Six years before homosexual acts between consenting adults were legalised Encore, the ‘little magazine’ devoted to contemporary theatre, published in Jan-Feb 1961, a perceptive item by ‘Roger Gellert’ entitled ‘A Survey of the Treatment of the Homosexual in some plays’. Gellert was the pseudonym of the one-time Third Programme announcer John Holmstrom, who left the BBC to become a playwright and theatre critic, only to return as an announcer on Radio Three and a contributor to Test Match Special.
Encorewas just the sort of publication that you might expect to find such a radical item. It advertised itself as ‘ the voice of vital theatre ‘ and was edited by Clive Goodwin (1932 – 78 ), who in the previous year had also published essays on Arden, Pinter, Arthur Miller, Ionesco, Wesker, Negro Theatre and ‘ Billy Liar’. Goodwin, incidentally, was an actor and writer who was married for a short while to the tragic pioneer of Pop art, Pauline Boty.
Gellert’s approach to a subject that was still a ‘ problem ‘ for theatregoers in Western culture was to emphasise that to the ‘ bisexual ‘ Shakespeare, to Marlowe and the Restoration dramatists, homosexuality was regarded as something to be accepted and laughed at, rather than condemned as immoral. Then, after two hundred or more years of ‘ silence’ on the subject, the whole issue, according to Gellert, was resurrected with the staging of Mordaunt Shairp’s play of 1933, The Green Bay Tree, in which the audience is invited to laugh once more, this time at the extraordinary camp utterances of the gay protagonist, Mr Dulcimer, a sort of aesthete of the Oscar Wilde type, who grooms an innocent boy for his own amusement , but is shot dead as punishment for his decadence.
As Gellert argues, The Green Bay Treeis a shallow ‘entertainment ‘rather than a serious comment on the plight of homosexuals in society. That more sympathetic attitude emerged in the post war years with such plays as William Douglas Home’s Now, Barabbas, in which a rather pathetic ex-schoolmaster serving time for sex crimes pesters a young prisoner. Gellert also credits Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge,Philip King’s Serious Charge, Lilian Hellman’s The Children’s Hourand Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, for airing serious issues around homo sexuality, though he accuses the latter of doing so at a ‘ very shallow level’.
Gellert praises Travers Otway’s The Hidden Year sas a ‘ pioneer’ piece of theatre that looks at the innocent friendship between a senior and a junior schoolboy as a preface to his own play, Quaint Honour, which he claims to be a more rugged comment on the natural tendencies of ‘ healthy ‘ schoolboys cooped up together to indulge in homosexual activities. Gellert has praise too for the plays of Tennessee Williams, especially Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where the self-delusion of the gay, but married alcoholic ex-sports commentator Brick reaches a crescendo when another character confronts him with the truth behind his relationship with his friend Skipper:
‘Why can’t exceptional friendship, real, real deep, deepfriendship between two men be respected as something clean and decent without being thought of as…?’
Gellert is unenthusiastic about the treatment of homosexuality in the work of Jean Genet and Andre Gide, but has good things to say about Julian Green’s South, ‘ a rich atmospheric . highly charged work ‘ that charts the doomed affair between a Pole and an officer at the time of the American Civil War. Even more powerful, according to Gellert, is Montherlant’s La Ville dont le Prince est un Enfant, which probes deeper into the ‘ homosexual agony ‘. The tale of an immoral homosexual priest who jealously tries to destroy the sentimental friendship of two boys ends with ‘ a gruelling and terrible ‘ interview in which the supposed Christian is accused by his Superior of loving the soul of one of the boys only for the ‘ sweetness and grace ‘ of its ‘ fleshly covering’.
Interestingly, Gellert points out that the play hadn’t been professionally staged anywhere, because Montherlant considered it unsuitable for boys to enact publicly, but that it had been broadcast in 1960 by the BBC Third Programme with Denholm Eliott in the lead role. The play became a TV movie in 1997.
Gellert concludes his survey by encouraging dramatists and producers not to see the homosexual as a tragic figure in society. ‘As understanding of homosexuality increases, the comic potentialities will outweigh the tragic…the comic side is just as real and important, and may do even more good in clearing the air.’ [RR]