A new play at the Classic Stage Company, Unnatural Acts, takes us back to period of intolerance that is hopefully unthinkable today. It focuses on events from nearly a century ago, when, in 1920, a panel of administrators at Harvard University embarked on campus-wide investigation aimed at exposing and then expelling homosexuals in the student body. Triggered by the suicide of a student off-campus, the inquiry resulted in another’s on campus a few weeks later, and 14 convictions. All evidence of the so-called “Secret Court” was subsequently covered up and it was not until 80 years later that the transcripts of the unprecedented proceedings came to light when Amit Paley, a student reporter for The Harvard Crimson, stumbled upon a reference to it in the university archives. He gained access to some 500 pages of documents in the buried files and broke the story in 2002. Since then, the story of the gay witch hunt at the Ivy League institution has become the subject of a 2005 book-length study by William Bright, a 2009 movie, Perkins 28, in which Harvard undergraduates reenact the student testimonies, and Veritas, a play by Stan Richardson presented at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Unnatural Acts, which compellingly portrays the young men whose lives were deeply affected by investigations, is collectively written by members of a new ensemble company Plastic Theatre. Associate artistic director at the CSC, Tony Speciale, who conceived and directed this project, spoke recently with the House about the production.
How did you get interested in this story?
I first read about the Secret Court story in Out magazine in the summer of 2003. I remember it very vividly because it was like a jolt to my system. The thing that broke my heart about it was here was a group of men who seemed so full of life. I could keep recognizing my own friends in the group and flashes of my own life. It was really heartbreaking that their stories were silenced as abruptly and as succinctly as they were. I got hooked right away wanting to figure out a way how to tell their stories. I wanted to go to the original source material and research it myself, to have my own perspective of the events. I got access to the Harvard Archives in 2006, they gave us permission to photocopy the files. I was never interested in it being strictly a docudrama, I really wanted the focus of the play to be about the boys’ lives, that network of relationships and how they break down in the midst of the interrogations. We will never know why Harvard felt they had to do this with such destruction. Because they didn’t only expel the boys they also blacklisted them for decades afterward. What I find also really fascinating is that someone knew enough about this story that they labeled it in the Harvard archives as “Secret Court files 1920.” If you do that you must know that someone is going to find it, otherwise why don’t you just destroy the documents?
Do you follow the historical sequence of events in the play?
The major events and the order in which the interrogations appear are pretty true to the source material. The basic story is that Cyril Wilcox was sent home to Fall River, Massachusetts on probation; he broke out in hives and he was struggling with his grades. He was sent home in April and he killed himself on May 14, 1920. His friends Ernest Roberts and Harold Saxon wrote him letters not realizing that he’d committed suicide. It looks like Roberts’s letter was written over a series of days, because it was multiple pages and he would say things like, “I’m skipping class now, but no one will notice,” and go back to the letter. The letters, which were postmarked on or around the day Cyril died were intercepted by [his brother] Lester, so Cyril never read them. In his letter, Roberts mentions that Kenneth Day is being sucked foolish by anyone he can lay hold of and he talks about his fiancé’s younger brother Bradley, who he wants to seduce. The letters talk about faggots in Beacon Hill, Yacht Club parties and dressing in drag. It’s gossip, but it’s pretty risqué stuff and it was certainly very incriminating. There are also two anonymous letters. One appears on the day the court starts and the other appears after Eugene Cummings commits suicide, signed “Class of ’21.” Who wrote them is a mystery. We know there really were parties at Perkins 28 [Ernest Roberts’s room], which were quite wild—with men dressed in drag and with lots of liquor. We don’t know that Ken Day actually punched Roberts but we know that he was called in first and Roberts was second.
How did Unnatural Acts get written?
I felt the best way to approach this play was collaboratively. It was about a society of men so I wanted a prismatic approach. We started creating this play in 2009 after I had done a lot of research. Over the course of a year we did three workshops; we created the play from scratch in five weeks in the first workshop. First we had to decipher the court transcripts. A lot of times you can’t tell whether something is actually what the boy said, or if it is the court member’s response to what they said, editorializing it in a shorthand way. So we transcribed all of those documents, which took weeks, and then we started to improvise scenarios based on what we knew. We videotaped these two-to-three-hour long-form improvisations, where the actors would be on their feet working and I would hand them a cue or a task. Out of those sessions we would just capture one kernel or maybe two moments that were really fantastic and then wipe everything else away. We kept growing it like that. Over a year, a structure slowly emerged. Then I formed a smaller writing group of six: Nicholas Norman, Heather Denyer, who’s also my dramaturge, Jess Burkle, the actor who plays Edward Say, Joe Curnutte who plays Nathanial Wollf, and Jerry Marsini who plays Donald Clark, and myself. We would meet every week and set homework assignments—to write about a situation, a scenario, a relationship. Then we would look at all six different points of view, pick the best one and expand upon that and throw everything else away. The play is based on true events, but our imagination takes it to another place. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t just arbitrarily fabricating a situation so we kept going back to the source material. I would say I functioned as the final editor.
