Thursday, 31 May 2012

Homosexuality, Effeminacy and the Shaw Festival

            Recently two Toronto theatre reviewers wrote homophobic reviews of Shaw Festival productions.
This must be discussed.
            Let’s get the minor matter of sexuality out of the way. One reason that the gay liberation movement was founded so many years ago was to eliminate the need for sexual categories. The movement hoped society might someday evolve to a point where such things would not matter. Unfortunately we have not reached that point. If I were to reveal that the two actors who were victimized in these reviews were gay, I know I would immediately stand corrected. There would certainly be actor denials (‘My sexuality is irrelevant, and also a private issue!’) or I would be accused of ‘outing’ them. So I won’t. However, the fact that I feel inhibited speaking about the sexuality of these actors means that we haven’t come a long way, baby. Not at all.
To the larger issues.
Richard Ouzounian’s review of Ragtime is blatantly homophobic. His remark about Jay Turvey’s portrayal of Tateh…"too often, you feel you’re watching Paul Lynde” – is quite witty – that is, for those of us long-in-the-tooth enough to know who Paul Lynde was. For those under 50, I will explain. Paul Lynde was an American comedian who was known primarily for his effeminacy. He was the closest thing to an ‘out of the closet’ gay TV/movie actor there was in the pre-liberation days of the 1960s. Ouzounian is saying that Jay Turvey’s performance was too effeminate; therefore heterosexual audience would not accept him as playing a heterosexual character.
J. Kelly Nestruck says pretty much the same thing about Steven Sutcliffe in Present Laughter, only he backs up his opinions with scholarship, and seems conscious that his remarks may be homophobic. “I realize it’s stepping into a bit of minefield to suggest that a particular actor is unconvincing as straight—in part because it’s silly to assert that gay men act one way and straight men another. But with his hair slicked back, a high-pitched flamboyant delivery and frequent swishing of his dressing gown, Sutcliffe’s Garry certainly reads as gay to a modern audience.” Nestruck not only takes on Sutcliffe’s performance, but Noel Coward, the playwright, quoting Peter Hall “What a wonderful play Present Laughter would be if – as Coward must have wanted – all those love affairs were about homosexuals.”
By these remarks, both reviewers suggest that effeminacy and homosexuality are one in the same thing. Nestruck tries to make us aware that he knows this is not true. I realize that the well-meant political correctness that controls discourse in modern culture has created quite a sticky wicket for Nestruck -- and all others who are thoughtful and well-meaning. We dare not suggest that homosexuals are more effeminate than heterosexuals, as most modern gay men spend 100% percent of their time trying to convince straights they are exactly the same as they are. Nevertheless, cultural stereotypes and prejudices exist, and the ‘general public’ --  i.e. everybody -- pretty well figures that a limp wristed male is a cocksucker. Sorry, but those are the facts, ma’am.
            Underlying these assumptions is a notion that pretty well everyone has accepted: i.e. that there’s something wrong with being an effeminate male (whether you’re gay or straight). This, I would suggest, is a fundamental transhistorical western notion, and has a lot to do with worries about male ‘begetting’ and being a warrior, two skills that are considered linked to masculinity (bizzarely, I think). However, the idea that all men should be or can be consistently masculine is inhumane, unrealistic and, well, nuts.
            Nestruck’s critique of Noel Coward’s playwrighting hints at the difficulties that arise from accepting such a premise. He’s certainly right to suggest that Present Laughter is not a perfect a play (the way Private Lives and Hay Fever are). It behooves Coward (and all gay men) to eternally write perfect plays, because if they do not, the plays will be criticized for being badly written because they author was a homosexual. Homosexuals, you see, don’t really understand straight culture, or at least understood it differently than straights themselves (i.e. there are dangerous implications to their understandings). This critique of gay writers goes back to 1958 when Robert Brustein lambasted William Inge for emasculating American males in his plays.
            Present Laughter features a beautifully written, hilarious, deep , witty analysis of the relationship between vanity and illusion, and between love and sex. It’s as if Jacques walked out of As You Like it and starred in his own play. When Coward performed the role he was much adored in the part. In1942 he was able to indulge his own effeminacy as Garry because effeminacy and homosexuality were linked secretly, but not publicly. Nowadays gay liberation has brought us to the (glad?) point where we seem comfortable openly demonizing men who are effeminate (they of course cannot be deep, they cannot help us understand life, they cannot really love anyone -- especially women) because new conservative homosexuals have colluded with the straights to such a point that they have given straights the blessing to do so.
            Well, this is not alright with me. I don’t blame Richard Ouzounian or J. Kelly Nestruck – they  (as much as Steven Sutcliffe and Jay Turvey ) are victims of a homophobic culture.
            But you know, I’m getting kinda tired of it.