The ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s saw a rise in plays about gay life—first addressing issues of identity and discrimination, and then the decimating AIDS epidemic. Plays like Boys in the Band, The Normal Heart, and Angels in America shattered taboos and brought gay characters into the mainstream. And now several of these groundbreaking plays are now returning to Broadway.
But, a generation later, will they hold up?
That’s one of the questions that theater critic Jesse Green tackled in an article for the New York Times, “Will the Old Gay Play Have Something New to Say?”
For the podcast that is now part of the Slate family, Studio 360, Green and playwright Paul Rudnick sat down with host Kurt Andersen to talk about their favorite plays from this era, and how gay themes have evolved on the stage. Hear the segment here or read an edited version of the transcript with some clips that they watched together below.
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Kurt Andersen: So we're going to talk about a bunch of the plays especially from the ’80s and ’90s that you wrote about, Jesse. But let’s go back: Before there were plays overtly about gayness, there were obviously gay playwrights writing that certainly since have been regarded as elliptically, cryptically gay plays. Like Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; or Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s the first time I remember hearing as a child, like, “Oh, that’s really about homosexuals, Kurt.”
Green: He will strike you down from the grave for that comment.
I know he will.
Rudnick: His estate will go after you.
I know he will. And Williams didn’t like the idea of writing for a gay audience particularly.
Green: That was a less credible position.
Yeah. So Albee objecting to that, and Williams not wanting to be considered a gay playwright: Was that legitimate? Was it a function of when they were writing?
Rudnick: There was a lot of gay baiting that went on back then because Albee and Tennessee Williams, two of the great iconic American playwrights, were often criticized and accused of disguising gay characters.
At the time?
Rudnick: At the time. And so also remember, the cost of being openly gay then was unthinkable. They would not have had the careers they had—they would not have had any careers at all.
Were there advantages do you think for writers not being able to deal explicitly with gay themes? Was that an interesting constraint in the 1940s and ’50s?
Rudnick: Especially in the case of Williams, it was interesting the way he managed to work gay characters and especially in something like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So clearly these guys did want to write about topics but it was forbidden, so I can’t think of it as an actual helpful constraint.
Green: I both agree with that and disagree with that. And Paul you’re a working playwright so you should know. But there is a way in which I think all writers thrive under constraints, any kind of constraint—whether it’s word length or how long your play can be or how many sets you have money for in this production.
Or the Nazis occupying Paris. I mean that is a thing, right?
Green: That’s a good example. So you could argue that had some of these playwrights been free to say everything they wanted in exactly in the form they wanted, they may not have found such fabulous workarounds.
Rudnick: But again, you would have to say, “Oh, gee, would August Wilson have been better off had he been forced to write about white people,” you know...
Green: I think he'd have been better off if he’d been forced to write about gay people! I just think, you know, this is his real métier.
I think you’re joking.
Green: Yes, I am.
So let’s move forward in time to the ’60s and especially the ’80s and ’90s. I want to go through a few of these and talk about which ones you like more and less. How they struck you when you first saw them. How well you think they hold up now. So, Boys in the Band written by Mart Crowley (who’s still alive, by the way) and first staged in 1968. Jesse, give a brief synopsis introduction to this classic.
Green: A bunch of extremely unhappy gay men meet for a party in which they play a devastating game and basically reveal the emptiness and tragedy of gay life. Do you think that’s fair, Paul?
Rudnick: It’s interesting. I think it is completely valid but I would also say that my early experience of that play and the movie—probably how I first saw it was at like a college film society. I thought of it as far more joyous than that, but I think it is absolutely true that it is a kind of a tragic vision. It’s also a very funny play, very smart, and it doesn’t advocate for the tragic vision. I think by the end of it it says, no we have to stop hating ourselves. Sometimes it gets an unfortunate rap that’s being anti-gay which it isn’t.
Kurt : Let’s watch a clip from Boys in the Band.
Green: Wow. The split between the straights and the Marys was already so well established.
And by that we mean what, Jesse?
Green: The straight-acting gays and the effeminate-acting gays.
