The Thing, The Thing, The Thing

In 2018, I decided to go back to school after five years. A week into first semester, Ashley, admin wizard of the Salem State Theatre Department, and David Allen George, director of the variety show put on by the incoming students, convinced me I should join the new Playwriting concentration.

That same year, I found a book which I am half-convinced was written just for me, Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater. This is how I first learned of The Drag, a 1927 play by Mae West (yeah, that Mae West). The play’s premiere was canceled, and members of the production were arrested, due to its controversial content. Intrigued, I read the script and said to myself, “This is a really fun, surprisingly gay play. I bet I could make it gayer.”

In 2021, in the months before my graduation, the department announced that it would put on my play, The Thing They Love. I did not yet know just how much this would mean to me, to see my work completed by the work of so many brilliant others.

On March 3rd of last year, my first full-length play premiered at Salem State. I participated in the production as much as possible, driving from Vermont to Salem for auditions or rehearsals and attending every performance. I watched the director, cast, and crew, many of whom had been my professors and classmates, bring life to this thing I had started. The process sparked great discussions about representation, casting, community, and queer history. It was all I could have asked for and more.

So, for myself if no one else, I’d like to commemorate the anniversary with some memories of writing The Thing They Love, with eternal gratitude to everyone who touched it along the way.

While this play would not exist without The Drag, the first seeds came from something I started before ever reading West’s script. As a new playwright, I brainstormed a few “just for fun” projects to practice with the form. One of these was a prequel of the musical Annie, à la Wicked: Ms. Hannigan and Rooster conning their way through the Roaring Twenties, until the crash puts a stop to their fun and drives a wedge between them. Because making things gayer is kind of a constant for me, Rooster also stole a proto-Daddy Warbucks paramour from his sister. Developing this idea was a blast, but it had the ring of impracticality to it. (For one thing, it should have been a musical, and as I have said before and will say again, I am not a lyricist). It wasn’t until I decided to write a Drag tribute that I found a place to recycle some of those ideas. Nothing survived entirely intact from my ill-fated Annie spinoff, but it gave me quite a bit of Rabbit, and it’s probably how the idea of orphaned children made its way into the plot. (For my own enjoyment, I do have Rabbit “crow” once in the script.)

While The Drag had a great influence on the plot and structure of TTTL, it became, in the end, its own beast. Many key differences stem from the fact that I wanted all the major characters to be queer. The dishonest marriage at the center of The Drag became a mutually beneficial lavender marriage. The mistreated wife transformed into a sibling, whose sexual self-discovery arc became more about gender. Instead of discussions between the couple’s fathers about the science and morality of homosexuality, the characters wrestle with internalized homophobia and compare current theories with their own experiences. My characters mirror their originals somewhat, in status or personality or their role in the plot, but the details and dynamics evolved along with the changing relationships. Both plays are, in my opinion, about family and its many dysfunctions. They are also about self-actualization, falling in love with people who do not deserve you, the consequences of repression, crossdressing, complex romantic entanglements, and getting away with murder. Certain themes and topics in TTTL also pay homage to other Mae West plays, Sex and Pleasure Man.

While West’s play is presumably contemporary to when it written in the late 1920s, I set TTTL in 1933. This year sits at the intersection of two historical events: the Depression is still ongoing, but Prohibition is coming to an end. The Depression is obviously fertile ground for drama, throwing economic anxieties and class issues into stark relief, but what I really wanted was that tail end of Prohibition. It offers a nice juxtaposition on relative morality, once-illicit activities coming out into the open again, questions of who is considered a criminal and why. Also, my grandfather worked as a jazz pianist in New York during the Depression; Maggs being a musician is partly in tribute to him. I gave a minor character his name and a slightly modified version of one of his anecdotes from that period, reflecting certain themes in the play. (1933 is also, of course, the year in which Annie is set.)

