a young woman working hard to make sense of a sexual identity essentially opposite to what the name implied. The classmate was right, of course. Read the clothes and the hair and the mannerisms, and you get the message. But that was a communication in a code young men like me were expected not to be able to read. It was on a need-to-know basis only, then.

Times change.  A recent blogger refers to Anybody’s simply as “a pugnacious lesbian.” For that blogger it’s not even an issue today. (He also says, again as if it is obvious, that the choreography of the gang members is all about repressed homoerotic energy.)

Sleight-of-hand was a close relative of the dog-whistle. Here you showed a little bit of it, but in such a way that the audience probably didn’t register what it saw, and if it did could sort of ignore it. My mom and stepdad nevertheless chose not to ignore an instance of this that they did flag in a 1963 professional production of The Merchant of Venice at the University of Michigan, staged in light of the then-recent (1960) success de scandale of La Dolce Vita. At the conclusion of this rendering, with all the happy Fellini-esque newlyweds headed indoors, vowing to talk but making bedroom eyes, Antonio, the eponymous merchant, is left standing alone; then, in an instant before the final curtain, he crooks a finger at a handsome young bellboy. I hadn’t even noticed it, but my parents felt, correctly, that this clear indication that Antonio is gay implied the very real possibility that Antonio’s attachment to Bassanio, which is, after all, the mainspring of the plot machinery, might have been similar. That little gesture was therefore completely unacceptable to them. If Antonio was that way, then Bassanio would probably have been that way too, at least in part, and then what would that make of Bassanio’s newly-solemnized relationship with Portia? Instead of an all-consuming passion leading to “happily ever after,” it might be merely a lately-assumed half of a bisexual’s involvements, vulnerable to disruption by any resurgence of Bassanio’s very recent connection to Antonio. That crooked finger, therefore, killed my parents’ buzz. They wanted to believe in Portia and Bassanio.

My parents had taken similar umbrage at another professional production under the same auspices the year before called We Comrades Three (by one Richard Baldridge),[3] a look at the poet Walt Whitman at three stages of his life. So far as I can recall, no one ever said that the play explicitly acknowledged Whitman’s gayness;[4] but there was plenty of material there that was consistent with Whitman being gay and nothing there inconsistent with it. (I think not much was said to me about this because my parents had limits on what they felt appropriate to say to a teen regarding the whole subject.) Call this technique the I’m-not-saying-anything-definite-and-you-draw-your-conclusions approach. To be fair, it seems to have been Whitman’s as well.  That said, my parents’ indignation was more clearly misplaced here. Shakespeare may well have thought of Antonio as straight, no matter how strangely his passionate friendship for Bassanio chimes with modern understanding, but Whitman was indisputably, in real life, gay. And what’s more, my parents almost surely knew this about Whitman; they just weren’t comfortable with a depiction of gayness, however conditional.

At least with the above approaches, what is being hinted at is definite. Either you pick up the hint or (like me then) you don’t, but if you do, you know what the playwright is talking about. More frustrating and self-defeating, I believe, were other playwrights’ mystifications. These sparked real confusion during my early theater-going years. Granted, this was an era of confusion, the time of the Theater of the Absurd, of Eugene Ionesco and N.F. Simpson and Samuel Beckett and adaptors of Franz Kafka, who in their various ways could generate obscure or impenetrable texts without there being a homosexual subtext. But those obscurities had a very different feel from the obscurities I’m writing about now, the obscurities about sex.

