Daniel David Moses' twin one-act plays, together entitled The Indian Medicine Shows, combine the dramatic and the comic to explore themes of desire, gender, belief, and "show biz" presentation in the closing years of the American frontier. Really the third in a series of four plays that revolve around the idea of the "frontier", The Indian Medicine Shows adds to Moses' mythology of Natives, racism, and gender. "Cowboy" and "Indian" have become vulgar stereotypes, just as the American "frontier" has degenerated into a cliché of post-Adamic pastoralism, but Moses has striven to submit the clichéd underpinnings of the Old West to critical revisionism, although the condensed form of his exploration and the marginally parodic dialogue vitiate any profound allegory.
The immensity of the West circumscribes a loneliness that demands love; its "ghostliness" in Moses' work symbolizes the disavowal of the conventional that makes possible tabooed versions of love. The Moon and Dead Indians is set around the porch of a cabin in the foothills of New Mexico in 1878. The "gray sky before dawn", "the last fragment" of a setting moon, and the image of widowed Ma Jones, "pale in her bedclothes as a ghost" (albeit with a Winchester rifle in her hands), establish a virtually gothic wilderness for the soul. Ma has constructed a paranoid fantasy about the "Indian". The sound of hoofbeats and creaking saddles is "the sound of death coming", even though there are no Indians about and it was a coyote rather than an Apache that had scalped her husband in the mountains. Her son, Jon, tries to puncture her fictions, but she clings as tenaciously to them as she professes to be a Christian. So far there is nothing startling about the situation or its characters. Indeed, the play is riddled with clichés about the white man's isolation and his uneasy relationship with the Native. But the entrance of Bill Antrim, Jon's boyhood friend, becomes a dramatic trope. Though he whistles "The Blue Danube" and charms Ma, he is no innocent. He is inordinately fond of his Colt 41 and has caused the death of a man in Lincoln County. Moreover, it was he who had taught Jon to hunt, drink, and fornicate, and it becomes clear that these two have yearned after the same woman of questionable repute. But even here the texture of their interrelationship is more adolescent than adult-until the vibrations of their mutual homoerotic passion are felt.
Their lives have been a drawn-out flirtation, with Billy being the fugitive "killer" and Jon the "virgin" who learns how to be a man both from and despite his friend. It is in the concealed love of the two young men that Moses reveals the first taboo of the old West: the homosexual love of one frontiersman for another. And the isolated setting becomes a fitting context for this homosexual encounter. The sexuality of Jon and Bill is a troubled one. Despite his sexual passion for Bill, Jon would rather dissociate himself from his dangerous friend because of the latter's proclivity for violence. Bill taunts Jon for being "too weak for this world" and immediately caps this by mocking, "You're as weak as my little forty-one." The Freudian sexual implications are significant, and, tormented by his love-hate, Jon attempts self-mutilation by fire. But this only leads to Bill's passionate conviction that "you and I are stuck together like this skin is." The pair are not simply homos on the range. Their desire for each other would make them outcasts from society. Their shared compelling anxiety is that each will not be loved, that each is admired for physical prowess and not for himself, that each is really alone. If the play simply concentrated on this subject, it would be existential without being complicated by a second dramatic thickening. Moses cleverly introduces his key archetype: the emasculated Native who is both scourge and victim, socially and sexually. Jon and Bill had once cruelly persecuted a girlish Indian male, with Bill finally scalping and castrating the youth. To Bill this incident is a tale of boisterous bravado; to Jon it is a frightful dream from which there is no deliverance, and, so, very much like his troubled relationship with Bill. Here we have the nexus of the play: two young frontiersmen alienated from "civilization", with one being the drunk, the bully, the male protector, and the other being the modest boy, protective of his widowed mother, but sorely in need of protection himself; and against these two is set the persecuted Indian, mutilated and defiled to the point where his torture is a form of sadistic ecstasy for at least one of his white tormentors. The underlying terror is in this Indian's howls of pain as well as in Jon's anguished yearning to be freed from Bill. No wonder, then, that in the crucial climax, Ma, after eavesdropping on her son and his secret male lover, attempts to kill Jon before taking her own life. His homosexual nature is unbearable to her. She knows that the real danger is not the Indian but her son's tabooed love for another male. Her discovery is too much of a "killing" secret.
