MiniReview: "Tea and Sympathy" (play and film)

The lovely Deborah Kerr and the adorable John Kerr in the 1953-54 Broadway production.

What is it?

It’s both a play by Robert Anderson, which ran on Broadway from 1953 to 1955, and a 1956 film directed by Vincente Minnelli.


What’s it about?

A boy named Tom Lee, aged 17, a student at an upscale New England boys’ school, is suspected of being homosexual (or “not a regular guy,” in the play’s parlance). His housemaster’s wife defends him, and encourages him to believe that men can be sensitive and kind, rather than thuggish and bullying, without necessarily being queer.


That’s nice. But getting back to the homosexuality: he’s suspected of it, or he is?

There’s the rub.



A bit like in the play The Children’s Hour, the subject of homosexuality isn’t really dealt with head-on. Tom might be gay or he might not be, and that’s mostly beside the point (in the play’s terms). What’s important is that he’s being accused of something beyond awful.


So it’s not really a “gay” play?

No, but apparently it caused quite a sensation in the 1950s simply by the fact that it acknowledged the existence of “men who like men.” There’s even a secondary character, a teacher, who loses his job in the first act because he’s too fond of the boys, and this was extremely edgy subject matter in 1953. The fact that Tom was seen enjoying the company of that teacher is the catalyst for Tom himself being tarred with the same brush. But homosexuality is not really the central subject of the play; it’s more about the rigidity of gender roles.


So I’m guessing homosexuality isn’t the subject of the film either?

In a way, it’s even less the subject of the film, because the screenplay omits the story line about the gay teacher who gets fired (because at that time, in Hollywood films, one couldn’t even openly acknowledge the existence of homosexuality). But in a way, the film is more “queer” in that the accusations against Tom are based solely on his non-gender-conforming behaviour (he likes classical music, he’s not that into sports, and his success at tennis is based on finesse rather than brute strength). The film (directed by a man who may have been gay or bisexual himself, and directed musicals!) is pretty unforgiving and razor-sharp in its portrayal of what we would now call “toxic masculinity.”

More than the play, the film rather goes out of its way to suggest that Tom is not in fact gay (there’s a “framing” story, set ten years later, in which Tom is ostentatiously wearing a wedding ring), but to me the whole thing makes a lot more sense, and is more poignant, if you assume he is. If he isn’t, it’s just a rather sweet but inconsequential story set in a decade when many people were being accused of things.


So, did you like the play? Or the film? They both seem to be firmly in the closet!

It’s a nice, beautifully constructed play, and pleasant to read. And the film, in gorgeous Technicolor, is fabulous viewing, nicely acted. For their examinations of gender roles, they are both well worth looking at (and, in many respects, still relevant). But if you’re looking for some sort of proto-gay-rights story, this ain’t it.



One star. Queer readers/viewers will find this story either (a) interesting and moving or (b) hilariously campy and outdated or (c) both (particularly the film).

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