Tuesday, February 23, 2010

news that is not news

To begin with, all the items in Patrick Healy's gays are just like us theater trend piece in the NYT are positive ones.
A new breed of plays and musicals this season is presenting gay characters in love stories, replacing the direct political messages of 1980s and ‘90s shows like “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America” with more personal appeals for social progress.
These productions about gay life make little or no mention of H.I.V. or AIDS and keep direct activism at arm’s length, with militant crusading portrayed with ambivalence more than ardor. The politics of these shows — there are seven of them opening in New York in the next several weeks — are subtler, more nuanced: they place the everyday concerns of Americans in a gay context, thereby pressing the case that gay love and gay marriage, gay parenthood and gay adoption are no different from their straight variations.
All well and good, but not only are these points blindingly obvious (the Times is rather good at catching on late and pimping illegal wars, after all), Healy neglects two key changes over time:
  1. the increasing maturity of audiences to deal with gay characters being more than people who sleep with the same sex; and
  2. the slowly dawning realization on the part of theatrical producers that they can fund works that portray gay characters with simple humanity and still make money (see point number 1).
It seems to me Duncan Pflaster's pithy post here provides a far subtler and perceptive analysis in a tenth of the space. But his argument assumes a continuum between audience and playwright, and a market to be supplied -- rather than the received aesthetic of whatever theaters the Times deigns to populate.

What is disheartening is Healy's unstated assumption that gay characters in theater must be placed there for exclusively political reasons. It's particularly galling to this playwright because the portrayal of brown-skinned characters has gone through this same evolution (or, I should say, audiences and producers have evolved along similar lines vis รก vis brown-skinned people onstage) and the same assumption prevails: if a character treads the boards who happens to be gay / brown / lack a penis but possesses any crumb of agency, they must have been placed there because the playwright has a point to make.

Why can't a playwright simply want to tell a story using people who exist in the real world?

Overall the piece has this tone (like so much of the Times) well-suited to quietly assure the elite that change wont essentially threaten their privilege. Honestly, is there a better article to send your great-aunt Edna out on Long Island -- you know, the one who hasn't been to New York since 1974 when that black guy looked at her funny on the street and scared her half to death -- to convince her to come see a show?

Credit where credit is due, however: Healy does briefly note that despite the more even-handed portrayal of gay people onstage, those characters are still overwhelmingly male. There are hierarchies, even amongst society's untouchables...

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