Alice Hintermann, a senior in the college of Arts & Sciences, is pictured. Hintermann wrote “Laud’s Trade,” a play exploring a doctoral student’s research on homosexuality in the 1960’s.
The A.E. Hotchner New Play Festival took place this past weekend on campus (fun fact: Hotchner, a playwright and Wash. U. alum, co-founded Newman’s Own along with “Cool Hand Luke” himself. How cool is that? No wonder Princeton Review says we have the ninth-best campus food in the country). The festival kicked off with a staged reading of the play “Laud’s Trade,” written by senior Alice Hintermann. “Laud’s Trade” is a historical drama set in the late 1960s that focuses on the story of the titular Laud Humphreys, a graduate student at Wash. U.’s Department of Sociology, and his doctorate research in the St. Louis homosexual community. Humphreys, with guidance from Lee Rainwater, his mentor in the sociology department, begins to study the backgrounds and behaviors of regular patrons of Forest Park “tearooms,” or public bathrooms in which anonymous homosexual acts frequently occurred. He obtains details of many of these tearoom regulars (his informants in the study) through some deceitful means, notably lying about his identity and running the informants’ license plates. This dishonesty is much to the chagrin of Alvin Gouldner, another faculty member in the sociology department, whose main concern is the ethics of sociological research. Humphreys’ (somewhat fraudulent) efforts pay off, and he gains access to private details of many of the tearoom men, in particular one man named Victor. The relationship between Humphreys and Victor, a family man who views his sexuality as a terrible secret, provides an interesting cross-section of identity and self-acceptance. Tensions rise between all of these characters (and more!) as Laud’s research and dissertation progress. In the end, we see the consequences of Laud’s (finally published) dissertation and some of the choices he made in getting to that finish.
After the reading of the play, there was a quick question-and-answer session with Hintermann, with a focus on its high and low points. Several audience members hinted that they would’ve liked a clearer ending. Indeed, the final minutes of “Laud’s Trade” are a bit ambiguous. The penultimate scene closes with the hint that Humphreys’ dissertation, entitled “Tearoom Trade,” may bring about some unforeseen blowback. The final scene takes place some 12 years later, and the fallout from “Tearoom Trade,” while palpable, is never fully explained. Instead, we get Humphreys’ and Rainwater’s closing thoughts on ethics in academia. There is a gap between these two scenes in which the expected climax occurs, and that gap is never filled in explicitly. These questioning audience members seemed to have an issue with this gap, but I disagree with those audience members. The failure to explain key closing details is essential to the final tone of the play. Throughout the play, there is a conflict between social issues and ethical issues. Humphreys is concerned with the former, often to the ignorance of the ethical guidelines as laid out by Gouldner. By not fully coloring in the details of the conclusion of the “Tearoom Trade” and its social impacts, the play is purposefully turning down the volume on the social issues and cranking up the ethics. In doing this, the play (successfully) jumps from exact to general. The specifics of the conclusion of the “Tearoom Trade” hardly matter when the ethical compass is going haywire. The question “Laud’s Trade” leaves us with, then, is this: can we really fight for a cause if we have no idea how to fight?