Before Stonewall – Edward Cohen (Awst Press)

Buy from:

Awst Press

Edward M. Cohen, author of the novel $250,000 and other non-fiction books about theater, as well as several plays that have been directed off-Broadway, has collected fourteen of his short stories, all previously published, just in time for Pride Month, in a volume aptly titled Before Stonewall. For the most part, the title is accurate—the stories assembled in this collection span most of the twentieth century, starting shortly after WWII, with only a couple (“Peeling an Egg” and the prologue “After Stonewall”) clearly set after the Stonewall Riots. Besides being arranged chronologically, the stories appear across the entire lifespan of their characters, beginning in the latency of a dimly-remembered childhood (“A Story of Early Love”), continuing through the uncertainty of adolescence (“Golden Boys and Girls”), and encompassing the entirety of adulthood.

Cohen’s characters inhabit a world that has largely disappeared: a world of secrets, code words and behaviors, hiding in plain sight. Before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a policy, it was the way to survive, especially mid-century, when McCarthyism soon began hunting homosexuals as a way to root out communism. More than one story chronicles the toll of living in such a world: “Cream of Mushroom Soup” and “This Treacherous Life,” in particular, depict the often brutal results of living such duplicitous existences, where private lives do not match public personas.

Most of the stories are set in New York City, and show a clear insider’s view of the world of New York Theater. The characters include not just aspiring actors, but also theaters’ supporting casts: playwrights, choreographers, set builders, etc. (Hardly surprising that these men are drawn to the theater; even when they’re not acting on stage, they’re living a role, trying to “pass” as cishet males.) Cohen explores throughout his collection the inherent paradox of theater, whereby truths are expressed through the process of assuming a role. No where is this paradox better expressed than in “Birth of a Revolution,” where Elliott, a closeted ROTC member taking a college acting class, assumes the persona of a fellow ROTC member he is hot for, in order to perform the role of Val Xavier in Tennessee Williams’ Battle of Angels. As a result, he uncovers and accepts his own true nature.

The theme of family—always a fraught one, when gay men are concerned—also runs throughout the collection. Many of the protagonists are second- or third-generation immigrants, and the habit not to stick out, to assimilate, is quickly ingrained in childhood, and is often at odds with their desires. A trio of stories near the end of the collection explore the complicated relationships between gay men and their fathers, and do so with insight and nuance. These relationships are depicted as difficult, and for the first two (“Cheez Doodles,” “Shiva”), closure is not a given, even when life has literally ended. Still, the third story (“Choreographer”) in this trio shows that resolution (of a sorts) is not impossible.

Like all good anthologies and collections, this volume has a little bit of everything: theater gossip; sexual tension; clear, sharp writing; and a window into a lost world. I’m not old enough to remember pre-Stonewall times, so I cannot empathize with Al’s nostalgia in “After Stonewall.” But Cohen has provided us a testament of the not-so-distant past, one we should always endeavor to honor and remember.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.