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West Side "Queer" Story?

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#1 dirac


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Posted 13 January 2004 - 10:28 AM

Arthur Laurents says he had no idea he had written in "West Side Story" "the supreme encoded queer Broadway musical" but James McCourt says, well, he did it anyway. Page Six reports, with a picture of a beaming Laurents. (Nice to see him looking so chipper, by the way):


This dispute raises an interesting question or two, it seems to me. Laurents takes "encoded" to mean that the alleged I-love-Tony subtext was something he (and the other begetters of the show, Bernstein, Robbins, and Sondheim) put in there, or had in mind; McCourt responds that "encoded" refers to how the show is perceived ("it doesn't matter what they think they were writing").

Further on down in the column, for those who are interested, Tony Kushner faces off with John Simon.

#2 Alexandra


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Posted 13 January 2004 - 12:14 PM

Anyone can see something in anything. If someone sees it as "queer," well, then that's the way they see it. But I think to assume that the authors are winking at you is a big assumption. Several people involved in that production were gay. How can we assume they were "encoding" or "subliminating" -- i.e., really wanting to make a gay story but being "forced" to make a straight story? It was a different time. The line about casting an actor whom everyone in New York knew was gay made me shiver -- that's exactly why so many gay actors were forced to remain in the closet. If they were "out" everyone would assume they A, "couldn't" make love to a woman and B, were turning every role they played into a gay role. And that's not what actors do.

Thanks for posting this dirac -- it will be interesting to have a discussion about it. I'm sure there are other views!

#3 oberon


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Posted 13 January 2004 - 12:37 PM

Well, the other big "gay" topic recently has been regarding the relationship of Frodo and Sam in LORD OF THE RINGS. People love reading it into their close friendship. But the stories to me are totally without sexual undercurrents. There are the 2 big love affairs, and Wormtongue's lusting after Eowyn, but all very above-board.

What will they think of next? That Rhett was really in love with Ashley Wilkes?

#4 Farrell Fan

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Posted 13 January 2004 - 12:54 PM

Arthur Laurents's understanding of the word "encoded" is also mine. I agree with Alexandra -- to say of an actor that "everybody in New York" knew he was gay, is plain old McCarthyism.

#5 BW


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Posted 13 January 2004 - 06:02 PM

oberon you put it well:

What will they think of next? That Rhett was really in love with Ashley Wilkes?

Oy vey! :rolleyes: :blink: :flowers: :yawn:

To each his (or her) own.

#6 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 13 January 2004 - 06:14 PM

Well, that certainly never occurred to me, and I saw a lot of productions of West Side Story, including the original! :flowers:

#7 Mel Johnson

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Posted 13 January 2004 - 06:37 PM

Actually, oberon also hit a good one when he mentioned the Frodo/Sam relationship in LotR. Tolkien on interpretation: "I cordially despise allegory in all its guises." He disbelieved in the tyranny of the author to force interpretation onto the reader, and championed unrestrained interpretation, even if the author had never had a particular meaning in mind. "If the reader says it's there, then for him, it's there."

#8 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 January 2004 - 05:40 AM

There's a good discussion from 2002 on this topic, Interpreting Ballet?, but warning, the board software in its infinite wisdom has decided to scramble the posts so they are out of date order! Check the dates and times of posting to read it logically.

I'm another one who thinks it's fine for the viewer or reader to find anything he or she desires in a text. Just don't ascribe these intentions to the author, please. Something may be encoded for you, but that doesn't mean the author did the encoding.

#9 salzberg


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Posted 14 January 2004 - 03:21 PM

Peter, Paul, and Mary used to do* a terrific riff on the fact that "everyone knew" that Puff the Magic Dragon was really a drug anthem, pointing out that there are other songs that can be so interpreted:

"Oh, say can you see" ("C" is for "cocaine")

"By the dawn's early light" (The time at which junkies are traditionally known to shoot up)

"And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" (Oh, wow, man....)

"Gave proof through the night...." (...That you can force any work of art into any tortuous misinterpretation that you please)


* And, for all I know, may still do

#10 Ed Waffle

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Posted 14 January 2004 - 04:41 PM

Leslie Fiedler has been there and done that. His big book, written in 1960 and still in print, is “Love and Death in the American Novel” which was based on an article he wrote for the Partisan Review, “Come Back to the Raft again, Huck Honey.” His thesis (or at least one of them) was that our literature did not and could not deal with adult sexuality of any type and was obsessed with death. It is learned, beautifully written and a joy to read.

Fiedler looks closely at the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick, starting with the night they spend sharing a bed in a crowded inn with Ishmael waking to find Queequeg's arm about him. He has a lot to say about race and sex in America, refracting it through the relationship of Huck and Jim in “Huckleberry Finn” and of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook from Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales”. In each case there is what Fiedler sees as a barely concealed homosexual relationship between men of different races—a “chaste marriage” is his term.

