Love! Valour! Compassion!

by Terrence McNally
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2691

Act 1
The action of the play begins on Memorial Day weekend at the lakeside vacation home of Gregory Mitchell in upstate New York. Gregory, a successful Broadway choreographer, has invited a group of his friends to visit for the long holiday weekend. We are given a glimpse of most of them right away as they are gathered around Gregory’s piano singing ‘‘Beautiful Dreamer.’’ There is Bobby Brahms, Gregory’s own blind, live-in boyfriend; Buzz Hauser, a comic, sarcastic lover of Broadway musicals who is HIV-positive and afraid of what the future holds for him; Perry Sellars and Arthur Pape, a lawyer and accountant in a long-term, monogamous relationship; John Jeckyll, a mean-spirited English pianist; and his boyfriend, Ramon Fornos, a handsome, young Puerto Rican dancer.

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Though each of these men becomes involved with one or more stories, or ‘‘plotlines,’’ in the play, Love! Valour! Compassion! is more about its characters and the themes they explore than it is about essential elements of plot. The construction of the play has a cinematic quality—short scenes shift fluidly from one into another, often juxtaposing the actions and conversations of the characters to provide additional layers of meaning. Time moves back and forth, while characters take turns interacting in scenes and turning to the audience to narrate portions of the play’s events. The early scenes of the play mainly establish the identities of the characters and introduce some of the play’s more prominent themes—variations on love and friendship, trust and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Following the opening scene around the piano, the action shifts to late at night. Most of the men are in their bedrooms sleeping, but Bobby has gone down to the kitchen for a late snack when he encounters Ramon. They have a brief, passionate, and physical sexual encounter in the kitchen that ends with a bottle of milk crashing to the floor and breaking, waking Arthur who comes down to investigate. Ramon disappears, back to the bedroom he shares with John, but it is obvious to Arthur what has happened. He helps Bobby clean up, and they discuss Bobby’s act of unfaithfulness to Gregory. Arthur admits that he once cheated on Perry and recommends that Bobby keep it to himself, forget about it, and move on. ‘‘I told him,’’ he warns Bobby, ‘‘and it’s never been the same. It’s terrific, but it’s not the same.’’

Bobby goes back to bed with Gregory, and Arthur rejoins Perry while the scene changes to the previous day when everyone arrived. Their reappearances now, one at a time, are an opportunity to get to know them in revealing ‘‘snapshots’’ of their personalities. John is downstairs spying in Gregory’s journal when Buzz appears. Far from feeling guilty at being caught in the act, John reads aloud from the journal and encourages Buzz to join him. They discuss the status of their relationships. John has been seeing Ramon for three weeks, and Buzz recently broke up with yet another boyfriend who found him too ‘‘intense.’’ True to his description, Buzz turns to the audience with a campy rave about his love for musicals, his hatred of AIDS, and his longing for a man to call his own.

They are joined by Gregory and Ramon who have been swimming in Gregory’s lake. Ramon is Puerto Rican, young, handsome, virile, less experienced than the other men but clearly capable of holding his own. He is an odd match for John, who is older, more cynical, and far less humorous. Their differences are obvious in the constant disagreements they have with each other. Ramon expresses his admiration for Gregory (‘‘Mr. Mitchell’’ he calls him) and his phenomenal career, and the men compliment him on the success of his own small dance company, which has recently gained critical acclaim and moved from a small space in the East Village to the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Next to arrive are Perry, Arthur, and Bobby, who come in from the city together by car. While driving, they discuss Bobby’s blindness, which he has had since birth and does not let deter him or define who he is or how he interacts with people, apart from getting to know them by touching their facial features rather than simply shaking hands. They also reflect on the relationship Perry and Arthur share. After fourteen years together, they act as ‘‘role models’’ for the other couples, though they too have had their share of bumpy roads. Now they are the sort of couple who finish each other’s sentences and know each other’s likes, dislikes, and responses intimately.

As the men all unpack, settle in, have dinner, and gather together around Gregory’s house, some of the play’s other complications are revealed. John has a twin brother, James, who is suffering from advanced symptoms of AIDS and who wants to come for a visit. A phone call from James upsets him terribly and causes him to be anxious and angry for the rest of the evening. Perry and John were once lovers. They now detest one another and can hardly be in the same room together without quarrelling. Gregory has committed all of them to dance in an all-male drag rendition of Swan Lake as an AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall. (No one wants to participate.) Perry, it turns out, has a mean, bigoted streak in him, which surfaces at dinner, angering Arthur.

