Taped to the edge of my computer screen is the following quote from William Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf: “To know the world’s injustice requires only a small amount of experience. To accept it without bitterness or envy you need almost the sum total of human wisdom.” I maintain at best an uneasy relationship to this quote. How much of the world’s injustice should be accepted without bitterness or envy? Eternally caught as I am between a desire for social justice implying the necessity of political activism and an equally compelling pull toward spiritual enlightenment through meditation and self-examination—detachment, if you will—Maxwell’s words stick in my craw, speaking to the struggle each artist must confront in the creation of something new. To put this didactically, I am torn between the two philosophies which make the most sense to me—Dialectical Materialism and Buddhism. Though these world views may seem to be mutually exclusive, I don’t believe they are. One cannot make appropriate political judgements without compassion—in Buddhism referred to as the “Law of Laws”; nor can personal, spiritual nourishment be fully provided for in an entirely public context. There is a balance between the two—the private, the public; the spiritual, the material. Buddhists call this fusion, if artfully observed, the Middle Path. It implies a calmness of spirit, but doesn’t mean lack of passion.
In the same way that artists must weigh their values in the process of creating, I also believe that citizens need to weigh their actions before taking them. Living, after all, is an art. And art should certainly speak to the deepest questions and concerns of living. Therefore it’s impossible to talk about “Equality Issues In the Theater” without also implicating the society in which plays and movies are written and produced.
Every time I begin a script, I bring my full compliment of prejudices, concerns and values into play. It’s impossible not to, nor in my view would it be desirable. The conservative critic Stanley Kauffmann once wrote that homosexual playwrights should not concern themselves with heterosexual marriages and characters. Since they know nothing about these things, why should straight audiences bother to listen? Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and William Inge should only have written queer characters, thus depriving us of Streetcar Named Desire, A Delicate Balance and Splendor In The Grass. Interestingly, in recent years a spate of queer critics have suggested the same, though perhaps from a different rational: gay artists choosing to people a play or movie script with straight characters somehow betray their gay brothers and sisters, pandering, demeaning their art, closeting themselves. By this line of reasoning, though I have in fact written numerous gay characters and spoken openly of my experiences as a homosexual on numerous occasions, one recent queer critic called me in print “a closeted gay writer,” because my play Prelude to a Kiss spoke about two straight lovers and attempted to reach gay and straight audiences alike.
This issue of writing only what we “know,” if taken to its logical conclusion, leaves us bereft of such works as The Trojan Women, As You Like It, and Saint Joan. What business did Euripides have, after all, writing female characters from an enemy nation—a foreign culture, defeated by his own country’s army? I maintain that the business of artists is to offer what they have seen and to imagine what they cannot truly ever know.
With all respect to Stanley Kaufman as well as the queer critics who would have me write predominantly or exclusively gay characters, I live in a world filled with straight people; I am more than familiar with their colorful and strange mating rituals, and I believe I can speak sympathetically towards their hopes and fears as well as to the issues facing queer people. Should there be no white people in Spike Lee’s movies? Does the presence of gay characters in a straight writer’s play make him or her a closet heterosexual? Homophobia lives in the homosexual community as well as in others, and ghettoizing our experience is not always the same as celebrating it. Ultimately, one must balance the differing concerns: as art requires artistry, criticism also requires subtlety and the ability to discern depth—call it depth perception. So who gets to choose what we see and in what light we see it?
Sydney Walker and Alec Baldwin in the film version of Prelude to a Kiss, directed by Norman René.
When was the last time you read a review that began “I used to dislike such and such a work, but I have grown to admire it.” Or “Once I lavishly praised this, but now I begin to see its limitations.” Yet each and every one of us has changed our minds countless times over the years—we should have, if we are at all alive, if we are growing. Hence so much criticism serves by its very nature to confirm us in a reactionary stance, the notion that opinions are fixed, that artistic values themselves are immutable; Harold Bloom’s Canon of Western Literature seeks to exclude as well as include. In my experience, lovers of literature, of art, are voracious; they seek more and more viewpoints, deeper understanding, and they do not cozily freeze works of art by rank—in museums or canons—in order to set their minds at ease: “Phew, I’ve finally determined what’s great and what’s not. Got any doubts, just check the Canon.” Art and life are fluid.
