Staging Gay Lives

Currently, the only published version of the play What’s Wrong With Angry is in the anthology Staging Gay Lives, edited by John M. Clum. The anthology includes ten plays of contemporary gay theatre, and is highly recommended!

The following text is the editor’s introduction to What’s Wrong With Angry, and I offer my sincere thanks to John M. Clum for permitting me to republish it here.

Staging Gay Lives
Editor’s Introduction
By John M. Clum

Republished on bensilverstone.net with permission of the author
(c) Copyright 1996 John M. Clum, not to be republished without consent

There is a greater tradition of unabashedly political drama in Great Britain that there is in the United States. Since the 1950s playwrights such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and Howard Brenton have used the stage as a platform for views on the declining state of England, and have since the 1960s minorities, women, and gays have developed theatrical groups to argue for their positions. The Gay Sweatshop, founded in 1975, was for years a major voice not only for gay theatre but also for gay politics.

Gay political theatre was struck a harsh blow in 1988 when the British Parliament passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which stated that:

A local authority shall not:

  • Promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality
  • Promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptance of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

This act achieved its aim of frightening local councils out of funding gay-positive theatre, thus threatening the existence of groups such as Gay Sweatshop and the theatres that produced progay work. A number of theatres reacted defiantly. The heavily subsidised Royal National Theatre mounted and all-star revival of Martin Sherman’s Bent as a test case. Though no one cut off the National’s funding, smaller groups were still vulnerable and frightened. Patrick Wilde’s unabashedly polemical What’s Wrong With Angry is a healthy challenge to the prevailing antigay government rhetoric and the government-induced timidity of many theatres.

The play is also challenge to Britain’s somewhat contradictory laws regarding homosexuality. On the one hand, private consensual homosexual acts are not a legal offence, provided the parties involved are over eighteen; on the other hand, homosexuality may not be presented in a positive light as it is seen as an affront to “traditional family values.” A homosexual household is in the eyes of the law a “pretended family relationship.” In the past few years the goal of many gay political groups has been the lowering of the age of consent to sixteen, the age for heterosexuals. After a heated parliamentary debate a compromise age of eighteen was passed into law.(i) This means that is illegal for boys of seventeen to have homosexual sex. Americans who live in states with sodomy laws on the books may look at Britain as enlightened, but compared to the rest of the European Community, they are repressive.

It is not surprising that two of the more successful gay drams of 1993 and 1994 focus on the age-of-consent laws. Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing sweetly dramatises the love of two sixteen-year-old boys on a South London council estate. Harvey’s play was a hit on the fringe and a total sellout during a brief run at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden; in the fall of 1994 it transferred to the West End. What’s Wrong With Angry, written by, directed by and featuring Patrick Wilde, had an extended sellout run at the Battersea Arts Centre, and a film production has been discussed.(ii)

There are two central characters in What’s Wrong With Angry: sixteen-year-old Steven Carter, a student at an all-boys Catholic high school in out-of-the-way Basingstoke, and Simon Hutton, a thirty-year-old gay teacher at Steven’s school (ironically named English Martyrs). Steven is suffering the horrors of being a horny gay adolescent. He would love the sex and romance his heterosexual peers crave but sees no one who is unashamedly out. There are no role models for Steven except anguished, closeted men who depend on furtive sex in public bathrooms. Simon Hutton, the one person who could help Steven, could also lose his job for doing so. The official policy of English Martyrs toward homosexuality is denial. Hutton’s reticence has limited his life as well. He has moved from the furtive gropings of the bathrooms to the midnight world of gay clubs, but he has not found in gay society the love Steven dreams of. That would take more courage that Hutton can muster.

Like all successful political drama, What’s Wrong With Angry is also good popular entertainment. Wilde has written a play that speaks to central issues for gay men everywhere and has done so in a fast-moving, entertaining way. What’s Wrong With Angry is a crowd pleaser filled with laughter and music as well as anger. And Wilde does not let his hero succumb to the paralysis of victimhood. We see him at the end dancing, his arms raised in defiance. As director, Wilde gave is script the dynamic direction it needed, and the play was helped enormously by the charismatic performance of nineteen-year-old Tom Wisdom as Steven. His performance made him one of the most sought after young actors in Great Britain.

i This has since been lowered to sixteen by a determined Labour government, even after much resistance from the non-elected second chamber of government, the House of Lords.

ii This film production later became ‘Get Real’

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