Separately, these complications seem like commonplace events in the lives of ordinary men; but together in Gregory’s house at the beginning of this Memorial Day weekend, they paint a thematic picture of a group of men bound together by their art, their sexuality, their lifestyles, their struggles, and their dreams. The first act ends with a mixture of relief and sadness. Arthur forgives Perry for his angry outburst; Ramon forgives John for his arrogance and insults. Buzz, acting as narrator, reveals that after the first day, it rained all weekend. We also learn that during the rain Buzz cried while watching old movies, Gregory sat for six hours listening to a piece of music and waiting for inspiration that never came, and Ramon seduced Bobby in the kitchen in the middle of the night.

Act 2
At the beginning of the second act, all of the men are gathered together again at Gregory’s house, this time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. As before, the act progresses in a series of short scenes, which the characters take turns narrating. Gregory, Buzz, Perry, and Arthur play tennis outside, while John once again pages through Gregory’s journal and sits moodily playing the piano indoors. His brother, James, has arrived from England, causing the houseful of men to contemplate the differences between the identical twin brothers. (Perry has dubbed them ‘‘James the Fair and John the Foul.’’)

Between Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July, Bobby reveals, Ramon has tried to call him a number of times. When Gregory has answered the phone, he has simply kept silent or hung up. He has again returned to the house with John, though this time even John acknowledges that Ramon is ‘‘eligible.’’ Bobby knows the real reason he has returned is for him.

The newest developing relationship is between Buzz and James. Even though he initially tells John jokingly that James ‘‘looks too much like you and acts too much like me,’’ it becomes quickly obvious that Buzz is fond of the newcomer. After the tennis match (which Buzz and Gregory handily win), he and James sit beneath a tree sipping iced teas and martinis and discussing their careers and the progress of the disease they have in common. Each has been told by his doctor that he should have died months before, though they both seem in reasonable health right now. James is the only one of the two to have developed one of the telltale visual signs of AIDS: a dark lesion on his chest. When he pulls up his shirt to show it to him, Buzz surprises James by gently kissing it. It is an unexpected sign of spontaneous affection that launches the two men toward a romantic relationship neither had anticipated.

Amid the highs and lows of the weekend’s holiday games and interpersonal struggles, a new crisis suddenly arises: Bobby receives a call from India, where his older sister has been visiting. She was killed in a freak accident on an amusement park ride. The news devastates Bobby and casts a shadow over the guests and their celebration. They offer to leave, but Bobby and Gregory both insist they stay. Then Bobby, in his anguish and emotional confusion, confesses to Gregory the affair he had with Ramon on Memorial Day weekend. Shocked, hurt, and angry, Gregory insists that Bobby leave the house that day and fly down to Texas to be with his family and await the arrival of his sister’s body from overseas.

While Bobby packs and makes his arrangements, the other men carry on with their weekend. Arthur swims naked out into the lake, where he finds Ramon sunbathing on a wooden raft. Ramon taunts him into diving underwater with him and then unexpectedly kisses him on the mouth and swims away. Later, Perry and Buzz hide out in John’s closet to spy on him (a taste of his own medicine) and end up seeing a sexual encounter between John and Ramon in which Ramon pretends to be a prisoner tied to a chair while John interrogates him. During the interrogation John confesses his first homosexual experience as a teenager in England with a boy named Padraic Boyle and bitterly refers to Ramon’s infatuation with Bobby, which has become evident to all of them. After the scene, when John discovers the two men in the closet, he spits in Perry’s face and curses him, telling him he hopes he contracts AIDS and dies of it like his brother James.

Finally, as in the previous act, the action moves toward a relieved but unsettled conclusion. Bobby tells Ramon it is over between them. Gregory finds Bobby outside waiting for a cab ride, forgives him, and asks him to hurry back. James measures the guests (except for Perry, who still refuses to participate) for tutus for their upcoming drag performance of Swan Lake. Perry and Arthur celebrate their fourteenth anniversary together with a cake and singing. The two of them dance together and then are joined by Buzz and James, while Gregory and Ramon sit at the side, watching.