I remember seeing it, and it was the first explicitly gay anything I’d ever been aware of.
Green: It terrified me. I saw the movie first and if I had been out of the closet it would have scared me back into it. I agree with Paul that it’s not endorsing anything anti-gay, but it is presenting such a tragic picture of the current state of affairs, probably fairly accurately at that time, but it wasn’t exactly, you know, welcome and rainbow flag.
Right. How did it play to gay audiences and straight audiences at the time in the late ’60s and early ’70s?
Rudnick: Well it was an enormous success—both the play and the movie—they were considered explosive and scandalous but also very highly praised. So there was a slight sense of a forbidden glimpse at a subculture. But on the other hand, because it was written by a gay man and written very knowledgeably and wisely, that it wasn’t just a lurid peek. There was really a sense of, OK these lives exist. Take a look. So it was a breakthrough. I always say that what can’t be diminished is that Mart Crowley did something that was—especially at the time—incredibly brave. It’s going to be revived next season directed by Ryan Murphy I believe or at least produced by him.
Green: Directed by Joe Mantello.
Rudnick: Oh Joe Mantello, on Broadway! But produced by Ryan Murphy, who directed the HBO version of The Normal Heart, is someone who includes massive amounts of gay straight characters, you name it.
Up next, let’s talk about Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. Paul, you were a fan.
Rudnick: Oh enormously so. That was—and was and is a magnificent play. I remember Harvey starring in it which was magnetic. And it’s being given from everything I’ve heard a top-notch revival starring Michael Urie, who is just a world-class actor.
So did you see it when you were a young man?
Rudnick: I was, I did indeed.
Rudnick: Yeah I adored it because both because it was wonderful to see gay material on stage. But even more so because it’s such a terrific play and was so funny and so beautifully performed.
Remind us of the basic idea of Torch Song.
Rudnick: Torch Song was I think taken somewhat from Harvey’s own life. It was about a drag queen making his way in the world and his romantic life—his relationship with a bisexual partner. And ultimately in the third act with his mother, who was not forgiving and not accepting. So it becomes quite explosive by the end. But it was a very wonderfully positive portrait of gay lives and of this outsized irrepressible, irresistible guy.
Green: And yet still a portrait of gay lives that were struggling with basic identity questions. This would gradually change so that gay characters could appear without having to argue their right to exist or to be out of the closet. But at this time Fierstein really zeroed in on those issues.
Are you old enough Jesse to have seen it when it was playing the first time?
Green: I saw it when it was put together as the trilogy. It had originally been done as a series of one acts off off-Broadway at La Mama and elsewhere and then was put together as a one-evening, very long event.
Do you expect that it will hold up and be perfectly relevant in 2017-’18?
Rudnick: Oh absolutely because I think it was interesting how prescient a lot it was. Because Harvey and that play deal with the possibility of gay marriage, gay adoption, how you create a family.
Rudnick: Yep. And that play also won the Tony for Best Play.
Green: So it’s so character-based it’s really about—
Green: And the relationship between him and his mother, which is you know—will that ever not be topical?
So tell me if I’m completely wrong about this but it seems to me that period of a dozen years is kind of continental divide in gay culture, gay theater. Suddenly out, suddenly the horrors of AIDS. I mean that was the before-and-after moment. Is that true? Fair?
Green: Well AIDS certainly was the dividing line for many things in gay life including what happened to gay theater. I mean of course using the phrase “gay theater” or “gay plays” is a problem in itself.
Rudnick: And often redundant.
Green: Well perhaps in your case.
Kurt: You had it in your headline!
Green: I am not responsible for my headlines. The way AIDS functioned in the larger questions of gay life was that it was a terrible tragedy that affected pretty much everyone in the community one way or another. But also, sad to say, was the first thing that fully convinced non-gay people that there were real lives worth mourning and treasuring behind, you know, those shadowy figures they had heard about for years. And so, through plays about AIDS the doors came open for other plays. But at the time we’re talking about that was just beginning to happen with plays like The Normal Heart and Falsettos and Paul’s play, Jeffrey.
We are next going to Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart in 1985.