The unregenerate Bill does not appear physically in the second play, Angel of the Medicine Show. Here the setting is a medicine show wagon camped near a creek in New Mexico in the winter of 1890, and through the figures of Sweetheart, Indian Servant, and Male Beloved, Moses develops a violently bruised romance by stirring a complex mixture of guilts. The homosexuality in the first play threatened an essential aspect of American sentimental frontier life: the camaraderie of the poker game and fishing trip. At once gross and delicate, the homoerotic relationship of Jon and Bill destroys the sentimentalist's stubborn belief in a simple frontier relationship which is immune to lust. With buddy-buddiness inverted and soiled in the first play, the second play is coarser or, perhaps, merely frontal and direct in its delineation of a white man's passion for the frontier "bogeyman". The characters are Angela, a performer in the medicine show, who also happens to be the girl referred to in the first play; David Smoke, a young Mohawk who shills for the medicine show; and Jon, who now complicates his life by a passion for the Indian. David Smoke is a wounded victim who has barely escaped a lynching and who has an omnipresent fear of death. Angela is the profane ministering "angel" who first wounds and then nurses him. And Jon is the double invert who has replaced his covert love for Bill with a passion for David.
At the core of this play is a consciousness of a racial and sexual difference that is sufficient provocation for distrust and hatred. In some sense the characters all pay a price for their difference. The Native begins in pain and terror and ends literally with a disappearing act. Angela, who has her own burden of nostalgic yearning for Bill who has vanished from her life, finds a compromise in Jon, whose past has elements of a nightmare.
The psychosexual and metaphorical suggestiveness of Moses' short plays is strengthened by generally lean writing and by expressionistic lighting devices that, of course, need to be seen in performance rather than read as textual cues, but there is a radical vision of a re-interpreted frontier. This is not simply an old West frontier, but one of homoerotic desire that in an earlier era would have made a cowboy blush. Moses takes tonal risks with his material, and his gambles usually pay off, even though they do occasionally leave him open to charges of pushing the boundaries of performance into melodramatic clichés or camp, as when the Mohawk is forced to wear a calico dress and war bonnet and turn himself into a scrambled icon, a minstrel Indian in crossdress. Sometimes, too, the dialogue verges on parody, but it is eminently clear that the comic shading offers respite from symbol-laden seriousness, as well as being an addition to a spectacle of life at once erotic, absurd, and romantic.
Parody can be an esoteric code, a badge of identity, especially for a subculture. To patronize it as a facile, vulgar exercise (as many people do) is to patronize an aspect of sensibility and sense. There can be intelligence and taste in parody, for parody is a mode of aestheticism: it is a way of seeing the world, not in terms of refined beauty, but in terms of stylization and artifice. That is why parody is an attribute of camp, which itself is a demonstration of sensibility because of its dimensions of taste, intelligence, and degrees of artifice.
The link between parody and camp is often most strongly observed in gay theatre where deliberate exaggeration, kitsch, and travesty contradict nature and defy codes of social propriety by their wicked connotations. Random examples that come to mind are the novels of Ronald Firbank, certain plays by Noel Coward, drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, old Flash Gordon comics and their visual equivalent in Mike Hodges' film in 1981, Mae West, scenes in Cabaret, Dame Edna Everage, every play by Joe Orton, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sky Gilbert, Glennda Orgasm, Derek Jarman's Edward II, certain passages in Shakespeare, and Madonna.
