The Magazine


Oct 16, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 05 • By DONALD LYONS
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Back in 1955, New Republic drama critic Eric Bentley was actually able to write these words: "I was praised recently for having intimated that thre was too much homosexuality "in current plays, but what I meant to imply was that there was not enough. Having gone so far, our playwrights will have to go further; having inflicted the subject on us, they will have to say something about it."

Forty years later, American playwrights seem to be able to talk "of little else. Indeed, gay life has become the major subject of the American play. The last three Tony winners -- Tony Kushner's two Angels in America dramas and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! -- are about gays. Off- Broadway is stuffed with titles like 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night, Party, and the only thing worse you could have told me. . . .

If this is gay theater's high noon, the moment of its sunrise can be pinpointed precisely: April 14, 1968, the evening when The Boys in the Band$ N opened in New York. Mart Crowley's amazingly influential play chose the place, set the tone, and established the content of much that was to come. The set-up of The Boys in the Band and its followers is almost invariably this: a group of New York-dwelling, middle-age gay pals (the canonical number is eight, but it can vary) gather to celebrate an event and wind up assessing their lives. Where they gather is key as well; it must be New York or a vacation suburb thereof, as New York is classically the residence, the refuge, and the magnet for the gay artist, especially the theatrical artist. New York and its theater are at the heart of these self-regarding plays. And the focus is not on theater in general -- these plays are not full of knowing allusions to Chekhov or Ibsen -- but the Broadway musical. The musical is the religion of these guys (dolls rarely being in evidence in the gay play). They know its history minutely, and expect everyone else to be as knowledgeable. They derive their only solace from it. As foil for these mavens, there is the dumb young hunk. The hunk is desired by all, even as he is patronized and parodied for his ignorance of show-biz trivia.

In 1968, Crowley's characters got drunk and "faced the truth about themselves." Alcoholism and self- loathing were the big issues: "You're a homosexual and you don't want to be" was a crucial barb. By the mid-80s, when the real school of gay playwriting got under way, the world had changed. In the 70s, the personal became the political, the psychic became the civic. The reigning culture urged people to isolate one aspect of their life -- race, sexual preference -- to identify their self with it, and make demands on the body politic in its name. In the early 80s came the AIDS epidemic, rapidly politicized and viewed almost exclusively as a vehicle for political oppression by the heterosexual world. Gay playwrights added a new twist to the Crowley formula: Among the group of gay men, a healthy character deserts a sick lover, then relents and agrees to at least nurse, at most have sex with, a dying and contagious man.

William M. Hoffman's As Is was the first major AIDS play, and features a scene that would later appear in the movie Longtime Companion, the work of gay playwright Craig Lucas: A group of gays sit around and recollect where each was when he first heard of the disease. The central story of As Is involves a gay couple, one of whom has AIDS. This longtime couple is noisily separating at the start, but by the end the nicer, healthy guy has vowed to stick by his embittered, difficult, stricken partner. In As Is, doctors and the health establishment in general are cold and uncaring, while fellow gays and gay support groups provide all the warmth and care. To its credit, $ IAs Is made a stab at revealing the causes of the illness with an expressionistic depiction of 70s-style nocturnal promiscuity, but even that modest level of candor soon became taboo in the gay play as AIDS was transmogrified into a biochemical assault on the gay world by the Republican party.