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Issues of Sexuality

blanche gay ned stanley

Open displays or discussion of sexuality in modern drama swiftly escalated as the twentieth century progressed, beginning with a virtual silence about such matters to a point where talk about sex has become relatively commonplace and full frontal nudity hardly even shocking. In 1947, the “rape” of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is only inferred, as it takes place offstage, but by 1975 we watch Alan Strang, in Equus , simulate an orgasm while naked onstage, and by the 1980s, playwrights were relatively free to openly discuss homosexuality. Some plays use sex as a means of titillation or to shock their audiences; others explore issues of sexuality with greater sensitivity, striving to expand our understanding and tolerance of both heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The period of burgeoning sexuality that comes with the onset of puberty often seems the most problematic, at times even traumatic. Moral expectations and an entrenched social prudery that has long made us squeamish in matters of sexuality make this a time of suppression as well as discovery. How young people learn to express (or repress) their sexuality and how they view that of others often stays with them into adulthood. Seventeen-year-old Alan Strang, the teenage protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s Equus , presents an extreme case of adolescent sexuality gone awry through the skewered instruction he has received from his parents and his own desire for companionship and spiritual fulfillment. The psychiatrist brought in to examine Alan, after he has mutilated six horses, is both horrified and attracted to the strange sexual religion Alan creates for himself. Shaffer’s play suggests an underlying relationship between sex and religion; both, when most satisfying, have roots in the spiritual and both can have unpleasant consequences, often leading to violence, when restricted.


But it is not just among adolescents that sexuality can cause problems. At the center of A Streetcar Named Desire , by Tennessee Williams, is Blanche DuBois, a grown woman, who initially survives but then destroys herself through a sexuality she cannot control. After a youthful marriage to a man whom she discovered to be gay on their wedding night and drove to suicide by her disgust, Blanche begins using sex as an escape from a guilty and stultifying life. Haunted by her passing youth, she preys on young boys until she is virtually chased from town after a scandal with a student from the school at which she taught. Blanche’s perverse and tortured sexuality is balanced against the healthy sexuality of her sister, Stella. Stella’s husband, Stanley, is attracted to both, but it is Stella who wins his allegiance as she delivers him a healthy child and Blanche is taken off to a mental hospital.

Although there are references to homosexuality in A Streetcar Named Desire , Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a more direct consideration of homosexual sexuality and the political and personal pressures on gay men in particular. Kramer sets his play in America during the nationwide spread of AIDS in the early 1980s, and recounts the striving of a small group of activists to try to bring the plight of the gay community, which was the worst hit, to public attention, and to encourage strategies within that community for its future survival. The play is both a historical account of the early days of AIDS and an examination of gay life in general and how those lives were impacted by this epidemic. Kramer designed The Normal Heart as a type of modern agitprop, which is reflected not only in the characters’ constant calls to action but also in the set design, with its white flat covered in written facts, figures, and names associated with AIDS. His central protagonist, Ned Weeks, is largely autobiographical, so Ned’s declarations directly reflect Kramer’s beliefs regarding both gayness and the ongoing AIDS crisis.

The events of Equus are related largely through a series of flashbacks by psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who has been trying to discover why a formerly quiet teen gouged out the eyes of a group of horses. Dysart relates his findings, that Alan, in response to his father’s anger and his mother’s religious teachings, formed a personal religion that helped him to deal with his growing sexual feelings, but that unwittingly led to this dreadful crime. It becomes clear that Dysart envies Alan’s passion, even though it manifested itself so destructively, and feels disillusioned with the restrictive world of normalcy he inhabits by contrast.

Despite its combative setting inside a boxing ring, the opening images of a boy tenderly fondling the sculpted head of a horse, which appears to reciprocate his affection, seem at odds with the knowledge we are soon given that this same boy has recently stabbed out the eyes of six horses with a steel spike. The boxing ring setting warns us of the violence to come, but it is more the psychic torment of the boy than the physical pain of the blinded horses that undergirds the drama. This is a crime so heinous that most doctors view him  as unworthy of help and want him locked up in jail. Dysart, however, finds himself emotionally drawn to the power of the passion that must have caused such behavior.

