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Pushing the Envelope

Charles Wright reviews a new anthology of 20th century "gay plays" and a new book on the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s. logo
The theater community, in New York City and elsewhere, has always been more accepting of homosexuality than society at large. For generations, same-sex relations have been an integral part, though often covert, of la vie bohème; but at certain times and in some places, the green room has proved downright hospitable to gay life. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the theater, more significantly than other art forms, has paved the way for American society's coming to terms with what used to be sententiously termed "the homosexual problem."

Ben Hodges's new anthology, Forbidden Acts: Pioneering Gay & Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century (Applause, 744 pp., $23.95) fills a void by offering 10 scripts -- many of them long out of print or otherwise hard to locate -- that illustrate how gay characters were depicted on the English-speaking stage between World War I and the first Clinton administration. At the beginning of that approximately 80-year period, motion pictures were in their infancy; and during most of that time, literal-minded censors kept film (and later television) from dealing forthrightly with sexual matters of any kind. The novel, which theoretically has enjoyed greater freedom of expression than other media, responded to the feminism that flowered around the time of World War I with vivid though sometimes unflattering evocations of the sapphic (think of Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer and the works of Radclyffe Hall, Compton Mackenzie, Vita Sackville-West, and Virginia Woolf). Yet mainstream English-language fiction writers didn't focus on male homosexuality until they were goaded to do so by the upheaval of World War II, not to mention the publication of Alfred Kinsey's research in the United States and the Wolfenden Report in England. In contrast, dramatists and theater producers were much more intrepid in this regard.

Forbidden Acts is new from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, publisher of the admirable Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman, which received the 2003 Lambda Award for biography. The reference to "gay & lesbian plays" in the subtitle of Hodges's book suggests that the anthology consists of plays that promote a specifically "gay" perspective. But of the 10 works included, only the final three -- Martin Sherman's Bent, William Hoffman's As Is and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! -- can be described as self-consciously serving the interests of the gay community. What Hodges really offers is an array of dramas that portrayed gay characters at a time when playwrights generally avoided the topic or pulled their punches.

Hodges, who is associate editor of John Willis's Theatre World yearbook and executive director of Fat Chance Productions and the Ground Floor Theatre in New York City, opens his collection with Sholom Asch's The God of Vengeance, produced in New York in 1918, and Edouard Bourdet's The Captive (La Prisonnière), adapted for the English-speaking stage by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. in 1926. Both dramas deal with lesbians and, though written by men, appeared in the same period as the novels of Woolf, Sackville-West, Radclyffe Hall, and Compton Mackenzie. The God of Vengeance became the subject of a legal action for obscenity when it premiered in New York. That case was decided against the producer. The Captive roused the ire of press baron William Randolph Hearst, who covered it tirelessly in his newspapers in order to embarrass New York's liberal governor, Al Smith; the production was shut down by the New York City police in 1926, along with Mae West's play Sex.

The most striking thing about Forbidden Acts -- and, perhaps, the most admirable -- is that it makes no concessions to political correctness. Hodges doesn't recoil from the benighted stereotypes or the ridiculous assumptions of yore. He isn't searching for acceptable portrayals of gay characters, nor is he attempting to canonize forgotten gay playwrights retroactively. Rather, he delivers an array of scripts that, taken together, provide a clear sense of how playwrights of the past treated homosexuals and homosexuality. Hodges has the courage to include The Children's Hour -- the 1934 potboiler that initiated the career of the famously heterosexual Lillian Hellman -- as one of two representative works of the 1930s. In this play, Martha, one of two schoolteachers falsely accused of a lesbian affair, commits suicide when she realizes that she actually harbors those feelings for her colleague (although the feelings are so deep-seated that she had never expressed or even focused on them prior to the accusation). Exiting to shoot herself at the end of the play, Martha declaims: "I feel all dirty and...I can't stay with you anymore, darling." It's tempting to conclude that, for Hellman, Martha's death is poetic justice. But even if one avoids that facile interpretation, the direction of the text suggests that in the 1930s, despite the prevalence of Freudian ideas and pulp novels about lesbians, mainstream audiences weren't prepared to accept the survival of a character who has acknowledged homosexual urges.

