Let id prevail over ego!”: The Specter of Gay Nihilism in American Drama Criticism of the 1960s
- Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism
- The University of Kansas, Department of Theatre and Dance
- Volume 24, Number 1, Fall 2009
- pp. 5-22
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Fall 2009 5 “Let id prevail over ego!”: The Specter of Gay Nihilism in American Drama Criticism of the 1960s Doug Arrell In August 1963, Joseph Hayes, a commercially successful playwright whose best known work is The Desperate Hours, published an article in The New York Times entitled “Distorted Views: Theatre Misrepresents Life in America.” In it he attacked some contemporary playwrights, specifically Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, for their nihilism. The tone is apocalyptic; we are living at a time when “the everpresent negative forces of a perilously balanced universe can finally win in a total way”; the theatre is liable to push us off the edge, presenting as it does “a picture of man’s hopelessness, lack of significance or value under an empty scowling sky, his self-deluded stupidity, cupidity, contemptible puniness—his utter worthlessness.” This view derives, not from the playwrights’ genuine despair for humanity, but from “their own self-orientated sickness. This pity is all for self; this vision is personal and private.” He suggests that the playwrights producing these “images of neuroticism and nihilism” are actually “mocking us,” and thatAmerican civilization will pay dearly for it by “the slow corrosion of the only beliefs that might give meaning to an existence that these writers contend is meaningless.” He expresses the fear that “those private visions of hell with which we are being assaulted will become no longer private and individual but general and universal. The defeat will then be total, final.”1 Though he never mentions homosexuality, no reader in 1963 could miss the fact that this is what Hayes is talking about, that he is joining in the outcry against homosexual influence in the theatre that first found overt expression in a 1961 article by Howard Taubman, the drama critic for The New York Times, and subsequently found support among most of Broadway’s critics.2 In addition to many code words—“distorted,” “sick,” “neuroticism,” “viciously,” “private”—Hayes makes his point more explicitly by evoking the theory that the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are really homosexual men in disguise, a critical motif that had become a touchstone for those attacking homosexual influence in the theatre: “Does the waspish bitchiness of the dialogue in ‘Virginia Woolf,’for instance, correspond to a recognizable pattern of the speech in a marriage or to some other relationship Doug Arrell recently retired as Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Winnipeg, where he was Chair for nine years. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto and obtained his PhD at the University of London. He was a founder and first Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Studies Association. He is a director and dramaturge and the author of articles on Canadian theatre history, queer studies, and aesthetic theory. 6 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism out and beyond the experience of most of us.”3 The outcry about homosexuality in the theatre was only part of a wider hysteria about homosexual influence on American culture in general during this period. The remarkable extent of this phenomenon, which reached its peak in the mid 1960s, is documented in Michael S. Sherry’s recent book Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy.4 In this essay I will explore a particular aspect of this anti-homosexual outburst, one well illustrated by Hayes’s article. While many critics complained of the misogyny and dishonesty of gay male artists, among some there was a deeper concern that their work was profoundly anti-humanistic and posed an imminent danger to American civilization. These critics focused on nihilism as the greatest threat posed by the gay artist, and their writings often took on an apocalyptic tone. Oddly enough, it was often the more intellectual and liberal writers who took this position, as I will illustrate in the writings of several commentators of the period, notably the theatre critic Robert Brustein. I will suggest that understanding how this particularly extreme position evolved helps explain both the rapid rise of critical homophobia during this period and its equally rapid decline. The association of nihilism with homosexual men has its source...