Look on Tempests
Look on Tempests, by Joan Henry, was a pioneering gay play, mounted by the New Watergate Club at the Comedy Theatre in April 1960.
Up until this time the Lord Chamberlain forbade mention of homosexuality on the British stage, so any play which wanted to discuss the ‘issue’ (as it then was) other than in coded references had to be presented as a club performance. However, the ban was lifted in 1959, and this was the first result.
The play is a dialogue between the wife and mother, Mrs Vincent, of a gay man, who never appears himself onstage. He has been charged with gross indecency, which precipitates the crisis. The mother, outraged, disowns her son; the wife admits that she knew all about his homosexuality when she married him, but she loved him – still loves him, and hopes that marriage and her love can ‘cure’ him.
The play starred the legendary Gladys Cooper as the mother, then in her seventies, and a 23-year-old Vanessa Redgrave. In many ways the play mirrors the private life of her father, Michael Redgrave, who though never arrested, led a perilous double life involving frequent casual pick-ups. Her part could have been based on her mother, Rachel Kempson, who bore with Redgrave’s errant ways with great patience and eventually a long-lasting infidelity of her own. A review said of Vanessa Redgrave, “She has shown promise before, but this performance is promise fulfilled." The play attracted more attention from American critics at the time than British ones.
The author, Joan Henry, was married to the American film director J Lee Thompson, who was largely based in London in the 1950s, where he did his best work. Henry was a former debutante who was jailed for fraud for a year in 1951 and spent the next years writing about the prison system and its failings in one form or another. Her first book was an autobiographical account of her prison experiences, Who Lie in Gaol, an early example of the prison memoir popular in the 1950s, of which Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law (1955) and Rupert Croft-Cooke’s The Verdict of You All (1955) were the prime gay examples. It was followed by Yield to the Night, an account of a woman awaiting execution, which subsequently offered Diana Dors her best film role. Two TV plays on the same subject followed in the 1960s. Leslie and Thompson divorced in the late 1960s and she subsequently disappears from view.
Look on Tempests was published in two parts in Plays and Players: 7 No 10 (July 1960) pages 25–31 and 7 no 11 (August 1960) pages 24–30.
- Jacques Pouteau, "London Sees Play of Type Formerly Banned", Los Angeles Times, 25 March 1960.
- W A Darlington, "Drama along the Thames", New York Times, 20 April 1960.