Parody and camp flourish in gay theatre because they are freewheeling exercises that violate the great "virgin" right-wing in North America. As William M. Hoffman has pointed out in Gay Plays: The First Collection (1979), the repression of homosexuality in the theatre till the 1960s took the following forms: 1) Silence ("Not having gay characters at all; not mentioning homosexuality"); 2) False Accusation ("A character who is not homosexual is accused of it. The author can avoid handling the issue while seeming to deal with it"); 3) Stereotyping ("Gay characters, if male, are effeminate; if female, are masculine. Or gays are portrayed as `sensitive' or `special.' Or gays are mentally disturbed"); 4) Exploitation ("Using gays sensationally as local color"). But the next three decades saw a radical change in matters. Edward Albee, Gore Vidal, Shelagh Delaney, John Osborne, Joe Orton, Mart Crowley, Charles Ludlam, Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Frank Marcus, Harvey Fierstein, Maria Irene Fornes, et al. forced "straight" society to confront psychosexual, social, and political concerns of gay society. The AIDS epidemic politicized gay theatre, compelling it to become propagandistic in the face of government intransigence on health, social, and moral issues. This was a natural and logical step for gay theatre, but one that was fraught with artistic hazards, for good propaganda is not necessarily tantamount to art, and the serious problem for gay playwrights is to be sincere, purposeful, and pointed without trivializing the form for their articulations. While it may be sociologically useful to chant on Gay Pride Day, "We're here, we're queer, and we're thespians," and to establish a professional company for new "queer" writing, good and brave intentions alone do not guarantee art.
To state this is not, however, to argue implicitly for only high seriousness. Parody and camp, which so often fuel gay plays, can produce vibrant, powerful effects on stage, even while appearing to patronize their subjects. In naive art, the essential element is a seriousness that often fails. But in gay theatre, parody and camp thrust toward the playful or anti-serious. They are apparently frivolous about the serious and yet in their most efficient manifestations they are serious about their apparent frivolousness.
This paradox is evident in Plague of the Gorgeous & Other Tales, a collection of five short plays set in the context of HIV and AIDS by six gay writers from Vancouver. An uneven collection (some pieces are mere fragments of experience), this book encompasses five different approaches to gay passion, and it offers spectacles of sci-fi (laced with mordant social and political censure), monologuist drama, imagistic impressionism, and suave comedy of manners. The modes and tones of the five plays vary significantly, as do their respective merits, but in the end the collection transcends an impulse for lamentation to become, instead, a celebration of difference and of life.
The book is framed by fantasy: the first piece, by Gordon Armstrong, which gives the book its title, is a robust version of science fiction, while the final piece, Remembering Shanghai, by Peter Eliot Weiss, is in the vein of Noel Coward but with fantasy as a theme and mood. Both these plays create a provocative didactic and formal configuration. Where in Weiss's play, the two male characters are terminally ill with AIDS, in Armstrong's play an entire planet is threatened with extinction by disease. In Weiss's case, camp sophistication and romance become tributes to life and two of its bright but doomed celebrants, whereas in Armstrong's case, the parody of sci-fi movies compels us to alter our vocabulary and imagery as we confront an alien environment. Both plays suggest that it is necessary to use fantasy in order to liberate the imagination and terminate the deadly moral and political phase that entraps North American society.
Stereotypes are used deliberately in Plague, which its author describes as "a kind of critical tribute to the grade B sci-fi of the sixties, the films of Mario Bava, and the stereotypical attitudes of their characters." A fictive people, the Onusians, battle for their lives against a deadly virus that ironically and paradoxically makes its victims glow with health and so appear more physically desirable in their progression towards death. Armstrong's play with words and meanings and his tragicomic fantasy's raucous and broad parody add a verbal texture to the spectacle which is propaganda refracted giddily through a ludic comic-strip sensibility. The planet Onus may indeed be a wicked variant of "anus", and the mysterious virus is certainly an inversion of AIDS in the sense that it adds glamour, rather than dehumanizing misery, to the death process. The jokey tone and comic-strip language ("Tumbling nuns of New Luna"; "It is I, Space Pirate Zelda, she-devil of the cosmos!") point to parody and camp as defining attributes of this gay fantasy, but there are Joycean and Shakespearean resonances as well that validate my earlier point about the seriousness of apparent triviality. "I adjure to joop/ to aromatic alpha hydroxy elixir/ of lovely fruition fruit acid reactivating complex/rare riches ready to drop from the clouds so/ when I wake from this obsession/ I cry to obsess again" are lines that combine the arch multi-level wordplay of Finnegans Wake with vibrations from The Tempest. But the verbal play never obscures the didactic propaganda, which is incarnated in the form of the diseased, gorgeous Bava Luna, Onusian envoy, who speaks in blank verse that is often nourished by the consonantal and alliterative rhythm of Anglo-Saxon and Shakespearean language. Because he is "the most gorgeous creature in this or any other star system", he is, indeed, alienated by his entropic glamour to the point of suffering "a strange and complex aggression towards him" (read homophobia). Denied Dr. Zobak's miracle drug (a version of AZT?) on grounds of incomplete medical testing, Luna polarizes the politics of AIDS and gay life. He is sacrificed because he is "too dangerous alive" and his enemies cannot abide having their essential humanity put to the test. Luna's sad beauty is countered by Zobak's cruel expediency which is the one thing that cannot be cured.
