Go inside this production of Fellow Travelers with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
TIME and PLACE: September 1953 to May 1957, in Washington, D.C. Eisenhower is president. Senator Joseph McCarthy is stoking fears that the U.S. federal government is full of Communists, Soviet spies, and homosexuals.
Scene 1. Park in Dupont Circle
A fledgling reporter, Timothy Laughlin, sits on a bench reviewing his notes from McCarthy’s wedding when he is approached by State Department employee Hawkins Fuller.
Scene 2. Senator Charles Potter’s office
Timothy is hired as a speechwriter for Senator Charles Potter. Timothy meets Tommy McIntyre, who gives him unsolicited advice about Washington politics.
Scene 3. Hawkins’s office
Timothy stops by to drop off a thank-you gift. He meets Hawkins’s assistant and best friend Mary, and his secretary Miss Lightfoot, who mocks Timothy after he leaves.
Scene 4. Timothy’s apartment
Timothy is at home cooking soup and writing his sister a letter when Hawkins unexpectedly stops by to tell him about the delights of Bermuda, among other things.
Scene 5. St. Peter’s Church
In the afterglow of last night’s encounter with Hawkins, Timothy is torn between his deep Catholicism and his blossoming passion.
Scene 6. The Hotel Washington
At a Christmas party, Timothy is approached by an Army general about enlisting; Mary warns Hawkins about his reckless behavior with Timothy; McIntyre tells Potter about McCarthy’s latest political troubles; Miss Lightfoot overhears an intimate exchange between Hawkins and Timothy.
Scene 7. Interrogation Room M304
An interrogator puts Hawkins through a series of humiliating tests in an attempt to determine whether or not he is a homosexual.
Scene 8. Timothy’s apartment
Timothy and Hawkins discuss the interrogation, McCarthy, and Hawkins’s illicit amusements in New York City.
Scene 9. McCarthy’s office
Senator Potter warns McCarthy that the “Adams Chronology,” which details how Roy Cohn and McCarthy pressured the Army to give Cohn’s friend David Schine special treatment, will be McCarthy’s downfall unless he gives up Cohn. Intermission
Scene 10. Mary’s kitchen/Timothy’s apartment
Mary invites Timothy over to warn him of Hawkins’s fickle nature. She tells Timothy she is pregnant from a one-night stand. In Timothy’s apartment, Hawkins rejoices that he’s been cleared of allegations of homosexuality. Timothy is shocked by how Hawkins wants to celebrate.
Scene 11. Roof of the Old Post Office
Timothy, in agony over his fraught relationship, tells Hawkins he’s decided to enlist in the Army.
Scene 12. Hawkins’s office
Mary tells Hawkins she is quitting, as she can no longer work in an atmosphere of panic and persecution.
Scene 13. Timothy in France/Hawkins in Chevy Chase
Three years pass. Timothy writes letters to Hawkins and Mary from France, where he is stationed. Hawkins is now married to a woman named Lucy, with a house in the suburbs, but would clearly like to rekindle his relationship with Timothy upon his return.
Scene 14. Brick House
In a house in D.C. that Hawkins has rented for his afternoon flings with Timothy, Hawkins expresses that he cannot be everything Timothy wants. Hawkins resolves to end the affair himself.
Scene 15. Mary’s kitchen/Brick House/ Room M304
Mary is packing when Hawkins stops by, distraught. He confesses that in order to push Timothy away, he has given Timothy’s name to those investigating alleged homosexuals. He asks Mary to tell Timothy about this betrayal in hopes it will make Timothy hate him.
Scene 16. Park in Dupont Circle
His dreams dashed, Timothy decides to leave Washington, D.C., and Hawkins Fuller for good. Both heartbroken, they say goodbye.
Both politicians and gay men and women in Washington, D. C. in the 1950s lived in a world full of coded sensibility – a culture operating under the surface and in counterpoint with the rigid formality of 1950s mores. In our operatic adaption of Thomas Mallon’s novel Fellow Travelers, the world of back-room dealings and power plays underpinning Washington’s political life becomes a hazy reflection of the romantic relationship between State Department employee Hawkins Fuller and a young reporter, Timothy Laughlin. In both the fraught political world of the McCarthy era and the private world of Hawk and Tim, dialogue could only tell part of the story. My goal was to craft a musical language for Fellow Travelers that would foreground the undercurrent of clandestine machinations and forbidden longing churning under the surface of Greg Pierce’s elegant adaptation.
Particularly in Tim and Hawk’s public interactions, love cannot simply “speak” its name. Music must bridge the gap. In the opening scene, we witness a conversation between both men on a park bench in Dupont Circle. To any 1950s bystander, the conversation would seem unremarkable. To Tim it is a pick-up, filled with all the danger, innuendo, and anticipation. For him it is also an awakening: love at first sight. I tried to embody both the excitement and the surface ordinariness of the exchange – a subtle tension likely familiar to any homosexual of the time.
