Arthur Laurents is best remembered for his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins on the groundbreaking musical, West Side Story, and with Sondheim, Robbins and Jule Styne on Gypsy, one of the most celebrated and most often revived works of musical theatre. In addition to his musicals, Arthur Laurents is the author of seventeen full-length plays, one-act plays, television scripts, numerous screenplays (including Rope and The Turning Point), and three volumes of memoirs. This list does not include the many radio plays he wrote before and during World War II. Laurents’s career as a writer for stage and screen began in 1945 and lasted until 2009.
The Works of Arthur Laurents: Politics, Love, and Betrayal is the first comprehensive study of Laurents’s work. This fascinating book by John Clum (Duke University), which has just been published, focuses on the subjects and themes that recur in Laurents’s work, particularly the interrelated topics of gender politics, homosexuality, and the dynamics of marriage. The position of women and gay men changed greatly over the sixty-plus years of Laurents’s career, and these changes are reflected in his work, particularly in the shifting power dynamics within a marriage. Laurents was fascinated by the dynamics of marriage. In his plays, there is always a tension between love and the difficulty–if not impossibility–of monogamy. In works like The Enclave, one can see a variety of ways in which gay men try to live proud lives in a heteronormative society. In that play and in Two Lives, Laurents examined how gay men negotiated marriage before gay marriages were legally sanctioned.
As Laurents’s work reflects the evolving history of gay men in America from World War II to the present, so it can be seen to trace the history of women during that period. Laurents was not consciously offering a feminist critique of women’s limited roles in the American upper middle class in the second half of the twentieth century, but one can easily read such a critique into his work. Most of the plays Laurents wrote between 1973 and 2000 center on
prosperous, urban nuclear families, but the focus is often on the wife’s realization that she has the moral authority and that she is free to make choices and assert her will within the marriage. In some cases those choices are about attaining sexual fulfillment she has not derived from her marriage. More often it is about exerting her sense of justice within and outside of her home.
The book also covers the ways in which Laurents’s plays reflect his interest in leftist politics from the 1940s through the various liberations of the late 1960s and 1970s. Above all, the study argues that if there is any common theme running through the plays, films and memoirs, it is betrayal—betrayal of marriage partner, friend, artistic collaborator and, most important, betrayal of one’s own ideals.
The Works of Arthur Laurents will be of particular interest to students and scholars of American drama, musical theatre, American film, gender studies, gay studies, and Jewish studies.
This book will be showcased at the Cambria Press booth (#402) at the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver, Canada, in January.
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