A 500-year history
By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: Scene from “The Normal Heart” which helped raise awareness regarding the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community
From the end of the 16th century until today, gay plays have had a presence on the stage. From Edward Marlowe’s “Edward II” – with what has been referred to as “homosexual implications” – to “The Nance,” currently starring Nathan Lane on Broadway, a play that leaves no doubt, the theater has not feared to tread. By Douglas Carter Beane, the story contrasts a 1930’s burlesque actor as stereotypical, broadly effeminate, low comedian with his off-stage persona, also gay, but considerably more sad and self-searching. “The Nance” includes real life mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s crackdown on burlesque’s so-called shady morals, the play whirls between a joke and a poke and a conflict.
Historically, as society came more out of the closet, so did playwrights and producers.
The play often mentioned as a turning point dealing with the pain and complicated emotions often felt by the gay population is “Boys in the Band” by Mart Crowley, first seen in 1968 off-Broadway. It continues to be revived and discussed, having once been dismissed as dated. Now seen as significant and relevant, it contains caustic wit and sharp humor, uncomfortable second act situations, self-loathing and self-awareness, but it made a difference to both gay and straight audiences. In the best tradition of the theatre, it spoke to social consciousness. A scant year later, the Stonewall riots occurred; some said the play was part of the growing sense of pride that led to that event.
There is a local connection to “Boys” with Keith Prentiss, Kettering native who was in both the original New York cast and the subsequent movie. In 1982, he co-founded the Kettering Theatre Under the Stars and with Pat Carson and brought many area young people real professional stage experiences. His accomplishments and his dignity were sometimes reduced to pictorial pop culture with a reference to “the handsome man on the label of Taster’s Choice instant coffee.”
Dayton, very often at the forefront of theatrical movements, will see a revival of “Torch Song Trilogy” by Harvey Fierstein at the Human Race, in February 2014. The original “Trilogy,” eventually going through several iterations, debuted in 1982 as the present combination of three different stories. Said to be autobiographical, it progresses from defended wisecracking of torch song-singing, campy drag star, Arnold Beckett, to his attempt to establish a real, stable relationship. Humor prevails, but the universal need for acceptance and caring underlies the comedy.
In 2009, The Dayton Playhouse bravely mounted “Corpus Christi,” the Terrence McNally play that turns Jesus into Joshua and the disciples into a group of gay men in a story that parallels the biblical narrative. Directed by Michael Boyd, it was given a respectful and compassionate presentation that he described as a “moving experience.” As was the case with the original production at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, there were protests in Dayton. Unlike New York, there were no death threats here. Boyd said, “we took intermission cookies to the protesters and invited them to see the show.” Playwright McNally’s contributions to issues of gay life have been significant.
Looking back at the history of gay theater we find some interesting names. Mae West wrote “Drag” right after her play “Sex” in 1927. West was arrested and the second play never quite made it to Broadway.
The first time two women kissed on the New York stage was back in 1896 in a play called “A Florida Enchantment” at Hoyt’s Theatre at 24th and Broadway. At intermission, the audience was offered ice water in case they felt faint after that shocking experience.
In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” was more kindly accepted, although it was not without controversy. More about the power a lie has to destroy, the play was, for a time, banned in Chicago, Boston and London because of the implied lesbian theme between two boarding school teachers.
It is important to mention sensitive handling of young people just beginning to explore their sexuality and dealing with what being gay may mean. Another boarding school story, this one about a young boy who is “different” was “Tea and Sympathy” by Robert Anderson. It debuted on Broadway in 1953. In London, it was limited to a members-only theatre group because the Lord Chamberlain had a right to ban “inappropriate” plays
Plays that made the general public pay attention such as “The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer, about denial and the consequences of not paying attention continue to be relevant. “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner included some high-profile, real life characters and was hard to ignore. Both authors have contributed significantly to gay literature. “Rent” – the musical that took a bohemian, tragic view of AIDS – was an enormous success just after its creator, Jonathan Larson, died.
Michael Boyd said, “I think of gay theater in three distinct phases; pre-AIDS, “Boys in the Band,” during AIDS, “Angels in America” and post-modern, or post-AIDS, “Bare,” done recently at Playhouse South and the University of Dayton. Not that the AIDS crisis is over, just receding in gay theater, leaving us older, wiser and somewhat saddened.”
Many other plays focus on LGBT characters with humor, with emotion and with poignancy. All theatre is enriched by that depth.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com