As the curtain rises on Tea and Sympathy, the audience sees a two-room set suggesting security and serenity, the warm and comfortable housemaster’s study onstage right, a student’s bedroom, a few steps higher, onstage left. As the action begins, young, sensitive Tom Lee is sitting on his bed singing the song “The Joys of Love,” while in the study, Laura Reynolds, a casually attired, lovely woman in her mid-twenties, and her friend, Lilly Sears, a flashily dressed woman in her late thirties, are talking idly while Laura sews what is obviously a period costume.
Lilly is unsuccessfully trying to persuade Laura that the boys in this preparatory school are all obsessed with sex; Laura is more inclined to believe that they need understanding and kindness. After Lilly leaves, Tom enters, and it is immediately obvious to the audience, though not to Laura, that he is in love with her. When he asks to take her to an upcoming dance, which her husband the housemaster will not be able to attend, Laura accepts, assuming that Tom simply knows no girls. In this scene, too, the audience learns that the costume that Laura is making is for Tom, who will play the starring role of Lady Teazle in Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (pr. 1777). Tom confides to Laura that his father, an alumnus of the school, will probably be angered when he learns that Tom is once again playing a woman’s role; Tom also hints at some problems with other boys, who have nicknamed him “Grace” simply for his crush on actor Grace Moore. When he cares about someone, Tom admits, he tends to go overboard.
As the act proceeds, the theme of homosexuality is introduced. The young master, David Harris, comes to tell Tom that they were seen bathing together nude and that this indiscretion has cost him his job. In contrast to this episode, which on Tom’s part at least was completely innocent, Robert Anderson inserts a brief scene in which Tom’s critics display their masculinity by clustering at a window to watch a master’s wife nurse her baby. When the housemaster Bill Reynolds enters, anxious to tell Laura the gossip...
(The entire section is 872 words.)