Will Rogers as student Joe Lumbard, Harvard Class of 1922, is called before a secret court convened by the college president to investigate the spread of “homosexualism” at Harvard, in a scene from Unnatural Acts, a new play based on real events, now playing at the Classic Stage Company.
In the spring of 1920, a Harvard undergraduate named Cyril Wilcox left school and returned to his family’s home in Fall River, Massachusetts, where after dinner he went up to his room, sealed the windows and the door, turned on the gas, and lay down on his bed in his suit and tie and went to sleep, never to wake up.
Going through his effects later, his older brother found among other letters one from a friend back at school that suggested that Wilcox and his friend, Ernest Roberts, had engaged in unnatural acts. The letter also hinted that several of their friends had, like them, engaged in similar unnatural acts.
They were gay and they’d had sex with men.
Few people at the time would have used the word gay to mean, well, gay. They’d have said homosexual with not quite as much horror and disgust as contemporary Right Wing Christians but more than that it’s easy for us to accept was routine among intelligent and educated and otherwise sophisticated people. The degree that their horror and disgust was mitigated and tinged with sympathy depended on how enlightened they were.
The enlightened view in 1920 was that homosexuality was a disease.
It could be caught, and Wilcox’s brother knew Cyril could not have caught it at home. Cyril must have been infected at Harvard. He took the letter to President and an investigation was launched to find the source of the infection and root it out.
A secret court was convened and Roberts and his and Cyril’s other friends mentioned in the letter were called before it. They were bullied and terrified into naming other friends who were homosexuals and they were called to testify, their testimony mainly being self-incriminatory. One way or another they were manipulated into “confessing” and then accusing their friends and lovers.
Ultimately, the court convicted fourteen men of “homosexualism” and told them to leave Harvard.
This is a true story and Unnatural Acts, now enjoying its premiere production at the Classic Stage Company, focuses on the proceedings of the secret court and the ways it ruined the lives and prospects of these students and drove at least one of them to his death---a second suicide.
The script, a collaborative effort by members of Plastic Theater under the supervision of director Tony Speciale, is based on an investigative report by a team of reporters for the Harvard Crimson whose editor had accidentally come across the court’s sealed records while doing research in the University’s archives back in 2002. The problem for the playwrights trying to tell this true story truthfully is that the court didn’t keep detailed records.
There’s no transcript only sets of notes taken separately by members of the tribunal and the students themselves, for reasons its easy to imagine, apparently didn’t keep their own records or tell anybody about what happened to them, at least not anybody who wrote it all down, ever. So nobody knows all that was asked or answered. And while a few of the students managed to rebound to the point of leading professionally and personally successful lives---one of them went on to become a federal judge who when he died in 1999 rated an obituary in the New York Times and is the subject of a fairly good-sized entry in Wikipedia, (Warning: Links contain possible spoilers.) and another became a Broadway producer---the rest lived and died in nearly complete obscurity and left behind no real record of who they were in 1920 and what their lives at Harvard were like.
In interviews, Speciale has made the point that Unnatural Acts isn’t a docudrama. It’s “our imaginative retelling of the story.” Almost everything said and done on stage is the result of speculation and much of what is speculated isn’t persuasive.
It isn’t that we can’t believe that this couldn’t have happened or that if it didn’t happen the way it does on stage that something like very like it did. It’s that what we see and hear is too much like what we would imagine happened. It’s too pat. The characters are types and as types they are a little too familiar.
Being a type doesn’t automatically make a character uninteresting. In fact, several of the characters are interesting mainly because of how they not only conform to type but how they are types trapped within stereotypes.
But none of the characters are aware of themselves as types in a way that would allow them to step back and comment on their predicament or take charge of who they are and shape their own lives, even before their troubles begin and events overwhelm them. This makes them all reactive. They can’t get outside the moment and as a result what they do and say are decided for them by what’s happening to them---they become spokesmen for the plot more than advocates for themselves. Basically, despite Speciale and his co-authors’ intentions, they are stuck in a docudrama, limited by the facts, a real problem, considering that there are very few facts on hand.
Another way of saying this is that they are generally amplifiers for exposition. The characters tend to report instead of dramatizing themselves. It’s all plausible as good reporting can be, but it doesn’t carry us away. We remain detached, observant but not involved, and so skeptical.
This isn’t to say that Unnatural Acts is an emotional letdown or dull.
Speciale and company have employed a variety of clever theatrical effects borrowed from the bags of tricks of other playwrights from Brecht to Welles to Miller to Thornton Wilder that add drama where there would otherwise be only journalism and keep things lively, entertaining, visually dynamic, and, often, viscerally gripping.
They’re more than helped out by Justin Townsend’s haunting lighting design that brings Scenic designer Walt Spengler’s handsome set to life, almost literally---at one point the giant bookcase that looms over the set starts to glow malevolently from within as if infused with the angry spirit of the University about to come crashing down upon the men.
But what really makes Unnatural Acts a satisfying theatrical experience is the acting.
The production features eleven fine individual efforts that blend to make one very fine group performance. Unnatural Acts is a true ensemble piece.
The ensemble is led by Nick Westrate who as Ernest Roberts, the leader of the group, is full of charismatic bravado and marked by an engaging recklessness. Roberts is a rebel and a trail-blazer, a hero in the eyes of his friends and in his own mind until he’s called before the court where his courage and confidence fail him completely.
