John Osborne’s 1954 Personal Enemy (which he co-wrote with his friend Anthony Creighton) is a newly discovered play, part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters, and it’s about homosexuality and paranoia in the McCarthy era of small-town America. Osborne—then a failed actor and novice playwright in his early twenties—had yet to travel beyond British soil, and his impression of American life appears, alas, to owe a debt to early episodes of I Love Lucy. But not every newly discovered play is a masterpiece, and there is at least a handful of semi-hidden clues here of the future playwright whose furious portrait of British class war and rotten marriage in his watershed 1956 Look Back in Anger provoked a revolution in British theater.
The found script of Personal Enemy is nevertheless considered by some to be akin to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Originally censored beyond recognition by that righteous apostle of middle-class English decorum and virtue, the Lord Chamberlain, it was performed only briefly in the wan Yorkshire town of Harrogate during the ’50s—and then forgotten until now.
How Osborne and Creighton imagined they could get away with Personal Enemy‘s sympathetic view of persecuted homosexuals remains a mystery. The Gilbert and Sullivan madhouse of the Lord Chamberlain’s office within St. James’s Palace was mostly comprised of lordly aristocrats and showbiz-inclined army colonels who’d been censoring any play that was remotely sexual since the Theatres Act of 1737.
Homosexuality frightened the horses most. Thus, the lordly Lord Chamberlain could rule that in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, the cannibalism was OK, but not the implication that the cannibalized man could be gay. All sexual references were deemed offensive, including the words “fairy,” “balls,” “bum,” and “shag.” Until 1950, the words “abortion” and “syphilis” were unacceptable. Just 20 years before, it was “hips” and “breasts.” Two characters in bed together were still taboo (although bed scenes were as old as Othello; Shakespeare was A-OK).
The only solution for the beleaguered playwrights of England was self-censorship or the coded. (Terence Rattigan admitted that the heterosexual lovers in The Deep Blue Sea were really gay; the longest-running play in British history, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, is actually about a gay coven run by peculiar straight people, though not everyone sees it that way.)
Personal Enemy tries to be oblique about its homosexuals. But today—if not in conformist 1950s England, where homosexuality was a crime—it seems laughably quaint to allude to a sensitive young man as “delicate” and “good at arranging flowers.” The closeted local librarian of the drama—here wearing suspiciously fancy red-and-white shoes—has given each of Personal Enemy‘s two brothers a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which is endlessly referred to). It must be a clue. (And one clanging enough for the Lord Chamberlain to have prissily censored it in the first place.)
The melodramatic plot of Personal Enemy—performed by the British troupe Fallout Theatre and directed by David Aula—was devised by Osborne’s co-writer, Anthony Creighton, and he piles it on (and on). Mom and Dad are grieving the death of their son, Don, a war hero killed in Korea. But then we suddenly learn he’s alive! And then comes another revelation—he’s not coming home! Because in another twist, “blond, beautiful Don” has now defected as a commie homo.
Meanwhile, Don’s sensitive bro, Arnie the flower arranger, is viciously accused of being a homosexual by sweet, despairing Mom. But it turns out he isn’t gay! He got a black girl pregnant. He hangs himself. The FBI is investigating bewildered Dad. A kindly Polish neighbor with a heart of gold learns an unpleasant lesson. But the real witch hunt—the personal enemy within—is conducted by the awful women in the family who put the snappily dressed librarian—he of Leaves of Grass—on vindictive trial in the sitting room.
Thank goodness that during the production’s better-paced second act there are flashes of Osborne’s authentic outrage and un-English emotion. The alleged homophobic playwright and equal opportunity offender of the future was, in fact, one of the few supporters of persecuted homosexuals to stand up to be counted. Personal Enemy shows him looking toward the hard, cold world beyond the safe, middlebrow drawing-room dramas of his day. It was Osborne’s early, overambitious attempt at a metaphor for the state of 1950s England.