“Unnatural Acts” – A Fascinating Portrayal of Recovered Gay History

Thursday night I went to a preview performance of "Unnatural Acts" at Classic Stage Company.  I'm not sure when the official opening is, but this is a limited run, so I thought I would write about it briefly to encourage people to see it while some tickets remain available, because I think this is a "must-see" production for anybody interested in LGBT history in the U.S.

The play is described as "conceived by Tony Speciale" and "written by Members of the Plastic Theatre."  An insert in the program explains that the source of this story is a file in the confidential archives of Harvard University that was accidentally discovered in 2002 by Amit Paley, a student journalist who was doing some research in the archive and came across references to a "Secret Court, 1920."  Paley was able to obtain a redacted version of the file after some struggle, and then with a team of other student journalists from the Harvard Crimson was able to track down the concealed identities of those involved.

Here's what happened.  A student who had been expelled from the University was found dead in his bedroom in Fall River from gas asphyxiation.  Was it suicide or an accident?  His older brother went through his effects and found some letters from other Harvard students, that led to the suspicion that the deceased man was part of a secret gay circle centered on a particular dorm room at the University occupied by the son of a prominent member of the US House of Representatives.  The brother brought the letters to the University administration, demanding an investigation.  Given the nature of the letters, the president of the university convened a secret investigative panel of top administrators and they set to work interrogating students and faculty members, eventually tossing some people out, non-renewing a teacher, and prevailing on some recent graduates to leave Cambridge.  One has to remember the time of these events – 1920 – when "sodomy" was a felony crime.  These students and recent grads were guilty not just of sodomy but of consuming alcoholic beverages (during Prohibition) and possessing and reading officially forbidden books (such as the works of Havelock Ellis, which had been proscribed from campus).

The play builds on the file of the "secret court" to construct a drama about these students and one of their teachers and some others who found themselves dragged into the investigation due to being roommates with some of those under suspicion.  In particular, a man who later became a prominent arts administrator in New York and another who became a prominent federal judge were among those who were summoned to the court — although they were absolved and allowed to graduate — which helps to explain why the university hushed the entire thing up and was so resistent, even more than 80 years later, about allowing a journalist to see the files, even then redacting the names when everybody named in the file was dead. 

I think they have done a brilliant job of dramatising this.  The young, all-male cast, is superb, every one of them, and by the end of the evening you really care about their fates.  (Helpfully, in the final scene every actor relates what subsequently happened to the character he portrayed.) 

Again, this is a must-see, and don't hesitate, because as of now it only runs another two weeks.

PS – On July 19, the Boston Globe ran a fascinating preview article about the play.  I haven't seen anything about it in the NY Times yet.

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