Now, it's actors; before, it was playwrights

Newsweek’s critic Ramin Setoodeh thinks that Sean Hayes, because he’s gay, can’t cut it playing a straight man in “Promises, Promises” on Broadway. GLAAD issued a statement demanding an apology. Gays are threatening a boycott of the newsweekly unless that apology is forthcoming. Aaron Sorkin defended the scribe on the Huffington Post. And now there’s a storm of controversy in Shubert Alley that some believe could influence the outcome of the Tonys.

The theater community has been here before. But instead of openly gay actors being under attack, it was openly gay playwrights who took the heat and, after them, openly gay legit critics like Setoodeh.

Here’s the history:

In 1966, the Sunday New York Times published Stanley Kauffmann’s “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” an incendiary essay that seriously questioned gay playwrights’ ability to write authentic heterosexual characters. He singled out these writers’ “viciousness towards women, the lurid violence . . . (and) the transvestite sexual exhibitionism.”

Cut to 35 years later, in 2001, when then-New York mag critic John Simon raised a similar query on “The Charlie Rose Show.” Instead of singling out just playwrights, he went after fellow Rose guest, Ben Brantley, the NYT’s openly gay theater critic, and his preference for “the homosexual play.”

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

Brantley defended Albee’s play and aesthetic, saying, in effect, that the camp attitude had gone mainstream and was now “in the water.”

In an interview with Variety on the subject, Simon found not only Brantley but other gay theater critics especially biased. As an example, he pointed to what he considered a suspicious voting pattern at the 2001 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 recalled.

A few days after the Simon/Brantley/Rose brouhaha, Albee recalled the 1966 Kauffman essay and Simon’s critique of Brantley at a theater seminar in East Hampton.

“Stanley Kauffmann said we were doing serious damage to the American theater. We were writing about gay relationships and pretending they’re straight relationships,” said the playwright. “Now, when they say there are three gay playwrights destroying American theater, they name us.” (In Kauffmann’s essay, Albee, Williams and Inge are unnamed.)

At the seminar, fellow gay scribe Terrence 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.’”

At the time, Kauffmann, then 85, defended himself in a Variety interview, calling Albee’s remarks 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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