Fiedler very much a Critic. He used the terms “low brow” “middle brow” and “high brow” to describe various texts. He made it clear that while it might be interesting to see how American myth was expressed in popular novels and television shows, the only Literature worth studying for itself was “high brow”. I don't disagree with him.

There was a flurry of interest in Fiedler’s work a year ago—he died in January of 2003 at the age of 85. He was part of a forgotten world, one in which professors of literature had to actually read and know literature.

#11 britomart



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Posted 14 January 2004 - 10:25 PM

:wink: Whoa, whoa, WHOA....

As someone who studies literature "professionally" (and I despise anecdotal introductions) I would like to assure everyone that we actually do still read literature as training for our educational and critical practice. More than you can probably imagine - when I only spend six hours a day reading it means that I'm on vacation...

I understand the resistance to what one might call "overreading" West Side Story. But why does this offend people? One of the best things about studying literature is that it is not empirical or positivisitic; that is, it's not the DNA double helix. You are entitled, of course, to disagree. But the people who have queer readings of WSS are no less "right," just as one is no less right about the respective merits of a favorite performer. Authorial intention is not really the issue - (public domain? Roland Barthes?) a creative work is going to be interpreted, regardless of authorial intent.

Anyhow, bashing literary critics hardly seems productive, when there are so many writers who enjoy thinking and writing critically on this board. Part of the current fascination with the queer reading of WSS is because this has been a banner year for gay rights - certainly, that is going to affect the interest of mass media. Few would assert that WSS is definitively queer, but maybe it does bear some cultural marks that can be read as queer. I don't know (haven't seen it for awhile) but I'd be interested to hear someone's thoughts on how it could be queer.

A final note - if J.R.R. Tolkien hated allegory as much as he professed, he must have had a miserable career at Oxford, where he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf is largely allegorical) and his thinking and writing was admittedly much influenced by his close friend and colleague C.S. Lewis, who was a Spenser (arguably the greatest allegorist of the Elizabethan period) scholar. Oh well.

#12 salzberg


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Posted 14 January 2004 - 10:30 PM

Authorial intention is not really the issue

Of course it is; it's the author's work, and it means whatever s/he meant it to mean.

#13 britomart



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Posted 14 January 2004 - 10:38 PM

That would mean that when someone sees "Serenade" they would have to read everything Balanchine wrote about it before looking, and then they would still be interpreting what Balanchine wrote. No, that is not it. There is no text, no ballet, no film, no piece of music without the reader, the spectator or the listener. It is not a one-way street. Art is not created in a vacuum, it is created in a culture, and interpretation is an important part of that culture. To say that "that is what the artist means" is to espouse a fundamentalist viewpoint; it is no longer au courant to say that the world was created in seven days. That is because of interpretation.

#14 Paul Parish

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Posted 15 January 2004 - 12:03 AM

This all started with a GOSSIP column in hte Post, right?

I DO wait for the day someone choreographs "There's a Place for us" as a gay pas de deux --

Gays are not hte only ones who could see West Side Story as being "about them" -- an Arab in love with a Jew, or a Korean in love with a Japanese, a Hutu in love with a TUtsi, just to begin a LONG list of ethnic conflicts we could pick appealing young people from, and hte list is growing longer these days, and fast....

As a queer myself, I certainly DO feel the appeal of hte story as one that "appeals to my condition" -- and I certainly think it gave Jerome Robbins a medium for expressing feelings he'd suffered for. (He was draftable during World War II, and His draft physical found him 4-F -- unfit for service; not much is known about what happened at his physical, except that it was traumatic; I believe knowledgeable persons think he was refused on account of homosexuality. And within a short time he had choreographed and was dancing an exemplary sailor in "Fancy Free.")

#15 carbro


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Posted 15 January 2004 - 01:33 AM

Off the top of my head, I recall hearing many writers and other artists attribute interpretation to the reader/viewer/listener and very few saying, "That's not what I meant."

I remember, too, Edward Villella's final "Watermill"s with NYCB. A couple years later, I had the fortunate opportunity to tell him that I thought it seemed much sadder than it had when it was new. He replied that he was older and that he saw it as his opportunity to have a formal farewell to the place where he'd spent so much of his career. I took that to mean that he didn't consciously try to make it sadder, but some of what he unconsciously brought to it probably seeped through. In other words (I infer), if I saw it, it was there. (Oh, and incidentally, I was older, too. :wink:)

As to WSS, a gay, male friend once made the reference, specifically citing the lyrics of "Cool."

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