With The Drag as a starting point, and a good idea of where I was going to diverge, the writing came unusually easy, for the most part. The cast was full of my favorite tropes and amazingly fun to write. From first draft to just-about-finished, I think I spent a year on it. The one thing I could not get was the ending. Spoiler warning for a hundred-year-old play, but there is indeed a murder at the climax of The Drag. It doesn’t happen onstage, but the discovery and aftermath make up the final scene. I had gotten as far as the murder. I spent a lot of time working the confrontations, thinking that this was where the story ended.

I was in my senior year, meeting regularly with Bill Cunningham, the head of the playwriting program. We talked a lot about that scene. It left the remaining characters hanging, with little hope any of their relationships would survive. There was something about the abruptness, the ambiguity, leaving quite a lot for the audience to decide, that I thought was kind of fun. Like a painting left purposefully unfinished. But it was also rather dark, and potentially unsatisfying, and I felt maybe there was something more. I played with the idea of doing a funeral scene, but the logistics didn’t quite work. So for many months, even as people involved with the production were beginning to read and work on it, the play had no ending, and try as I might I could not write it.

In the end, it was something Bill said that eventually sparked the idea for the new denouement. He commented that my work often has a sense of comfort. This is not something I usually hear, as I write a lot of monsters and horror and characters making terrible decisions. But it resonated with me. He said it was clear I loved my characters–so much I sometimes struggled to be as cruel to them as I must–and this is true. I did love these characters, and I loved the community they represented, and I did not really want to leave them with a corpse on an empty stage. I wanted to give them one last piece of comfort, bittersweet as it would have to be. Most of my worthwhile ideas come from a combination of things. I had this goal, a moment of comfort; I had a flash of inspiration from the ending of Sex, which was groundbreaking in its own way for the agency and hope it affords its characters; and I had a throw-away line from my very first scene. Once those pieces wove together in my head, the writing became easy again. I seeded bits of foreshadowing throughout the script, decided who would stay and who would go, and let the chips fall. The ambiguity I had liked so much transformed into dramatic irony, the time period lending its own questions to the ending, with WWII creeping unseen around the corner.

The title of the play is a roundabout reference to a line from The Drag: “I killed him because I loved him!” Murder Most Queer discusses this somewhat melodramatic notion thoroughly. For me, it inevitably brings to mind the refrain from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I originally used the title The Thing He Loves, but upon re-reading the poem, remembered that “they” is used instead in a later stanza. I felt this better captured the spirit of the play, potentially referring to many characters and giving a nod to Maggs’ use of they/them pronouns. The title felt like an opportunity to reference queer history. Any time I write a queer period piece, I am thinking about our elders and ancestors, people who found ways to create and express parts of themselves that were not embraced by their societies. These works are sometimes suppressed or obscured, but they still exist. We have always existed.

Apart from the usual, inescapable anxieties of writing anything (especially things that you care about a lot), working on this script was a joy. Though my part mostly came to a close when that work was finished, the script continued to give me joy, over and over, as my collaborators took it into their hands and used it to make their art. I hope someday to write about the production, since this is already quite long and I’m sure I’ll have much too much to say.

In the meantime, please, take care of yourselves for me.

Lost Words

I’ve been putting off writing this, because it’s the first, and it feels like I should start off with something appropriately light and interesting. But if I wait for that, who knows when it will happen? The truth is I’ve been wrestling myself for just about every word lately. I can barely even send emails. I can plan, go over everything in my head a hundred times, but the actual writing is slow. This isn’t unusual, nor is it forever, but it’s what I have at the moment. A lot to say, and few words.

I’m in the middle of two revisions. I’d say they’re going well; I know what I want to do and approximately how to do it. I’m confident that the book and the script will be better for it, once I’m done. It’s the glacial pace of doing it that’s starting to get a little worrisome. But these things do happen. Sometimes, it’s even for the best. Maybe next week I will wake up and realize there’s some very important change that I need to work into my plans, and I’ll save myself some time in the long run. Or maybe I won’t wake up with my revelation until a few months from now, when the revisions are all tidy and “done,” and I’ll have to pull them apart again. There’s no end to this kind of thing. There are only new projects, new ideas, new things to go back and fix. I hope there’ll be some exciting ones coming down the pike; I’ll be back to share when the words start flowing again.