Review: Out Plays: Landmark Gay and Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth CenturyEdited by Ben Hodges
Published by Alyson Books
Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano
From the outset, this anthology is as troubled as it is fascinating. In a spurious attempt to seduce a wide readership, the blurb on the back declares its themes to be ‘universally human, not just gay or lesbian’, while the editor reveals one of the main criteria for inclusion to be works which ‘explored gay or lesbian themes in a landmark way’. This means the omission of pre-liberation playwrights and their ‘euphemistic and ambiguous themes’ in favour of realism-driven exposés which are always intriguing, at least from social-historical stances.
That said, the scope of this collection is smaller than might be expected. All its inclusions bar one belong to what Naomi Wolf calls ‘that anomalous era between the Pill and the Plague’, and the only AIDS play – Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz (1992) – is an allegorical, rather than naturalistic, exploration. John Hopkins’s Find Your Way Home (1974) aside, the bias is wholeheartedly American and the sole lesbian inclusion is Jane Chambers’s Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), which starts from the same premise as Mart Crowley’s seminal The Boys in the Band did over a decade earlier: the unsuspecting straight crash-landing in the middle of a big gay party. The ensuing gossip about perceptibly heterosexual characters crops up across the collection – is he or isn’t he? (The Boys in the Band); is she or isn’t she? (Last Summer); is she a he or isn’t she? (The Ritz) – and there are many reminders of how little the everyday concerns of our lives have changed. Even in a pre-HIV world, issues of sexual health linger in the subtexts of gay men’s lives; same-sex marriage is already an issue by 1968; and both Chambers and Harvey Fierstein raise the idea of lesbians and gay men seeking posterity through raising children.
There is also a considerable amount of genetic stereotyping. In four of the eight plays – and that’s all the ones with in-depth portrayals of male desire – the dark-haired and/or ethnic characters chase and drool over blond and/or WASPish boys. Is this an accurate presentation of how gay men seek to organise their sex lives? Or is it an attempt by their authors to wipe out the myth of gay Narcissistic attraction with the rival, and more normatising, cliché that opposites attract? Certainly Terence McNally touches on the former theory in The Ritz (1975), where the constituent parts of a couple look identical to one other, even down to their wiry curly hair.
More worrying is the representation of Jewish characters. ‘What I am, Michael, is a thirty-two-year old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy’ spits an embittered Harold in The Boys in the Band. The figure of the physically unattractive Jew mutates into an overweight, clumsy asthmatic in Albert Innaurato’s Gemini (1976) and is finally challenged by Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1978-79; 1982), in which a defiant Jewish drag queen pulls off a brace of handsome tricks. But even here Arnold is presented as attractive in spite of his Jewishness. (‘Are you Italian?’... ‘Spanish?’... ‘Jewish!? I never would have guessed it. Not with those dark romantic eyes.’) If you’re told something often enough, you might even start to believe it.
The editor imagines that these plays ‘collectively serve as a tool to inform and instruct a contemporary audience’. But Fierstein probably gets closer to the truth in his far feistier preface by acknowledging their ‘small, well-educated, discriminating base audience’. Herein lies the blessing and the curse of gay and lesbian theatre, indeed of any issue-driven modern theatre. Is it really likely to alter anyone’s attitudes, when those it draws are already sympathetic to the cause?
Giuseppe Albano has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University and is a former fellow of Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He lives in Edinburgh and works at Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Midlothian.