Dora Strang, Alan’s mother, has devoted years to reading the Bible to her son and instilling in him the belief that sex must be “spiritual” or it is sinful and that God is always watching with eyes that are everywhere. Central to her belief is the idea of Christ, and the painful death he underwent, a scene of which she has placed on her son’s bedroom wall. We will find that she is partly to blame for her son’s unorthodox sexual development, but the authoritarian treatment by Frank Strang, Alan’s father, is also responsible. Fiercely controlling, Frank forbids Alan to watch television and mocks his wife’s religious beliefs to the point where he rips down her picture of Christ and, what will later become highly significant, replaces it with a picture of a horse. Frank blames Alan’s religious upbringing for his crimes and accepts no personal responsibility. But Alan is largely led by his father’s mockery of Christianity, and a home life of constant tension from which he needs an escape, to create a religion of his own.

Having had Christ’s picture on his wall exchanged for that of a horse, it is unsurprising that the god of the twelve-year-old Alan’s new religion takes the form of a horse. He calls it Equus, and just as his picture of Christ had been in chains, Equus must always wear a chain in his mouth for the “sins of the world.” The riding stable where he works becomes a Temple, from which he takes horses late at night to ride naked and bareback until he reaches an orgasm, which makes him feel as if he is united with his god. Thus he merges sex and religion, and unites both spiritual and sexual longing in a fashion that satisfies his growing need for release, exacerbated by his unhappy home life with constantly bickering parents. Under hypnosis, Alan reenacts his bizarre ritual for Dysart, who feels stimulated by the resulting scene of freedom, unfettered by what he sees as stifling social restraints.

The blinding of the horses grows out of Alan’s increased desire, as he grows older, to experience sex with a girl, and the accompanying guilt that God must be watching his attempt to commit such a sin. Jill Mason, another stable employee, persuades Alan to take her to a sex movie. To the embarrassment of both father and son, Frank attends the same show, which prompts Alan’s association of guilt with sex. Following this, Jill tries to seduce Alan at the stable, but his fear of being watched by God (who in his religion appears as a horse) leads him to impotence. Angry at both her and the possibility that having seen his sinful behavior his God may now abandon him, he threatens Jill with a steel spike and, when she flees, turns on the watching horses in a state of panic and stops them from looking any longer.

Having uncovered Alan’s secret, Dysart knows he can work with the boy and make him “normal,” but there is a part of Dysart that does not want to do this. Alan’s fervor and passion, although dangerous, are at least less predictable, more original and alive than the normalcy Dysart sees as restricting himself and others. Dysart’s childless marriage is mutually convenient but without passion, and he sees Alan’s ability to experience such ferocious passion as enviable. In archetypal terms, what Shaffer shows us is the difference between the Apollonian and Dionysian approaches to life. Dysart is the embodiment of the Apollonian, with his rational mind and controlled emotions, but balanced against this is the irrational, wild passion exhibited by Alan in his moment of orgiastic freedom riding across the open field. Shaffer asks us to question which is ultimately the more fulfilling.

A Streetcar Named Desire begins with the arrival of Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, looking for shelter from the mess she has made of her life. Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, resents Blanche’s intrusion, and when he sees her attempting to ensnare one of his friends, Mitch, breaks up the relationship and rapes Blanche when his wife is in the hospital delivering their child, which sends Blanche over the edge into madness.

The play illustrates many of Williams’s concerns regarding sexuality, such as the consequences of nonconformity, and the seemingly inevitable destruction of sensitive or romantic souls by those who are insensitive or materialistic. Set in the Elysian Fields district of New Orleans—a run-down tenement section of town—the name becomes an ironic allusion to paradise. Instead, this play is full of sex and deadly violence, evoked by the steamy atmosphere of its New Orleans location, snatches of blues music, and streetcars named “Desire” and “Cemeteries.”

The name of the family mansion Blanche has lost, Belle Reve, means “beautiful dream,” and indicates the dream-life Blanche creates in trying to avoid the truth, the most awful part of that truth that she drove her gay husband to suicide by her disgust at his sexual preference. It is this past that forever threatens to overwhelm her, indicated by the continual intrusion of the “Varsouviana,” which was playing at the ball during which her husband killed himself. Blanche lives in a fake world of sentimental illusion because reality would destroy her, and constantly bathes herself, as if she can wash away the taint of her guilt. Her white dress and name, meaning “white woods,” indicates not innocence but a paucity of spirit. On the surface she seems vivacious and flirtatious, but this is a sham, for when her guard drops we see how frightened and drained of life she really is.