How did you construct the personalities of the boys involved and fill out their backstories?
After the boys are expelled there’s correspondence between the students and their families, and in those letters you get a sense of who was close to whom. For instance, Joseph Lumbard was readmitted the following year [after being expelled] and in that time lapse he and Ken Day actually had a dinner together. That’s documented in the correspondence. So you get a sense that maybe they had a bond while they were in school. Keith Smerage, in his letters to the deans, expresses his relationship with Wollf and reiterates that the situation was larger than even the court knew about. And he has this great line—I’m grossly paraphrasing—that his actions didn’t deserve obliteration of humanity. So you get a sense of the network of men. The least amount is known about Donald Clark in the actual transcripts so we had to research beyond that. We tracked down his military records on ancestor.com and we found that he was actually discharged from the military for sending and receiving obscene letters in the mail. We found out that he had a correspondence with [Harvard] President Lowell’s sister, Amy Lowell, who was a poet and very encouraging of his work, and we tracked down his original book of poetry. We gathered evidence from death certificates as well. Harold Saxton, for instance, ends up living with his father and mother for the rest of his life. We used Eugene Cummings as our guide because he is the person whose life, I think, most closely resembles Cyril Wilcox in the sense that he was also from Fall River and he killed himself within the course of the trials. He takes us through the journey while we get a chance to meet all the other men.
Did you contact any of the families involved?
The grandson of Lester Wilcox wrote me an email. I was really worried as to how he would respond because Lester is a tough character and he was responsible for this whole thing in a way. But he’s a lovely, lovely man. He wrote me to say that he was really happy that the story is being told, that it has been kept a secret for far too long, and that he has no doubt that there are a bunch of well-dressed men up in the sky looking down at us with approval. We have had a couple of conversations since and he clarified a few things for me. l believe he’s planning on seeing the play. But besides that I have not been in touch with any of the relatives.
What did you do to ensure you got the right look and dialogue of the period?
We did a lot of research with images. We watched silent films and looked at images from 1920s Harvard, from men’s clothing in 1920 and their hairstyles, obviously. Our costume designer, Andrea Lauer, had a lot of incredible ideas. When you have a play that is about a bunch of men in suits, it’s not so much the suits that makes a difference, it’s how they are cut and how the men wear them. If someone is poor they have a hand-me-down suit, and maybe it’s slightly shorter in the sleeves or the pants. So you start to see how they inhabit their clothing. That’s what differentiates the characters. For me, posture was big concern—to be conscious of slouching, to really think about etiquette and what makes a Harvard man. And for the dialogue, there are words that are recorded in the actual transcripts like “homosexualism” and “homosexualist” and [mentions of] Dr. Havelock Ellis and Freud. So we researched all of these references and we also found this website with 1920s slang and we infused the script with a little bit of that. That can be a little bit tricky because that is the Jazz Age and we are really kind of the teens and post WWI, so we had to look at the slang and the music during the mid-teens. We looked at the popular songs in 1919 and 1920 and what books people were reading at that time, and from that we started to pull little snatches of dialogue.
How does it feel, now that you have now brought this story to the stage?
After the workshops people would leave talking about the story. They were really upset and shocked at the cover-up, and they would go home and read more about the Secret Court. That’s the whole point of theater, if it is to effect social change at all. You hope that people will leave a show and want to continue a dialog about it. I’m thrilled that the audiences seem to be engaged still and continue talking about it. It’s like a wakeup call to ask [ourselves], “What are we doing right now that might be unjust and how will it be perceived in a 100 years from now?” You can read about them on Wikipedia, in William Wright’s book, or in Amit Paley’s article, but for me it’s also a requiem and a memorial for these boys. It’s a chance to spend a couple of hours watching them living and breathing in front of you, to hear their stories continue just for a couple of hours longer.