Friday, February 20, 2009

Homosexual drama and its new guises

Years ago, Stanley Kauffmann penned a notorious New York Times piece called "Homosexual Drama and its Disguises," in which he bemoaned the fact that writers like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee had created a form of drama in which homosexual experience was marketed as heterosexual. Albee's famous George and Martha, the "straight" couple who are sterile and banter about Bette Davis movies, were a case in point - but Tennessee Williams was also in Kauffman's sights, for his predatory heroines who slowly circle slabs of beefcake in such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Now Kauffmann was at pains to make clear his desire was for a more honest form of "homosexual drama," that could drop such hetero pretense. And while I'm sure Kauffmann thought of gays in stereotypical terms (don't we all think in stereotypes about somebody?), he was never as openly contemptuous of us as, say, Robert Brustein, who tended to brush off the work of Albee with snorts like "his most homosexual work yet" (!) as if gossip counted as criticism. At any rate, Kauffmann eventually got his wish - and Brustein, of course, learned to keep his mouth shut.

But a funny thing happened on the way to tolerance - the "disguise" on homosexual drama began to be taken in earnest as its actual subject. At least that seems to be the critical response to the current Lyric Stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - which was directed by a gay man from a script by a gay man, and which obviously has the conflicts of gay identity as its theme. Yet because the "beard" on the play - the sexually hungry "Maggie the Cat" - is so powerfully written, critics sometimes imagine the play's story and theme actually belong to her. Or do only female critics think that way?

I've been pondering this because I was intrigued by the responses in the Boston print press - all our print critics are women - to the current production at the Lyric Stage. None of them, I think, are particularly homophobic, yet none are particularly sympathetic to homosexual expression, either, aside from the opposing poles of AIDS-patient victimology or drag-queen minstrel shows. And all seemed blind to the "gayness" of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - and all seemed to immediately accept Maggie the Cat as its central figure (in the old days, when closet queens like Kevin Kelly and Arthur Friedman roamed the critical earth, that would never have happened).

Louise Kennedy, for instance, in the Globe, felt that "Boston actors couldn't ask for a better coach [in the challenges of Tennessee Williams] than [director] Scott Edmiston . . . who consistently brings to his direction of Williams an essential blend of steel and silk . . . [he] finds the shifty terrain where Williams's characters live . . . [and] knows how to direct actors right to that spot." Okay - wham, bam! We're at Tennessee Central, ma'am! Or at least "there are moments when we're absolutely in that territory. Most of those moments occur when Georgia Lyman is onstage, bringing palpable heat and grit to the role of Maggie the Cat. But in the talky second act, for example, when Maggie leaves the room to her despairing husband, Brick, and his larger-than-life father, some vital energy leaves, too, and we're all a little lost without it."

I admit I had to smile at that: first the declaration that Scott Edmiston had brought us to the white-hot center of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, followed immediately by the unconscious admission that as the script actually moved toward its thematic core, in its "talky second act," something suddenly seemed to be missing, and "all of us" are "a little lost without it." But what? What could it be that we're missing?

Well, not all of us were so lost. Kennedy seems to completely miss the crux of the play (she never discusses it) which is Big Daddy's demand that son Brick 'fess up to his real feelings for best friend Skipper, who recently drank himself to death under mysterious circumstances - even though this confession is both the structural and emotional climax of the drama (there are even literal fireworks after it, just in case we miss its importance). And it's almost hard to overstate, I think, what this admission "means" for the playwright as well as his play. Brick is an alcoholic, like Tennessee Williams; like Williams, he has an overbearing, crude father. (Williams's father Cornelius was even the source of the phrase "cat on a hot tin roof.") And like Williams, Brick is gay, or at least was entwined in a sublimated gay relationship with his "best friend."

