Bailiwick Repertory

If ever a poet confessed his sexuality in his verse, it was Walt Whitman. His poems and letters to the soldiers he cared for during the Civil War are heartbreaking testaments to a more than comradely affection. And the steamy “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass gave homoeroticism a vigor it hadn’t had since the ancient Greeks.

Life imitated art: Whitman enjoyed long-term love affairs with Peter Doyle, a young streetcar conductor, and Harry Stafford, a farm lad. According to letters and other people’s memoirs he was also drawn to Fred Vaughan, Thomas Sawyer, Lewis Brown, Douglas Fox, Edward Cattell, and many anonymous but not unsung workingmen. As Whitman himself wrote, “There is nothing beyond the comrade.”

Yet he never publicly acknowledged that the “Calamus” poems depicted love between men. To obscure his sexual preference Whitman encouraged at least one infatuated woman to fall in love with him, and he made up tales of amorous adventures that included six illegitimate children. The closest he ever came to admitting his homosexuality was the approval he expressed in a letter to an impassioned gay acolyte who’d decided to go to the South Seas to act on his urges.

Jonathan Ned Katz is a prominent gay historian (author of Gay American History, the definitive chronicle of gay life in America) who does not approve of Whitman’s reticence; for him the passion of Whitman’s poetry was less than a declaration of sexual independence. He even goes so far as to charge that “Whitman’s failure of courage is comparable to Galileo’s surrender to the Inquisition”–as if scientific truth and personal truth were comparable.

So for the centennial of Whitman’s death, Katz offers Comrades & Lovers, an “eros-affirming” alternative to “all those genteel Whitman commemorations.” In his historical pastiche, one of ten offerings in Bailiwick Repertory’s gay- and lesbian-themed Pride Performance Series, Katz contrasts Whitman’s allegedly closeted soul with the outspoken crusading of the 19th-century British art historian John Addington Symonds.

Symonds fell in love with Whitman after reading “Calamus,” and from 1871 to 1890 tried through letters to persuade him to act on his “adhesive” longings, to declare that the “Calamus” poems were actually about homosexual sex, and to denounce the criminalization of sex acts between men. Adding his pleas to Symonds’s was Edward Carpenter, another English devotee of Whitman and the coiner of the term “Uranians” to describe homosexuals.

Whitman, desperate to preserve his image as the representative American bard, gave evasive answers to Carpenter’s increasingly probing inquiries. Exasperated by Carpenter’s intrusiveness (“I hate to be catechized”), Whitman finally exploded, writing about his verse, “The pages themselves are not to be even mentioned for such gratuitous and undreamed and unwished for morbid inferences–which are disavowed by me and seem damnable.”

Katz’s play points up the danger that in “outing” a dead poet you place the demands of political correctness above those of historical realism. As recently as our century, E.M. Forster, Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, and Tennessee Williams used their right to silence as a means of avoiding homophobic flak. In Whitman’s time admitting his passions would have meant sacrificing his literary career (a sacrifice Oscar Wilde made five years after Whitman’s death). That’s one reason he addressed his final contributions to Leaves of Grass to future generations.

Katz also runs the danger of committing the intentional fallacy, of judging the work by what the writer says (or does not say) about it. Whitman’s work certainly wasn’t cowardly, and the contrast between what he said about himself and what his poems say only supports D.H. Lawrence’s excellent advice “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.”

Katz’s choice of Symonds as a counter to Whitman’s self-censorship is somewhat questionable; Symonds’s writings (with the exception of Sexual Inversion, which he wrote with the pioneering sex researcher Havelock Ellis in 1896) are much more circumspect than Whitman’s expansive, sex-embracing art–far from sounding peals of sexual freedom. Nonetheless Symonds suffered for his views; one chapter from his Studies of Greek Poets cost him Oxford’s Chair of Poetry in 1877–an outcome not lost on Whitman or other reticent homosexuals.

Fortunately, Katz’s work is wiser, warmer, and much less polemical than it could have been. Though sometimes it rips material out of context (Thoreau was a much greater admirer of Whitman than the one cranky letter used in this play indicates), Katz’s compilation sensitively and seamlessly stitches together poems, essays, memoirs, reviews, letters, and erotic diary entries by Whitman and his comrades.

Moving and fluid, Patrick Trettenero’s labor-of-love staging smoothly interweaves the individual confessionals with well-orchestrated choral contributions from its cast of ten men. Clad in proletarian garb, they seamlessly depict Whitman’s wounded soldiers, boon companions, fervent correspondents–19th-century men who often couldn’t name the love they felt. (It’s charming to watch the cast break into a sweet slow waltz to Sibelius’s Valse triste.) In the play’s sharpest performance Jeff Hughes plays Symonds with the irritable intensity of a frustrated true believer. But Danne W. Taylor’s strangely self-effacing, rather matter-of-fact Whitman has yet to convey the excitement and urgency of the verse he speaks.