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.

The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's 1985 play, took the As Is recipe and for the first time added the agit-prop that soon became another staple of the gay play. Kramer, a screenwriter and founder of the gay pressure group ACT- UP, offered an autobiographical standin, Ned Weeks, who goes to a clinic to be tested and falls in love with a New York Times reporter. He urges the reporter to print more AIDS news. Ned harangues his straight lawyer brother to do pro bono AIDS work. The rhetoric of the play consists of loud lectures by Ned on the order of: "Do you know that when Hitler's final solution to eliminate the Polish Jews was first mentioned in the Times it was on' page 28?" He tells his poor brother, "You and your straight world are Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey our enemy. I am furious with you and with myself and with every other goddamned doctor who ever told me I'm sick and interfered with my loving a man."

Much of Ned's fury is directed against the Times and then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, with Koch coming in for some very nasty gay-baiting remarks. The newspaper and the mayor are Kramer's King Charles's Heads; the playwright's faith in their ability to cope with AIDS if only they'd take his advice seems the sad product of an upbringing in a culture that thought evil could be kept at bay by a good liberal newspaper and a good liberal mayor.

With an uncritical self-absorption that transcends mere egomania, Kramer staged a confrontation between Ned and the more politic successor who is about to expel the abrasive founder from his activist organization. How dare you, cries Ned, screaming: "I belong to a culture that includes Proust." He goes on to list 23 familiar suspects in the gay canon (including Alexander the Great, presumably brought into the gay sphere by his tutor, Aristotle). The final scenes show a calmer Ned tending and marrying the reporter, who is dying of AIDS.

The Normal Heart is advocacy virtually unmasticated into art, and when it does try to become a play, it is not very interesting. Perversely, the passages of raw journalistic, forensic fury are better, or at least more original, theater. In 1992 Kramer wrote a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me (the second title is from Whitman; the earlier title is Auden's; both names figure on Ned Weeks's list, natch). Ned, now himself ill, summons up the spirits of his mother, his brother, and his younger, innocent self, called Alexander, and picks fights with them. The Destiny of Me recalls not (as some generous reviewers proposed) masterpieces like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night or Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie but a lesser example of the family play like Clifford Odets's 1935 Awake and Sing. What capitalism was for Odets ( the prized dramatist of New York communists and fellow-travelers of the Depression era), anti-homosexual prejudice is for Kramer. Ned warns his younger self against shrinks: "While they teach you to love yourself they will also teach you to hate your [homosexual] heart."

He asks his aged mot her about her long-ago sex life; she wisely replies, "Our lives weren't about sex. Is sex what controls your life?" Ned's sissy-bashing dad is pretty severely judged, but an attempt to understand him is made, and Ned does credit his parents" wrongdoing with having made him a writer. Ned and his brother achieve a genuine rapport, finally singing a lyric from Show Boat about loving yourself.

By the late 1980s, gay playwrights with their eyes on the middlebrow Broadway theater audience became eager to project a positive image, and so they began creating utopian images of "family," islands of happy tolerance in a sea of despair. "

Some of these works, like Richard Greenberg's Eastern Standard and Terrence McNally's Lips Together Teeth Apart, mixed gays and straight at a Crowley-like gathering. In Eastern Standard, a brother and sister pair off with two guys who used to be roommates at Dartmouth. All the characters spot upscale professions (architect, investment counselor, painter, TV producer) and are beset by liberal guilt about selling out in these professions and not contributing to the construction of a better world. The architect decides to quit his swank firm and build housing for the homeless. But while the straight couple is falling smoothly in love and making marriage plans, gay producer Peter is being finicky and recalcitrant about committing to the smitten gay artist Drew, who cries, "You tantalize! You make people fall in love with you without the remotest intention of returning it."

We know what the problem is, for Peter had spilled the beans to Sis about AIDS earlier. Late in the last act, he fesses up, telling Drew, "I'm sick. . . . The funny part is, you probably would have been the love of my life."

Cut to the last scene, where Drew is making happy paintings ("Your peers will shun you") and assuring Peter he will leave him only "when you aren't there any more."

"I'm going to look like hell."

"I'm planning not to notice."