Jess Burkle plays Edward Say, a delicate and natty elfin queen, and Will Rogers plays his gangling roommate Joe Lumbard, both of them pointedly ignoring the obvious about Say until they’re called to testify when they both turn on Say. Up to this point, Rogers plays Lumbard, who is presented as more bi-curious than actively gay, possibly drawn more by the group’s bohemian, intellectual, and subversive qualities than by physical attraction, as the resident good guy, and it’s a shock to watch him turn hysterically vicious in his desperation to separate himself from his friend in the eyes of his persecutors. Burkle makes Say’s pitiable attempts to explain away his “sissy-ness” by blaming it all on a childhood operation as heartbreaking as watching a child take out his heartbreak on a favorite toy.
Jerry Marsini is appealingly understated as Donald Clark, a Ph.D. candidate, poet, and instructor of philosophy who believes he has made a separate peace with his sexuality until a sexually manipulative student corners him after class and under the pretense of having a literary discussion breaks down Clark’s carefully constructed intellectual defenses against his own feelings. Marsini delivers one of my favorite lines from the play when the student impertinently quizzing him on his reading and he replies wry self-assurance, “In the interest of brevity, assume I’ve read every book ever written.”
It’s a line that would put most students in their place, but this particular student, Stanley Gilkey, lives to put others in their place. He’s a conniving weasel and an emotional and intellectual bully and he’s played with verve and wit and villainous charm by Max Jenkins who makes the most of Gilkey’s creepy and cringing attempts to talk his way out of trouble before the court by explaining that the reason he spent so much time among the “homosexualists” is that he’s planning to go into law enforcement after college and as part of his preparation for his future career he needs to study the criminal mind.
By the way, he is not the one who goes on to be a judge.
The rest of the cast includes Brad Koed as the soulful narrator, Devin Norik as a maternal tutor, Joe Curnette as a princely and charming medical student, Frank De Julio as an aspiring actor with far more heart than talent, Roe Hartrampf as a star athlete who knows he can’t be homosexual because of all the girls who are crazy about him, and Roderick Hill as Cyril Wilcox’s avenging brother..
While the plotting and dialog are disappointingly journalistic, thematically the play does very little special pleading on behalf of its characters. It’s taken for granted that the attitudes of the period were wrong and psychologically and emotionally destructive and that we’ll understand that these young men were victims of both the prejudices of society and the institutional arrogance of the University and sympathize with them on that account, and therefore it’s safe to show that none of them were saints or heroes.
Lumbard isn’t the only one we see called before the court who behaves badly. Most of the others also betray their friends and themselves quickly and eagerly. They are young and callow and defenseless in the face of an implacable authority that has already decided their fates. One of the horrors of their situation is that at some level they agree with the powers-that-be: They see their own gayness as a source of shame. They turn out to be as thoroughly conventional in their thinking as any other products of the times. Even the few who like Roberts have assumed an attitude of defiance, sexual rebellion, and pride give way to self-loathing, disgust, and a sudden, desperate need to prove to themselves as well as to the old men on the court that they are not who they are.
A big part of the evil of the attitudes back then---which we know are shared and promulgated and enforced by an awful lot of people now---is how they made---and make---individuals hate themselves.
It’s heartbreaking to listen to these promising young men committing what is in effect a form of suicide by rhetoric.
But it’s not left at that. After all, there were almost certainly more than fourteen gay men at Harvard in 1920, and it’s likely that many of them, including members of the faculty, were known to be gay by colleagues, students, and deans. But while there’s nothing in the record to answer why the court stopped with these fourteen, there’s enough there to tell us why the members of this group were among the ones who were “caught.”
It isn’t their sex lives that brings on disaster as much as the rules they’ve broken along the way, rules about parties in one’s room, rules about when and under what circumstances it was permitted to leave campus, rules against inviting strangers in, rules against fraternizing with locals, not to mention the law they broke routinely and blithely as well, the Volstead Act.
They didn’t bother to cover their tracks because they didn’t think they really needed to.
In their indifference to abiding by the rules and their assumption that their status as Harvard men would protect them if they got into any trouble, they were no different from countless other classmates, straight and gay. And they weren’t completely foolish for thinking this. But, as one of their number---one of the few who in real life came through pretty much unscathed---warns them, Harvard will take care of you, until…the choice is between taking care of Harvard and taking care of you. Then Harvard will take care of Harvard.
In trusting the audience to see how the men’s youthful arrogance, weaknesses, and self-indulgence contributed to their prosecution and persecution, Speciale and his co-writers and cast do a good job at overcoming the script’s journalistic earnestness and predictability, and if they don’t convince us that this is what happened or that something very like it happened, they make us feel that whatever the men involved were actually like what happened to them was more than wrong, it was tragic.
Unnatural Acts, created by members of the Plastic Theatre, conceived and directed by Tony Speciale, ongoing through July 31 (run extended), at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., New York, NY 10003. Click here for tickets or call (866) 811-4111 or (212) 352-3101.
Photos by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Classic Stage Company.
The story behind the story: The Boston Globe reports on the Harvard Crimson’s investigation into the Secret Court in Crimson Letter.
The story behind the play: In an interview with Gerard Raymond of Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door, director Tony Speciale describes how Unnatural Acts was put together as a play.