Each and every time artists, straight or gay, portray gay characters in a prominent venue, an almost instantaneous hue and cry can be heard throughout the gay landscape: Is this the ultimate “correct” version of our experience? Is this the way we want to be seen, judged? Longtime Companion, Jeffrey, Angels in America, Philadelphia, The Birdcage. Everyone appears to have an opinion about the verisimilitude and value of what has been represented. This is most certainly due, at least in part, to the fact that gay people were so invisible for so long; we are hungry to see our own version of our lives depicted—precisely as we experience them, thus frequently blinding us to the true virtues or even the deeper limitations of what we’ve seen. And though the debate is absolutely essential, without true depth perception, without the perspective equanimity brings us and without an ideal, a value system worth working toward, aren’t we merely shouting our ignorance into the wind, adding further to the din of intolerant, uncivil voices?
I believe a private calm best suits a public clamor. Anger, if deployed, should be chosen; it should not choose us, or what we find ourselves in the middle of is a mob. Mobs, as we’ve seen, tend to hurt themselves as well as innocent bystanders, only occasionally reaching their enemies. As E. B. White pointed out, it takes a lot of energy to have an enemy. Therefore it’s best to pick wisely. If we can’t convert our enemies, then let’s disempower them as effectively as we can—intentionally, with a rational force of will—because hatred does not work; it always diminishes the one doing the hating, and often leaves the hated untouched. In meeting with a successful Hollywood producer in 1985, I was asked what I wanted to write about. I said I would like to write about a group of gay men and the AIDS epidemic, then four years old. He nodded, then asked, “Yeah, but after that?”
So okay, now it’s 1988—seven years into the epidemic—and I’d found an independent producer foolish enough to pay me to write this script—and we’re trying to cast it. No stars would appear in this movie. One of the actors who actually wound up appearing in the movie was advised by his gay agent not to take the role for fear of potential damage to his career from playing a gay man. (This actor is now one of the busiest and most respected in the profession.) Without stars we couldn’t find a distributor, so we scaled back our budget and shot the film with non-stars, thanks again to the foolhardy belief of this one idealistic producer whose funds came most notably from the National Endowment for the Arts.
We had not yet finished shooting Longtime Companion when I received the first of many phone calls from a political action committee, wanting to know why we hadn’t cast more black actors in the movie. The director and I have also been publicly criticized for not using an all-gay cast. These questions are not easily answered, so I want to go into them for a moment.
Should actors be asked if they are gay when they audition? Or should one only cast one’s friends, known to be gay? And do you really know if someone is gay unless you’ve slept with them? And even then? I’ve slept with a number of women, but I am not heterosexual; I do not consider myself bisexual either. Actors frequently lie about their age, hair color, even their height in order to get a coveted role. Truly, what prevents an actor from saying they’re gay just in order to get a job? Artists lie for a living, in order to be able to tell the truth.
Anyway, as it turns out, some of the actors we cast were gay, though it is impossible for me to say how much the director’s gaydar (or my own) contributed to our choices. We had simply decided to cast the best actors we could find, portraying the roles as written—convincingly to our taste. In other words, we were discriminating, in the best and worst sense of the word. I don’t believe you can have one without the other. If you’re going to protect free speech, you have to protect hate speech.
That said, I also know only too well what a rough go of it openly-gay actors can have in Hollywood. I’ve sat in on casting sessions when some actor was said to be “too butch” to play the heroine or some other actor “too light in the loafers” to be interested in her. What validity is there in this? Are all straight men conventionally masculine? Are all gay men effeminate? Are some gay men effeminate? As I say, you do the best you can with the materials at hand, and that includes making determinations, conscious and otherwise. You cast who you like—straight, gay, bi. It can’t be helped without limiting the artist’s freedoms.
Acting is pretending. A talented young actor can convince us they are older, and visa versa. So, as an extension of this reality, should all casting be color-blind as well as age-blind, gender-blind? August Wilson has publicly criticized the casting of black actors in plays about white people, for example James Earl Jones’s appearance on Broadway as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He claims this makes a hash of the play, set as it is in the American South of the post-war period. On the other side of the argument, the play is a classic and we in the audience are presumed to understand the milieu. Operas are routinely cast with a blind eye to color, and no one supposes that Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Countess in Marriage of Figaro implies the actual, historical presence of Maoris in the French courts of 1778.
With a new work, however, the question grows more difficult. Will the audience understand the world of Seven Guitars or M. Butterfly if the author’s intended casting is ignored?
Television frequently tells us that blacks and whites work together, play together, and that our society is one big happy family. It also shows harmless gay neighbors—never kissing, of course—but fun in that flamboyant, marginal way a gay George Carlin or Martin Mull can be, to be “tolerated” with a little bit of eye rolling. Watch what Kathy Lee Gifford does when Richard Simmons flounces past her on that Fun Carnival cruise if you don’t know what I mean. But is it destructive that we are being lied to in the tolerant images mass culture presents? Or does it merely reveal some of our aspirations for a less divisive and more diverse world?
