Straight talk about gay plays

Crix, scribes square off as issue of double standards reignites

Thirty-five years ago, the Sunday New York Times published Stanley Kauffmann’s “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” an incendiary essay that questioned gay playwrights’ ability to write authentic heterosexual characters.

Last month, New York mag critic John Simon raised a similar query on “The Charlie Rose Show”: He said his major difference with the New York Times’ Ben Brantley was the latter’s preference for “the homosexual play.”

At an East Hampton panel discussion a week later, writer Edward Albee gave a reverse twist to the theme: Homosexuals are gifted at writing straight characters, but he couldn’t think of any heterosexual scribes who had created equally convincing gay characters.

Suddenly put on the spot, neither could fellow panelists Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson.

More than 30 years after the birth of gay lib, is there still a double standard? Put another way: Is Arthur Miller ever referred to as a “straight playwright”?

To a younger generation of writers (Charles Busch, Jon Robin Baitz, Paul Rudnick), the argument is moot.

“I don’t know a gay man who writes plays who, if they want to write about gay men, doesn’t write about them,” McNally said at the East End Gay Organization seminar at Guild Hall in East Hampton on the topic “Theater From a Gay Perspective.”

The playwright had not forgotten the controversy surrounding his drama “Corpus Christi,” whose Off Broadway opening, he insists, would have gone off “without a peep” if his gay Christ figure had been made a black man or a woman.

But to McNally, the criticism from such people as Kauffmann and now Simon has further implications: “The issue is not whether Martha (in Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’) is a man; the issue is homophobia.”

Nearly 40 years after the world premiere of “Virginia Woolf,” the Simon-Brantley contretemps on the Rose show has jumpstarted the controversy.

“Well, you see, to me (Albee’s) ‘The Play About the Baby’ is an archetypally homosexual play,” Simon remarked on the show. “It never comes out and says so. But it has a camp attitude. It’s totally unserious.”

At the EEGO seminar, Albee responded: “I read 27 reviews (of ‘Play About the Baby’) and there were 26 favorable, and one was this thing by John Simon. But the more we can expose John Simon’s mind to public inspection, the better off we are.”

At the seminar, McNally offered: “The whole business of gay sensibility creeping into theater used to be a very coded way back in the 1960s for certain critics to say, ‘I know you’re a homosexual even though you’re not wearing a sign around your neck.’ … This issue of, ‘We know the women in these plays are really men … ‘ ”

Kauffmann, as well as Simon, was mentioned as a “flagrant example” of such critics.

When told of the EEGO confab, Simon brushed off the “homophobia” charge, and took the opportunity with Variety to further dissect several of Albee’s female characters: “These women are pretty outrageous and their outrageousness appeals to homosexuals.” From there, Simon quickly segued from the subject of gay playwrights to gay theater critics, whom he found especially biased.

As an example, he pointed to what he found a suspicious voting pattern at last season’s New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for best play.

“Whenever a homosexual critic opened his mouth, he voted for ‘The Play About the Baby.’ When a straight critic opened his mouth, something else came out,” Simon recalls.

Obviously, the straights won: Best play awards went to “The Invention of Love” and “Proof.”

Referring to the 1966 essay at the EEGO panel, Albee stated, “Stanley Kauffmann said we were doing serious damage to the American theater. We were writing about gay relationships and pretending they’re straight relationships…

“Now when they say there are three gay playwrights destroying American theater, they name us,” he laughed. (In Kauffmann’s essay, Albee, Williams and William Inge are unnamed.)

Albee said many gay playwrights had written well about men and women, but was stumped to come up with a straight scribe who’d written gay characters “as honestly, fully, completely, sympathetically and thoroughly.”

Albee went on, “Maybe we have an additional advantage being gay. We can penetrate the male and female psyche and the gay psyche.”

“I’ve always felt that,” Wilson agreed. “I feel perfectly comfortable at my typewriter being a woman. I can’t imagine David Mamet doing that.”

Wilson quickly rethought his comment: “I’m having a crisis of conscience here for saying Mamet could not be a woman. I’m sure he could.”

The gay-themed series “In the Life” will broadcast the EEGO confab this fall on PBS. Excerpts also are to be used for upcoming profiles on the three scribes.

Reached at his home in Manhattan, critic Kauffmann, now 85, calls the EEGO confab a “malicious distortion” of what he originally wrote, “which was to protect homosexual playwrights and attack society for making them disguise themselves.”

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