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literature

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Modern Drama  
 
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Julien Green's Sud

Like his friend André Gide, Julien Green was better known for his novels and volumes of memoirs than for his plays. Born in Paris of American parents, Green studied at the University of Virginia before returning to Paris to begin a long, distinguished writing career. Though known as a French writer, Green's first and best-known play takes place in the American South, the home of his ancestors.

Sud (South) was first produced in Paris in March, 1953, at the Théâtre de l'Athénée-Louis Jouvet. Green translated the play into English, and it was performed under the direction of the young Peter Hall at London's Arts Theatre Club in March, 1955, with the young Denholm Elliott in the leading role.

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The Lord Chamberlain banned public performance of the play, which meant it could be performed only by a private club, and a newspaper strike made proper publicity difficult. Word of mouth gave the production moderate success at the box office. A 1991 publication of an English translation makes the work accessible to readers.

South takes place on a plantation near Charleston during the twenty-four hours before the firing on Fort Sumter that will begin the Civil War. The central character is a Polish expatriate, Jan Wicziewsky, an officer with the Union Army stationed near Fort Sumter.

Like his creator, Wicziewsky is a foreigner in his adopted land, a Catholic, and a homosexual. Stalking the plantation like a ghost, the melancholy Wicziewsky elicits violently mixed emotions from the women, who feel his indifference, and devotion from the men.

Clearly Green had the economical, psychologically insightful tragedies of Racine in mind as he wrote South. While Racine's great tragedies focused on classical queens who were obsessed and ultimately destroyed by forbidden passions, so Green's play gives us a homosexual hero destroyed by a love he cannot express.

The published edition of South has as its epigraph a quotation from Aristotle's definition of tragedy, "The purification of a dangerous passion by a violent liberation." The violent passion is Wicziewsky's love at first sight of the puritanical young Southern aristocrat, Erik MacClure. Realizing that his love can never be admitted or requited, Wicziewsky decides to "hurl myself against my fate as you hurl yourself against a stone wall."

Jealous of MacClure's love for the young Angelina and furious that MacClure, like himself, hasn't the courage to admit his love to his beloved, he goads MacClure into killing him in a duel. Wicziewsky would rather die than live with the anguish of a love that can never be expressed or returned.

As Wicziewsky's corpse is brought into the main hall of the plantation, the guns firing on Fort Sumter can be heard in the distance. This personal tragedy will be followed by the national tragedy of the Civil War. As his classical forbears tied grand personal tragedies to the Trojan War, so Green ties his tragedy of male-male love to the Civil War. Actions in his play are fated though that fate is expressed in Christian terms.

Joe Orton's Plays

Farceur Joe Orton did more than any other British playwright to open the door to the closet that contained many of Britain's commercial playwrights and producers. Though Orton died young, his handful of plays, which are still revived regularly around the world, heralded the sexual revolution that would come shortly after his death.

Orton was openly and unabashedly gay, but his plays contain no exclusively homosexual characters. Homosexual desire and homosexual acts are set within a framework of polymorphous perversity. In the horny world of Joe Orton's plays, everyone lusts after everyone regardless of gender or family relationship. This avoidance of homosexual identity within the omnisexual world of Orton's farces was probably more acceptable to London and New York audiences in the mid-1960s than the still taboo homosexual would have been.

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