Gay Theater? No, Just Life

Playwright Terrence McNally's versatility could be his calling card. He just completed a musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," which opens today in Toronto, and his play "Master Class," about opera singer Maria Callas (which won a Tony for best play, after stopping at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995), continues on Broadway.

But his most talked-about work of recent years is "Love! Valour! Compassion!," a story of the complex relationships among eight gay friends who gather on holidays over the course of a summer. The 1995 Tony winner for best play gets its L.A. premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse (and Fine Line Features plans to release a film of it in April).

Because "Love! Valour! Compassion!" is seen as one of the most direct portrayals of homosexual life in the 1990s, Calendar invited McNally to comment on the art of writing about gays for the stage.

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Gay is good, of course. It is also terrible, perplexing, banal, hilarious, tragic and as concerned with mortgage rates and who's moving in next door as straight is. Until and unless that is understood, we have gone absolutely nowhere with this thing and people like me will continue to be asked to write pieces like this for people like you. We both deserve a break.

In the meantime, so much nonsense has been written about gay characters, gay writers, gay actors, gay directors, gay designers, gay producers, gay audiences, gay ushers and gay theater, period, that tossing in my three cents will add no more or less to the general folly than the last essayist's two.

Here's the scoop: Gay theater doesn't exist anymore. There is good theater and there is bad theater. Gay playwrights either write a play as worthy of your interest (or mine) as Mr. Arthur Miller or they don't. You can't get away with a bad "gay" play any more than you can with serving up lousy food in a "gay" restaurant. Gay isn't enough in 1996. That is as it should be. But fair's fair. Nowadays, Mr. Arthur Miller must write a play at least half as interesting as Mr. Tony Kushner.

The only difference is that Mr. Arthur Miller will not be referred to in reviews of "Death of a Salesman" or in interviews on the state of the American theater as a heterosexual playwright. Of course, he is still being referred to as the last husband of Marilyn Monroe, as I suppose we all have our cross to bear. I also doubt that Mr. Miller is ever asked who among the cast of "Death of a Salesman" is gay. Somehow wondering if the actress who just tore your heart out as Linda Loman is a lesbian just doesn't seem to be the issue. And should that same actress elect to be in a production of "The Sisters Rosenzweig" immediately following her Mrs. Loman, I would be very surprised if her agent cautioned her about playing two Jewish heroines in a row, lest people get the wrong impression.

And I wonder if Mr. Miller will ever be asked by a producer who is anxious to commission a new play from him, "It doesn't have any gay characters in it, I hope?" Not that the producer has anything against gay characters, he insists (and I believe him)--it's just that he produced a play with gay characters last season and he doesn't want his subscribers to think he's running a gay theater. And I hope Mr. Miller is never taken to task by straight activists for not consistently portraying heterosexuals in a positive, self-affirming light. And should Mr. Miller decide to write a play about gay men and women with nary a heterosexual among them, I trust he will not be accused of betraying his mission or letting down his side. And when that play is awarded a Tony, I hope he will not overhear a losing playwright being consoled by his family telling him, "What have they got against normal people?"

No, gay theater is over but the homophobia lingers on. A good writer, an intelligent actor or a sensitive director does not want to contribute to the residual stupidity either backstage or out front by working in stereotypes and cliches. This is easier said than done, however. There are gay stereotypes and cliches that are as eternal and universal as anything in commedia dell'arte. It would be a crime against nature (and the god of humor) to turn all gay characters into earnest insurance salesmen. I believe there is a gay sensibility. The good writer, the intelligent actor and the sensitive director balance it with the human sensibility, too. The bad writer, the dumb actor and the crass director reduce this human sensibility in a gay character to nothing but the stereotype. No one laughs more at a fully realized gay character than I do. No one cringes more at a badly written or acted one, either.

The greatest gay character ever written is Hamlet. In his complexity, he represents the most profound creation of any dramatist since the ancient Greeks decided there was something important we could learn about ourselves by telling our stories through the medium of theater. Only Cleopatra and King Lear equal him as summits of the playwright's art. He is the role model for any playwright wishing to depict a gay man.

One reason Hamlet is not generally understood to be a gay character is that he keeps his clothes on. When was the last time you saw a Hamlet who took off his bodkin or loosened his codpiece? Homophobes are always pouncing on that one telltale sign of homosexuality in the theater: male nudity. Straight men never undress on stage, unless, of course, the director is homosexual, which sends these same jerks into new paroxysms of gay-baiting.

Another reason the Prince of Denmark is not thought to be gay is that the playwright who created him is not "officially" known to be gay. We've all heard the rumors about the Bard of Avon for lo, these 300-plus years, but that's all they are. Perhaps Shakespeare was savvy in some Elizabethan way we have lost touch with. Today when a playwright comes out we assume that he can create nothing but male homosexual characters, even when their names are Blanche or Martha or Mama Rose. But as long as a playwright stays in the closet, we are willing to credit his creation of a character like Hamlet to that good, old-fashioned writer's standby: creative intuition. For all we know, Shakespeare might even have been straight and his uncanny skill in delineating complex female heterosexual characters is the real mystery. In that scenario, Hamlet was the piece of cake and Ophelia the expression of an intuitive genius. Either way, the man was a very great playwright. The rest is silence.

But the main reason Hamlet is not taught as a gay man is that he never, not once, talks about being a gay man. How can a character be gay if he does not talk about his sexuality? How can an audience know a character is gay if he does not "walk" gay or "talk" gay or "think" gay? Good question. No wonder Hamlet and the actors who have played him have escaped "outing" for three centuries. But it is Shakespeare's accomplishment to have created a gay character who never once talks, walks or acts like our usual perception of one. This is probably the most stunning accomplishment of Shakespeare's entire oeuvre.

No, the only thing that has made Hamlet straight is our thinking so. But in the light of the possibility of this new insight, reconsider his misogynic treatment of both his mother and his alleged girlfriend, reexamine his relationship with his best friend, Horatio, and check out his over-the-top enthusiasm for the theater and actors. If it takes one to know one, Hamlet is one. Trust me on this.

I have one hero when it comes to plays about the gay experience: Mart Crowley. Without "The Boys in the Band" there would be none of the rest of us. It was the first play that was completely and unapologetically about gay people. Someone had to go first; Mart Crowley was that person. To me, heroes are people who do brave things. In 1968, "Boys" was a brave thing. So were the actors who took roles in it, and Richard Barr and Charles Woodward Jr., who produced it. I salute and remember them all.

I believe coming out is the only significant step any of us take toward self-liberation and tolerance. If I'm willing to let you know who I am, and you're unable to accept such an essence of me then basta, finito, we are closed.

These are exciting times to be a playwright, straight or gay. Has there ever been a society more in need of exploration or coherence as we approach the next century than our own? These are also difficult times for the American dramatist--either the rare one who earns a living at his craft or the many who must be satisfied with the mantle of artist. The one is excoriated for being commercial, the other patronized for his inability to reach a significant audience.

If a playwright can give us some insight into who we are and how we got that way, if he can tell us the truth about ourselves and makes us feel less alone in our angst, if he can make us laugh for a couple of hours in a gentle recognition of how much more we are alike than apart as human beings, if a playwright can do all that, I don't care if he's sleeping with Madonna or Brad Pitt or both. Mr. Miller, meet Mr. Kushner. We're all in this thing called the contemporary American theater together.

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* "Love! Valour! Compassion!" opens Wednesday and continues through Jan. 26 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. $27.50-$37.50. (310) 208-5454.

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