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COMMENTARY

Gay Theater? No, Just Life

Judging plays on a character's--or writer's--sexual orientation isn't the right approach.

December 08, 1996|Terrence McNally

Playwright Terrence McNally's versatility could be his calling card. He just completed a musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," which opens today in Toronto, and his play "Master Class," about opera singer Maria Callas (which won a Tony for best play, after stopping at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995), continues on Broadway.

But his most talked-about work of recent years is "Love! Valour! Compassion!," a story of the complex relationships among eight gay friends who gather on holidays over the course of a summer. The 1995 Tony winner for best play gets its L.A. premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse (and Fine Line Features plans to release a film of it in April).

Because "Love! Valour! Compassion!" is seen as one of the most direct portrayals of homosexual life in the 1990s, Calendar invited McNally to comment on the art of writing about gays for the stage.

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Gay is good, of course. It is also terrible, perplexing, banal, hilarious, tragic and as concerned with mortgage rates and who's moving in next door as straight is. Until and unless that is understood, we have gone absolutely nowhere with this thing and people like me will continue to be asked to write pieces like this for people like you. We both deserve a break.

In the meantime, so much nonsense has been written about gay characters, gay writers, gay actors, gay directors, gay designers, gay producers, gay audiences, gay ushers and gay theater, period, that tossing in my three cents will add no more or less to the general folly than the last essayist's two.

Here's the scoop: Gay theater doesn't exist anymore. There is good theater and there is bad theater. Gay playwrights either write a play as worthy of your interest (or mine) as Mr. Arthur Miller or they don't. You can't get away with a bad "gay" play any more than you can with serving up lousy food in a "gay" restaurant. Gay isn't enough in 1996. That is as it should be. But fair's fair. Nowadays, Mr. Arthur Miller must write a play at least half as interesting as Mr. Tony Kushner.

The only difference is that Mr. Arthur Miller will not be referred to in reviews of "Death of a Salesman" or in interviews on the state of the American theater as a heterosexual playwright. Of course, he is still being referred to as the last husband of Marilyn Monroe, as I suppose we all have our cross to bear. I also doubt that Mr. Miller is ever asked who among the cast of "Death of a Salesman" is gay. Somehow wondering if the actress who just tore your heart out as Linda Loman is a lesbian just doesn't seem to be the issue. And should that same actress elect to be in a production of "The Sisters Rosenzweig" immediately following her Mrs. Loman, I would be very surprised if her agent cautioned her about playing two Jewish heroines in a row, lest people get the wrong impression.

And I wonder if Mr. Miller will ever be asked by a producer who is anxious to commission a new play from him, "It doesn't have any gay characters in it, I hope?" Not that the producer has anything against gay characters, he insists (and I believe him)--it's just that he produced a play with gay characters last season and he doesn't want his subscribers to think he's running a gay theater. And I hope Mr. Miller is never taken to task by straight activists for not consistently portraying heterosexuals in a positive, self-affirming light. And should Mr. Miller decide to write a play about gay men and women with nary a heterosexual among them, I trust he will not be accused of betraying his mission or letting down his side. And when that play is awarded a Tony, I hope he will not overhear a losing playwright being consoled by his family telling him, "What have they got against normal people?"

No, gay theater is over but the homophobia lingers on. A good writer, an intelligent actor or a sensitive director does not want to contribute to the residual stupidity either backstage or out front by working in stereotypes and cliches. This is easier said than done, however. There are gay stereotypes and cliches that are as eternal and universal as anything in commedia dell'arte. It would be a crime against nature (and the god of humor) to turn all gay characters into earnest insurance salesmen. I believe there is a gay sensibility. The good writer, the intelligent actor and the sensitive director balance it with the human sensibility, too. The bad writer, the dumb actor and the crass director reduce this human sensibility in a gay character to nothing but the stereotype. No one laughs more at a fully realized gay character than I do. No one cringes more at a badly written or acted one, either.

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