From this starting point, I looked for ways to express the innuendo-driven world of Hawk and Tim while maintaining a relatively cool musical surface, reproducing in the other scenes the layered experience of the original park-bench meeting. I tried to do this by blending two disparate styles: American minimalism and the courtly, melismatic singing style of medieval troubadours. Throughout the piece, minimalist passages represent the hum of office work – secretaries typing, interns rushing about – and the McCarthy-era political machine, ready to crush. The florid troubadour-like melodies, evocative of courtly longing, represent the fraught and passionate inner life of the lovers. These two styles are often present at the same time, generating the musical tension and driving the opera toward a tragic collision. The other characters find their own voices within this paradoxical musical atmosphere.
In an era where living “in the closet” is becoming increasingly rare, it seems more important than ever to put characters like Tim and Hawk onstage – not simply as historical victims struggling against oppression, but as ordinary people fighting through life in an era where passionate love and political ambition threatened to destroy one’s world. My hope is that the nuanced machinery of opera might play some small part reminding us of this history, while also preserving in music the sensibility of doubleness that so often defined gay experience in this era.
Gregory Spears, Composer
In writing the libretto of Fellow Travelers, my main goal was to tell an authentic love story of two men who are ensnared in the finger-pointing frenzy of the “Lavender Scare” of 1950s Washington, D. C. Most of what we’ve been taught about this era concerns the McCarthy-led persecution of alleged Communists in the State Department. Very little attention has been paid to the untold numbers of gay men and lesbians whose lives were destroyed because of their sexual orientations or even their affiliations with “sexual deviants.” In his novel Fellow Travelers, Thomas Mallon has created a rich relationship between State Department employee Hawkins Fuller and newcomer Timothy Laughlin. It is a passionate, surprising, complex love that is ultimately snuffed out by the terror of the Lavender Scare. Their relationship – like relationships in all great literature – is both singular and universal. It gives voice to the many silenced same-sex relationships that tried to bloom during this fraught era.
One of the greatest challenges for me as the librettist is to stay truthful to Thomas Mallon’s vision despite that, in terms of form, opera is so radically different from fiction. Composer Gregory Spears and I agreed on an approach to the libretto which favors natural speech-rhythms over the stylized language of more traditional operas. That said, certain scenes culminate in arias where characters express themselves in more heightened, poetic language. My goal is to ensure that even though the language may shift in tone, there is an overall consistency to each character’s speech, as well as a unified sound to the opera’s language as a whole.
Structurally, Thomas Mallon chose to tell his story in many short scenes which favor various characters’ points of view. Our team has chosen to tell the story largely through Timothy Laughlin’s eyes, mostly because he is new to this world, which allows the audience to learn about its inner workings as Timothy does. Also, since we can’t include all the material from the novel, following Timothy’s journey gave us a coherent system for selecting the strongest, most operatic material.
A large part of my job as librettist is to give the audience a taste of what things were like during this unsettling era. Fellow Travelers illuminates what it’s like to try to pursue your desires at a time when being honest could cost you everything. It is also part of my job to point out the disturbing truth that in many of today’s workplaces Americans still live in fear that their coworkers will discover who they are. At its heart though, my job is to tell the compelling story of Fellow Travelers, a tremendous journey that is rich in all the big emotions that opera does best.
Greg Pierce, Librettist
As an openly gay artist, I believe that we stand on the shoulders of the generations that came before us and I feel a responsibility to share their stories. History books rarely mention the details of the “Lavender Scare” that drove the McCarthy era. I certainly did not learn about it in my highschool history class. President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, signed April 27, 1953, declared that homosexual men and women, considered to be deviants suffering from “sexual perversion,” were banned from working in the US government. Over 5,000 men and women lost their jobs and many took their own lives. Our opera Fellow Travelers, based on Thomas Mallon’s compelling novel, tells a very intimate story set against the backdrop of the early 1950’s witch-hunts. In 2018, the story seems prescient as North Korea, Russia, gender debates and prejudiced Executive Orders are all a daily feature of our news cycle.
As relevant and politically charged as the piece is, however, it’s the deeply human love stories that make Fellow Travelers so poignant, especially as rendered by Gregory Spears’s music and Greg Pierce’s text. I say love stories because there are several intertwined in the opera. Tim and Hawk are a vibrant match for each other and we fall in love with them, root for them, even as we know that circumstances make a conventional relationship unsustainable, even dangerous. The love story between Tim and Mary is another relationship that I haven’t often encountered onstage. Mary is a steadfast friend to Tim and stands up to the injustices of the time, even when everyone else turns their backs. Many of us have had a Mary in our lives, giving us strength in the face of rampant homophobia. I can imagine Mary if she were living today, at the front of the women’s marches and heeding the activist call.
Developing and directing Fellow Travelers has been one of the highlights of my life, both professionally and personally. As a teenager coming of age during the AIDS crisis, I could only have dreamed of seeing positive examples of true love between two men onstage or onscreen. Being recognized for telling the stories I longed to see has been profound for me. The Gregs (as I call them) found a way to live inside this story, creating a new theatrical and musical language that leaps off the stage. I truly believe that art can change lives and open hearts and minds; I hope that, after seeing this show, audiences will look deeper into our shared history and, perhaps, treat outsiders with a bit more compassion and understanding.
Kevin Newbury, Director