From Plato to Will & Grace

Published in: January-February 2009 issue.


NOWADAYS young people no doubt search the Web for information about homosexuality, but the first thing I read on the subject appeared on a card in the card catalogue of Widener Library in Cambridge, Mass.: Plato’s Symposium. How I knew that in Plato I would find something about my problem I can’t recall. But somehow I’d heard of what the Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett called “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” as he put it to his students (in the sort of scene dramatized years later in Maurice): there were some things in Plato that were simply not to be discussed.

Forty-five years later, I find myself on a panel before about forty people in a classroom not far from the library in which I’d looked up The Symposium to discuss “Gay Lit Before There Was Gay Lit.” All the panelists know that this boundary line is not quite so clear. For instance, Christopher Capozzola, who teaches history at M.I.T., tells us about a novel that deals with the lesbian subculture of New Orleans in the 19th century. Theo Theoharis, a lecturer at Harvard, talks about, and reads, poems of Constantine Cavafy that both belong to an ancient Alexandrian tradition and are completely modern. And Michael Bronski cites a long list of trade fiction published by mainstream American houses in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s—the subject of his book, Pulp Friction. In other words, Stonewall may be a convenient marker for the idea of a gay American subculture coming out of the closet, but the love that dared not speak its name was never quite as muffled as people think. But then, every generation always thinks it was the one to discover the wheel.

Still, the topic of the panel is not entirely baseless. There was nothing called “gay literature” before Stonewall, if we define gay literature as something that takes gayness or gay life as its subject. In The Symposium, while homosexuality is assumed, it is in no way the subject of the discussion—the nature of love is—so that even if references are made to Alcibiades’ desire to seduce Socrates, they’re made only as part of an investigation into why people desire other people in the first place. By the same token, the Roman satire The Satyricon uses two homosexual protagonists only as a device to describe the absurdities of the Roman leisure class. Centuries later, Justinian would make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, and that assumption—that men could desire other men—was soon taboo.

The era when one could not write about homosexuality was a very long one (whose middle period James Boswell illuminated in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality). But our panel did not go back all that far. For some reason, modern American and European writers tend to think of the late 19th century as the moment when homosexuality re-emerged as a subject—via Marcel Proust, André Gide, Thomas Mann, and Oscar Wilde—and their oeuvre produced, you might say, a certain view of homosexuals. A “cursed race,” Proust called them—doomed like Charlus to consort with streetcar conductors, or, in Gide’s case, Arab youths, or in Mann’s, a Polish teen, or in Wilde’s, rent boys who turned on him in a court of law. The 1920’s to the 40’s in Europe and America hardly brought much development. The year I discovered The Symposium, a teacher told me to read a novel by George Santayana called The Last Puritan, an American best-seller in 1935 whose hero, Oliver Alden, dies at a young age after a life of such singular and poetic sadness that it put me to bed for three days in a fit of depression. I wasn’t quite sure why Oliver Alden had not been able to find his place on earth, but I felt certain that I would not be able to either, for a reason I still dared not mention to myself, and Santayana had dared not either.

Today, reading The Last Puritan, it’s apparent that Oliver is in love with Jim Darnley, the captain of his father’s yacht, but it isn’t described as such, or alluded to, in the way that Plato used same-sex attraction in The Symposium, as an aspect of Oliver’s search for truth—because in Santayana’s time, to say so was forbidden; you had to change the gender of your characters. It is this requirement, perhaps, more than any other, that is what’s meant by writing in code. Proust turned his chauffeur Albert Agostinelli into Albertine (though even Gide found Proust’s transformation unbelievable). Henry James never touched homosexuality as a subject, unless you consider The Pupil to be an example. F. Scott Fitzgerald puts a British homosexual into Tender Is the Night, but only as a deplorable feature of the Riviera’s riffraff.

The United States was decades behind in writing about homosexuality, even in code. There was Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms—featuring the famous jacket photo that made Capote look like a catamite in an opium den—and Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye. Yet when critics turned against the code under which these and other works were produced, the culprits were not novelists but playwrights—Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, William Inge. And there were further ironies: it was not gay writers who protested, it was straight ones; and when they did complain, in that decade to which so many cultural shifts are still ascribed (the 60’s)—though the ground had been prepared by decades of suspicion about Tennessee Williams—the catalyst seems to have been Edward Albee.

Philip Roth was challenging not only Albee but a whole host of writers when he asked in a 1965 article about Albee’s play Tiny Alice: “How long before a play is produced on Broadway in which the homosexual hero is presented as a homosexual?” That was the question William Goldman asked in his book about Broadway, The Season, when he complained that Albee wrote “boy-girl relationships when he really means boy-boy relationships; he understands boy-boy relationships but is forced to write them as boy-girl.” And therefore he is treating “heterosexuals viciously.” Actually, some people still believe that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is really about four men, and Blanche Dubois is actually a drag queen—something Albee and Williams always denied.

