All three of the youthful gay political plays I saw this past month apply a contemporary, absolutist outlook to gay history: Either people are gay or they aren’t. Such plays ignore the notion that past times, with their very different circumstances, might have compelled different solutions. The past offers alternatives that we tend to overlook: The same England that made Oscar Wilde into a gay martyr also produced Lord Arthur Somerset, who, during the Cleveland Street scandal, dodged the very bullet Wilde was to take by fleeing to France and living in exile. And it produced Edward Carpenter, who managed to become a gay rights crusader, living openly with another man, untouched by police harassment.
The complex web of possible choices that history offers helps explain its fascination for playwrights: Its events seem written in stone and yet aren’t. If somebody’s will had been weaker or stronger, if someone had chosen a different action at a pivotal moment, everything might have turned out differently. History concerns what people did; how and why they choose their deeds becomes the source of its theatrical appeal.
That’s where the simple categorizing of gay and straight turns troublesome. To the characters of Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party (discussed in Part 1 of this essay last week), Lincoln’s sexual preference is a cut-and-dried issue: Either he was gay (no matter how many children he and Mary Todd produced) or he absolutely wasn’t (no matter how intense his affection for Joshua Speed). The notion that he may have cherished, embraced, and perhaps even come to orgasm with Speed, and still been content with Mary and the kids, doesn’t fit in the contemporary schema. At best, it would simply make Lincoln a tormented bisexual, grudgingly fulfilling his husbandly duty while his heart yearned to romp with the handsome flatboatmen of his youth.
To its credit, Abe/Dance (as I abbreviate it) at least seems reluctant to share its characters’ absolutist thinking: Its murky, convoluted plotting left gaps in which it could acknowledge America’s intense confusion over sexual identity. One conflicted soul, the anti-gay prosecutor’s closeted son, sticks up for his dad’s “family-values” politics at whatever cost to himself. His nemesis, the almost manically unethical Times reporter, seems even more adrift, his cynicism undercut by a mass of unresolved pain and anger left over from the plague era.
The sense that Abe/Dance fails to make, one might say, mirrors the sense that America, over the past few decades, has been increasingly unable to make of itself, on the sexual front as on every other. The ever more rapid pace of social change, fueled by even faster and more sweeping changes in Internet communications, has left almost every former certainty in question. We can hardly say what constitutes a civil society when we’re barely sure what constitutes a book, a store, a signature.
History, in this context, becomes what’s most easily retrievable from the Web. The historian’s ability to re-create a past reality, by drawing on a vast number of documented sources, fades under the barrage of largely superficial or oversimplified data. Where writers of history plays once struggled to create works that could merge theatricality with a degree of historical truth, they must now first struggle to get beyond the data blizzard, to perceive history’s facts in terms of human lives instead of predigested schemas.
On this battlefield, the Fringe’s two gay-historical offerings, Stan Richardson’s Veritas and Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth-Century Way, fight hard but ultimately lose. Both deal with early-20th-century gay enclaves uprooted by local authorities. Veritas derives from recently discovered documents recording Harvard’s expulsion, in 1920, of a set of gay undergraduates; The Twentieth-Century Way draws on newspaper accounts of two unemployed actors hired by the Long Beach, Califonia, police to entrap area gays.
Fascinating as history, both works have the limitation, as drama, of constituting open-and-shut cases: The injustice they record no longer exists. The dwindling minority that wishes homosexuality would disappear can raise all the ruckus it wants, but in an era when same-sex marriage is legal in five of 50 states, the right of gays to associate freely, and to do as they please in their own bedrooms, is a done deal. This leaves both plays with the challenge of finding contemporary interest in a past-tense tale. Entrapment, and hounding the accused to name names, are always morally rancid tactics, all the more when their target has ceased to be a crime. As with preachers who obsess over errant sexuality, the activity casts more suspicion on the persecutors than on their victims.
That suspicion supplies the unwieldy metaphor on which The Twentieth-Century Way is built. Jacobson imagines Long Beach’s two actor-entrappers as trapped themselves, in a perpetual audition, each trying to lure the other into confessing his homosexuality while they improvise their way through the case’s history, playing all the roles. This makes for erratic storytelling, with data being flung in all directions, and stretches credibility long past endurance. It also ensures that no character will become more than a hasty sketch. Jacobson hits on many percipient points about entrapment’s troubling ambiguities, but they only emerge abstractly; he envisions history as a factual pegboard into which people can be fitted.
Veritas, more ambitious, uses its 10-member cast to explore the tangled relationships within its undergraduate gay circle, as well as Harvard’s harassment of them. Where Jacobson’s play suffers from data overload, Richardson’s often neglects factuality as it struggles to differentiate its multitude of characters while creating a period diction and ambience that unify them.
The process reveals little about the lives of these suddenly stigmatized children of privilege, partly because Richardson pushes too hard to invent stylized ways of giving their story theatrical snap. Worse, he picks villains far too enthusiastically, dumping heavy blame even on the two gay undergrads who weasel their way out of the scandal, as if kicking them long after their deaths could somehow alleviate the others’ sufferings. This use of history for preachment rather than perspective turns the historian’s impulse upside down, conveying, in effect, that, since right and wrong never change, history doesn’t matter.