Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The Trouble with Big Bill: Tennis Great Bill Tilden Was Disgraced Because of His Sexuality. Now Playwright A.R. Gurney and Star John Michael Higgins Are Telling His Story

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The Trouble with Big Bill: Tennis Great Bill Tilden Was Disgraced Because of His Sexuality. Now Playwright A.R. Gurney and Star John Michael Higgins Are Telling His Story

Article excerpt

With Richard Greenberg's Tony award--winning baseball drama, Take Me Out, shuttering in January after a nearly yearlong run on Broadway, picking up the gays-in-sports trend on the New York boards will be A.R. Gurney's Big Bill, opening at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on February 22 (previews begin February 6). Only this time the ball is on the court, not the field. Tennis, anyone?

Exploring the sports lore of the 1920s and '30s as well as the shadows of homo history, Big Bill tells the story of the rise and fall of the world's first bona fide tennis star, seven-time U.S. Open champion Bill Tilden.

"If Take Me Out was about the consequences of an athlete coming out of the closet," says playwright Gurney, "then I suppose you could say Big Bill is about the other consequences." In that way, Gurney jokes gently, "you could call it Keep Me In." Of course, "context," the author is quick to add, "is everything."

That--and the scandals.

Twice convicted of engaging in sex with teenage boys in the late '40s, Tilden all but vanished from the public consciousness--and died broke and alone in Hollywood at the age of 60 in 1953. Because of his proclivities, Tilden's story has proved difficult for the gay rights movement to claim.

Still, the mysterious legend of Tilden intrigued rather than disgusted the Drama Desk Award--winning playwright. Though Gurney is straight, he says that "Tilden was one of my childhood heroes. I even had a racket with his picture on it! Then suddenly, all smiles stopped--Tilden wasn't mentioned anymore."

When Gurney happened upon Frank Deford's 1976 biography, Big Bill Tilden, a few years ago, his fascination was rekindled. "I finally learned the terrible tragedy," Gurney recalls of discovering what had happened to the man whom the National Sports Writers Association named the outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th century.

"It was a story," Gurney says, "that could make a very interesting play. I mean, to show a guy who refuses or denies or doesn't totally acknowledge his sexual nature? And sublimates that energy into becoming one of the world's great athletes? Then, when he begins to lose in his game, all that sexual energy begins to seep out? …

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