nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
June 19, 2011
The word that comes to mind for this production is “shocking”: shockingly well written and performed, and shockingly true. In 2002, reporter Amit Paley requested that Harvard University make public its files on the 1920 Secret Court which expelled 8 students, a recent graduate, and an associate professor for being homosexual. (Policy required that the files stay secret for 80 years.) Even after several requests, the students’ names were redacted. More research was required to identify these men, who saw Prohibition go into effect during their senior year and would face a hateful inquisition during their final examination week. The Plastic Theatre combed through 500 pages of transcripts of this Secret Court, then spent more than a year developing the world of these characters.
The dignified and professional veneer of this all-male Ivy League school is quickly peeled back to reveal loving relationships that at that time were deemed “sick” and “unnatural.” Cyril Wilcox, a student who was expelled, went home to Fall River, Massachusetts and ended his life through poison gas inhalation. Letters found in Cyril’s room named a group of students who gathered for parties in the dorm room of Ernest Roberts, a congressman’s son, a heavy drinker, and a highly glamorous occasional transvestite. The group ranges from an athlete who sometimes yields to men while drunk, to a roommate who only attended one party, to a medical student about to start a hospital residency, to a budding criminologist and philosopher, to an aspiring actor seeking help from more assertive male role models. These last two students foreshadow much. The dramatic monologue often quoted here is from Antony and Cleopatra (“All is lost!”), while Philosophy Professor Clark has given all his young men a final writing assignment in the tradition of Socrates: “What Kind of Man Am I?” As soon as Roberts is questioned, the other students named in the letters scramble to deny their behavior. They more often than not make things worse, also implicating more homosexual students and Professor Clark, whose crime was borrowing a then-banned study of deviant sexuality by Havelock Ellis.
I’d read in the program that two of the expelled students managed to be readmitted to Harvard and stay on track for their careers. They were Stanley Gilkey, later to be the first general manager of Lincoln Center, and J. Edward Lumbard, Jr., a future federal judge who was considered for the Supreme Court. Ernest Roberts could not leverage his father’s influence to stay in Harvard, but soon married and became an interior decorator. The other stories include several more suicides, one of which is heartbreakingly portrayed on stage. And then there was the worst part, for me: the brother of Cyril Wilcox, seeking revenge against “corrupting” influences at school, personally requested for Harvard to form the Secret Court. The implication that, in 1920, drinking was perceived as just as corrupt as homosexuality gives hope that our world can become more tolerant.
It’s easy to sensationalize true stories. The hard thing is to do as much research as this ensemble clearly has, to be able to believably recreate the events of 1920. One would assume that students during Prohibition would have a hiding place for their alcohol; these characters had two in one dorm room, my favorite of which was the flip-top globe which stores a decanter and half a dozen glasses. Andrea Lauer’s costumes and Walt Spangler’s sets show us a refined Harvard which is a party waiting to happen. Justin Townsend’s lighting zeroes in on the happiness of the friends as well as the isolation and strife resulting from the Secret Court. Christian Frederickson’s sound design, too, is sometimes terrifying, in a good way. Tony Speciale’s direction is top notch, from sinister, choreographed interrogation scenes to monologues on the desperation of being a man who is allowed no place in the world. As for the cast, I have no favorites because they are all superb.