The true path towards acceptance and integration of minorities isn’t made, of course, when special pleading is made for them but they’re happily, healthily and naturally integrated into the way of things.
It’s why colour-blind casting in the theatre is so brilliant; both Derek Jacobi and currently Jonathan Pryce, playing the title role in King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse and Almeida Theatres respectively, had one of their three daughters played a black actress — respectively Pippa Bennett-Warner (as Cordelia) and Jenny Jules (as Regan), without comment or surprise.
And the same thing applies to gay characters: it’s fantastic when we’re not just alternately tragic or comic relief to the main drama happening elsewhere. It’s great when gay characters are just part of the canvas of characters that a playwright works with, and we observe them in the context of the wider worlds they inhabit.
Gay playwrights and artists have gone through countless evolutions and revolutions to arrive at the happy state where they can produce gay characters in their work that don’t have to be written in code (as Rattigan or Coward did, for instance), or desperately (and autobiographically) unhappy, as Tennessee Williams did, but just being.
And a key part of that trail was blazed by Martin Sherman, who would become most famous for writing Bent that premiered at the Royal Court in 1979, with a small early work, Passing By, that was given its first full production by Gay Sweatshop in 1975. It is currently being revived in a small but perfectly formed (and perfectly performed) production at the always-invaluable Finborough Theatre, where I saw it earlier this week, played by Steven Webb and Alex Felton under the immaculate direction of Andrew Keates.
As Simon Callow, who starred in the original production, wrote in his autobiography ‘My Life in Pieces’ that is extracted in the programme, it was his “first experience of political theatre.” He continues:
Though in essence a very sweet account of a passing love affair between two young men, it was utterly radical in offering no apology or explanation for the affair - it was just an affair, like any other. The effect on the predominantly gay audience was sensational — they wept, not because it was sad, but because it was the first time they’d seen their own lives represented on stage without inverted commas, with neither remorse nor disgust. Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band — “show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” — had been packing them in, gay and straight, in the West End only a couple of years before; the acceptable face of homosexuality — brittle, anguished, self-loathing. Passing By was the antidote to this seductive but poisonous brew.
At Tuesday’s matinee, an older woman threw up mid-performance — I don’t think it was a reaction to the play — but even in the midst of the disruption, elegantly handled by the actors who just paused as she was ushered out of the theatre, you could feel a pin drop during the push and pull of their growing relationship.
It is played out against the backdrop of an illness that both men succumb to — a diagnosis of hepatitis — but as I watched it, I couldn’t, of course, help thinking about a disease that, less than a decade after this play was premiered, would strike down gay men even more severely: AIDS. In a programme note, Sherman himself comments:
Passing By has been infrequently revived. A fine production was given by the Hartford Stage Company in 1979. A New York gay magazine reviewed it and criticized it for its lack of leather bars. The changing times have sometimes been in conflict with the play’s sense of innocence. It was to have received its first full-scale production in New York in the summer of 1983. It was an event I greatly anticipated, but I cancelled it for fear that the growing AIDS epidemic would throw the story of two men who happen to have hepatitis into a completely misleading light and fan some of the misconceived and prejudiced linkage of homosexuality and physical illness that was then popular in the American press.
But now with the passing of time, though sadly still not the passing of AIDS (though it is often perceived nowadays as a manageable disease, people are still dying of it), the play is welcome for another reason: its heartfelt portrait of two gay men feeling their way to each other despite the condition both succumb to.
And after last year’s beautiful film Weekend that also portrayed a brief gay love affair without condescension or apology, it recognises a real moment of truth and feeling that’s at once heartbreaking and liberating.