NEW YORK — History often recalls a season when a group of people moved in concert to create change. Last week, tens of thousands of gays and lesbians came to New York to remember their season of change--to mark the uprising 25 years ago that sparked the modern gay-rights movement.
On June 27, 1969, a few dozen individuals--mostly drag queens, male hustlers and college boys--fought back when police raided a dance bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn. The riots that followed inspire gays nationwide to demand an end to repression and prejudice, and emboldened them to live and work proudly in every part of American society. Nowhere is the gay contribution more evident than in the arts--particularly in theater, where openly gay actors, writers, set designers, producers and directors are flourishing. Great works dissecting gay themes, such as Tony Kushner's Pultizer Prizes-winning "Angels in America," and Paul Rudnick's "Jeffrey" receive wide acclaim. Yet, it has been a difficult struggle--in Hollywood, gay and lesbian actors still face possible loss of employment if the truth of their private lives ever came out.
Two months after Stonewall, British actor Ian McKellen starred at the Edinburgh Festival in Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II," a sensational gay role few actors were willing to risk. Local authorities tried unsuccessfully to ban the show because two men kissed on stage. McKellen, then 30, was himself a closeted homosexual. It was not until 1988 that he came out.
Now 55, Sir Ian--as he has been known since 1991, when he became the first openly gay actor to be knighted--has become an important gay activist in Britain, raising money for an AIDS hospice and helping to found a gay-rights lobbying group. A brilliant Shakespearean actor educated at Cambridge University, McKellen has said--and demonstrated--that he is not a gay performer but rather an actor who is proud to be gay.
He has taken a range of parts in the last five years: he revived "Bent," the 1979 play about gay concentration-camp victims; he toured in America as "Richard III;" he did Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," and Dracula in music video for the Pet Shop Boys. He also spent time in Hollywood: tackling a role in "And the Band Played On," about the AIDS epidemic, as well as smaller roles.
An enormously engaging raconteur with startling blue eyes, McKellen spoke in his dressing room last week in Broadway's Lyceum Theater, where he was appearing in "A Knight Out," a one-man show he devised especially for the cultural festival accompanying the Gay Games. With only an hour to go before curtain time, still out of costume in a work shirt, blue jeans and purple high-tops, McKellen spoke calmly yet eagerly about the great strides of gays in the theater and how far they still had to go in film.
Question:\o7 Many recent plays by gay writers emphasiz\f7 e\o7 similar themes\f7 --\o7 of coming out, of gay pride, of caring for the sick. After this initial burst of venting and expression, what themes do you expect playwrights who are seeing the world through a prism of gay life will move on to?
\f7 Answer: I don't know. There have always been gay playwrights. Very few of them have written about being gay. The first one to do it was Christopher Marlowe, who I quote extensively in my show. But throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, gay playwrights like Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward never acknowledged in their work that they had ever fallen in love with another man.
That's the cruelty of society's repression--that people as independent and spirited as they were didn't dare speak openly about themselves and their work. And it's only very, very, very recently this has happened. There are still famous playwrights alive that don't want to be identified as gay and disguise their sexuality not only in public interviews but in their writings. So the people we're talking about now are really the exception.
. . . You just have to look at each individual's work. Martin Sherman's play "Bent" predates all of these and you look at Martin's writings since. He'd written other plays about the gay experience before that and every play he writes has a gay character in it. It's very difficult for Martin to imagine the world without a gay person in it. But Martin is just a civilized person who happens to be gay and everything will be filtered through that experience. He's not a proselytizing writer like Larry Kramer is. Larry Kramer writes plays . . . to focus people's attention on political issues that he's lived through and he tells them in a strong autobiographical way. I expect Larry will always go on doing that. So it's difficult to look at themes, you just have to look at individuals . . . .
Q:\o7 Are gay playwrights perhaps talking to each other too much? Are their themes universal enough?