Mystical Twaddle and Indirection

Consider a play I actually performed in as a juvenile (with the now-defunct Ypsilanti Players), Tennessee Williams’ 1951 play The Rose Tattoo. Not a recognizably gay character in the play, even if you can read the coded signals; The Rose Tattoo ostensibly concerns heterosexual sexuality, that of the fleshy, sensual Serafina delle Rosa, a Gulf Coast seamstress. But even as a boy, I had a sense that the whole thing was overheated and unbelievable. In barest outline, Serafina spends much of the play in a three-year spate of hysterical mourning for a husband who has died, suppressing the recognition that he had cheated on her, and trying not to succumb to her attraction to an alive and available but faintly comic truck driver who would force her to live in the present. Ultimately the truck driver, and sex, win. The proceedings are drenched with symbols, including the eponymous tattoo, escaping goats, and a flaming red shirt. Serafina was not recognizably like any woman I’d ever known. Williams was not trying to deal with gay sexual issues here, but he was trying to talk about passion. But the unwillingness to address the subject in a context where he knew and understood it drove him ridiculously far afield. In consequence the play can only be called mystical twaddle.

Williams got much closer to what he did know about in later plays, most especially Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which I saw in 1969. The engine that moves the plot is the memory of a homosexual relationship between Brick, son and potential heir of a Southern plantation-owner, and his dead friend and former football teammate, Skipper. But Williams cannot bring himself to posit that premise straightforwardly (so to speak). So he equivocates as to whether the relationship was ever physically consummated. Maggie, Brick’s wife, had slept with Skipper, and Brick has stopped sleeping with her, assertedly because of her “mendacity” concerning Skipper. These facts stand at the threshold of the dance Williams performs with what actually had happened between Brick and Skipper, and how Brick, Maggie, or the audience view it. To reiterate a highly ambiguous exchange I have quoted before in these pages:

BRICK:            One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true!–I had friendship with Skipper.–You are naming it dirty!

MARGARET: I’m not naming it dirty! I am naming it clean.

But in a Bill Clinton-esque turn, the meaning of the exchange turns on what “it” is. Is she saying she knows “it” was “clean” because nothing explicitly sexual happened? Or despite the explicitly sexual things that did happen? A huge – and censor-evasive – distinction. One interpretation makes Maggie trusting, the other makes her tolerant. Either way, Williams is not really talking directly about what most informs the play. As I’ve gone on to say in these pages, the play is full of critical and central ambiguities; Williams refuses to be pinned down, and this is the worst of it. It is completely understandable why the play continues to fascinate us, what with the titanic characters of Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy, but it remains a thematic train-wreck. It certainly left my 20-year-old self nonplussed.

Or consider Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice, a play I saw with my parents and our broad-minded young parish priest in 1966. It is a powerfully evocative piece, all right, and an intellectual puzzle that kept me, the priest, and my parents up till late at night arguing about it after returning home. The plot concerns Miss Alice, a fabulously rich woman, and what amounts to her purchase, in exchange for stupendous donations to the Church, of unlimited access to a fragile lay brother named Julian. She uses that access to compromise Julian’s sense of vocation, seduce him, marry him – and finally see to it that he is killed when he balks at a final level of sacrifice. This odd undertaking plays out in the presence of a scale model of Alice’s mansion in the mansion’s sitting room. But is the mansion “real,” or is it only a “replica” of its own scale model? (A fire occurs in the model, and only then in the mansion, for instance.) It emerges that “Tiny Alice” resides in the scale model, not the mansion, but that she is nonetheless the real Alice, the Alice of whom the Miss Alice Julian thought he was marrying is merely the visible and outward sign. Julian is informed that he has wedded the real Alice and must now surrender himself to her; his rebellion against this demand is the point where he is shot. He dies alone, but for the overwhelming and numinous presence of Tiny Alice, with whom it seems he is united at last.

Equipped with the hindsight of fifty years, I have come to see this as largely a disquisition on being gay in a straight world. Julian begins as celibate, something in which none of the other characters share, somewhat paralleling the nonconformist status of gays in a heteronormative world. And it is noteworthy that the leaders of that world, that is, Miss Alice, a cardinal, a lawyer, and a butler, conspire to make a sacrificial end to that celibacy. And organized religion leads the pack of sacrificers. They persist even after Julian has sought to bring his nonconforming sexuality more in line with conventional mores by marrying Miss Alice. For him, that effort proves a misconception, and a deadly one at that.

