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Looking for Mr. Bunbury

Tue, 09/12/2023 - 12:28
Ethan Mordden
From CUNY TV’s “Theater Talk”

“Gays on Broadway”
Ethan Mordden
Oxford University Press, $29.95

At first glance, a volume titled "Gays on Broadway" might appear to some as a book that could write itself. "Tell me something I don't know," they might say, rolling their eyes. Well, Ethan Mordden, who has chosen that title for his most recent work, came well prepared to do just that.     

A recognized expert on American musical theater, Mr. Mordden has authored some 50 books — more than 20 on the theater alone — including several works of fiction. On the subject at hand, he appears to know everything; from the first page, the reader senses he's in good hands. 

"Gays on Broadway" does not pretend to be a comprehensive study. It includes the plays and the people the author wishes to write about. ("I make no attempt to include every relevant reference. . . . Readers who feel important titles or people have been slighted should consider writing their own books. . . .")

The result is an idiosyncratic, though very well written, amalgam of history, theater criticism, snippets of dialogue, and juicy gossip. Moreover, Mr. Mordden does not hesitate to include a generous number of his own arch comments, which are unfailingly amusing. 

To be clear, the term "gays" in the title refers mainly to gay content, but also to gay and lesbian actors, writers, composers, and others who have left their mark on the Broadway (and Off Broadway) theater.

The book's organizational scheme is chronological, covering roughly a century, beginning with the 1910s. Its organizational theme might be described as the notion that everything changed in the late 1960s, around the time of the Off Broadway production of "The Boys in the Band" (1968) and the Stonewall riots (a year later). Up to that point, almost all gay people in the theater world were closeted, and gay content was limited to subtext — disguised and coded — that went unnoticed by most of the audience. From that time on, however, unambiguous gay content became increasingly present, although many gay actors remained closeted.

The Wales Padlock Law of 1927 gave New York City officials the right to shut down any play dealing with "sex degeneracy" or "sex perversion" (mainly homosexuality or prostitution) and to arrest, jail, and fine the cast and crew. Not surprisingly, Mae West, whose characters were nearly always highly sexualized, ran afoul of Wales Padlock numerous times, though it never dissuaded her from returning to the stage.

Many will find the earlier parts of this book to be particularly interesting. Mr. Mordden is quite astute when it comes to pointing out gay subtext, hitherto unrecognized in several well-known plays. He suggests, for example, that when Oscar Wilde introduces the idea of Bunburying in "The Importance of Being Earnest" (i.e., leaving town in order to visit a fictitious invalid friend), it is really a reference to gay men making excuses and sneaking off to be with others of their own kind. 

He posits Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" as portraying a plot element not unfamiliar to gay audience members, by introducing a former lover who has returned to complicate, if not threaten, a more recent marriage.

Then there are the plays that most of us have never heard of, such as "The Green Bay Tree" of 1933. "Hearing the plot premise, anyone of today would assume that the show provoked another raid from the authorities: A wealthy gay man buys a young boy from his father to raise him as his ward in a life of aesthetic decadence." Yikes! How did the audience not recognize what was really going on? Apparently, they didn't. Mr. Mordden suggests that it was because there was no overt sexuality. (It was unmistakably a simpler time.)

For the author, Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band" was the most influential play in gay history, as it portrayed, for the first time to a wide, general audience, the lives of an entire circle of gay men. The play (and the movie version in 1970) provided many straight people their first glimpse of something previously considered taboo. It also provided many gay people their first experience of being acknowledged.

From more recent years, Mr. Mordden considers such significant plays as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "The Nance" by Douglas Carter Beane, among numerous others. He ends with the epic Matthew Lopez play "The Inheritance," which reached New York from London in 2019. Thus the arc of gay Broadway comes to an end (though not really the end) with a work that "not only attracts a wide audience but reduces everyone in the house to tears in a scene as memorable as any in theatre history."

Not only does Mr. Mordden describe, summarize, and explicate a vast number of plays in this relatively short book, but he also introduces his readers to a legion of gay theater personalities, from Eva Le Gallienne in the 1920s and '30s — one of the few openly lesbian stars of stage, whose Civic Playhouse on Manhattan's West 14th Street played a significant role in starting the repertory theater movement in America — to Edward Albee, whom the author considers the most important gay playwright to date. (About the former, Mr. Mordden writes, "Now, what was Le Gallienne like personally? Tireless, resourceful, and very strong-willed. I'd call her the ultimate lesbian butch, because she was a born leader and, in her romances, she had the ownership.")

In between those two legends, we learn about the well known — Cole Porter, Tallulah Bankhead, and Tennessee Williams, for example — and the largely forgotten, such as John Latouche, a 1950s lyricist.

The delicious anecdotes are a treat. One of the best: Only after Sam Goldwyn had purchased Lilian Hellman's 1934 play "The Children's Hour" for MGM was he told that it explicitly portrayed lesbians. "We can always call them Bulgarians," he retorted, and the movie was produced. It was 1961.

The depth and breadth of Mr. Mordden's knowledge of his subject matter appear boundless. For those who hold that plays are only meant to be performed — not read as text and certainly not read about — we now have good reason to rethink the matter.

Jim Lader, who owned a weekend home in East Hampton for many years, has reviewed books for The Star since 2009.

Edward Albee lived in Montauk, Terrence McNally lived in Water Mill, and Tennessee Williams wrote in Southampton for a time. Lanford Wilson of Sag Harbor is also among the South Fork playwrights in "Gays on Broadway."

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