Harvard's Sordid Past on Stage

Play confronts 1920s bigotry against undergraduate homosexuals

Harvard often finds itself the central focus of artistic projects, ranging from Facebook docudrama “The Social Network” to the superfluously fictitious film—and now Broadway musical—“Legally Blonde.” While Hollywood tends to obsess over the venerable university’s more opulent stories, Tony A. Speciale, a New York-based theater director, spent eight years developing the production “Unnatural Acts,” a deeply disturbing true story about Harvard’s less savory side. Conceived and co-authored by Speciale, “Unnatural Acts” tells the story of Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920, a disciplinary body that interrogated and eventually expelled a number of male students and staff for their involvement in homosexual activities.

“I remember exactly where I was when I first read about Harvard’s Secret Court,” Speciale says, “and it felt like a massive truck had hit me in the chest.” In the summer of 2003, OUT Magazine printed full coverage of the story that was gaining mass media attention across America, and Speciale found himself increasingly intrigued by the developments.

The OUT article told of a series of three stories published in The Crimson in December 2002 by Amit R. Paley ’04 detailing the witch-hunt, which was orchestrated by a hastily assembled group of administrators known as the Secret Court in May and June of 1920. As soon as Speciale read the article, he knew he wanted to make the story into a show. “I filed away the OUT article for a future project, and continued to collect and add to the file over the years,” he says.

In May 1920 Cyril Wilcox, a College sophomore on academic probation, blocked his bedroom door and released gas from the lighting fixtures, killing himself in his sleep. After Wilcox’s death his brother, Lester, received letters addressed to Cyril that divulged intimate details of Cyril’s sexual activities.

Appalled, Lester demanded that the President of the University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, bring cases against the men Cyril had named as participating in homosexual acts. Through violence, threats, rumors and confession, 38 men were brought before the Secret Court and 14 were eventually convicted of “homosexualism.”

It wasn’t until 2005 that Speciale began to work with a group of actors on the project, beginning in an improvisational setting. “It was exciting going into this project without an initial script. We were writing and exploring the play on our feet, which was exciting and liberating, as the ideas of the directors and actor mingle together,” Speciale says.

One of the actors in the project was Harvard graduate Jess R. Burkle ’06, who found the six hour-long improvisations a new and insightful way to work on a developing play. “It was like writing with a Ouija board: the group would move it one way or another way and we could just go with it. It helped create a unique and intimate role, as we worked so closely together as an ensemble for over a year,” Burkle says.

Over the next few years, the show was workshopped, performed, and rewritten. In 2011, the Classic Stage Company offered the opportunity to have the project honed with a group of six writers and ultimately have the play, now known as “Unnatural Acts,” performed as part of the theater’s summer season.

The finalized script had to ensure the right balance between fiction and real-life events. “I was always fully aware that this was a dramatic imagining of true events, rather than a docudrama,” Speciale says. “We took liberties with dialogue, since everything they were saying was merely speculative.” Even with the artistic liberties taken, the whole team made sure they grounded the show around the facts they had gathered.

For Burkle, this presented an unusual challenge for character development. “My philosophy was in creating a character that served the dramatic purpose of the story as a whole, in order to convey a larger truth,” he says. According to the actor, if any individual focused too much on defending the actions of their character, then the show would be crippled.

Despite any artistic flourishes, those intimately connected with the case found the show fair and compelling. Bob Percy, grandson of Lester Wilcox and nephew of Cyril, saw the show as a resounding success. “There are some well-dressed men up there looking down on your efforts with great satisfaction,” he says.

The Harvard community may not have to wait too long to learn about Harvard’s Secret Courts. “Cambridge is the most important city for this story to be told in,” Speciale says, “but we’re working to get the financial backing to bring the show on tour.”

The director thinks “Unnatural Acts” could contribute to the Cambridge theater scene, but he doesn’t see it as a social mission or a propaganda piece. “The show is essentially the intersection of art and life. Art showing treatment of homosexuals in that period,” Speciale says. “I never wanted to piss anyone off, especially the families, I just wanted to tell their stories.”

—Staff writer Joshua R. McTaggart can be reached at jmctaggart@college.harvard.edu.

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