Rudnick: It was shattering and it was important on so many levels because at that time in the early years of the AIDS crisis, the media was not covering any of it.
It’s really early years. It came out in 1985. I mean the first New York Times article was 1982 I believe.
Rudnick: Exactly. And even that was relatively minor. There was an electricity when you went to see that because nobody knew what was going on. There were certainly no medical answers and there was no government attention whatsoever. So it was making a difference on so many levels. And I think what especially the most recent revival revealed, although this was pretty much acknowledged already, is that it’s also a terrific play. It really works. It cooks.
Here’s Mark Ruffalo starring in the film adaptation of The Normal Heart.
Green: One of the signal tones of The Normal Heart is the rage that represents a perfect meeting at a particular time of topic and playwright: Larry Kramer.
Who was a big loud activist and remains so.
Green: And founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP before being kind of pushed to the sidelines of both of them because of his large personality, shall we say. But in this play, there was no one to push him aside and he successfully channeled a kind of Biblical rage into a dramatic form that still holds up. I think that’s what actually continues to make it viable as a play. Had it been less political, I don’t think it would continue to hold up.
And what about the fact that AIDS can now be managed very differently than we had any idea back then that it ever would be or could be? Does that change dramatically the way that play is watched today?
Rudnick: Well, see, when people say, “Oh, it’s dated,” I find it irritating to say the least. First of all, AIDS is still prevalent all over the world and thank God the play’s dated to the extent it is. And aside from that, the minute you say, “Oh a play was set in an earlier age therefore we should have no interest in it,” well let’s erase all of Shakespeare then. What I’ve experienced is when younger audiences experience these plays they’ve thankfully not had to live through that particular tragedy, but they are fascinated and it is also historical information for them and they had no idea.
Because it’s like a war movie made during the war.
Green: It is a war movie, that’s exactly right.
Up next, the great Angels in America, which many people have seen on stage or the HBO mini-series. But for the people who missed it or have forgotten—Paul?
Green: Summarize that, Paul!
Rudnick: Oh my lord.
What is Tony Kushner’s play about?
Rudnick: Well all you need to basically know is that it’s a masterwork. It’s one of the truly great American plays and it’s an epic. It was set in the age of AIDS with wild flights of fantasy and beyond. It involves everyone from Roy Cohn to Ethel Rosenberg to the lives of a central gay couple, one of whom is suffering quite terribly from AIDS and the other of whom is running away from him. So it’s both a very personal story and deeply emotional and it’s about everyone and everything.
Let’s watch a clip of the 2003 HBO miniseries version of Angels in America with a scene with Justin Kirk and Meryl Streep.
Did you both see it when it opened—the two parts of it on Broadway in 1993?
Rudnick: Oh absolutely. I mean you couldn’t not see it. It really was thrilling. And it was also the introduction of the genius that is Tony Kushner. So that you’ve got the action of the play and also the lyricism and the poetry and the humor and everything else. So you thought, “Oh my god this is a major writer who’s arrived in full flower.” So it was beyond an event.
Green: As Paul said, a new voice—new to most of us—had emerged but also a way of looking at the content that had been bubbling around in a lot of the plays that we’d been talking about, reorganized toward a different purpose and with an enormous vision that went way beyond AIDS and gayness to encompass really the whole—
Green: Modern history and future history because, looked at now, I find myself very drawn to the part of the story—and amazingly it’s just one part of the story—that is about the future of the planet.
Rudnick: And also that Roy Cohn, who is a central character and a personification of evil in the play, of course he’s one of Donald Trump’s godfathers.
Rudnick: Yeah exactly.
And so we all agree it’s the great play of its era.
Rudnick: It’s that good.
And not a great gay play but it’s a great American play.
Green: Oh it is a great gay play.
Rudnick: Yeah it’s both! I imagine it Tony Kushner would insist that it is a gay play as well, but it certainly is in the canon, and you know when you talk about Death of a Salesman and Streetcar Named Desire you put Angels in America right up there.
