Powerful Play on 1920 Harvard Secret Court Uncovers Sex Scandal

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Unnatural Acts
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street
 New York, N.Y.

In 2002, a Harvard underclassman journalist, Amit Paley, was rummaging through packages of documents in the University’s archive. By sheer accident, he stumbled upon a box of 1920 material marked ‘secret court,’ opened it and began to read…

Now, nine years later, Tony Speciale and the members of the Plastic Theater have turned the ‘secret court’ proceedings into a powerful and explosive new play, Unnatural Acts, that opened last weekend at the Classic Stage Company in New York. The riveting play, that seethes with tension, is the story of a tribunal of Harvard deans who presided over a kangaroo court and booted ten students out of Harvard for the crime of being homosexuals. The behind-closed-doors work of the tribunal began after one suicide and ended with another. In between lay one of the most compelling, and very covered up, tales of gay history ever told. And it all transpired within the hallowed halls of Harvard.

In delicious irony, the play about the savage treatment of gays at Harvard, that turned into such tragedy in 1920, opened the very same weekend that the New York State Legislature legalized same sex marriages and on the same day that the annual loud and colorful Gay Pride parade in New York celebrated that political victory. How things have changed.

Back in 1920, just after World War I and the debut of Prohibition, Cyril Wilcox, a Harvard student, killed himself for no apparent reason. The University, tipped off that he was gay, began an investigation of the crowd he hung around with and, behind closed doors, tried to stamp out gay life at Harvard.

The court resembled that of the many witch hunts in American history. Students had to plead guilty and name other gays on, and off, campus. It might remind some of the Joe McCarthy Senate Committee or the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings back in the early 1950s when the committee’s victims were grilled about being communists and forced to name others or be blacklisted from show business.

Director Speciale split the play into two sections. In the first, we learn of the suicide and the men in Wilcox’ inner circle, who gathered regularly for wild sex parties in the rooms of Ernest Roberts, the son of a U.S. Congressman. We meet all of the gay men at the parties plus Joe Lombard, who was straight and attended just one party. The men are not only portrayed as gay, but, like all gay men and women of that era, as people who had to carefully hide their sexuality from the world, as gay men and women have been doing for hundreds of years.

Speciale creates a magic in act one, showcasing the students as intelligent and laudable men, who happen to be gay. They are treated with great care by the director and we see how they have created their own world behind the staid brick walls of Harvard yard. They dance together, cavort in women’s dresses, drink until they are blind drunk and tumble into bed with each other. There are no women in the play, no flappers from that flapper era, just good looking men – all hiding from the world.

There is Roberts, the Congressman’s son, who maintains a straight public persona but is a loud and strident homosexual who struts around his room in the latest women’s fashions, heels and all. He is engaged to a woman and uses her as his cover. There is Eugene Cummings, Wilcox’ best friend, who just wants to get his degree and be left alone. There is the loud and self-defensive Stan Gilkey and loquacious Keith Smerage.

They do not tell their parents that they have been hauled before the tribunal because they can’t let them know they are gay. For that same reason, they cannot alert the press or tell friends. Their sexuality, in the end, prevents them from seeking legal and emotional rights. These are young guys, 19 and 20 years old, and they break easily under questioning, admitting practically everything and naming others.

The members of the Plastic Theater wrote the play. It is surprising that such a good script came from a committee. As several men in the play say, this persecution will happen again. And, of course, it certainly has.

Walt Spangler created a marvelous set. The play takes place on a large, blackened square stage. There is a single book lined wall at the rear. A dozen or so large, lush chairs and a bed fill the set. They are all constantly arranged as Roberts’ room or the hearing room. The lighting, often just a spotlight for the interrogations, is effective. You are reminded again and again that you are at an Ivy League school.

The ensemble acting in the drama is superb. Director Speciale gets wonderful performances from Brad Koed (Eugene Cummings), Roe Hartrampf (Ken Day), Nick Westrate (Roberts), Jess Burkle (Ed Say), Will Rogers (Lombard), Jerry Marsini (Don Clark), Max Jenkins (Gilkey), Frank De Julio (Smerage), Roderick Hill (Lester Wilcox), Devin Norik (Harold Saxton) and Joe Curnutte (Nathaniel Wollf)

The only weakness, a very small one, is that the audience does not get enough history. It is assumed that we all know that Prohibition started in 1919, but most people do not. There should be more in the play about the 1920s era. It was post war and the U.S. had slid into a minor recession, the Red Scare caused witch hunts and mass arrests for Communists, tabloid newspapers had started, Harvard was a football power and organized crime started to flourish. This history would have created a better backdrop for the play. Even without it, Unnatural Acts is a deep and disturbing, brilliant, drama.

The last scene of the play is a complete surprise. At the very end, we find out what happened to the men booted out of America’s best University. It was shocking.

Hopefully, Unnatural Acts will move to Broadway or become a movie. The story of one of history’s great witch hunts, covered up for so long, is not just a gay play. It is a poignant and universal historical drama about the persecution of minorities throughout U.S. history and the way that the persecution changed them and changed the country.

PRODUCTION: Sets: Walt Spangler, Costumes: Andrea Lauer, Lighting: Justin Townsend, Music and Sound Design: Christian Frederickson. Directed by Tony Speciale.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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