Christopher Bram finds humor, pathos in theater life
Christopher Bram, in his first seven novels published between 1987 and 2000, has demonstrated a deft hand at weaving humor into stories ranging over a wide array of historical topics.
In “Hold Tight” (1988), a taut and sexy spy thriller set in a West Village gay brothel, Bram vividly brings to life the dishy camp wordplay of the World War II era. In “Father of Frankenstein” (1995), adapted to the screen as “Gods and Monsters,” the aging filmmaker James Whale and a young student of Hollywood share a deliciously misbegotten mutual seduction sitting by Whale’s swimming pool, occasionally under the watchful and disapproving eye of his protective housekeeper.
In “Lives of the Circus Animals,” his latest novel, Bram goes for broke, constructing a broad comedy around a half dozen or so characters who live for a world Bram knows more intimately than most he’s written about—the New York theater.
As in his earlier novels, “Circus Animals” incorporates real people into the story, and includes other, fictional characters—such as Leopold and Lois, a lounge act made up of a piano player and a drag version of an aging, boozy woman—who are only thinly disguised. Telling several interlocking stories at once, Bram clearly signals his comic intentions, but it is a testament to his surefootedness as a story teller that we root for the novel’s humorous turns, even as we wonder, “Can he really be going there?”
Yet even as Bram explores the comic foibles of a theater critic, a playwright, a Shakespearean actor, a callow young wannabe, and a woman working at the margins of the theater, he has serious questions on his mind. Are love of work and love of another person mutually exclusive? Does romantic love always involve obsession? Are art and craft just as likely to break your heart as the man who got away?
Bram’s characters, linked to one another in a Dickens-like chain of circumstance, explore these weighty issues during a ten-day period in a story short on action, but rich in finely observed detail. Readers drawn to the comedy of manners genre of fiction will certainly enjoy the novel, but as Bram’s narrative gains steam it is unabashed in employing elements of farce.
Bram prepares us for laughs right from the start. Kenneth Prager, the second chair theater critic at The New York Times known around town as the Buzzard of Off-Broadway, confides to his therapist, Dr. Chin, that he is having trouble handling the flak his harsh reviews generate. After an extensive back and forth about whether his job is to criticize, or maybe also to praise, Chin offhandedly mentions, “I rarely go to the theater. In fact, I try to avoid it… I feel embarrassed watching actors… Seeing them live onstage makes me very anxious.”
Prager is stunned: “Physician heal thyself, he thought. She’s crazier than I am.”
With Prager, Bram is clearly having his fun with critics, and with The New York Times. There is almost no indignity to which Prager is not subjected. He is mockingly warned to “be kind,” as he watches his daughter in a seventh grade production of “Show Boat.” On a mission to write a puff piece about Henry Lewse, the gay English actor known as the Hamlet of his generation who is appearing in a Broadway musical froth, Prager travels around in a limo with Lewse and his entourage for an eternity hoping to get one decent quote.
While cooling his heels waiting on Lewse, Prager, looking for a pay phone, accidentally walks onstage during a way-Off-Broadway play. After a confused moment in which he sits down on a couch in front of the audience, Prager makes his way into the audience where he complains to Lewse, “I’m so humiliated.”
“Nobody knows who you are,” Lewse assures him.
But Prager is not simply a foil, and there’s a universal quality to his struggle. Chin, the therapist, tells him, “You want to have power, but not be hated. You want to be king, but treated like an equal. You want to be loved, but not too much.”
Ironically, Prager has much in common with Caleb Doyle, the 40-year-old gay playwright who found success with “Venus in Furs,” only to have his second stage outing, “Chaos Theory,” decimated by a Prager pan in The Times.
Doyle also has Chin as his therapist, and he tells her that having devoted his life to playwrighting, he feels forsaken. He alludes to the poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” in which William Butler Yeats “says he gave his heart to the theater, but he’s all burned out and his animals have run off.” Doyle lost his lover Ben to AIDS six years before and is unwilling to take seriously the love of Toby Vogler, a 24-year-old aspiring actor, so he sees no refuge in Yeats’ “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
Doyle laments, “I finally write an honest play. I make up for a phony play about sex with an honest play about love, and I get kicked in the teeth.”
Prager, also mindful of the pitfalls of a theater career, points to the same poem by Yeats, and tells Chin, as if trying to convince himself, “I’m hardly one of those art or theater types who has no other life”
Prager may or may not have a life outside the theater, but both Doyle and Lewse clearly have problems on that score.
After breaking up with Toby, Doyle still harbors fantasies about him, but they are stripped of affection: “He could imagine violating him. Rimming or spanking or fucking him, something obscene. Except it would be like sex, and sex could be mistaken for love. And he did not love Toby.”
Doyle questions whether the sacrifices needed to have a sex life are worth it: “Sex was such a dirty trick,” he thinks, looking back on his time with Toby. “It made people exchange their peace and quiet for lots of bad company and dull conversation.”
Doyle writes an imagined dialogue with his dead lover—which he keeps hidden in the bottom drawer of his desk—in which Ben tells him of an afterlife relationship he has with a former student, but hastens to add, “The dead don’t fall in love. Not in the way that you mean, lust and obsession. I enjoy his company.”
Lewse similarly views love with apprehension. When Toby stumbles from Doyle’s bed into Lewse’s, the Englishman tells the youth, “I never fall in love. You think about Him all the time. Not a real Him. An imaginary Him. The most hurtful Him. A Him who makes you feel like an absolute shit.”
Toby is worried about Lewse: “You must get real lonely.”
“Not all all,” Lewse replies. “I have my friends and mates and colleagues. I’m not nearly as lonely as you, my boy. I’m more self-sufficient.”
But Lewse’s nonchalance about romantic attachments does not translate into hot casual sex, as his tryst with Toby proves. “It’s remarkable how sexless sex can be after the first half hour. Henry had to remind himself that the rubbery stiffness filling his mouth was Toby Vogler’s penis… Henry had lost his own erection days ago. All he wanted now was to hear Toby groan and see him spurt. Orgasm had become a point of honor.”
“Why does it have to be bad sex?” asks one of the actors rehearsing the Off-Broadway show onto which Prager stumbles, challenging the motivation behind one of the scenes. “Why do they have to look ridiculous?”
“Because it’s a comedy,” the play’s director replies. “And they don’t love each other.”
But, for Bram, it’s about more than just comedy. In another of the imagined dialogues between Doyle and his dead lover, Ben boasts that he is “free of that rat race. We’ don’t have to live anymore with those two imposters, success and failure.”
Those imposters, if that’s what they are, are what Doyle, Lewse, and Prager struggle with, inconclusively but not without some measure of determination, throughout “Lives of the Circus Animals.”
Interestingly, it is Toby, the shallow, self-involved youth—who spends the novel worrying, “I can’t be a good actor. I can’t keep a boyfriend. I’m not even good sex”—who seems to find the most encouraging answers to his worries.
Chistopher Bram in Madison Square Park.
Photo by Brett Vermilyea