23 The Boys in the Band Play On
Harold: “What I am, Michael, is a thirty-two-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy-and if it takes me awhile to pull myself together and if I smoke a little grass before I can get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamn business but my own… And how are you this evening?”
Two full years before police would raid the Stonewall Inn, the line above was spoken onstage Off-Broadway in a new piece by Mart Crowley called “The Boys in the Band.” While the inflammatory piece drew much criticism, the show was revolutionary for being the clearest look at gay life pre-Stonewall. With an enduring legacy, the show continues to bite at and appeal to audiences today.
Crowley wrote the piece in 1967 as an answer to a challenge given by theatre critic Stanley Kauffman. Kauffman was upset with the lack of homosexual theatre content that was being written by the three greatest homosexual playwrights of the time, Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), William Inge (Picnic and Bustop), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie). His challenge: “Why can’t they just write about their own kind?” Despite the review’s small-mindedness, Crowley decided to take up a pen and start writing. “Homosexual playwrights writing homosexual characters? ‘It was an interesting notion that no one had done this before.’”
And truly, it hadn’t been done before. Up until that point in theatre history, plenty of gay playwrights had written plays with subtle homosexual themes, but no one had dared put a truly gay character onstage that didn’t die by the end of the play, was dead at the beginning, or their sexuality wasn’t the big plot twist at the end of the third act.
Crowley entitled his work “The Boys in the Band,” a reference to the Judy Garland film, “A Star is Born.” The story is set in a well-decorated apartment in New York City, owned by the character Michael. Michael is throwing a birthday party for his friend Harold and has invited five other homosexuals to attend. The party starts with the various guests arriving, drinking, and catching up. The dialogue is witty, campy, and well, gay in every sense of the word. The arrival of Michael’s possibly straight college roommate in obvious distress coupled with Harold’s late arrival to his own party throws Michael and the other guests into a downward spiral. As alcohol continues to be poured, slurs are thrown more often than punches, and Michael creates a sadistic game of calling old crushes to “entertain” his guests. By the end of the party, all the guests are in disarray, the game ends unwon, and Michael is left to deal with the mess he’s created.
If you’re thinking that the plot sounds crazy, you’d be correct. The storyline is coherent, but the blowup of each character around the game is the central dramatic action of the piece. How each character faces their old crush and how nasty they all are to each other about the approaches serves as an insight into the contested portion of this text: how clear can you portray homosexual life for an audience before it becomes unattractive and ugly?
Self-loathing is a large through-line for the text, which for a pre-Stonewall piece makes sense. The common fallacy that the critics had of The Boys in the Band (henceforth Boys) was that the piece portrayed homosexuals as catty, angry, depressed individuals. But Crowley’s characters are not ugly to each other because they are gay; they are ugly to each other because they are human. In a world where you are constantly knocked down, harassed, threatened, and even killed for your love, how do you find an outlet for all that pain? Crowley let his characters project that pain onto each other; so they aren’t being explicitly homophobic to each other, but rather projecting their lives and trauma onto others so they can tear themselves down. It’s a little meta, but one aspect that might clear this up a little bit is the use of slurs in the text.
Donald: Are you calling me a screaming queen or a tired fairy?
Within Boys, the characters call each other and themselves every gay slur under the sun. They call each other “screaming queens,” “tired old fairies,” “queer,” “Mary,” “sis,” “fag,” “faggot,” “pansy,” “cocksucker,” and “card-carrying cunt.” It’s hard to listen to, even with the progress made in slur reclamation today. Racial slurs are also thrown around once or twice. While these slurs work themselves into verbal assaults, they also come up in normal conversation between the men. And why? Because this is a glimpse of what gay life looked like before Stonewall. Men of the time reclaimed slurs and called each other slurs in an odd ballet of self-loathing and self-affirmation. Crowley utilizes the language to suggest how before the gay rights movement, gay men truly struggled with their place in society, shunned and slurred by anyone who deemed them deviant. So it’s only fitting that these men use these words to describe each other and indirectly themselves. It’s just part of the truest picture that can painted about gay life in New York City. It might be ugly or unpalatable to audiences regardless of their sexual orientation, but it’s the truth of the matter.
Crowley did not set out to give his audience a pretty, candy-sweet version of homosexuality. Because that’s not what homosexuality is or was. Why, in answering a prompt about the lack of truthful homosexual literature, would Crowley sugarcoat his portrayal of gay life when homosexuals experienced hardships and hate every day? And many historians and critics agree that Crowley did give a truthful interpretation. Gay historian Charles Kaiser says that “The Boys in the Band was the first ‘uncloseted’ look at gay life inside a New York closet-with all the brittle intelligence, bitter humor and exaggerated pathos on which white, male, middle-class gay life thrived…”. He goes on to say that “Although seen as self-loathing by subsequent generations of gay men, the play was revolutionary because of its honesty and its openness. ‘The thing I always hated about homosexual plays what that the homosexuality was always the big surprise in the third act’ Crowley said after Boys opened. ‘Well, life is not like that. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the play.’ Gitlin was impressed because ‘these were people who were queer who could think, who could talk, who could read. I thought, It’s outrageous and terribly courageous.’” In the New York Times, theatre critic Clive Barnes called it “by far the frankest treatment of homosexuality I have ever seen.”