And interestingly compared to most of the other plays, all the other plays I guess we’ve been talking about, it is not thoroughly realistic. It has these poetic flights of fancy and angels and dead people and so forth. Does that make it less dated?
Rudnick: Yeah, it’s not dated in the slightest because even though a lot of it is a particularly specific attack on Reagan and those years that doesn’t date either when you look at, OK, how did those years inform what’s happening right now?
Green: And the central story which is about betrayal of one character for his lover and his having to figure out how to make his life OK after he betrays his lover. That’s another story that will never go away.
Paul, let’s look at one of your best-known plays.
Rudnick: Uh oh.
The previously mentioned Jeffrey. Here is a clip from the movie version:
Green: Oh thank god. Thank god for that play. Really I remember—
Rudnick: Aww thank you.
Green: No, in the midst of—
Rudnick: That was Steven Weber and Bryan Batt. Bryan originated that role in the original production.
Green: But Paul, you’re interrupting your own compliment.
Rudnick: Go, go, by all means!
Green: You know in the midst of all these plays we’ve been talking about, not a one of them a comedy, mind you. And also in the midst of a time of terrible sadness came a play which was—an AIDS comedy? Possibly? Can we call it that? I mean I don’t know if you ever called it that.
It’s a genre now.
Green: A genre of one, I think. That really did one of the things that theater can and should do. And it was something no one else was, I want to say, daring to do. I don’t know if it felt daring to you though.
Rudnick: It was only possible because of plays like The Normal Heart because the subject matter had been treated with that weight that it deserved. But I was a comic writer. For a while I thought maybe there was no way into this material and into the subject, but I couldn’t help myself because all the people around me were so funny. And before there were any medical possibilities, a sense of humor was kind of the only weapon anyone had.
So are gay characters being more mainstreamed now, and the fact that they’re gay is becoming secondary?
Rudnick: To a certain extent but there’s one funny thing that’s kind of going on in theater right at the moment because of gay marriage being legalized, which is a big win for the LGBTQ world. It makes gay people no longer underdogs and a lot of writers have been wrestling with, OK we can now write plays about the trouble of gay marriage and gay relationships but that seems a little beside the point after you’ve had that particular victory. So it’s an interesting challenge. But there’s still a sense, especially when you leave the coasts, that if you have a play where there’s a central character, where there is an LGBTQ hero or heroine, then it will still be questionable. It will be seen as a niche item. That yes, you can still had plenty gay best friends and gay aunts and uncles. But if it’s a meaningful central character, it will still be produced but without the frequency of August: Osage County, which is a fantastic play. But there could still be marginalized things going on.
Green: But on the other hand, you have the surprising success of musical like Fun Home which is the story of a young lesbian discovering her identity. And this is a musical that not only succeeded on Broadway, but also did very well on the road. So go figure that one.
Well I was just going to ask about that, and I think of the play Indecent, and suddenly you have lesbian stars characters on Broadway but only in the last few years. Why such a lag in terms of lesbian and gay?
Rudnick: Exactly. Because also Lisa Kron who did the book and lyrics for Fun Home and won a Tony for both is a superb writer who had a wonderful solo show and another great play on Broadway called Well that she appeared in. And so, yeah, I think there is a lag because I think the culture, also because AIDS was seen as affecting gay men directly. There was a natural output there.
Do you think if we gathered here and in 25 years that we wouldn’t look back at this age of the gay play as a kind of specific golden age, that like 1970 to 2000 will be a period of the great theater, partly as a result of dealing with AIDS?
Rudnick: Yeah I think there was a natural flowering. That is indisputable that you often have art in response to a world crisis. And also because the art was very restricted at that time—there were not a lot of movies that dealt with AIDS and no TV shows—or very few. And theater also because AIDS was affecting the theatrical community so immediately.
And pre- and post-legal gay marriage, seems to me to be a huge cultural thing.
Green: Perhaps what will happen is that gay playwrights—whether or not they’re writing about gay characters—will have their work just sort of flowing into the mainstream of all works at that time. And you know one day I think you’re right: We will look back at this as a time when plays about gay characters flourished because gay people were not flourishing elsewhere.