For twentieth-century homosexual playwrights -- Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Edward Albee, Emlyn Williams, Terence Rattigan to name several -- the time during which they wrote required circumspection, if not downright shrink-wrapped secrecy. The love that dared not speak its name, according to Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's inamorata Bosie, continued to keep its mouth clamped shut as the nineteenth century up-shifted into the 1900s.
But times have finally changed, and as the first decade of the twenty-first century ends, the romantic and sexual love two men feel for one another is shouting or at least sufficiently raising its voice to be heard distinctly and often with distinction. Any number of societal factors have contributed to the revised attitudes, but surely the Sixties' sexual revolution which culminated in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and the rethinking forced by the AIDs epidemic contributed greatly to awakened understanding.
This has been on my mind since two plays opened recently in Manhattan in which gay love affairs are observed with keen and perceptive eyes and ears -- Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall and Daniel Talbott's Slipping. The more I think about these offerings--which were given productions approaching perfection--the more I become convinced something has occurred that goes beyond the achievement of two related but disparate plays.
The freedom now accorded playwrights to examine homosexual relationships honestly is not only beneficial to promoting empathy for gay men -- and, of course, gay women -- but also affords enhanced compassion for all love relationships, gay or straight. It could be said that these works also operate as metaphors for all relationships.
The temptation is, of course, to assume that any playwright who puts a homosexual love affair (or affairs) at the core of his or her play is himself for herself homosexual, but Next Fall and Slipping appear to question that potential assumption. Neither Nauffts or Talbott mentions sexual orientation in his program's biography, nor are they obligated to.
Indeed, the greatest triumph attained here may be that an author's sexuality is no longer an issue, whereas it was the issue that prompted Terence Rattigan to switch the gender of the dead person in his play, The Deep Blue Sea, which is based in part on the suicide of a former boy friend. It's surely one of the underlying issues keeping Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from identifying in graphic terms what transpired between the tormented Brick and his football-hero chum Skipper and is keeping Maggie on the alert.
Suffice it to say that Next Fall and Slipping are first-rate dramas -- into which humor is stirred like vermouth into martinis -- that add luster to playwrighting annals. They travel far from sympathy-seeking narratives pitting a pair of misunderstood men against a punitive, inflexible world. In Next Fall, Luke has been in a serious automobile accident and only appears in flashbacks, while Adam, his lover (or is "partner" the preferred word now?) sits in a hospital waiting-room with a few friends and Luke's intolerant Southern father and gabby mother.
Not only has Luke refused to out himself to the family but he has tried to get atheistic Adam to see the redeeming light of religion. He pushes the born-again agenda to Adam's continued frustration. The friction in Slipping between long-time out-of-the-closet Eli and newly-out-of-the-closet Jake-thanks-to-Eli is that the former is reluctant to admit to loving feelings for the latter after having been abused verbally and physically by previous lover and world-class homophobe Chris. How binding the commitment will come to be is at the crux of the nervous wreck Eli's dilemma.
Nauffts and Talbott are not foisting off perfect unions but are presenting pairings afflicted by internal differences. They unfold amid the equally multi-faceted predicaments of adroitly-drawn supporting figures. The details of their problems may be unique to the two participants but the very fact of their demonstrating disagreements that test bonds is universal. Next Fall and Slipping illustrate that no marriage -- different-sex, same-sex -- is smooth sailing across a waveless sea, no day at the (gay or straight) beach.
As far as I can tell, the progress made in dramatic literature that these plays represent is how they add to our comprehension of the internal and external forces encouraging and discouraging true love. In that way, you could say plays about same-sex relationships are no more and certainly no less than newly part of the flowing mainstream of all plays delving into love and its tendencies to avoid running smoothly. Next Fall and Slipping join ranks ranging from William Shakespeare's Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to Anne Nichols's Abie's Irish Rose and, much more recently, to Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey.
The love that dares not speak its name is now using amplification to identify itself as thrillingly commonplace.