Afraid he might be queer, Tom Lee, the hero of Robert Anderson’s 1954 play Tea and Sympathy, lies on his bed inert, facing the wall, while classical music sounds plaintively from an LP on the portable phonograph. Meanwhile, down at PS 122,describing the London gig where he met his longtime lover, Tim Miller, the hero of his own brand-new 1001 Beds, stands proudly, in his muscle shirt and baggy shorts, bouncing up and down on the mattress springs while much more triumphant classical music booms out of the speakers around his audience. And there, kiddies, in one simple pair of images, you have not only half a century of American social history but the 50-year evolution of gay-themed theater as well. The American theater of the late ’40s and early ’50s was steeped in homosexuality; it was the subject everyone desperately wanted to talk about but didn’t. And its standard dramatic ploy was false accusation, which, with the anti-Red witch hunt in full swing, linked queerness to that other form of un-American behavior, Communism. It was no coincidence that the prototype false-accusation gay play, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 melodrama The Children’s Hour—set, like Tea and Sympathy, at a posh boarding school—was by a staunchly leftist writer. (Hellman directed a revival of her play on Broadway the year before Tea and Sympathy opened.) Both of America’s most celebrated playwrights of the era, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, subsequently tackled the notion, Miller in A View From the Bridge and Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams’s play, like Tea and Sympathy, was staged by the star director of the moment, Elia Kazan. Miller’s, which links a false accusation of homosexuality to the HUAC-based issue of naming names (as Kazan had done) emphatically was not.
In all this, there was little sense of homosexual reality and a good deal of culturally conditioned homophobic stereotyping. For all the accusations and suspicions that flew through the air of Eisenhower-era Broadway, open admissions of homosexuality were few and mostly foreign (as in Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1954 adaptation of Gide’s The Immoralist); those not dogged by a sense of guilt were virtually nonexistent. Even one of the era’s few openly homosexual characters, the Proust-derived Baron de Charlus of Williams’s 1953 fantasy Camino Real, speaks of his sexual activities in terms of guilt and punishment—and quickly ends up dead, in a street cleaner’s cart. Eric Bentley, then covering theater for The New Republic, gibed that the decade’s two major absences were “the missing Communist” and the accused homosexual who didn’t exclaim, “But I never touched him!” By the ’60s, the gay absence had become a joke: A Mike Nichols–Elaine May sketch displayed Nichols as the Williams-esque playwright “Alabama Glass,” the hero of whose latest opus has shot himself when “unjustly accused of not bein’ a homosexual.”
Tea and Sympathy‘s Tom Lee, wonderfully incarnated in Keen Company’s revival by Dan McCabe, all plaintive eyes and gangly, bony discomfiture, is a prep-school kid, too innocent even to realize what he’s being accused of. Since the evidence against him includes skinny-dipping tête-à-têtes with an already suspect teacher, you may wonder at his epic naïveté. Anderson drapes him in all the obvious signals: Besides being longhaired and picking out folk songs on the guitar, Tom is bookish and shy, always gets the female lead in the school play, has a “light” walk, excels at a loner’s sport (tennis), and gushes over old movies starring the opera singer Grace Moore. (Broadway musicals, the next generation’s dead giveaway, were still the tired businessman’s delight in 1953.) Add a distant, demanding father, an absent mother (divorced and denied custody when Tom was 5), and a friendless life spent mostly at boarding schools and summer camps, and you have a recipe for some fairly extreme emotional disturbance, conceivably including a lot of gay acting out.
Yet, ironically, this is just what Anderson doesn’t supply. Where Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening , half a century earlier, could present a committed Hanschen Rilow kissing his boyfriend on a hilltop, Broadway needed a straight fulcrum for its moral balancing act. Despite possessing all the stereotypical secondary attributes of gayness, Tom Lee has hormones that churn in the same direction as his conformist classmates’; he just needs more encouragement. It arrives in the person of his housemaster’s new wife, who used to be an actress and so “understands.” With reassurance and a little therapeutic nookie, Tom will be as “normal” as the next guy. The “real” queer, since at least one homosexual has to be unmasked to justify all the tension, turns out to be—but there’s no point in giving away what Anderson makes so hilariously obvious. The very crudity of his play, which gives it a crude, iconic potency, also makes it seem touchingly ancient—an artifact of a bygone time that still resonates for ours. Jonathan Silverstein’s direction wisely doesn’t try to pump too much heavy emoting into it; the acting’s laid-back tone gives the overwrought writing a sweetly antique patina.
Tim Miller’s sweetly overwrought romanticism, in contrast, is right there, in your face, today. Never aggressively, of course—Miller is the gentlest soul who ever kicked down the stage’s imaginary fourth wall. His wonderful buoyant energy comes from an incorrigible optimism toward life, the continuation of Southern California sunshine by human means. The world, to Miller, is a magical chain of free associations: The Arabian nights’ worth of beds in his title are those he’s slept in during his decades as an itinerant solo performer, and every bed summons a story, a memory, an imagination of transients past who impressed their own shapes in its mattress. Leaping, crouching, lolling, wandering, he flies in thought, breathlessly, from one tale to another, turning adolescent humiliations more painful than Tom Lee’s into marvelous learning experiences and clandestine promiscuities into moonstruck visions of love. The seeming randomness is a ploy, the rigid ’50s dramaturgy of writers like Anderson turned inside out and shredded for effect; Miller knows exactly where he’s going and why. It’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to go there with him.