I return again to my original thesis. Living is an art, and it is equally important as artists that we struggle with these questions each and every time we write, cast and direct or act in or design a play or movie. There is no rule of thumb. It cannot be memorized and executed automatically; it must be struggled with and analyzed and debated each and every time.
Mark Lamos (Sean) and Bruce Davison (David) in Longtime Companion, directed by Norman René.
Longtime Companion is about a group of privileged, white gay men who are shaken to their very roots in their assumptions about themselves and their place in society by a pandemic, bringing them into contact with a larger world and forcing them to act politically, to organize, to take care of their brothers and sisters and to begin to connect with the interests of other disenfranchised groups. That is the theme of the movie. In 1981, when the story begins, I was on Fire Island most weekends, and attended numerous parties with numerous gay men. I would say that almost without exception these parties were racially homogenous—all white. The same does not apply in 1996. The statistically demonstrated growth in the black middle-class, along with other forces, including the epidemic itself, and perhaps the images TV and movies have given us—have altered forever the gay ghetto of Fire Island, though certainly not enough. What sense, however, can one make of the above-stated theme of my screenplay if the privileged white gay men in the story are cast with actors of color? Dream or reality? Which should we show?
A film critic for The New York Times found Longtime Companion “insipid” at least in part because the characters were “the sort of people who shop at Bloomingdales.” As I understand it, this writer is saying that the suffering of certain people in the middle-class is not as compelling or worth dramatizing as certain other classes and races. All characters in all movies must pass muster: if they have too much in the bank or shop in affluent neighborhoods, their pain or aspirations are negligible. Homophobia can hide in many disguises, not the least of which may be political correctness. For decades the American Communist Party decried homosexuality as a morbid symptom of bourgeois capitalism, sure to vanish with the advent of international socialism. We’ll see. This same critic went on to attack me and the director for knowing only too well that AIDS is affecting people of color as well as heterosexuals, and suggesting that we had somehow willfully chosen to ignore these people. He would have had us write and direct a different movie. Though I am entirely in agreement that it would be a wonderful, important movie for someone to make, does that automatically make any other movie invalid?
For centuries we had plays primarily concerned with kings, queens, and nobles; our horizon has widened and that is a good thing. Should only the lives of disenfranchised people then be dramatized from here on out? That is not criticism, it’s fashion. How often do we read or hear “What such and such a movie should have been about?” “Oh, you know, what would have been so great … I would have really liked it if it had concentrated on …” My answer to any critic suggesting that artists focus their work on some other subject or narrative than the one they have personally chosen is “Write it yourself.” At the same time, I enthusiastically support anyone’s right to damn, praise, attend, picket, boycott—irksome or ignorant or utterly absurd as their opinions may be. Does this mean the Ancient Order of Hibernians has the right to exclude gays and lesbians from their annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on the grounds of religious freedom? Yes, constitutionally speaking, they do. Do gays and lesbians possess the right to march in their own parade to protest that exclusion? Yes. Though Mayor Giuliani hasn’t figured that out yet.
Ultimately one must think for oneself as an artist and as a member of the audience. If the august members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences tell us Forrest Gump is the best movie of the year, does that make it any less of a boring, reactionary clinker? If the Catholic League of Decency tells the faithful to boycott Priest, does that absolve all Catholics from any responsibility to see the movie before having an opinion about it? If critics say Pulp Fiction is “delicious”—are we silenced from calling it a sadistic, homophobic invitation to laugh at the sufferings and violent deaths of poor people, to feel superior to drug dealers and drug users?
I would like to suggest that there is no equality in the arts, as there is no equality in America. Equality is the Santa Claus of our national ethos. It is an idea we feed to children. As ideals go, it is a magnificent one, something to be aspired to, as in “the pursuit” of happiness.
Historically we have moved toward an increasingly inclusive ideal of equality: at first, only land-owning white males had say in public policy; then all white men with or without land; then white women; people of color. As a nation we are now debating whether or not homosexuals should be allowed the same protections as heterosexuals.
Right wing fundamentalists say that all they want to prevent is the granting of “special rights” to gays, that the Constitution and Bill of Rights protect all citizens; but they know full well that without specific laws protecting disabled people, or black voting rights, or laws banning discrimination against women in the workplace, certain communities will and have used every wile in their power to oppress The Other. The Bible was used to justify slavery; look at newspaper editorials from the 1850s. Lincoln freed the slaves 130 years ago, but many black Americans were prevented from voting until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. To say that the Constitution protects all of us is disingenuous at best. Until the entire nation deems it a bias crime to beat up, to murder homosexuals, until “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is struck from the books, the message sent by our government to our people is that “Queers are bad. They are somehow less than the rest of us, the ‘normal’ ones.”