But this is very much my unauthoritative read. I do not for a moment maintain that the play is at all clear about this, or about anything else. In his Author’s Note to the published text, Albee declines to explain anything, despite what he acknowledges as “the expressed hope of many” that he would do so. Instead, he asserts that “the play is quite clear.” Uh, no, it’s not. With all the mystification about replica and reality and God and religion, it is very deliberately obscure. And what it obscures, I am now convinced, is Albee’s protest against heteronormativity, a rebellion I’m guessing he felt he could not wage openly.

Falseness and Implausibility

A musical that approached the same subject (gay nonconformity) in almost as deep disguise was Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company (1970), which I knew for many years only from its brilliant original cast album. But even from that, the contrivedness of the stated problem was evident to me, though not, at first, the nature of the contrivance. The central figure, Bobby, a New York bachelor, surrounded by married friends, does not join them in their married state. Why is he a bachelor? Not, the musical establishes, because he’s gay; au contraire, we meet some of the women he takes to bed, fully reaping the benefits of the Sexual Revolution (in full swing at that historical moment). Rather, his hesitancy to commit is owing in part to the jaundiced view of marriage he has developed based on what he’s seen of his friends’ marriages, and purportedly because of some obscure resistance to the sacrifices that true intimacy requires – a resistance whose overcoming constitutes the “happy ending,” though notably one without a leading lady to make it complete or concrete.

I loved and still love the musical, but there is a falseness and implausibility at its core. Straight single guys didn’t and don’t hang out, especially exclusively, with a crowd of married people the way Bobby does. And supposedly obscure resistance to heterosexual matrimony by agreeable and marriageable young men of that era usually turned out, in retrospect, to have been because the men were unwilling or unable to declare their true orientation. As screenwriter William Goldman commented concerning Sondheim’s suggestion that Goldman write a screenplay of the musical: “I remember seeing Company five times and I loved it, and I had a huge… problem which was that the main character’s obviously gay but they don’t talk about it.”[5]

Indeed, they affirmatively talk about the wrong things. The musical proffers a non-solution to a non-problem. In the real world, a straight guy who holds out against emotional and physical monogamy claiming to be motivated simply by the sight of the shortcomings in his friends’ marriages would justly be accused of rationalizing. Nor would we expect him to change, if at all, simply by having scales fall from his eyes, which I think is a fair characterization of what happens to Bobby at the end. Meanwhile, the real problems that must have inspired the show, how to be a gay friend to straight couples, given the blocks to free communication in such friendships, remained firmly unexplored.

The closeted nature of these shows made for needless and mostly artistically damaging obscurity. What if Williams had openly gloried in gay sex, or spoken out for its dignity? Or if Albee had felt free to attack religious hypocrisy on the subject of homosexuality? Or if Sondheim and Furth had addressed the difficulty of communication between gay and straight people about love and marriage? I think we would have had better plays. And I am absolutely sure that I, as a young theatergoer, would not have been unnecessarily mystified.

How It Could Have Been Done

It’s not as if clarity had ever been impossible. In 1951, the same year as The Rose Tattoo, there was a beautiful example of what candor would have looked like. I speak of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a lesbian romance, recently recast as the movie Carol. To move from the confusing, elliptical, ambiguous, unfathomable and just false works we have been considering and enter the world of The Price of Salt is to walk out into the sunlight. Highsmith tells the story directly and unflinchingly. Not only is there no obscurantism; there is no concession to melodramatic cliché resulting from moral condemnation. As Highsmith wrote in the Afterword to a reissue of the book:

The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters…. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.

It is not that Highsmith pretends that everything is all right, and that everyone approves. The lovers, Therese and Carol, have to go through a lot because their love is regarded by so many as beyond the pale. And Therese has to work out her sexual orientation by hit and miss, and it is not clear-cut, maybe not even at the end. But the reader will understand everything as it is happening, and will be moved by things that can best be presented matter-of-factly.

