Entry from February 24, 2010

Wouldn’t you just know it? Now that homosexuals have gone all respectable on us by wanting to get married to each other, we’re likely to see a return of sentimental, middle-brow drama as well, only featuring gay instead of straight couples in troubled marriages and having crises of middle-class conscience and so forth. Perhaps even the recent Onion headline — “Gay Teen Worries He Might be Christian” — will come true. According to Patrick Healy, writing in the New York Times, this new gay theatre is shockingly reactionary.

These productions about gay life make little or no mention of H.I.V. or AIDS and keep direct activism at arm’s length, with militant crusading portrayed with ambivalence more than ardor. The politics of these shows — there are seven of them opening in New York in the next several weeks — are subtler, more nuanced: they place the everyday concerns of Americans in a gay context, thereby pressing the case that gay love and gay marriage, gay parenthood and gay adoption are no different from their straight variations.

Except that everyone knows they are different. That’s what once made the love part of it, anyway, exciting, edgy, “transgressive.” And what if the straight variations themselves are different from what they think they are? One reason for straight people as well as gay people to regret the movement to gay marriage is the loss of self-irony that it represents. That once served heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. Whither “camp” and all its delightful mockery of bourgeois convention when the gays, who invented it, suddenly decide that they, too, are taking bourgeois convention seriously again?

Mr Healy quotes the brothers Joe and David Zellnik who created the new musical Yank, about the (sexual) love of two G.I.s for each other during World War II, as claiming that “We weren’t trying to write an overtly political musical about gays in the military, because we came to see that ‘Yank!’ becomes more subversive the more you hew to the old classic Rodgers and Hammerstein models of love stories — just between two men — than having our characters up on soapboxes.” But this makes no sense. They might think they’re subverting the traditional military ethos, but even if they are they are affirming in the process the social order that it serves. “Subversive” is just what the piece cannot be if plugs its gay characters into the Rodgers and Hammerstein template with a straight face.

I don’t know, maybe gay couples from White Plains and Scarsdale will flock to the city at weekends to have a rollicking night of entertainment at Yank, but I somehow kind of doubt it. It’s been done. We know too much to return to that kind of innocence now. Of another one of the new gay dramas, The Pride, the Times’s own theatre critic Ben Brantley writes:

There’s something to be said for a love that dare not speak its name, at least when it comes to dramatic tension. Though sex is frankly and, on occasion, brutally portrayed in this production, directed by Joe Mantello, an old-fashioned artificiality saturates The Pride, like a floral cologne with musk accents. The play is set in both 1958 and 2008. Yet even during its latter-day scenes, I found myself thinking of gay writers of many decades ago, particularly Terence Rattigan, whose mid-20th- century dramas (Separate Tables, The Deep Blue Sea) chronicled the loneliness of forbidden love. And I began to think that Rattigan’s work may have benefited from his not being able to describe directly his own erotic nature.

Do tell! Everybody’s work benefits from his not being able to describe directly his own erotic nature. That’s because describing directly one’s own erotic nature is boring — at least to other people. Much more interesting and enjoyable is the irony and indirection that gays used to be so good at. In our eagerness to make the forbidden the commonplace, we rob ourselves of more than just the thrills of the forbidden. The commonplace also suffers from having no boundary. Now, it seems, the ironic gay guy, presumably like the promiscuous gay guy, is to be a thing of the past, and those of us who are not gay are also to be robbed of the best part of our fondness for Broadway show tunes, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, none of which can anyone take seriously anymore without the filter of gay irony.

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