The problem for some readers might well be the parodic form of the parable. Science fiction is perhaps too distanced for those who prefer the reality of hyperinvolvement. Yet the fantasy element in this play allows for analogical reality: gays are treated like aliens by the morally self-righteous, who are totally ignorant of complex identity issues. Human identity and its attendant problems need to be seen in much larger terms than those of establishment codes, and sci-fi's sensory, hyperkinetic quality attempts to terminate the constrictive, inhibitive phase of common society. Gordon Armstrong attempts to analyse contemporary North American attitudes to sexual deviancy by way of futurist fantasy, and though his text is often fraught with clichés about oppression, victimization, and "care-giving", his play, by its very form, expresses the Zeitgeist by showing how a sense of "normality" can be disturbed by eruptions of lust and its irrepressible afflictions.
Gay theatre is essentially romantic in its incarnations of cults of beauty and sexual adventure. The pursuit of youth and beauty has been an insistent theme of gay theatre just as it has been of gay literature for centuries. But a consequence of that pursuit has been disease and death, and even these morbid subjects have acquired a romantic patina by virtue of gay theatre's celebration of lust and its sinister fardels.
So we sense a kind of black romanticism in both The Reverse Transcriptease, Kevin Gregg's imagistic tableaux about a young man infected with AIDS, and Crowns & Anchors, Lisa Lowe's mordant monologue by an AIDS-infected lesbian whose life has been spent as a carnival barker urging everybody to play the odds while looking for a place "to drop anchor and hold fast all the way to the bottom." These two pieces are slight in scope and are further diminished in the company of Sex is My Religion, Colin Thomas's sequence of monologues by a young AIDS victim, Jim, and his mother, Marge, who reverse roles by impersonating each other. The world created by these two is decidedly postlapsarian. Marge's entire history has been one of loneliness and loss. As the daughter of warring parents (her mother was a suicidal depressive), Marge has been used to loneliness and hurt, and in one deeply touching moment she recalls herself leaning against her favourite cow in the barn and making a high open sound of sadness. Her marriage has been an abusive one, and her son has drifted away from her. So she sees people as children who have lost their parents and been left by themselves in a garden. She uses religion to romanticize this allegory. Her son's version of reality has its own burden of suffering, beginning with his childhood illness and continuing with his fatal disease. Getting beyond his deep-rooted hatred for his absent father, we see a young man who, like his mother, is disillusioned by existence, but where she has found religious faith, he has clung to kinky sex as his religion. Both son and mother have turned yearning into creed. Jim turns to Lee, his "angel" who massages him, comforts and advises him, and serves as a form of grace. Marge sees Jim's cruel illness as a "gift" because it will, she believes, open his heart to his true Heavenly Father. Jim's romantic attitude towards desire offers him a pragmatic consolation, whereas Marge's faith is a case of piety without evident content. Yet neither character is really redeemed in this interesting cluster of monologues.