Of course, The Price of Salt is a novel, not a play. It was originally published under a pseudonym, and doubtless sold largely in ways that allowed the sellers and the customers a degree of furtiveness. Given the forces marshaled for “decency” at the time, I do not know how possible it would have been in 1951 or even 1960 to mobilize investors, actors, and theater-owners to present anything as straightforward as The Price of Salt on the stage.

But the times did finally change, bit by bit.

First Out

I believe that it was when I was a newly-minted graduate student, in 1972, that I first saw on the stage a play that was explicitly and unambiguously about homosexuality. This was Staircase, a strange little British import about two barbers, one of whom shared a name with the playwright, Charles Dyer, the other’s name being an anagram of the playwright’s. In my misty memory, however, that play was affected by a certain degree of gay self-deprecation if not self-hatred. It was not possible for the protagonists to separate their self-images from the image that society had of them, expressed via a criminal proceeding against one of them for performing in drag. It was queens as a sort of freak show.

Much the same issues plagued Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968). I never caught it on stage, but did see the 1970 film on a campus screen shortly after its initial theatrical release. As critic Elyse Sommer justly summarized, it was full of “self-homophobic, low self-esteem characters.” I remember coming away from the screening, as I did from Staircase, with the feeling that, whatever one felt about gay people as a moral or legal matter, they sure did tend to be screwed up and bitchy.

We had already moved some distance from dog-whistles and sleight-of-hand, but there was still a lot further to go. Stonewall happened the year after The Boys in the Band. And little more than a decade later came AIDS. And what became possible to put on the stage changed irrevocably. I started this piece with The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about AIDS; let me end there. A lot of points get made in this very talky play. I wish to focus on two of them only. Ned Weeks, the character based on Kramer himself, makes them repeatedly. Gays must stand up and be counted, he says, because they cannot influence public policy from the closet (and public policy at the outset of the epidemic was informed by a fear of doing anything that might be perceived as helping gays, with the result that funding for life-saving research was shamefully neglected). Hand in hand with the imperative for gays to exit the closet is the need to exit what keeps them there: the perception on the part of both the rest of the world and also themselves that there is anything “abnormal” about homosexuality, that it results from pathology or psychological trauma. To the contrary, Weeks insists, it is simply another way of being human, and he breaks with his mostly supportive straight brother until the brother can embrace that perception, as he does very nearly at the end of the play.

Though of course it was not Kramer alone who made it happen (Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy was being created piece by piece in the preceding decade, for example), after everyone saw that a play like The Normal Heart could be a hit (294 performances off-Broadway), the playwrights’ closet pretty much emptied out. Increasingly, the thing to be ashamed of was not coming out; Kramer resoundingly won that argument.

This tectonic shift forever transformed, among many other and more important things, my experience as a theatergoer. It led to the new normal, the one in which, plays with LGBT creators, themes, performers, etc. were no longer remarkable. And it spelled the end of the weird indirection and obscurity that had marred or misdirected so many of the plays of my youth.

Where We’ve Arrived

After a spell of plays like the ones I mentioned at the beginning, there may even be moments when I wonder if we’ve reached the point where the love that dared not speak its name has become the love that never lets any other love get a word in edgewise.

But I would not go back for a moment.

_________________

[1]. There’s a very interesting discussion of this interview, in context, here.

[2].  It can certainly be argued that the misbehavior of Dr. Gerald Lyman in Bus Stop with young women and the similar misbehavior of Major Pollock with young women in Separate Tables are typical of the kinds of loitering and solicitation charges gay men were often facing in that era. But there is very little support in the text of either play for the notion that this was somehow a suggestion of gay behavior. In each play, the possible next involvement of each character is with a woman.

[3]. This seems to be Baldridge’s only play which has left any Internet trace that I can discern. I believe I heard that the playwright committed suicide shortly after that production, but I have not been able to confirm that rumor either.

[4]. The New York Times review of the production said not one word about Whitman’s sexuality as revealed in the show.

[5]. Quoted in Chris Gore, The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made, St Martins 1999 p. 186, according to a citation in the Wikipedia article on Company, reviewed March 5, 2016.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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