And it wasn’t just the critics talking: the audience loved it. What was supposed to be a limited engagement of less than ten shows became a much longer, Off-Broadway run. The small theater was often packed full for nights on end, with lines wrapping around the block to see the production. The audiences, unsurprisingly, were made up primarily of men. Remember, this was the first time a gay audience member go attend a show that staged complex gay characters— the first time they saw a bit of themselves onstage, which speaks to its box office numbers. Monetarily the show was a hit: The Boys in the Band cost only $9000 to produce off Broadway, and it returned that investment every 10 days throughout its run in 1968.
But that’s not to say the piece wasn’t met with opposition. Surprisingly, though, the production and subsequent 1970 film received a lot of attention and criticism from gay people themselves. Edward Albee, who semi-produced the workshop production of the play, hated the piece. It was clear to Albee why Boys was such a hit: “It attracted the gays who were eager to see themselves onstage under any circumstances, as well as the straights who were eager to feel superior.” The show and subsequent movie was also heavily criticized by Frank Kameny and his homophile movement. Kameny said that he “hated the play and the movie. He said his slogan ‘gay is good’ was intended as a ‘direct antidote to the mindset among gays epitomized by that abomination, Boys in the Band.’” Post-Stonewall audiences also found the depiction of homosexuals as grinding and unhelpful to the cry for gay rights. Another early gay rights society, the Mattachine society, actually picketted a movie house showing the 1970 film in San Francisco. Some straight audiences found the movie abhorrent or deviant, while some gay audiences found it ingratiating or demeaning. The intense self-loathing, narcissism, and outright nastiness in the piece was distasteful for queer audiences, and many civil rights groups saw the piece as a step backwards in the fight for gay rights.
But despite the controversy the piece carries, there’s no way to downplay the revolution onstage that it began. Emerging off-Broadway at the same time as Hair, Boys helped push the limit of what was acceptable onstage. Just a year after Boys opened, six different off-Broadway shows featured gay themes. Gay theatre historian Drewey Wayne Gunn says about Boys: “It’s historical importance is simple: for the first time we had eight men on stage who acknowledge they are gay, several of them even celebrating the fact, one pair reaffirming a committed relationship. It is not going too far to say that one can divide gay theater into before Boys and after Boys.” The 1970 film was the first major motion picture to depict homosexuality, which means it served as an educational tool for its audience, for better or for worse: “For the first time, millions of moviegoers became acquainted with a group of homosexuals. Visual images are powerful, especially when viewers have no previous first-hand knowledge of the subject being featured. So the film had an unprecedented impact on the public’s collective knowledge about and attitudes toward homosexuals.”
Emory: [Bursting in] ALL RIGHT THIS IS A RAID! EVERYBODY’S UNDER ARREST! [This entrance is followed by a loud raucous laugh as EMORY throws his arms around MICHAEL and gives him a big kiss on the cheek…]
If I might insert my own analysis on the messages the story tells, I think despite showing a limited view of white, middle-class gay life, the piece makes big leaps in the themes it tackles and the diversity it shows within the community. The work juggles almost every topic and touches on every stereotype that could ever be in a “gay play”; it speaks on police raids and cruising, open relationships and promiscuity, internalized homophobia and closeted “Christ-I-was-drunk-last-night” syndrome, narcissism, racism and anti-Semitism inside the community, hustling, substance abuse for a variety of vices, and even suicide. Anything that could’ve been in the piece about gay life at the time, was. And I think the work speaks a lot on diversity within the community itself. While it handles race in a contested way, the characters are quite diverse in occupation (ranging from stereotypical interior designers to the common math teacher), in physical appearance (from young, fit hustlers to the aging acne-scarred), in religion (both Jewish and Christian faiths are shown, particularly Catholicism), and even in relationship status (monogamous to open relationship ideas).
50 years after the first showing of Boys, Crowley revived his project on Broadway with Joe Mantello on as director and an all-star cast including Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, and Zachary Quinto. The 2018 Broadway revival stood as a litmus test for audiences to see how far the LGBTQ+ community has come and how much hasn’t changed at all. Netflix has recently released a film adaptation of the play, taking with it the revival’s full cast and director Joe Mantello. Mart Crowley passed away in March of 2020, a few months shy of the second film release of his revolutionary piece of art that he wrote on a challenge.
