“Years from now. . .when you talk about this. . .and you will. . .be kind.”
Oh, Prunella — Tea and Sympathy is back! And timely as ever, what with pages getting cyber-seduced by Republican congressmen, Fundie mega-preachers trolling for hustlers and “Tina,” “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” on the ropes, and Queer Eye For the Straight Guy in reruns on NBC.
Still, Gina Bellafante (tellingly sent by the Times instead Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood) wonders why we should “be kind” now.
“On the surface, Tea and Sympathy, Robert Anderson’s 1953 play set inside a psychologically stifling boys’ boarding school, is an indictment of the dangerously limited ways Americans have codified masculinity. And from where we are perched now — the era of “Project Runway,” the Hedi Slimane suit, the $100 exfoliating creams just for men — the play would seem as applicable to our habits as a dial on a digital television.”
Indeed. Anderson’s haplessly ultra-sensitve anti-hero, would be more likely tormented by “straight-acting, straight-appearing” gays these days.
“When Tea and Sympathy made its debut on Broadway, it ran for more than 700 performances, but it has not been the subject of a major New York revival since.”
Now isn’t that fascinating? Here’s a play that even the many who haven’t seen it surely know about. The title has entered the language and it’s climactic line (see above) the annals of camp.. But on a far more serious level any number of “sissies” have been singled out for approbation (and far worse) over the years leaving one to wonder why Tea and Sympathy hasn’t been revived more often. Likewise the movie version , directed by Hollywood’s most celebrated sissy, Vincente Minnelli, doesn’t pop up on Turner Classic Movies all that often. Yet we all, gay and straight, know about it. In his invaluable The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo makes 13 separate references to the piece. And no wonder. It was a sensation on stage and screen and still packs a wallop. My parents went to see the original production (directed by the ultra-macho Elia Kazan) on Broadway. I didn’t go because it wasn’t a musical. But in light of his success with The Light in the Piazza, maybe Craig Lucasmight be interested in turning it into one. It certainly has no end of the brand of drama he favors. Notes Ballafante —
“In a sexless marriage, Laura feels for the boy too, becoming his protector when he is brought under scrutiny for going swimming with a male teacher, a violation that results in the teacher’s dismissal and the widely held conviction that Tom is gay. (Because of the rules imposed by Hollywood’s policing, this aspect of the story is replaced in the film by an episode in which Tom joins some faculty wives at the beach and talks too much about knitting and cooking for the taste of his peers.)
When Laura finally asks Bill if he derides Tom because he sees in him what he fears about himself, the moment is searing and intense, the culmination of all the play has been leading up to.”
But it’s Laura’s plight that has always been Tea and Sympathy’s strongest selling point. As Stephen Harvey notes in his Directed by Vincente Minnelli —
“once Laura started unbuttoning her blouse, the audience could safely embrace the play’s hero as well.”
This unbuttoning led to as much trouble, if not more, than the hero’s presumed gayness.
Adultery was still biggie of a N-No as far as the Production Code was concerned — even when involved in an effort to scotch incipient “sexual perversion.” The Legion of Decency had a cow. But there was no stopping Tea and Sympathy. It was such a smash, and Deborah Kerr such a star, that MGM was going to make the movie come Cardinal Spellman or high water.
So it was back to the drawing board — or in thsi case, writer’s desk. For not only was Tom’s “scandalous” skinny-dipping with a gay-suspect teacher never mentioned, much less shown (the “scandal” in the movie is his joining the campus wives for a sewing session) Coach Bill’s urge to merge with a splurge is deep-sixed as well. And with the MGM fog-machine working overtime in the climactic seduction scene (set in a woodland glade so enchanted one almost expects a three-way with Bambi ) Laura never goes near her blouse buttons.
Maybe Lucas and his Piazza collaborators can make up for this morbid decorousness via a rousing 11 O’Clock number for Victoria Clark — which will of course be called “Be Kind.”
Sing out, Laura!