Sunday, April 25, 2004

Clap Your Hands

The William Inge Theatre Festival came to a close last night with a lengthy tribute to playwright Arthur Laurents, covering his career from his earliest plays through West Side Story, Gypsy, Hallelujah, Baby, The Way We Were, The Turning Point, and up to his most recent production, Attacks of the Heart, which encompasses 9/11.

Arthur Laurents is not one to mince words. He will tell you his opinion of anything with very little prompting, and that kind of rattled the cage here in Independence…which needs it on occasion. During the fundraising dinner on Friday night when Mr. Laurents was brought to the podium, Bill Kurtis, acting like James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked Mr. Laurents what he thought of William Inge, whom he had known in New York in the early 1950’s. Mr. Laurents allowed as how since this was such a nice gathering he didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable – especially with Inge’s family in attendance – but he said that “I am gay and comfortable with it. Bill Inge was gay and tormented by it,” and that pretty much framed their friendship, such as it was, back then. Mr. Laurents has also been outspoken throughtout the festival as a supporter of liberal causes, usually finding a way during his talks to make pointed references to the “mendacities” of the current administration. That might have rattled the cages of some of the locals, but it always got a strong voice of support from the audience in the theatre.

At last night’s tribute, when it was finally time to welcome Mr. Laurents on to the stage, he reminded us that he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era – and pointed to The Way We Were as part of his story. And as he was thanking us for honoring him, he reminded us of J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan where Peter, finding Tinker Bell on the verge of death, implores the audience to clap if they believe in fairies, which always makes the audience go wild. In that vein, Mr. Laurents implored the audience to clap “if you love liberals, who have been so horribly abused over the last thirty years.” The audience went wild, and Mr. Laurents quipped, “It works for liberals…and fairies!”

Arthur Laurents isn’t the first openly gay honoree that The William Inge Festival has had, nor is he the most outspoken in terms of his political views. But in light of the current climate, he was certainly the most refreshing – and based on the audience reaction last night, one of the most encouraging.

(I would love to post a link to the Independence Daily Reporter with pictures and stories about the Festival (they gave Mr. Laurents’s closing speech short shrift – either due to deadline pressure or the fact that they’re in a very conservative town) but they have yet to go on-line.)