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Contemporary Drama  
 
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The explosion of gay drama is in part a result of demographics. Theater and gay culture have always been primarily urban phenomena, and the large urban gay communities have an investment in theater for a number of reasons, the principal one being the fact that, given the lack of representations of gay characters and problems on television or in film, theater becomes a crucial means of ratification of gayness.

Given the demographics of urban centers, even heterosexual playwrights like David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly [1988]) and John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation [1990]) have had their greatest commercial success with plays that focus on homosexual characters. It is a sign of the times for American theater when the most praised, honored, and talked about play in decades has the subtitle "A Gay Fantasia on American Themes."

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Terrence McNally

A mini-history of American gay drama can be found in the work of Terrence McNally, who throughout the past three decades, has managed to embrace gay characters and a gay vision successfully within mainstream New York theater. From the zany gay couples in his double bill, Bad Habits (1971), to the troubled heterosexuals dealing with their and fear of AIDS in Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), McNally has managed to assimilate gay and heterosexual experience.

The Ritz (1974), which takes place in a New York gay bathhouse, managed a successful Broadway run and was made into a movie. Moving the doors and libido of classic French farce from the usual sleazy hotel to the baths, The Ritz is one of the few successful American farces in recent years.

A fat, unhappy, middle-aged Italian-American finds that a contract has been put out on his life. When he asks a taxi driver to let him off at the place he is least likely to be found, he finds himself at the baths. All the possible complications of this situation are successfully mined without marginalizing anyone except the homophobe. In The Ritz, the gay bathhouse is the norm.

The Lisbon Traviata (1985) dramatizes two dysfunctional gay men who escape from their personal failures into opera, particularly diva worship. When Stephen, the central character, learns that his lover, a young doctor, is leaving him for a less neurotic man, he turns the farewell into an opera, complete with death scene. Stephen's best friend Mendy, self-imprisoned in his opulent apartment, lives only for his opera recordings.

Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune (1987) is on the surface a heterosexual love story, but the names of the central characters are not the only hints that McNally wants his audience to see that the situation he presents is not gender-specific. His screenplay Frankie and Johnnie adds a gay counterpart to the heterosexual romance.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991) centers on two heterosexual couples. One woman has inherited a Fire Island house from her gay brother who just died of AIDS. She, her husband, her brother and his wife are frightened to use the swimming pool for fear they might become infected, and they are extremely uncomfortable about being in the middle of a gay society in which they are decidedly the minority.

McNally's funny, bittersweet play shows that gay people hardly have a monopoly on insecurity and self-hatred, that the inadequacies gay people feel are part of being American, not part of being gay. Lips Together, Teeth Apart is among the few plays that dramatize powerfully the causes and effects of homophobia.

McNally has also written the books for a number of musical comedies, most recently a musical adaptation of Manuel Puig's novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), about the relationship of two unlikely cellmates in a South American prison, a flamboyant homosexual hairdresser and a revolutionary.

Harvey Fierstein

Harvey Fierstein began his career as a drag artist and playwright in experimental venues off-off-Broadway. Three of his one-act plays were presented as Torch Song Trilogy, with Fierstein himself in the leading role, and moved successfully into the center of the New York theater district for a long run, a Tony Award for best Broadway play of 1981, and a film adaptation.

Torch Song Trilogy is of considerable historical importance--a three-and-a-half-hour dramatization of the trials and tribulations of a tough, proud New York drag queen managed to become a mainstream success.

Though the three plays that make up the trilogy are quite different in style, descending to sitcom in the third piece, "Widows and Children First," they offer a panorama of New York gay life just before AIDS: the backrooms, drag queens, and young hustlers; ambivalent bisexuals; homophobic families; and the tragedy of gay-bashing.

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