Blanche is fatally divided, caught between the desire to be a lady—young, beautiful, and concerned with old-fashioned Southern ways—and a bohemian—erring and excessive in her appetites. Chasing her lost youth, she intermittently chases young boys to the point where she must leave a scandalized town and start afresh. In New Orleans, Blanche hides her real age and shady past as she tries to attract a decent man to clean up her life. She nearly fools Stanley’s colleague, Mitch, into believing her to be the lady she insists that she is. But her attraction to young men will continue to cause trouble: it led her into an unsuitable marriage and more recently lost her job, and she cannot   resist flirting with the newspaper boy. We should realize that marriage to Mitch will not solve her problems and it is the inability to satisfy both sides of her nature that causes her downfall. Blanche seeks love, but her very delusional nature works against her ever finding this.

In opposition to the deathly whiteness of Blanche is her younger sister, Stella, who is healthy, pregnant, and full of life. Stella loves Blanche but, unlike her sister, has rejected her refined, Southern heritage in favor of a more brutal, low-class existence with Stanley, who offers her a life of the senses. Stanley provides her with all she needs, including an exciting, guilt-free sexual relationship. In comparison to Blanche, Stella seems open and sincere, but she is not naive and will only allow Blanche so much leeway; although she humors her sister to keep things smooth, she knows what Blanche has become and is largely unimpressed with her airs. At the close of the play she allows Blanche to be taken to the asylum because to acknowledge that her sister has been raped by her husband would ruin a marital relationship on which she depends, and, in this matter, she chooses ignorance over truth.

Stanley sees Blanche as a disruptive force in his household, as Stella picks up Blanche’s snooty habits and grows critical of him. His response is to become increasingly belligerent toward Blanche. He has no time for illusions and insists on facing reality, which clearly puts him at odds with Blanche. Williams continually depicts him in animal terms—bringing home the meat, eating like a beast, pacing, howling—and points out Stanley’s “animal joy in his being” (128). Being at heart an animal, Stanley likes to display his strength and control, and protects his territory with increasing violence, beginning with throwing the radio out the window. He attacks Blanche for losing Belle Reve and spoils Blanche’s relationship with Mitch by telling him what he’s found out about her—that she was a virtual prostitute at a hotel in Laurel and lost her teaching post because of an affair with a seventeen-year-old student. Stanley’s final act of aggression is his “rape” of Blanche, although Williams wants us to view the rape ambiguously, suggesting that Blanche might have been seducing Stanley all along. Blanche’s only defense against Stanley is to flirt with him, which she admits to Stella that she has been doing, but Stanley takes this flirting at face value and, being a man of action with little capacity for moral guilt, acts on it by reciprocating in the worst possible way.

Elysian Fields may be a kind of paradise for men like Stanley who embrace lives of the senses and are completely comfortable in their sexuality. He is self-assured and does what he wants. Always himself, he plays no games, having a lack of pretension and perception that Williams wants us to respect; Stanley sees through Blanche from the start. He has a permanency and strength about him that contrasts with Blanche’s impermanence, fragility, and sexual uncertainty—Blanche wants to be a “lady” but feels continually tripped up by her sexual desire, which she feels society requires her to suppress. Blanche and Stanley each strive to win Stella to their side, but it is unsurprising that Stanley is the eventual victor. The world he offers Stella is full of color and genuine  passion, a world from which Blanche is utterly alienated and which she can only fear. Stanley has no refinement, but he truly loves life and women. Stella is attracted to him as a female to a strong male. They fight and make up, just like their neighbors, Eunice and Steve, and these bouts of violence seem like nothing more than a spillover from the sheer passion of their existence and nothing about which to be truly alarmed.

The Normal Heart introduces us to Ned Weeks and various gay friends who begin to contract AIDS in the early 1980s. Although clearly an epidemic, the public is largely unaware and uninformed about it, preferring to remain in ignorance, seeing it as a gay disease about which they need not be concerned. The gay community’s cautious efforts to cope with this crisis allow for little progress in raising funds or awareness for the cause. This frustrates Ned, who becomes ostracized from this community because of his outspokenness, even voted off the board of the organization he helped to found. Alongside the political action, we see Ned deal with his own insecurities as a gay man, fall in love with Felix, watch Felix die of AIDS, and build a better understanding with his heterosexual brother, Ben.

