Is Chemistry Lab a "Gay Play"? A Reflection

By Ben Alexander


             Obviously, Chemistry Lab is a play in which the central relationship is a homosexual one. Moreover, the story involves the dilemma of a character (I'm referring here to Adrian, the underdog in the relationship) who, finding himself to be gay, seeks to carve for himself a niche of self-respect through being open about his sexuality. And, particularly in the second act, the play depicts the ugliness of homophobia.

            Do these elements put it in the category of a "gay play"? Well, I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong: I'm perfectly comfortable with letting audience members be the final arbiters of what category they want to place it in, and a "gay play" is what many will certainly be calling it. However, I would be hesitant to advertise it with that term. Truth be told, I don't think I even know how to write a "gay play." For starters, I lack what many would consider the most prime credential. More to the point, it wasn't what was really on my mind when I conceived the idea for this story.

            To give some insight into how I conceived this play, I want to set up a hypothetical play with a whole other plot, and I ask persons not familiar with my story to follow my train of thought anyway, keeping in mind that we're talking about seniors in high school in a small New Hampshire town, school year 1977-78. In this hypothetical story, there's no homosexuality, merely a friendship between Bobby the class jock and Adrian the class outcast. Bobby finds Adrian to have certain kinds of understanding and personal appeal that his more popular friends lack. However, given the nature of the social structure, Bobby will lose status if it is widely known that he truly likes Adrian and cares about the friendship. It's okay for Bobby to have some rapport with Adrian, but it must be of a top-dog/under-dog variety. He must give the general public the impression that he feels socially superior to Adrian, and that, if he ever had to choose between his friendship with Adrian and his place the jock clique, Adrian wouldn't stand a chance. Let anybody suspect for one minute that he feels genuine respect, fraternal affection, and loyalty to Adrian, and his popularity is shot, or so at least he fears.

            Had I written that for a play, it would have been extremely familiar territory, because that scenario fits the social structure that I grew up with quite well. But drama needs more tangible stakes, hence the seduction and the secret gay love affair.

            There's still another dimension to it, because it would be a mistake to think that the gay dimension was purely a stakes-raising strategy. Yes, it was partly that. However, I also wanted to make a statement about bigotry. I wanted to show that, in my view, the way to understand bigotry is to understand the addictive power of social status, and that social status generally involves being a member of a group which shares a common sense of superiority to another group. If small-town jock culture makes a good laboratory for status-conscious behavior in its most naked form, it also lends itself well to a depiction of homophobia. From kindergarten to senior year, living in one town the entire time, the only murder I knew of within those town limits was a homophobic beating, something akin to the killing of Matthew Shepard, though before such a crime could make national news. Chemistry Lab has homophobic violence in it, and I agree with anyone who interprets the play as a play about homophobia. It is very largely that.

            However, I still would not label it a "gay play." First off, that would imply that the play's most logical audience is the gay population. In truth, I was gratified to find that the people who gave me favorable opinions of Chemistry Lab represented an enormous cross-section of humanity, including male and female, a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and gay and straight. I would never want it to be classified in a way that could even remotely tend to skew the target audience in any direction. I would hope for it to receive the most eclectic and inclusive marketing strategies, so as to continue to attract gay and straight audiences alike.

            But there's another reason as well: Persons expecting a gay play may well be looking for it to provide certain things that it doesn't really attempt to provide. This concern was driven home to me when I read the New York Blade review. Please, don't get me wrong, I don't have any quarrel with this review. I appreciate the way that the writer devoted the first seven paragraphs to a very thoughtful summary of the play, and I respect the criticisms that followed. However, I will say, what he was looking for me to do is ultimately different from what I was attempting to do.

            If I may be so bold as to interpret the reviewer's perspective, I think that he was addressing the question of, "How do you write a play about the feelings and struggles of teenagers as they start to experience their own homosexuality?" He thus answers that question with almost a checklist of story elements that a play should have when that is its intent. And I can see where some audience members might come at the play with that expectation. After all, a gay teenage relationship begins in Scene 1 and continues in the scenes that ensue.

            However, that was not the question that I had on my mind when I wrote the play. For me, the question could be stated a number of ways. "How do you write a play about the dark side of teenage jock culture?" "How do you write a play about the nature of social status and bigotry in society?" "How do you write a play about the anatomy of a top-dog/under-dog relationship?"

            Chemistry Lab, then, while it is a play involving a gay relationship, is not primarily a "gay play." It is a play about an unequal intimate relationship in which the more powerful character feels tenderly for the other, but is more attached to his social status than to the relationship. The less powerful character, meanwhile, is on a self-respect and self-discovery journey, but his self-defeating flaw even as he takes this journey is that he continues to idolize his seductor; he continues to think that, no matter how badly the one he loves rejects him when push comes to shove, the more powerful one is still ultimately his friend, his mentor, and his protector. The fact that the relationship is sexual raises the stakes of the relationship; the fact that it is homosexual in a homophobic town raises the stakes of the popular jock's need for secrecy.

            And yet, the gay element is still fully integrated with all the rest of the story, especially with the treatment of homophobia. The play seeks, among other things, to show the close connection between bigotry and the universally addictive power of social status. So "gay" is one of the ingredients. It's not necessarily a subordinate ingredient. But the other ingredients aren't subordinate, either.

            So, if plays are "gay plays" versus plays about other themes, then this play is neither fish nor fowl, or else it's a rainbow trout with wings and a beak. What I can say is, the responses I got told me quite emphatically that it's a play worth my time exploring further.





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