In addition to Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party (Acorn Theater, closing September 5), which might be said to deal with contemporary gay interpretations of history, this past month I encountered two plays at the New York International Fringe Festival dealing with gay history itself, Stan Richardson’s Veritas and Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth-Century Way. Because the issues they raise, aesthetically as well as politically, are complex, what follows is the first half of a two-part article, more a set of reflections on the subject than a review. The second half will appear next week.
Abe/Dance, as I’ll abbreviate it for convenience’s sake, lives up to its peculiar title by being, if nothing else, the most peculiar of recent gay political plays. In a time of predictable, cookie-cutter stage events, its erratic, almost twitchy structure, and its willful refusal to let its story garner any cumulative effect, nearly rank as assets. It shows us a playwright (Aaron Loeb) and director (Chris Smith) who, if they insist on throwing theatrical logic to the winds, at least do so in a challenging way, to stretch the theater’s standard matrix and let in some fresh light. Once you total up its substance, the show offers little beyond possibilities, but the theater’s never hurt by having a few extra possibilities in its tool kit.
Gay identity provides Abe/Dance‘s substance, but democracy supplies its spirit—democracy as filtered through an Internet-era gay sensibility. The show is at least nominally interactive, with an audience member, selected at random, choosing the order in which its three acts are performed. (The selection process is so convoluted that I couldn’t tell if it was rigged or not.) And the drama—for Abe/Dance, its title notwithstanding, is a plot-heavy drama—arrives in vertical slices rather than sequential scenes. Each act shows the same set of events, from the partial view of a different key character. This mini-Rashomon‘s manic interruptions include dance breaks during which everyone onstage appears costumed as Lincoln—an image extending the show’s implied assumption that “democracy” contains no set truths, that every American man or woman has the right to his, or her, own idea of who Lincoln was and what he stood for. It depicts history as an eternal ambiguity from which definable facts should not distract us.
The peculiar story Abe/Dance tells concerns an imaginary uproar, in a downstate Illinois county where Lincoln lived, over a fourth-grade teacher’s creation of a revisionist, politically corrected Christmas pageant, in which Washington and Jefferson, fretting that as slaveholders they’ll be put on Santa’s naughty list, summon The Great Emancipator to their aid. A few lines concerning Lincoln’s intense youthful friendship with Joshua Speed get magnified out of context, starting a firestorm that ends with the teacher being put on trial for corrupting juvenile morals. The local right-winger angling for the Republican nomination as attorney general (Robert Hogan), and who also phoned in the initial complaint, serves as prosecutor; his leading rival, a whip-smart young woman of color (Stephanie Pope Caffey) who is also his disciple, takes on the teacher’s defense.
Further complications cluttering this familiar, seemingly single-issue, story include the prosecutor’s closeted son, a pair of scheming political fixers, and an intrusive New York Times reporter whose vociferous take on gay issues seems closer to the Advocate‘s. What with the hashed narrative, the multitude of secret conspiracies, the party-time interruptions, and the impulse to drape every scene in Comedy Central archness, nothing emerges very clearly except Loeb’s apparent feeling that all Americans, gay or straight, are very, very confused about how sex relates to politics.
Maybe it’s true. American culture has always had deep divisions regarding any open display of sexuality. For many right-wingers, the concept of gay equality sticks in the craw because it means admitting that gay people have a right to exist openly. Christians and Jews can find Biblical arguments against homosexuality, but they can’t find any in the Constitution. A historical disparity is involved: Homosexual practices, found throughout nature, have probably been part of human life since it first evolved, but homosexuality, as we understand it, has existed for barely more than a century. Oscar Wilde, a married man with two children, who saw his attraction to younger men in part as continuing an ancient Platonic tradition of ideal love, probably did not think of himself as a homosexual—not, at least, until after his imprisonment. He may never even have heard the word, which only came into use in later decades. (And “gay,” in Wilde’s time, merely meant “loose” or “promiscuous.”)
Homosexual identity, often viewed today as a central and absolute character trait, was seen through most of history as a quirk affecting very few. Men—like Lincoln and Joshua Speed—embraced each other, and slept together for warmth; men took sexual advantage of slaves they owned, boys they mentored, servants they employed; prisoners, soldiers, and sailors, apart from women, engaged in clandestine mutual pleasuring. But most of them assumed that, when conditions altered, they would engage with women and presumably produce children. Few, no matter which role they played in the act, would have assumed an exclusively homosexual preference; a great many might have been startled to know that people who thought themselves exclusively homosexual even existed.
Today life’s different. Gay is an identity, and a highly politicized, assertive one at that—an inevitable reaction to the millennia during which homosexual acts were stigmatized, outlawed, and persecuted, often violently. Every concern that gays might confront, from coming out to one’s parents to becoming parents, has taken on an absolutist mentality, apparently subscribed to by both its adherents and those who wish they would disappear. The secondary cultural traits through which gays in the clandestine era once signaled their shared interest have become a kind of instant public shorthand. Quarterbacks who enjoy showtunes are instantly suspect; 10-year-olds with a gift for classical music conceal their interest for fear of being bullied at school. Future generations may come to regard our time’s extreme emphasis on sexual identity as nearly equal in absurdity to the frantic hostility and repugnance that kept same-sex attraction clandestine in preceding centuries.
Part 2 of this article will appear in next week’s issue.