The I-won't-leave-you AIDS scene appears in almost every play, and is especially perfect for a banal writer like Greenberg, who earnestly prescribes yesterday's liberal nostrums. He was compared by an enraptured Frank Rich, then the New York Times drama critic, to Philip Barry, who in the 1930s mixed sexy cocktails of aristocraic impudence and idealism. But n truth, $ IEastern Standard was considerably closer to TV's Friends than to The Philadelphia Story.

In 1994's Love! Valour! Compassion!, Terrence McNally finally gives the gay play its perfect shape. It follows eight gay men through three summer weekends in a haven just north of New York City. The house belongs to a serious choreographer who, we are told, is a genius. Other artsy types include a composer, a costumer, and a dancer. As foils to them, there's an unconvincing lawyer-businessman pair and two dumb hunks. Onstage nudity, now a trope of the gay play, finds its full expression in Love! Valour! Here, the two younger "boyfriend" characters get naked early, and everybody goes skinnydipping.

The group's center, its Ariel, is Buzz, who lives for old musicals: "It isn't trivial to me. . . . I can contain the world of the Broadway musical. Get my hands around it, so to speak. Be the master of one little universe." ( This pathology of cultural fanaticism appears as well in an earlier McNally play, The Lisbon Traviata, in which his characters live and die for the voice of diva Maria Callas.)

McNally is savvy enough, at least, to offer a farcical treatment of some aspects of gay correctness; Buzz is particularly funny on the subject of outing. But the author cannot bring himself to make light of AIDS, which it turns out both Buzz and another housemate have; the disease brings them together and they share a session of lesion comparison (another favorite scene, also present way back in As Is). McNally even splices in a moment of political anger, a scene where the men watch cops nightstick gay demonstrators on TV ("What is wrong with this country? They hate us").

Paul Rudnick's 1993 Jeffrey (recently released as a film) takes two gay- play themes -- you've got to live in Manhattan and you've got to love a guy with AIDS -- and pushes them to fanatical extremes. The premise is that Jeffrey, a thirtysomething waiter/actor, gives up sex out of fear of AIDS. Aristophanes endorsed a similar stratagem on the part of his Lysistrata, but here Jeffrey is attacked for his decision -- with Rudnick's blessing-by all the forces of gay culture. First, he meets a possible lover in the gym, a guy named Steve, but he holds back ("I said no sex and I meant it! . . . ! am the new Jeffrey, no longer a slave to my libido"). This vow, as we know from familiarity with this genre and with the larger field of romantic comedy, is taken only in order to be broken.

Jeffrey's friend/counselor Sterling is the voice of hedonism, of gay activism and gay indulgence, urging Jeffrey to surrender. Sterling's love is the young moron beloved of the genre ("Who's Ann Miller?"), but this one is not totally ignorant of musical comedy, as he plays a cat in Cats.

Steve pursues; Jeffrey flees; Steve announces he's HIV-positive; Jeffrey recoils. "I'm sorry it's not 10 years ago, and I'm sorry that life is suddenly radioactive," he says, and is thus deserving of the beating he receives later at the hands of thugs. Steve has fun with AIDS, entertaining Jeffrey at St. Vincent's hospital with a syringe-and-bedpan fashion show before didactically intoning, "We're all AIDS babies, Jeffrey."

Jeffrey seeks to firm up his resolve by phoning his parents in Wisconsin, but his subconscious plays tricks on him, and he hears them advising him to indulge himself sexually in the most lurid terms. Stumbling into the cathedral for a shot of fortitude, he encounters a horny priest who tries to pick him up and offers the only religion permissible in gay theater: "The only times I really feel the presence of God are when I'm having sex and during a great Broadway musical." The priest defines Satan as Andrew Lloyd Webber (okay, that is funny) and insists on the urgency, the necessity of having sex: "How dare you not lunge for any shred of happiness?"

In his introduction to the play, Rudnick solemnly swears that he "never intended this episode as Catholic bashing." This seems disingenuous in light of the priest's definition of Christianity as "worshipping resurrections, virgin births, Ben-Hur," and of a Catholic priest as "somewhere between chorus boy and florist."

Jeffrey decides to go back to Wisconsin -- an idea that demonstrates just how far he has sunk into error. Such an exile from the gay paradise is not his only treason against gaydom: Jeffrey does his laundry instead of marching on Gay Pride Day! Going to the hospital to offer Sterling condolences on the death of his lover, Jeffrey is rebuffed by the righteous widower: "You are not part of this." The dead boyfriend appears to Jeffrey to deliver the play's fortune-cookie motto: "Hate AIDS, Jeffrey, not life." This works. Jeffrey sees the light, becomes proud of who he is -- "I'm a gay man, and I live in New York" -- and begs Steve for sex: "Could we have sex? Safe sex? Some kind of sex? Tonight?"

