New York has long been a centre for gay theatre. But are the problems homosexuals face now the same as everyone else faces? Is there still a place for "gay" plays?
By chance, I recently read, one right after the other, two plays with striking similarities—striking, that is, if one reads the plays one right after the other, because in fact they are markedly different in style and plot (and I’m not suggesting any improper borrowing).
The first of these was William M. Hoffman’s As Is (1985), often referred to as the first AIDS play. The second was Jordan Seavey’s Homos, or Everyone in America (2016), which has been making waves in New York, London and other theatre circles.
The similarities I noticed are these: First, both plays are set in the gay world of New York City. Both plays focus on one couple, and in each instance one of the guys is Jewish, and in each instance one of them is a writer. Both couples are totally out, and don’t seem to struggle much with their identity as gay men. And there are plot similarities too: in each play, the couple splits up and then comes together again as friends at the end.
It is this latter point that most interests me. In As Is, Rich leaves his partner for another guy, who deserts him when Rich is diagnosed with AIDS, and he then returns to his old partner, Saul, who takes care of his friend/ex-boyfriend. In Homos, The Writer and The Academic split up, but they come back together when The Academic is the victim of a horrific and violent homophobic attack and The Writer offers him his home in which to recuperate.
So we have two plays, written more than thirty years apart, in which suffering gay men stick together, even when the initial (romantic, sexual) bond between them is no longer foremost. They act towards each other as good friends should.
There is a striking continuity here in the portrayal of the gay community: we are subject to outside forces that threaten us, and if we don’t stick up for each other, we can’t really count on others to stick up for us. This is a message that was loud and clear in the 1980s and 1990s, when the official response to the AIDS crisis was pathetically and criminally weak. It is a message that seems much less relevant nowadays. But it seems to me that one of the points that Jordan Seavey, the author of Homos, is making is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
This is one way of looking at things. There is another analysis of the state of the gay community that would suggest all the major problems have been solved: civil rights questions, the marriage question, AIDS, public acceptance of homosexuality. The Writer in Homos, in one of my favourite passages in the play, calls this the “post-gay fantasia” entertained by liberal America. In certain respects, this is the vision of things portrayed in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down the Stream (2017), which shows an aging gay man, who has studied and witnessed the difficulties of homosexuals throughout the twentieth century, becoming a sort of grandfather to a child adopted by a young gay couple, in what might be called a “post-gay fantasia” where being homosexual doesn’t mean much aside from the gender of the person you sleep with, and same-sex couples can generate families that mirror the traditional idea of what a family is.
Maybe I’m reading too much into Jordan Seavey’s text, but it seems to me that by having his play culminate in a homophobic attack carried out by young people on the streets of hipster Williamsburg in 2011, as homosexuals in the US were on the point of achieving complete marriage equality, he’s suggesting that things are not all rosy—that according homosexuals the “right” to get married (thanks!) does nothing to address fundamental social attitudes. The government cannot legislate that we must love one another. The government cannot decree that queer folk will be treated with respect and looked on with affection and warmth. Like racism, homophobia exists, and its presence ebbs and flows. We shouldn’t be complacent.
Where racism or transphobia are concerned, the latter point is surely glaringly obvious at the present time. But the same goes for homophobia.
The other common “message” I took from these two plays is that gay men should be kind to one another—that after the sexual charge cools, we should still treat one another as buddies, as friends. In this context, it’s worth asking what exactly marriage means for the gay community. Again, I think I’m probably going beyond Jordan Seavey’s text here, but in fact, while there is a lot of talk in his play about marriage, in the end the “bond” that endures for his two characters (who never do get married), and which is celebrated, is basic friendship and love that goes beyond a written contract and beyond a sexual union. The Writer, the one who offers his home to The Academic after the homophobic attack, says at one point that he’s “proud to be part of a community that’s resisted traditional notions of marriage.”
So much has happened to the LGBTQ community in the past thirty-five years, and we seem to be at a point where the question is whether or not we as a community are more or less at the end of history. Have we achieved an equilibrium and a recognition that are unshakable, the way certain historians saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as marking a more or less permanent victory for capitalism and democracy over Communism and dictatorship? Even though I quite liked Gently Down the Stream, it did seem to hint at the dawn of a brave new world where queer folk can be “normal,” and in this respect it resembles several other recent gay plays. But as we’re seeing on the political stage, history continues its ebbs and flows, can move backwards as well as forwards. The history of the LGBTQ community is not, I would suggest, a straight line drawn from repression towards acceptance. The fact that two plays written over thirty years apart have so much in common suggests there are certain things that don’t really change even in a period that can seem to be a story of unstoppable progress.