Marans, Jon. “The Temperamentals, Chelsea Station Editions. 2011
Two Men in Love and a Movement
I did not know that the word “tempermental” was the code word for homosexuals in the United States in the 1950’s and along with this there was a secret language of communication that gay men used. “The Tempermentals” is the script of an off-Broadway production about Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich and their love affair when homosexuality was the love “that dared not speak its name”. Harry Hay was one of the first gay rights advocates and together with Gernreich (the designer who created the topless bathing suit) built the Mattachine Society which was the first organization for gay rights in the United States.
Jon Marans wrote the script for this look at gay history before Stonewall and it went on to be nominated for and to win several theater prizes. The play is a mix of politics and love story and is funny and emotional at the same time. For those who feel that gay rights began with Stonewall, there is something new to be learned here. There was no real gay identity during the Eisenhower years but there was a movement for liberation.
The play features complex characters that are much more than they appear to be and what the drama does, in effect, is chronicle the Mattachine Society. In the very first scene we meet dressed in gray flannel suits and among them are two who play footsie. We are given the first hint of the love affair that is to follow. Among the men here there is great diversity and we see confidence, timidity, oppression, self-loathing and pride. The two playing are Harry Hay, an open Communist, a descendant of the founding fathers, a teacher and a husband and Rudi Gernreich, a costume designer for MGM Pictures, an Austrian who has come to the States to live and love. We soon discover Hay showing Gernreich his manifesto and this was to become the backbone of the Mattachine Society. We also are quick to see that no one is who he seems to be. As the characters speak their true natures are revealed and they are quick to admit that a book cannot be judged by its cover.
At the time the play takes place, society not only frowned on homosexuals; there were witch hunts to find them and persecute them. Gays and lesbians were diagnosed as mentally ill and many found themselves in mental hospitals, placed there by their own families. There were police raids on gay bars and places where gays congregated. Names were printed in the press and lives were ruined.
The love affair between Hay and Gernreich provides tension because the only places where they can share their love and be alone together are dark and dank and they must love in hiding. It is through their love that the very first gay liberation organization comes to be and the goal is find a place where gays are free to express themselves and be who they are. The two men and their group of friends love in fear and love in darkness—they were pioneers who were never allowed to taste the fruits of their labor as death took them away before “liberation” came to be.
This is an event in history that most are not aware of us and we are now taken back in history to learn about it. We do learn and we laugh and we cry for as much wit is matched by as much pain. It is one thing to read the script and another to see it portrayed. I certainly hope that I get that opportunity along with the chance to thank Jon Marans for the wonderful gift he has given us.