Hodges defends his other entry from the 1930s, Oscar Wilde (1938) by Leslie and Sewell Stokes, as the most "unapologetic...portrayal of a homosexual character" presented on the American stage up to that time. This may be the case, but the play is an undistinguished biographical drama, primarily noteworthy as a star vehicle for Robert Morley. Most of Hodges's other choices are dramaturgically superior to Oscar Wilde, and at least a third of them are as likely to go against the grain of gay readers as is The Children's Hour. The Immoralist (1954) by Ruth and Augustus Goetz draws upon André Gide's 1902 novel L'Immoraliste, which was seminal in the literature of emerging homosexual self-consciousness. But like The Heiress, their loose adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square, the Goetz's 1950s stage play is distant kin to its source material. In contrast to Gide's complex, internal portrait of his protagonist, Michel, Goetz's version is a simplistic problem play, unencumbered by any edifying point of view. Despite their theatrical virtues, Hodges's selections from the 1960s -- Frank Marcus's The Killing of Sister George (1967) and Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968) -- have been subjects of controversy in the post-Stonewall era for ostensibly perpetuating negative stereotypes.

It's dangerous to mount a high horse when discussing any anthologist's editorial choices; as often as not, editors run up against impediments to procuring reprint rights of which the reviewer has no awareness. Yet, in contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of Forbidden Acts, one can't ignore the fact that a large number of landmark plays aren't included. Hodges is interested in works that portray self-consciously homosexual characters, which means ignoring any plays -- e.g., Noël Coward's Private Lives and Present Laughter, John van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle -- in which the dramatists communicated in code with the initiates in their audiences. Justifiably enough, Forbidden Acts consists of scripts from the theatrical mainstream, which means that all plays in the book have had prominent New York City productions. In addition, all are products of the commercial theater except for the selections representing the 1980s and '90s, which were seen at Circle Rep and the Manhattan Theatre Club. (Both of those plays subsequently moved to Broadway.) Excluded by definition is anything by Charles Ludlam; but also omitted is Lanford Wilson, who began (like Ludlam) in the avant-garde of the 1960s but subsequently joined the mainstream. Also noticeably absent are landmarks such as Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy, Hugh Wheeler's Big Fish, Little Fish, Charles Dyer's Staircase, John Hopkins's Find Your Way Home, and Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage aux Folles.

Forbidden Acts concludes with Love! Valour! Compassion!, which depicts a clique of gay men whose joys, disappointments, and vulnerabilities are so universally recognizable that designating it a "gay play" feels far too limiting. From The God of Vengeance to McNally's masterpiece, the American theater has adjusted its view of homosexuality from constituting a "problem" to representing an aspect of being human. While most of us are likely to see the increasing integration of gay writers and gay subjects in American drama (and in the consciousness of playgoers) as entirely positive, there are dissenting views such as that voiced by Harvey Fierstein in 1983 when his Torch Song Trilogy was breaking ground on Broadway: "The greatest compliment most of these people think they can give the show is to say, 'It's not a gay play, but a play about people.' I'd much rather have them say...'It's a gay play, but it's good. It's about queers, but they're kinda funny.'"

After reading Forbidden Acts, one is likely to hope that Hodges will turn his attention next to the avant-garde and produce a companion volume of gay and lesbian plays of the 20th century from Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. In the meantime, Backstage Books has published David Crespy's entertaining history Off-Off Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater (Backstage Books, 192 pp., $19.95). Crespy, who teaches theater at the University of Missouri, is founder and co-director of the Missouri Playwrights Workshop. Though it covers New York's avant-garde from the early 1960s to the present day of the New York International Fringe Festival, Off-Off Broadway Explosion is a modest effort guaranteed to incite challenges from commentators and historians. In assessing the camp strain of Off-Off Broadway theater, for instance, Crespy focuses on the contributions of Ron Tavel and John Vaccarro to the near exclusion of Charles Ludlam; and he never mentions Ludlam's acolyte and aesthetic heir, Everett Quinton.

Crespy concludes his book with a chapter called "Creating Your Own Off-Off Broadway." He writes: "There is, and always has been, a pioneer spirit for creating exciting new theater across America." In Crespy's view, historical writing should be, first and foremost, a guide for subsequent innovation. His final chapter is a vade mecum for "readers who would like to be actively connected with theater, particularly a stage devoted to experimental work," and it's written with the sort of passion that Crespy describes as having been displayed by such courageous, innovative forces of the Off-Off Broadway movement as Joe Cino, Al Carmines, and the trinity of Edward Albee, Richard Barr, and Clinton Wilder. Off-Off Broadway Explosion, like Forbidden Acts, is the work of a scholar whose commitment is as visceral as it is intellectual, if not more so. It's probably the only history book of the past year that has the "let's-put-on-a-show" vigor of Babes in Arms.

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