Saturday, February 4, 2012

The gay play time warp

I just sat through another "gay play" this week, which was a little dispiriting.  Actually it was a closeted gay play, in which women subbed for the gay men, just as they did fifty years ago in Tennessee Williams.  Which only made me think once again, as I have so many times in recent months -

You know, it's time to move on.

There's a whole cultural dispensation, you see, that this particular critic would like to dispense with.  And that is the "hip" gay play of the 80's and 90's - which tried to cross gay themes with the interests of the largely-heterosexual-female theatre audience.  This whole style has by now dragged on too far into the millennium, methinks.  It's not 1995 anymore, even New York has gay marriage now, and I'm not Frank Rich.  And sure, gay men and straight women are probably the core audience for theatre - but shouldn't we be making theatre for everybody?

Some of these works are worthy of remembrance and revival, it's true - but not all that many; great gay playwrights like Kushner or Williams are basically as rare as great straight ones.  (And gay men don't necessarily make better theatre critics, either.)  So I think we can throw out most of Craig Lucas, and good chunks of Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally, and needless to say almost all of Charles Busch.  And I'm not crazy anymore about the "gayface" children's theatre perpetrated by the likes of the Gold Dust Orphans and their ilk.  It's funny, yes, but it's not cutting edge, and it no longer has any real political traction.   It's easily construed as nostalgia, in fact; it's all a little tired.  I want something tougher, smarter - something about the way we live now.  I mean, you can find more up-to-the-minute portrayals of gay lives on network television now than you can on most local stages.  And that's just wrong!

But okay, I know - it's a shock to imagine that coming out is not, actually, the be-all and end-all of personal courage.  So if we don't dump these playwrights entirely, can we at least begin to resist the fodder of their followers and acolytes?  Can we at least begin to send out the signal that, even though the gay critics in New York are trying to push Stephen Karam as the second coming, this form is aesthetically and politically moribund?  Don't get me wrong - any troupe that puts up Wilson or Lucas or McNally in Oklahoma or South Carolina deserves support and praise.  But if you put up a gay play in the South End, then you're simply preaching to the choir, and patting yourself on the back about it; indeed, as a general rule, if there's a thriving theatre scene somewhere, that means gay playwrights are nearly obsolete in political terms.  We have other, live-wire issues to consider on the stage; thorny questions about how we deal with the Middle East and with China, about the dehumanization thrust on us by digital technologies, about the oppressive class structure of our society.  Enough with the gay plays already.


  1. I recently attended a reading in New York of a play by someone tipped to be one of America's top young writers. The themes? Gays can't be 'cured,' it's harmful to deny your sexuality, God loves everyone, and to thine own self be true. The audience treated it like the profoundly serious and thought-provoking work it really, really, REALLY wants you to believe it is. Sigh.

  2. You know, I think there could still be exciting "gay plays" to be written - but they'd have to be about marriage, and the struggle for that. Or perhaps about gay parenting. In a word, the current issues, not the old ones.