The final play in the collection is the most sophisticated one. It decorates the theme of death by a sensuous fantasy which is high camp in its particular exaggeration of an otherwise morbid situation. A variation of Coward's Private Lives, it replaces Coward's hotel in France with a terrace of a palliative care ward in Vancouver. Instead of Coward's mixed doubles (where marriage partners have exchanged spouses), we have two men, named after Coward's Victor and Elyot, who, like their famous namesakes, have no apparent métier but who are more than capable of elegance and bright high camp while covering up their real fears. The setting sun and cans of diet supplement make an emblematic statement on their grim reality, but the two men, dressed in scarves and exquisite silk robes over silk pajamas, brandish martini glasses and cigarettes and carry on with glittering wit as if dying well were the best revenge against their physical torment. Echoes of Coward rebound in the props, costuming, background music ("Someday I'll Find You"), staccato, clipped dialogue, throwaway humour, nostalgia, bickering, and reconciliation. The two are former lovers who have not seen each other in almost six years-not since Elyot (the older of the two) had visited Victor in Montreal three years after their tempestuous break-up. Though the pair parody the Coward style-even imitating Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in one sequence-they approach each other yearningly but with an undercurrent of fear. Victor admits to being frightened and fascinated by Elyot, yet despite Victor's shyness and silences in the past, the younger man is quite capable of provoking the older (his first lover) to anger. The title of the play derives from Victor's pure fantasy about Shanghai, a place he's never really visited. The word "Shanghai" is part of his strategy of moving forward by inventing a past. But the phrase "Remembering Shanghai" has other significances: "Shanghai" becomes the code word or their treaty for stopping arguments; and the second connotation is death, because the two men have been shanghaied by disease.
The epicene surface of the play follows Coward's mode for characters who, despite their vanity and selfishness, appeal to an audience because their frivolity, like Coward's, has, in the words of John Lahr, a kind of "stoic dignity." It is a question of masks, just as it is in Design for Living, where Leo explains: "Brittle, painted masks. We all wear them as a form of protection; modern life forces us to." To which Lahr makes an important addendum: "But Coward's acute awareness of and insistence on the performing self comes out of a homosexual world where disguise is crucial for survival."
True, in Remembering Shanghai the two men do not need to disguise their gayness any more. They are left to die by themselves. But the manner of their dying is neither sanctified nor cheaply sentimentalized. As Elyot puts it near the top of the play: "A million little people in a million little apartments going on with their lives entirely indifferent to us up here." Elyot's cigarette-holder isn't a therapeutic device but an affectation from a long time ago, rather like (as he puts it in a teasing whisper) the ascots that "a certain kind of men" used to wear. Even the real pain of their past bitter quarrels and separation dissolves in humour:
Elyot: Weren't we furious at each other?
Elyot: Did I write you a letter?
Victor: Cards actually. Several of them.
Elyot: Were they abusive?
Victor: I wouldn't know. They were largely illegible.
Elyot: Tear-streaked, no doubt.
Victor: I doubt it. It looked more like suntan oil.
Elyot: Very possible.
Victor: Or some other petroleum by-product.
Elyot: Equally possible. Where was I anyway?
Was it Bali?
Elyot: My memory must be going.
Victor: Selectively, I imagine.
The dialogue captures Coward's charming nonchalance quite well without depending on epigrammatic pithiness (which is really more a Wildean cachet in any case). The linguistic nuances show that restraint and understatement need not be emotionally hollow. If the superficial tone sounds flippant, it is only because such flippancy is a defiance of the gravity of their mortal illness. Though capricious, the two men are able to savour the moment, and their ability to find laughter amid the inevitable gloom of approaching death brings out the homosexual negative capability.
Weiss knows that the essence of Coward's linguistic style is the use of perfectly ordinary phrases that parody sentimentality:
Elyot: Do you really think we were meant for
Victor: It's one of my greatest fears.
Elyot: Mine too.
Victor: Wakes me up at night.
Victor: It's nothing.
The politeness has an unreality because its charm is an outward sign of a desire to soothe and please in a situation that normally invites despondency. The final lines of the play continue the attempt to mask pain as the two, their arms around each other, look off into the sunset and vow to travel together to Shanghai. This ending does, however, violate Coward's tone of provocative defiance because its refined gentility is now truly sentimental instead of being a parody of good manners. So, the play does in the end exploit romantic sentimentality, though not without leaving a bittersweet taste.
The Plague of the Gorgeous & Other Tales, then, is often a throwback to old styles of gay theatre. There really is no formal advance, though the best pieces serve as entertaining springboards for discussion.
Keith Garebian is the author of ten books, seven of them on theatre. He is working on a memoir.
This review and the review of Essays on Kushner's Angels that appeared in February began as one assignment, but it outgrew the bounds of one article for one issue.