What is it about fundamentalists—of all stripes: Christian, Muslim, Jewish—that gives them this unilateral right to define a family? Or decency. I’m a tax paying American citizen. I would wager I’ve made a helluva lot more money and paid a helluva lot more taxes than most preachers and rabbis complaining about tax dollars going to degenerate art. Why isn’t my tax dollar worthy of paying for the kind of art I wish to see? I am a queer American, and I have parents: aren’t we a family? Are my lover and I and our children if we choose to raise them not a family because some creationist says so? In such a climate of ill will, powerful black leaders feel justified in publicly attacking “Jews in high places—Hollywood and the Media—the evil Jewish banker and landlord.” Hold onto your hats, folks, because whether you want to believe it or not, the Holocaust was not an accident. It was intended, created, fostered, engineered in a similar climate of ill will and despair and fear. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Think about that. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Shhhh. Hide.
Now that we no longer have Communism to blame for all of our personal and political dissatisfactions, minorities at home provide the most convenient scapegoat for those who prefer easy answers and external demons. But easy answers will never address the larger questions of why so many people are unemployed, uninsured, hungry.
Mary Louise Parker and Mark Arnott in Berkeley Repertory Theater’s production of Prelude to a Kiss, directed by Norman René.
If we are truly moving toward a horizon called “equality,” then whom shall we exclude from our concept of “citizen” now that women and blacks have stormed the gates? Forces of reaction are not new; there is always someone eager to say “Go back! Stop!” And they have never ever once succeeded in stopping change. Not even Hitler’s vast efforts to silence and annihilate the Jews of Europe could stop the creation of a Jewish state. Nothing has ever stayed the same. Buddhists believe that change is the one permanent condition of all existence. And Marx said more or less the same thing.
At the end of Angels in America, Prior Walter states, “The world only spins forward.” Earlier this year in Charlotte, North Carolina, conservatives from the community tried to close down Angels in America because of a scene in which Prior Walter strips naked while undergoing a medical exam. Notice they didn’t want to close the play because of the scene where a character gets fucked in the ass without a condom in Central Park; perhaps it is our total lack of national health care they could not abide to see stripped bare in public. Such voices would have us believe we could go back to a time when things were simpler, safer, easier. When homosexuality was just plain wrong.
When the undercover Houston police began disguising themselves as gay men and were at once subjected to the beatings and verbal abuse we have long been prey to, one of their jubilant attackers begged for mercy, crying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know! I thought you were a damned queer.” Or in Jesse Helms’s memorable description of an appointed federal official: “She’s a damn lesbian.”
As always, the Bible (or the Koran or the Torah) is invoked. Leviticus teaches us that homosexuality is wrong. The same book that would put people to death for wearing any cloth made of two weaves, that teaches how a woman must be hidden for seven days after her period, that she is unclean and must never be touched during this time, and that cloven hooved animals must never be eaten … You will notice that Patrick Buchanan and the Christian Coalition are not out boycotting cotton and rayon blends or the public appearance of female executives during menstruation. Where are their firmly held religious convictions on the subject of pork?
Every lie, every attempt to control our private lives—censoring the Internet, hiding behind the “well-being of children,” waving flags and Bibles—each and every act must be diligently shown for what it is. And what better place than in movies and in plays?
One of the other things I tried to do with Longtime Companion was to show the ordinariness of many gay lives; not all gay men are hustlers, prowlers by night, or drag queens (nothing wrong with drag, mind you, or any of these other activities). Our ranks also include working people, business men and women, every walk of life. Surely we have had our share of movies in which the gay characters commit suicide, slice up women because they want to wear their skins, keep their dead mother’s corpse in the attic, piss on one another in underground bars, skulk about in the shadows, hoping to recruit children—the butch, loveless women and effeminate, ineffectual men, dying alone, forever scorned. Anything else is frequently deemed by straight critics to be a lie. They seem to know so well who we are. And where did they get many of these ideas about us? Movies, plays.
At the same time as it is essential for gay people to stand beside one another, to include the full panoply of gender identification and of human sexuality proudly in our number, I must point out something I’ve noticed: straight Americans seem much more comfortable with the idea of men dressing up as women and being silly and sweet and harmless and asexual (To Wong Foo, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Bird Cage), than with the idea of middle-class or working-class characters, outwardly “ordinary” Americans, if you will, choosing to sleep with and make love with members of their own sex. What is it that so profoundly troubles so many people about us?
