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Why I Enjoy Old Gay Plays

Date: Aug 28, 2017

A theatre fan comes out about his love for vintage LGBTQ characters


What does it mean to be gay? Boy, does that sound passé. But what did it mean decades ago, and what did it look like? Well, it often wasn't very pretty. But I suppose my ongoing fascination with yesteryear's often outdated, sometimes ominous representations of queer folk is a byproduct of coming of age at a time when LGBTQ characters in popular culture were scarce or, worse, scary. So my personal search to find them isn't tied to nostalgia or a pride in learning the history of my forbears. It's more akin to looking at the "fertilizer" from which a movement sprang.

I was the kid who secretly stayed up late to watch a midnight broadcast of Fortune and Men's Eyes with the volume turned low. I was the pimply adolescent surreptitiously digging through the reject bins at Blockbuster Video looking for a used VHS copy of Norman...Is That You?. I was the young man whose mind was blown to find out that The Naked Civil Servant on PBS was based on a real story about a real human being. Growing up outside D.C., I didn't get to the theatre that often and the homoerotic feelings triggered by seeing Your Arms Too Short to Box With God were not given much space for expression at home. My parents didn't even take me to the touring production of A Chorus Line, despite how often I listened to that cast recording. Perhaps they were worried about that coming-out monologue.

Years later, when I went off to college on Long Island, I was surprised to find gay men popping up not just alongside me in the drama department but also in the curriculum. Here's where my subculture was hiding: onstage and on the page! Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge revealed a mid-century America overripe with sexual tensions of the M4M variety. Although I wasn't even a twinkle in my parents' eyes when those plays premiered in 1955, they definitely reflected my own suburban upbringing -- a homophobic world where "gay" was always a slur. Even when I saw those two shows' fairly recent revivals on Broadway, both plays still felt familiar and, frankly, not totally anachronistic. I may stand outside the psychological prisons their gay characters inhabit but I know them, and I'm relieved I didn't end up a gay drunkard negotiating the sexual overtures of a half-dressed libidinous wife, or a self-loathing daddy unhealthily fixated on his daughter and her queeny beau. Despite the incredible strides we've made as a community, gay men in straight marriages aren't just a thing of the past. I've dated a few of these troubled guys. I wouldn't recommend it.


Also tough to write off as strictly period pieces were Mart Crowley's artfully bitchy The Boys in the Band (1968) and Williams' poetically lonely Small Craft Warnings (1972). As someone who has spent more than his fair share of time stinking drunk in East Village gay dives, I'm all too well acquainted with similarly catty quips and sad monologues in unscripted form. I'm sure I've improvised a few variations of my own. But old queer theatre gets truly interesting for me when it veers into a reactionary rage. Think Edward Albee's The Zoo Story (1958), Valerie Solanas' Up Your Ass (1967), and Amiri Baraka's The Toilet (1967) -- all shows electrified by an inner fury that's traveled the distance of time and shows no sign of expiring. These plays remind me that there's a long-standing pushback to institutional oppression.

As for old gay love stories, they've proven much harder to find. Yet as early as the late '50s, gay-friendly enlightenment had at least come into play. Last year, The Pearl Theatre's lovely resurrection of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958) charmed the hell out of me with its warmly conceived portrait of a gay best friend. Meanwhile Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's perversely enjoyable take on Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) this past spring was a deliciously wicked satire of closeted respectability.

Luckily, by the time I was born in the mid-'60s, things had begun to change via Off-Off-Broadway. Although I wasn't wheeled by perambulator to check out the groundbreaking work of Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, and Charles Ludlam, all of them were actively writing when I first discovered them as a young adult. (McNally still is!) Because of that, I consider them a part of my lived history. Indeed, as luck would have it, I was fortunate enough to catch Ludlam himself in the original production of Irma Vep (1984). That was without a doubt one of the greatest performances I've ever seen as Ludlam seemed to have the ability to make an audience react on cue: laugh, stop, laugh, stop, groan, stop. Yet his brilliant farce has never been simply comic to me. Its send-up of gender stereotypes runs counter to the roles today's retro fascists want to reassign. Irma Vep is clownery of the most revolutionary sort. And with a respectful nod to theatre's past, I know what "camp" I'm in.


Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton in Irma Vep

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