Scroll To Top

The Trouble With

The Trouble With


Gay playwright Jon Marans tackles the Mattachine Society -- with the help of Ugly Betty star Michael Urie -- in his new play, The Temperamentals.

Before Stonewall and Harvey Milk there was Harry Hay. Pulitzer-nominated gay playwright Jon Marans resurrects this fascinating figure and his daring cohorts in The Temperamentals, which opens May 4 at the Barrow Group Studio Theatre in Manhattan. Hay was the brilliant, difficult guy who, with his lover Rudi Gernreich and a few others, in 1950 started the Mattachine Society, a seminal homosexual activist organization that conceived of gays as a cultural minority. Thomas Jay Ryan and Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame play the dynamic duo of Hay and Gernreich, respectively. cornered Marans in a Chelsea cafe to get the lowdown. does the title of your play come from?Jon Marans: Back in the early '50s where the play takes place, there were a lot of code words for guys who were homosexual: "the nervous ones," "that way," and "temperamental" -- all negative. Gay wasn't even a word back then, but that's how gay guys saw themselves.

How did you hit upon the character of Harry Hay? I was hired by San Jose Rep to write the book for a musical called Coming of Age based on Studs Terkel's book of the same name, which is a series of interviews from activists and anarchists over age 70, placed in different categories. And there was one category called "The Others" that featured a guy named Harry Hay, whom I hadn't heard of. But I put him in the show because he had such a specific point of view, and every time he appeared, he stole it. Then I continued to do research, and this play is the outcome.

Well, who was he? He was an obnoxious, aggressive human being who had this great idea that gays were a minority, which was novel and revolutionary at the time. But because of his off-putting personality he needed help to get this idea across. That's where Rudi Gernreich comes in. He was a Viennese Jewish guy who had gotten out of Vienna in 1938 right after the Anschluss. Most of his family killed in Auschwitz. Rudi was wildly charming, a costume designer who worked with Edith Head, so he was connected to the Hollywood crowd. Everyone adored him.

You could have called the play When Harry Met Rudi. So they started they Mattachine Society together. That's another odd word ... Harry found that medieval word, which refers to Saturday Night Live -like comedy troupes that would tour in Italy and France. Underneath the comedy was a serious political message they were trying to impart.

So what's the drama? It's basically this mission-impossible story about Harry and Rudi trying to start the first gay political party during a very dangerous time, at the height of the Red Scare. Anyone could be a cop. In a nutshell, if Harry hadn't come along in 1950, there would never have been a Stonewall. He, Rudi, and three others -- Bob Hull, Dale Jennings, and Chuck Rowland -- were the founding fathers of the gay movement. The fascinating thing about these guys is that they were all Communists, because only Communists would be crazy and political enough to form this sort of organization. They were literally risking their lives and reputations to do what they did.

Is there a love angle? Yes. At the time Rudi was involved with Harry, he was becoming more and more famous as a costume designer. So he had to decide if he wanted to go back into the closet in order to pursue [his career], or stay with the organization. So it's very much a love story of which he's going to choose. He chose fame. Harry later started the Radical Faeries.

Your 1996 Pulitzer-nominated play, Old Wicked Song, integrates music extremely well. Is there music in the new play? Definitely. When Hay worked for the Communist Party, he taught a music class because he believed in music as political theater. A lot of music was actually code. When the slaves would sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," for instance, the chariot referred to the underground railway. And the gay world in the '50s was jam-packed with code. So I use "Sleepers, Awake" by Bach and even composed a bawdy, silly little song for the show, just like the Mattachine members did.

In addition to coming away humming your tunes, what do you hope the audience to leave with? To really understand a piece of history nobody really knows that should be honored, remembered, and studied. Almost no gay guys today know who Harry Hay was or the Mattachine Society.

You're a very political guy, buddy. Well, I did grow up in D.C. My father is the most published angry-letter writer in the D.C. area. He writes 1,000 letters a year. People think he's an organization, not a person.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Robert Hilferty