Ned faces obstacles that have been created by both the gay community and the larger society beyond. One issue is the way in which gayness is stigmatized by society to such an extent that many gays are forced to lead double lives, fearing to come out of the closet. Not only does this place jobs, lodgings, and social standing in jeopardy, but it may also estrange people from their own families and set them up as targets for hate crimes. Some, like Felix, feel pressured to marry women and have children just to appear “normal.” Others, like Bruce, the vice president of a bank, keep their private lives well away from the workplace, as do numerous writers and television industry workers, who fear to publicize the cause of AIDS in case supporting it might unintentionally “out” them. But, Ned complains, if no one writes about what is happening, then the gay community will never get the support it needs to effectively combat the disease.

In an effort to lay low and not bring attention to themselves, the play implies that the majority of gays avoid politics, and those who get involved in it are sometimes so radical they tend to worsen the gay public image. Kramer insists that there is a poor public understanding of gays, and the fear of being stereotyped, and thereby limited, when labeled “gay” further encourages gays to stay hidden. Kramer suggests that society, as a whole, wants gays to remain in the closet, because it prefers not to acknowledge gayness or the occurrence of AIDS. This makes it difficult for them to get any major newspaper to even admit that AIDS is a problem.

The gay community is also antagonistic to the truth Ned tries to get them to face because their sexual behavior has become part of their political agenda and to change would seem like a defeat. Ned acknowledges the difficulty for gays to relate nonsexually, since sexual activity has become the way in which they socialize, and the freedom of such behavior becomes addictive. But as Mickey realizes, with AIDS on the loose he may have done more harm than good by campaigning so long for the “right to be free and make love whenever, wherever” (103). Ned insists that by allowing themselves to be defined purely by their sexuality, gays are unnecessarily limiting themselves: “The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual” (114). He lists famous men who were reputedly gay, whom he feels need to be claimed and acknowledged as gay in order to improve social expectations of gayness. A better political agenda, Ned suggests, would be to fight for the right to get married, but this is something the public cannot accept when they refuse to recognize gay men as capable of love. To this end, throughout the play, Ned tries to educate his brother Ben about gayness.

Ben loves Ned but is uncomfortable with his sexuality, as evidenced by his reluctance to embrace him, his lying about the need to ask his law partners for permission to do pro bono work for a gay organization, and his refusal to be on Ned’s honorary board. Ned angrily tells him: “One of these days I’ll make you agree that over twenty million men and women are not all on this earth because of something requiring the services of a psychiatrist” (67-68). If he can make Ben see him as “normal,” it is the first step to getting all of society to see this. Ned points out how similar he and Ben are, apart from their sexuality. He tries to get Ben to accept that gayness is not a matter of choice; people are born gay, not created, and so should not be viewed as abnormal. Ned understands that this needs to be accepted by the wider society if gays are ever to be treated as equals.

Kramer intentionally counters the dominant social expectation of gayness by having little effeminate speech or behavior and portraying many of his gay characters as “manly,” pursuing the same careers and interests as most men. The media is unhelpful in such efforts, tending to skewer the public perception of gayness by depicting its extremist tendencies. Ned points out, “The single-minded determination of all you people to forever see us as sick helps keep us sick” (69). To view gayness as a sickness, he insists, implies that it can be cured, removing any need to accept it.

The central relationship of Ned and Felix allows the audience to witness a monogamous, committed couple, and the specific problems such couples face when they are gay. Both suffer from many of the same difficulties as heterosexual couples: being attracted to the wrong people, suffering from insecurities as they build a relationship, and being fearful of commitment. But they also have to face the fact that Felix may not be able to leave his insurance money to Ned as his next of kin, and they are not permitted to legally marry.

The play ends with a series of hopeful images despite the death of Felix. Ned and Felix undergo an unofficial marriage to declare their love and commitment, and Ned acknowledges advances in the gay community, citing the high attendance at a gay dance, in the same college room where he had earlier “wanted to kill myself because I thought I was the only gay man in the world” (123). Finally, Ned and Ben kiss and embrace; through his brother’s evident pain, Ben has seen his humanity and begins to treat him as an equal. As the play’s title suggests, the heart of a gay man is normal: it has the same capacity for love and pain as that of any heterosexual.

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