Rudnick, author of the screenplays to the Addams Family movies, is a specialist in the detachable wisecrack, but he cannot even construct character on the light comic level mastered by McNally. He has, for example, the aesthete Sterling say things like, "I'm sorry, those students in Tiananmen Square were very misguided. Where were the graphics?" without any Kushner's Angels in America: Perestroika being aware of the repellent moral tone- deafness such lines reveal.

There is, above all, in "Jeffrey" the unmistakable tone of the cultural bully, condemning all those who will not live in New York, who will not have sex with seropositives, who do not love musicals and talk in wisecracks. Celibacy is a joke; religion is hypocrisy.

In the most celebrated works yet in the annals of gay theater -- Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika -- Tony Kushner abandons some formulas. His central figure, Louis, cares nothing for musical comedy, and after deserting his dying-of-AIDS longtime lover, he does not return. Kushner has digested enough Bertolt Brecht to know to alienate the spectator a bit from his vehicle -- Louis is not the most winning authorial stand-in you've ever met. But he is wholly correct when it comes to political inquisition. Louis, like his creator, regards American anticommunism as the fount of all ills, denounces the Reagan family, and says to his new lover, law-clerk Joe, "You're nice, I can't believe you voted for Reagan." Joe works for Roy Cohn, a recent and imperfect historical personage whom Kushner tries to work up into a Volpone-like dervish of evil. Cohn's mortal sins seem to have been, in Kushner's eyes, being an anticommunist and being in the closet.

Kushner has a doctor reveal his impending death from AIDS to a Cohn deep in denial; he resurrects Ethel Rosenberg, not known for piety, to summon an ambulance for Cohn and later on to say the Jewish prayer of mourning over him. Kushner's indeed was the first play to depict with something like relish an AIDS death. When it's Roy Cohn, I suppose it doesn't count.

The affair between Louis and Joe doesn't last after Louis discovers Joe has b een assisting in the writing of conservative legal opinions. In a fierce and un intentionally hilarious paroxysm of denunciation, Louis cites opinion after opi nion he disagrees with, including the one favoring "the toothpaste-makers whose orange-colored smoke was blinding children." So Republican Joe gets the boo t and does not get to participate in the final gathering of the new tribe of th e chosen, gay men alive and dead, at the Bethesda Fountain in New York's Centra l Park. Here Louis's dead lover, no w an angel, appears and announces that "this disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all . . . we are not going away . . . We will be citizens. The time has come." What this tumid rhetoric actually means is anybody's guess. Gay marriage laws? President Bar- ney Frank? Best not to get specific, though; windy portentousness is the whole point. The desperate longing for utopian good news, the search for a more convenient family than the one we all grew up in, took a ridiculous apocalyptic turn in Angels.

For a decade or more, these ways of discussing gay life have dominated the cultural conversation in American theater, with the virtually unanimous endorsement of the mandarins. The politics of identiy and the culture of victimization have produced a theater of identity and victimization. And a theater of pride and blame is no theater at all. Once everybody gets together in or near New York for a party, and says they're proud to be gay, and affirms that their gay friends are their real family, and sings songs from many obscure musicals, and takes off their clothes, and agrees to have a lot of sex despite AIDS (which is a big Republican plot anyway), there's nowhere to go but into sentimental cliche and political posturing of the most obvious sort.

It is perhaps time for playwrights, straight and gay, to abandon identity art and look to the great sources of artistic vitality, above all family. Think of such achievements by straight and gay playwrights as Long Day's Journey into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, even Edward Albee's recent Three Tall Women. Albee, one of the first uncloseted gay writers in America, has created his masterpiece not by writing about his sex life, but by studying his odd and difficult mother.

When people become their sexual identity and their sexual identity alone, they are diminished as people. And when characters are nothing but sexual types, the plays that surround them are drained of life and meaning. For an artist, homosexuality can only be treated successfully when it is one color in a personality, not its totality. Good critical advice comes from Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -- Success in Circuit lies."

Donald Lyons is a theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.

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