President Bush wants 'pro-homosexual' drama banned. Gary Taylor meets the politician in charge of making it happen.
What should we do with US classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Color Purple? "Dig a hole," Gerald Allen recommends, "and dump them in it." Don't laugh. Gerald Allen's book-burying opinions are not a joke.
Earlier this week, Allen got a call from Washington. He will be meeting with President Bush on Monday. I asked him if this was his first invitation to the White House. "Oh no," he laughs. "It's my fifth meeting with Mr Bush."
Bush is interested in Allen's opinions because Allen is an elected Republican representative in the Alabama state legislature. He is Bush's base. Last week, Bush's base introduced a bill that would ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that "promote homosexuality". Allen does not want taxpayers' money to support "positive depictions of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle". That's why Tennessee Williams and Alice Walker have got to go.
I ask Allen what prompted this bill. Was one of his children exposed to something in school that he considered inappropriate? Did he see some flamingly gay book displayed prominently at the public library?
No, nothing like that. "It was election day," he explains. Last month, "14 states passed referendums defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman". Exit polls asked people what they considered the most important issue, and "moral values in this country" were "the top of the list".
"Traditional family values are under attack," Allen informs me. They've been under attack "for the last 40 years". The enemy, this time, is not al-Qaida. The axis of evil is "Hollywood, the music industry". We have an obligation to "save society from moral destruction". We have to prevent liberal libarians and trendy teachers from "re-engineering society's fabric in the minds of our children". We have to "protect Alabamians".
I ask him, again, for specific examples. Although heterosexuals are apparently an endangered species in Alabama, and although Allen is a local politician who lives a couple miles from my house, he can't produce any local examples. "Go on the internet," he recommends. "Some time when you've got a week to spare," he jokes, "just go on the internet. You'll see."
Since Allen couldn't give me a single example of the homosexual equivalent of 9/11, I gave him some. This autumn the University of Alabama theatre department put on an energetic revival of A Chorus Line, which includes, besides "tits and ass", a prominent gay solo number. Would Allen's bill prevent university students from performing A Chorus Line? It isn't that he's against the theatre, Allen explains. "But why can't you do something else?" (They have done other things, of course. But I didn't think it would be a good idea to mention their sold-out productions of Angels in America and The Rocky Horror Show.)
Cutting off funds to theatre departments that put on A Chorus Line or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may look like censorship, and smell like censorship, but "it's not censorship", Allen hastens to explain. "For instance, there's a reason for stop lights. You're driving a vehicle, you see that stop light, and I hope you stop." Who can argue with something as reasonable as stop lights? Of course, if you're gay, this particular traffic light never changes to green.
It would not be the first time Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran into censorship. As Nicholas de Jongh documents in his amusingly appalling history of government regulation of the British theatre, the British establishment was no more enthusiastic, half a century ago, than Alabama's Allen. "Once again Mr Williams vomits up the recurring theme of his not too subconscious," the Lord Chamberlain's Chief Examiner wrote in 1955. In the end, it was first performed in London at the New Watergate Club, for "members only", thereby slipping through a loophole in the censorship laws.
But more than one gay playwright is at a stake here. Allen claims he is acting to "encourage and protect our culture". Does "our culture" include Shakespeare? I ask Allen if he would insist that copies of Shakespeare's sonnets be removed from all public libraries. I point out to him that Romeo and Juliet was originally performed by an all-male cast, and that in Shakespeare's lifetime actors and audiences at the public theatres were all accused of being "sodomites". When Romeo wished he "was a glove upon that hand", the cheek that he fantasised about kissing was a male cheek. Next March the Alabama Shakespeare festival will be performing a new production of As You Like It, and its famous scene of a man wooing another man. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is also the State Theatre of Alabama. Would Allen's bill cut off state funding for Shakespeare.