Book Excerpt: “Awkward Stages” by John Clum and Sean Metzger, eds.

While gay teenagers have been central characters in dozens of independent American films, they have seldom appeared on stage until recently. The plays in this volume, written by men (some of whom are the most celebrated playwrights) who were in their late twenties and early thirties, affirm adolescents as subjects active in same-sex relationships. Sexual identity is important to the young men in their plays, in great part because they must define themselves against the prejudice and sanctions of family and social institutions. Below, read John Clum and Sean Metzger, the editors of this volume of five plays, discuss the history of gay adolescents in theater:

Gay teenagers have been central characters in dozens of independent American films, but they have seldom appeared on stage until recently. Although the highly successful 1953 play, Tea and Sympathy (adapted for the screen in 1956), features a prep school boy accused of homosexuality, the curtain falls as the boy proves his heterosexuality with the wife of one of his teachers. One of the first television depictions of a youth who has had homosexual experience, Welcome Home, Bobby (1986) depicts a youth ostracized by his father and his peers when it is revealed that he had a sexual encounter with an older man. The telefilm hedges its bets, as the young man vacillates over whether he is gay. Even as plays, films, and television dramas showed audiences gay adults, presenting an out teenage gay character was largely taboo until the 1990s (a notable exception being the role of David in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which appeared on Broadway in 1982 and as a film in 1988). In England, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country (1981, adapted to film in 1984) helped to pave the way for depictions of gay youth on stage. Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing (1993), depicting the love of two teenage boys on a South London housing estate, moved from the fringe to the prestigious Donmar Warehouse Theatre and then to a West End commercial run. Made into a movie in 1996, Beautiful Thing has been revived on the London stage (2006). Patrick Wilde’s What’s Wrong with Angry (1993), about a gay teenager in a small town outside London was adapted into the 1998 film, Get Real.

Although mainstream American theatre offered few comparable works, there has been a succession of gay teenage coming out stories offered by independent filmmakers and a number of adolescent gay characters on American television since the early 1990s. Beginning with Ryan Philippe playing Billy Douglas in the soap opera One Life to Live in 1992 and the highly publicized life story of a barely post-teen Pedro Zamora on the third season (1994) of MTV’s The Real World, young gay characters became regulars on such hit shows as My So-Called Life (1994-1995), Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), Ugly Betty (2006-2010), and Gossip Girl (2007-2012)—and most recently Glee (2009-2015), The Fosters (2013-present), and Major Crimes (2012-present). In these shows, deciding to identify openly as gay can still be a problem for boys even though they live in a supportive, if unconventional, home environment (Jude on The Fosters is one of five teenagers being raised by a lesbian couple, while Rusty on Major Crimes is the ward of a middle-aged divorcee). Yet the simple preponderance of young gay characters on screen has created a supportive environment for young playwrights to create rich drama centering on gay teens. Unfortunately, the primary audience for serious drama in America tends to be middle-aged or older.

Awkward Stages is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook editions.

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