So the long second act of Cat is immediately recognizable, I think, to most gay men as a touching rapprochement between an estranged gay son and a forgiving straight father: Tennessee and Cornelius have it out as they never did in real life. It's both a deeply poignant piece of fantasy fulfillment, and a strange kind of quasi-vindictive trade-off: for just as Brick must admit that either he's gay or was willing to let his best friend die because he was gay, so Big Daddy is forced to face the facts about his own colon cancer. And surely the location of that cancer is of some thematic importance - as usual, sex is never far from death in Williams, and is tinged with humiliation. But however one feels about this strange, contradictory brew, it's impossible to deny that Maggie's machinations are pretty much contingent on it; she is not central, but a corollary, as it were - indeed almost a kind of side show if it weren't for the intriguing sense that fertility becomes an option for her, oddly, once Brick has admitted his sexual issues (an interesting parallel to Albee, there).

This improbability leads inevitably to the consideration of Maggie as something other than a "naturalistic character" - which is a good thing, because to be honest, she's not that appealing in those terms: she's a social-climber who's clinging to a probably-gay husband to keep her paws on an inheritance. But to Kennedy, she's got an "urgent fury" that's "mesmerizing to watch"; to the Herald (whose Jenna Scherer was far more perceptive about the production), she's likewise "determined to thrive." It's difficult not to wonder if these two aren't identifying with Maggie's sexual charisma in a way that clouds their judgment of her actions. Meanwhile, over at the Phoenix, things get even stranger: Carolyn Clay declares that the play "harbors an undercurrent of revulsion at female sexuality that borders on misogyny and has always given me the creeps." Her evidence for this is a) a bisexual husband's distant response to his wife, and b) an aging would-be letch's ridicule of his. Uh - does that really count as "misogyny"? I don't think so, although yes, Williams could be competitively bitchy, like most power bottoms, about women. Or is this just another consequence of homosexual drama's disguise - that its female critics should interpret its jealous gibes in terms of straight sexual politics? Indeed, what's funny about Cat is how strenuously it attempts to rehabilitate its unlikeable leading lady - who actually has the balls to babble on about "mendacity" whenever she gets the chance!

Or perhaps these interpretive knots exist because (as seems clear to me and I'd imagine many other gay men) Maggie is not so much a "woman" as yet another projection of Tennessee Williams's own psyche - a yowling gay cat on the prowl for beef. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But seen this way, Maggie's frustration suddenly becomes a reflection of Brick's refusal to act out on his own sexuality. Thus, once Brick's gayness is out in the open, he and Maggie can have sex (!) - exactly the opposite of what should happen in naturalistic terms, you'd think. I admit, of course, that most of the technical aspects of the dramatic "beard" of Cat don't make much sense if we admit Maggie as "male" - still, they don't make much sense as written either, do they; such are the contradictions of disguise!

Needless to say, none of this was adequately limned in Scott Edmiston's production - so in a way, Louise Kennedy's instincts were right: something was missing (in fact, everything was basically missing). But how might a production approach the play's obvious contradictions, one wonders? I do think there's a way to have some of Big Daddy's birthday cake, and eat it, too, but of course it would require much more sensitive connection (and "reflection") between the principals than was evident here. Perhaps Maggie must operate as a disguised gay male - and I'm afraid a stereotypical one, too - for the opposition of the play's materials to achieve if not harmony, then some level of consonance. One recalls the famous production of Genet's The Maids in which the women were performed by men - in kabuki drag no less - as a possible source of inspiration; but that's probably a bit much for the Lyric Stage's audience! Still, some sort of Janus-like double-imaging is clearly called for; Maggie should operate as both straight woman and gay man, or, if not, her conceptualization should answer the question "why not?"

But Scott Edmiston and the Lyric dodge all those challenges - indeed, it's dispiriting to think that Edmiston seems to have consciously modeled his production to put the play's "beard" in its best light. This may be because Georgia Lyman, the talented actress playing Maggie, is something of a local critical darling - not only is her father a major local actor, but Carolyn Clay, the Phoenix critic, admits in her review that they are friends (which, before you scream, actually counts as a step up in integrity and disclosure for the average Phoenix critic). Critical response may have also been skewed, one imagines, because the Norton Award types are not about to seriously question the chops of long-time favorite Edmiston.

Still, it's a little sad to ponder that forty years after Kauffmann, homosexual drama can't shake its disguise - even though its political purpose is now passé. Gay men don't need it anymore; but maybe straight women do.
(Note: the sketches accompanying this article are by the closeted John Singer Sargent.)

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