Tennessee Williams, of course, looms even larger than Albee here, in part because he wrote for such a long time that Williams, you might say, is the perfect example of both the code and the post-code writer—though this sounds reductive, and Williams is simply a great artist, period. But he often used homosexuality as such a portentous secret that one could be forgiven for thinking he exemplifies “gay lit before there was gay lit.” If Proust and Mann produced a certain view of the homosexual during this era, so did Williams, for whom the homosexual was either the wounded or the forlorn—or even, in the case of Suddenly Last Summer, the devoured. But he’s always there. Williams, it is said, was never sure what the relationship between Brick and Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had been about, but the possibility that it was a homosexual one is fundamental to that play’s crisis. Even when Williams’ characters are not presented as homosexual (in the vast majority of the plays), gay men have always felt a sympathy with characters like Alma in Summer and Smoke, both Laura and Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

In the portrait of the outsider, the vulnerable, the fragile, the doomed, we get a stand-in for how homosexuals saw themselves. Yet much of it was done in code. No play is “gayer” than Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), for example—the diva and the gigolo threatened by Time—and one could say the same about the two major plays that followed it, The Night of the Iguana and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Neither of the latter two deals explicitly with homosexuality—they’re about the dark night of the soul, the problem of death—but they are about people at the end of their rope; though Howard Taubman could not write his review of Milk Train in The New York Times without complaining that it contains “one of those handsome, pallid young men with a dead heart, who has become a fashionable symbol for some of our playwrights.” (The pallid young man in this case is a wandering gigolo called The Angel of Death because he shows up to help rich old women to die.)

Thus, even when homosexuality isn’t mentioned, Williams’ plays are steeped in sympathy for the outcast. And Williams did not always keep homosexuality off-stage. Three years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but still more than a decade before Stonewall, he produced one of the most dramatic versions of a gay man ever—a vampire in need of blood—in Suddenly Last Summer (“Sebastian was famished … famished for blonds”).

Nevertheless, the play that really broke the code was not by Williams or Albee or Inge; it was Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which, a year before Stonewall, effectively ended the pre-“gay lit” period. (Williams’ play for 1968 was The Seven Descents of Myrtle. When he chose to write about homosexuality in 1972, it was in a single speech on the sterility of one night stands that he gives a character in Small Craft Warnings.)

After The Boys in the Band, Williams never again used homosexuality as the gothic theme that he had in his earlier masterpieces. One could argue that it was Williams’ own artistic evolution, and not the breaking of the code, that explains his abandonment of the homosexual theme. But it’s interesting that after Small Craft Warnings he went on to write odd, disembodied plays—works like Clothes for a Summer Hotel and A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur. After The Boys in the Band—and, a year after that, the Stonewall Riots—the code was irrevocably broken; and it was then that we got this “new” thing called Gay Literature. Goodbye to the poetry of Blanche’s husband, shooting himself in the Moon Lake Casino! Hello to Emory in The Boys in The Band, who leads directly to Jack in Will & Grace.

With the advent of gay literature as such, gay writers no longer had to change their characters’ gender; they were now free to write as openly as they wanted. (You can hear in merely the title of Larry Kramer’s novel about this new world—Faggots—a defiance of the code.) It was not very long, however, before such subject matter was reduced to a niche, a demographic, a booth at a book fair, and young gay writers who began talking about “the ghetto” of gay literature were smart to add straight characters to the mix. Then television took up the new subject matter, and by the time a show like Will & Grace appeared, we were officially, if not post-gay, then post-gay literature. In short, the love that dared not speak its name was now in syndication.

So we’d come full circle (in a way): Writers could refer to same-sex desire again, as the Greeks had, but it couldn’t be assumed in quite the manner Plato referred to it (as a part of the arrangement of things), because the long Christian era had left its mark (and, as Proust pointed out, the modern homosexual has nothing in common with the citizen of Athens for whom it had never been taboo). However, it couldn’t be a dark, corrosive secret à la Capote, McCullers, and Williams, since there was nothing secret about it any more, and the modern audience had supposedly assimilated the new subject matter. Whether or not the modern audience had done so was a matter of debate (viz., Seinfeld’s immortal line: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but that didn’t matter: post-code gay lit could always be found wanting for other reasons—when it wasn’t parochial (of interest only to gays), it was old news for straights.

WE ARE LEFT with multiple ironies, not least among them the argument that the limitations writing in code placed on pre-Stonewall writers produced, paradoxically, a greater literature. As Daniel Harris argues in The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, it was oppression itself—which necessitated writing in code—that produced what gay people had to contribute, and with its removal gay culture died. Consider, in this regard, the sequel Mart Crowley wrote, many years later, to The Boys in the Band—The Men From the Boys—which was produced recently in San Francisco and Los Angeles. While every line in The Boys in the Band has the heat and hiss of a volcano exploding, the sequel’s lassitude cannot be explained simply by AIDS grief and the passage of years: it’s the fact that there is nothing new, literarily or dramatically, any more about a gathering of gay men. Even Brokeback Mountain—whose power comes from the fact that it does not change genders—set its lovers among a herd of sheep, an image that goes back thousands of years to the idylls of Theocritus, the Greek poet who began the homoerotic tradition of comely shepherds.

Brokeback’s blend of the ancient and the contemporary perfectly illustrates, in fact, the way the topic of homosexuality has gone from something that was assumed as part of life (Plato) to one that was punishable by death (the Christian epoch) to the post-gay present. But this change did not occur on one night at Stonewall; it took 2,500 years to go from The Symposium to Will & Grace, to go from a pillar of Greek pedagogy to simply one more item in a 500-channel cultural smorgasbord. Which leaves us with a dilemma: if homosexuality is no longer part of the foundation of the state, or a shocking secret, then why write about it at all? Well, because it’s part of life.


Andrew Holleran’s latest book is Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited. His novels include Dancer from the Dance: A Novel, The Beauty of Men, and Grief.