When Longtime Companion came out, the husband of a close friend said, “Why does there have to be so much kissing and so much sex between the men?” My mother used to say, “Why do you boys have to flaunt it?” The answer is, because we’re alive, we exist. Why do straight people get to hold hands and run, slow motion, toward one another on the beach with their fresh, minty breath? Because they can! Why can’t I? Could it be the “sexual” part of my name that is more offensive than the “homo” part?
There is a long history of Puritanism in the United States. Sex, after all, feels good; it reminds us that we are alive; pleasure is dangerous because it raises the ultimate question of the value of life. What is it for? What is life for? If we do not ask this question, as obvious as it may seem, we will never resolve our deepest conflicts as a nation. And where better to ask it than in our art—”to hold as t’were a mirror up to nature.”
My colleague Norman René maintained that people go to the movies, to plays, to learn how to make their lives better. In Rilke’s words, art “takes an ax to the frozen sea within us all …” Art can make us cry when we can’t find our way toward our own grief, so benumbed are we by the enormity of experience, the overload of loss and doubt … Art helps us to make peace with the dead, it reaffirms our love of our own existence, our sense of awe, of wonder, at the sanctity and preciousness of all other sentient beings; it awakens and deepens our compassion, our appreciation of differences … It can also distract us from the truth and confirm us in our worst prejudices and fears. It bears a multiplicity of uses, and each and every work of art requires a dialogue—first and foremost between the work itself and the viewer. This is part of how we grow and change.
Nathan Lane (left) and Robin Williams in The Birdcage. Courtesy of United Artists.
Accepting for the moment that I’ve hit on at least some of the things art is for, I still have not answered what life is for. I try to do that in my plays and my screenplays; it is my self-appointed task. Why do you suppose the conservatives wanted so desperately to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts and seemingly have succeeded in their goal? At the very maximum of the agency’s life, the annual NEA budget in its entirety—all the public monies for symphonies, sculpture, dance, theater, painting, photography, poetry—was about $178 I million. This is some $30 million less than what the president of Walt Disney makes in a year. In other words, if Michael D. Eisner could content himself with a mere $30 million per year, he could have funded the entire NEA with his remaining loose change.
If life is for the pursuit of profit, if balancing the budget is more important than funding adequate schools or giving us a quality of life which includes the freedom to breathe clean air, to love as we choose, all of us, to experience our pleasure in bed, in music, on the open hill-sides, in photographs, including erotic and irreverent ones—in the exploration of our souls as we each define them … then I believe we and the planet we inhabit are all doomed.
Money is a chimera. It is a symbol. There is no such thing as money. The gold standard, silver standard, wheat, the no-standard standard. Look at the exchange rates each day if you don’t believe me: money has no permanent value even in relation to itself—much less the things it can buy. The dollar goes up, the dollar goes down, the mark, the peso, buy, sell. An army of experts accurately predicts future economic trends about as reliably as meteorologists do rainfall.
It should be apparent that nothing in life has true value if it is not itself life-enhancing. Man created money, not god. A handful of coins provides no nourishment. Such currency can’t be eaten or used to warm one’s children. Money must be traded for worthwhile commodities if it is to have value.
The tobacco companies (and the profit-seeking motive which fuels their decades-long attempts to mask medical facts) do nothing to make anyone’s life any better. Cigarettes kill, and they eat up billions and billions of dollars in the process. Our Republican-dominated Congress now wishes to repeal the ban on assault weapons, because the makers of armaments are paying them—in the form of campaign contributions—to do so. These same legislators would tell us what we can look at and when—on TV, in cyberspace—where we can travel, whom we may kiss. And their friends the profiteers behind the defense industry, along with those who recommend dismantling legislation limiting toxic emissions in order for more and more corporations to make bigger and bigger profits, they would all have us believe that we are about to run out of money, that the world will not have enough money … To spend on what? The pursuit of profit is ripping the heart out of the world. What will we spend it on once we’ve balanced our precious budget?
As artists and as citizens we must take sides. If we do not, the prevailing winds of contempt and exclusion will absorb us all and sweep us away. If we do not vote, ignorance will vote for us. And if we do not speak out, the hate-mongers and demagogues will put words in our mouths. It is our right to speak, our equal right. We must never allow vandals too cowardly to show their own faces or sign their own names to intimidate us into silence by scribbling over the face of our hard won pride and most precious freedom. Surely we have learned by now that silence equals death. What choice do we have but to ask and to tell?