THE TEMPERAMENTALS (at the Lyric Stage Company through April 28th) is John Marans’ compelling and highly amusing story of the two courageous men who founded the first gay rights organization. Naming their society after the secret medieval Mattachines, these pioneers wrote and circulated a manifesto asserting the rights of homosexuals as citizens. This was in the repressive 1950s, mind you, nineteen years before Stonewall!
Although the play is a primer of sorts of gay life and restrictions after WWII, it’s mostly a personal story – and a moving love story at that. Harry Hay is a devout communist and Rudi Gernreich a Hollywood fashion designer (who would gain notoriety in the ‘60s for his topless bathing suit!). Together (Hay demanding; Gernreich persuading) they build a movement. Director Jeremy Johnson’s cast is superb: Will McGarrahan is a whirlwind as the impatient, acerbic Hay and Nael Nacer is all sophistication and European elegance as Hay’s polar opposite.
Victor L. Shopov, Shelley Bolman and Steve Kidd play everyone else, even female characters, with ingenuity and panache. Kidd is especially touching as the unassuming hero of a test court case. Part of the charm of the play for me was finding parallels to Boston in the ‘50s, right down to the clock tower where Hollywood homosexuals would meet. (In Boston it was the Gilchrist clock.)
What THE TEMPERAMENTALS (code for homosexuals) does not do is paint a historical picture of the violence rampant in postwar America (and unfortunately, still in force). Kidd’s character is entrapped and beaten by the police but an ice bag takes care of his injury. If only the cure were that easy. I wish the play had presented a more realistic picture of the times. Violence has been and still is, alas, stalking the movement.
I’m not comfortable about writing this but it’s too easy for people to think being gay was/is a lark. Even worldly (heterosexual) friends of mine are genuinely surprised to learn the extent of the ingrained and relentless violence. In my small circle, it has dogged every decade. As a child in the ‘40s and a teenager in the ‘50s, I saw my father and uncles (also code) with bandages, with jobs lost and spirits crushed. The ‘60s brought gangs of thugs who took an eye from one friend, teeth from another, broke another’s back, and in one brutal gay bashing, my friends and I were beaten and mauled by some drunken Boston College boys (who were easily acquitted by the corrupt Massachusetts court system).
The ‘70s brought violence to several sweet, gentle theater colleagues and the ‘80s took away fifteen relatives and friends when the Reagan administration refused to do anything about AIDS. In the ‘90s, the violence started to be publicized and public tide began to turn after Matthew Shepard was murdered but that tide is rolling back in the ‘00s as the radical right ascends. If this has happened in one person’s small circle, imagine the breadth and scope of the hate in the rest of the world. The wonder and pride (exactly the right word here) of all this is that we still can celebrate laughter and love.