Act 3
The final act occurs over Labor Day weekend, still at Gregory’s house in the country. The passage of time over the summer has made its mark, and in some cases taken its toll, on the eight friends. Gregory’s attempts to complete his new dance, made even more difficult by his frustration with Bobby and his infidelity, have gone nowhere. He has spent the summer alone in the studio listening to music he cannot seem to dance to. James, though still fighting, is slipping further into the deadly symptoms of his disease. John, in his way, longs for Ramon, who still accompanies him to the house but clearly remains infatuated with Bobby. They all seem destined for a difficult final weekend of summer together, until an incident occurs in the kitchen that turns everything around.

Ramon is preparing coffee for everyone when Gregory enters after a fruitless morning in his studio. He listens to Ramon ramble on about his favorite singers and his earliest days as a dancer, until suddenly he snaps. He grabs Ramon’s arm and twists it behind his back and then demands that he thrust his other arm down the sink into the garbage disposal. Perry and Buzz arrive on the scene and are horrified by what they find, but their presence gives Gregory the chance to wrench a confession out of Ramon. He insists that Ramon tell everyone why he is being attacked. When he finally admits that it is because of Bobby, Gregory releases him and carries on as if nothing had happened.

Ramon’s confession is a cathartic moment for Gregory. The frustration, anger, and betrayal he has been feeling are soothed by getting the guilt out in the open, and he returns to his studio with new purpose and vigor. Meanwhile, his friends pass the weekend in leisurely, personal pursuits. While it rains, they stay in bed and eat, drink, and read. The next day, when the sun is out, Perry, Arthur, Buzz, and James go canoeing on the lake.

In the evening, John slips into the room where his brother James is wrapped in towels and a robe, sweating with fever. He confesses his jealousy for his brother who, he claims, ‘‘got the good soul.’’ Everyone, from their parents to the men who occupy the house that weekend have naturally been drawn to love James unconditionally, whereas John has always been the one on the margin, disliked by most. He longs to know the secret of this unconditional love. Without saying a word, James takes his brother’s hand in his and kisses it over and over again. He does this while John pours out all the wrong things he has ever said or done to his brother. They cry together, and James silently offers his brother forgiveness.

All this time, Gregory is working at a feverish pace on his dance, watched through the windows by Perry, Arthur, and Ramon. They are in awe of what they see. Though he is aging and his body aches with the effort, Gregory’s skill amazes them. He knows, though, that the dance he has created is one that he can never perform to its fullest. In an act of generosity, nobility, and admirable forgiveness, he calls Ramon in and asks him to dance the part in its world premiere. The gesture is at once the passing of the torch from the aging artist to his youthful apprentice and a supreme act of love for Bobby.

The final scene of the play is, appropriately, a highly theatrical one. All of the men except for Perry are dressed in tights and tutus to rehearse their drag scene from Swan Lake for the AIDS benefit. As the music plays, they link arms and begin measuring out the steps. They also take turns addressing the audience, sharing some final, poignant information about what the future holds for them.

Perry begins by revealing that he will die in ‘‘twenty-seven years, eight months, six days, three hours, thirty-one minutes, and eleven seconds.’’ His death comes in front of the television with his beloved Arthur in the next room. Arthur relates that he follows his lifelong companion three years later. Buzz does not provide such a specific time frame but says his end comes ‘‘soon. Sooner than I thought, even,’’ though as a consolation it was not long after meeting a well-known actress whose work in musical theatre he adored.

Somewhat surprisingly, James confesses that he ‘‘wasn’t brave’’ and apologizes to Buzz for returning home to England to take pills for his illness. Although Ramon claims he is immortal, he admits that he was eventually killed in a plane crash enroute to a concert in Massachusetts. Bobby does not share details of his death, but Gregory interjects that they were no longer together when it happened. Bobby had found another man, as Gregory continued to age. For his part, Gregory says, ‘‘I . . . Bury every one of you,’’ though it got lonely at his isolated country house.

When the lights suddenly go out on the rehearsal, they abandon their dancing and gather together for a last look at the moon rising over the lake. Perry, Ramon, Arthur, Buzz, and Gregory sit on the shore singing ‘‘Harvest Moon’’ while Bobby and James go skinny-dipping in the water. Eventually, all of the men take their clothes off and join them for the last splashing celebration of their eventful summer holiday weekends together.

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