Nael Nacer and Will McGarrahan in the roles of Rudi Gernreich and Harry Hay in the Lyric Stage production of The Temperamentals
The Temperamentals provides a focused view on the pre-Stonewall, gay rights movement, before it was called 'gay'
By John O’Connell
“Temperamental.” “Nervous.” “Musical.” “That way.” These whispered phrases seem to scream the shame of the homosexual men of the early 1950’s. Yet they were the only means of identifying who might be a potential ally or paramour. “This was before even the word ‘homosexual’ was used,” explains Jeremy Johnson, director of the Lyric Stage’s production of The Temperamentals opening March 30. “There was no sense of ‘gay.’ There was no concept of identity.”
The award-winning play by Jon Marans takes place in some of the darkest moments in the pre-Stonewall era. It may come as a surprise to some that Harry Hay, often touted as the founder of the modern gay rights movement and the subject of The Temperamentals, was at one time married with two adopted daughters. “You had to be married and have children,” insists Johnson. “There was something inherently wrong with a 40 year old bachelor. These men constantly lived with the risk of imprisonment. They took great care to remain anonymous because the sense of danger was constant.”
The measure of distance that gay men and lesbians have come is often lost on not only society at large, but the members of the community itself. “We don’t know our own history. Our parents didn’t teach us our history,” says Johnson. “If you’re not in the history books you don’t exist.”
The Temperamentals tells the story of Harry Hay and fashion designer Rudi Gernreich as two of the founding members of the Mattachine Society, the nation’s first sustained gay-rights organization in 1950. The play illustrates how the couple’s very different personality traits influenced and guided each other; Hay becoming more free to step outside the constraints of masculine gender expression and Gernreich’s embracing of risks in his career. Grenreich, an Austrian native who fled Europe to escape Nazism, is credited with the creation of the first topless women’s bathing suit, the monokini.
The idea for a homosexual—then called homophile—activist group started in 1948 after Hay signed a petition for Henry Wallace, a Progressive Party presidential candidate, and he spoke with other gay men at a party about forming “Bachelors for Wallace”. Hay received an initial enthusiastic response, prompting him to write a manifesto he referred to as “The Call” that evening. Although support withered considerably by the next morning, the seeds were planted. Hay shared the document with Gernreich on their meeting in 1950.
Gernreich referred to the “The Call” as “the most dangerous thing [he had] ever read”.
The resulting organization, The Mattachine Society, was formed in 1951 and named after a Medieval French secret society of masked performers who, while only performing completely masked, criticized ruling powers with impunity. Explained Hay in a 1976 interview with Jonathan Ned Katz, “We took the name Mattachine because we felt that we 1950s Gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.”
Local favorite Will McGarrahan will be portraying Hay in the Lyric Stage production. Known for his recent work in the SpeakEasy’s The Drowsy Chaperone and Next Fall, and the Publick Theatre’s production of 9 Circles, McGarrahan isn’t daunted by such an important, and in many cases, larger than life, historic figure. “I’m at the point of where I’m transitioning out of the real world. The historical stuff is important, but you still have to do a play. I have to create tension. We have to entertain.”
Actor Nael Nacer will have less to rely on as Gernreich. “There isn’t as much on Rudi,” Nacer laughs. Gernreich himself was much more secretive about his involvement with the Mattachine Society, never referring to himself by his full name. [x]
The Lyric State Company's production of The Temperamentals plays from Friday, March 30 through Saturday, April 28. For tickets and additional information connect to www.lyricstage.com.
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