The portion of the text I’ve selected comes from the very end of the piece, when tensions have exploded, final moves are being made, and each of the guests are leaving. You’ll see clearly the ascerbicity in the air as the phone tag game and party draws to an end. Upon first read-through, Harold’s message seems like a death blow to Michael’s self-destructive nature. “But hidden in the subtext is a surprisingly liberating message. Harold is proclaiming the immutability of homosexuality – and the appalling complicity of psychiatry and religion and gay self-hatred. Thousands of psychiatrists had committed unprosecutable malpractice by nurturing the mess that homosexuality could be-and should be-cured, instead of encouraging gay people to value themselves for who they were.” Michael’s full blown panic attack and breakdown bring one of, if not the most, famous lines in the whole show: “if we could just not hate ourselves so much.” It’s a line that hits home hard. That’s the essence of this revolutionary piece: it showed others that they were not the only ones struggling to be gay in a pre-Stonewall America, and continues to show audiences today the hurt and resilience that the LGBTQ+ community has grappled and is grappling with. It’s not just a catty account of “screaming queens” taking their frustration out on each other; it’s a peer into what it means to be human, and how those in the LGBTQ+ community must come to terms with their humanity every day. And now, without further ado, CURTAIN UP!
A Selection from The Boys in the Band
Harold: [Calmly, coldly, clinically] Now it is my turn. And ready or not, Michael, here goes. [A beat] You are a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be. But there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all your prayers to your God, all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live. You may very well one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough-if you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate-but you always be homosexual as well. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die. [Turns, gathers his gifts, goes to EMORY. EMORY stands up unsteadily] Oh, friends, thanks for the nifty party and the super gift. [Looks toward COWBOY] it’s just what I needed. [EMORY smiles. HAROLD gives him a hug, spots BERNARD sitting on the floor, head bowed…] Bernard, thank you. [No response. To EMORY] Will you get him home?
Emory: Don’t worry about her. I’ll take care of everything. [HAROLD turns to DONALD, who is at the bar making himself another drink]
Harold: Donald, good to see you.
Donald: Good night, Harold. See you again sometime.
Harold: Yeah. How about a year from Shavuoth? [HAROLD goes to COWBOY] Come on, Tex. Let’s go to my place. [COWBOY gets up, comes to him] Are you any good in bed?
Cowboy: Well…I’m not like the average hustler you’d meet. I try to show a little affection-it keeps me from feeling like such a whore.
[A beat. HAROLD turns. COWBOY opens the door for them. They start out. HAROLD pauses]
Harold: Oh, Michael… Thanks for the laughs. Call you tomorrow.
[No response. A beat. HAROLD and COWBOY exit]
Emory: Come on, Bernard. Time to go home. [EMORY, frail as he is, manages to pull BERNARD’S arm around his neck, get some on his feet] Oh, Mary, you’re a heavy mother.
Bernard: [practically an audible mumble] Why did I call? Why?
Emory: Thank you, Michael. Good night, Donald.
Donald: Goodbye, Emory.
Emory: It’s all right, Bernard. Everything is all right. I’m going to make you some coffee and everything’s going to be all right.
[EMORY virtually carries BERNARD out. DONALD closes the door. Silence.
MICHAEL slowly slips from the couch onto the floor. A beat. Then slowly he begins a low moan that increases in volume – almost like a siren. Suddenly he slams his open hands to his ears]
Michael: [in desperate panic] Donald! Donald! DONALD! DONALD! [DONALD puts down his drink, rushes to MICHAEL. MICHAEL is now white with fear and tears are bursting from his eyes. He begins to gasp his words] Oh, no! No! What have I done! Oh, my God, what have I done! [MICHAEL writhing. DONALD holds him, cradles him in his arms]
Donald: Michael! Michael!
Michael: [weeping] Oh, no! NO! It’s beginning! The liquor is starting to wear off and the anxiety is beginning! Oh, NO! No! I feel it! I know it’s going to happen. Donald! Donald! Don’t leave me! Please! Please! Oh, my God, what have I done! Oh Jesus, the guilt! I can’t handle it anymore. I won’t make it!
Donald: [physically subduing him] Michael! Michael! Stop it! Stop it! I’ll give you a Valium-I’ve got some in my pocket!
Michael: [Hysterical] No! No! Pills and alcohol-I’ll die!
Donald: I’m not going to give you the whole bottle! Come on, let go of me!
Michael: [clutching him] NO!
Donald: Let go of me long enough for me to get my hand in my pocket!
Michael: Don’t leave! [MICHAEL quiets down a bit, lets go of DONALD enough for him to take a small plastic bottle from his pocket and open it to give MICHAEL a tranquilizer]
Michael: [sobbing] I don’t have any water to swallow it with!
Donald: Well, if you’ll wait one goddamn minute, I’ll get you some! [MICHAEL lets go of him. He goes to the bar, gets a glass of water and returns] Your water, your Majesty. [A beat.] Michael, stop that goddamn crying and take this pill!
[MICHAEL straightens up, puts the pill into his mouth amid choking sobs, takes the water, drinks, returns the glass to DONALD].
Michael: I’m the Ole Man River-tired of livin’ and scared o’ dyin’.
[DONALD puts the glass on the bar, comes back to the couch, sits down. MICHAEL collapses into his arms, sobbing. Pause]
Donald: Shhhhh. Shhhhhh. Michael. Shhhhhh. Michael. Michael.
[DONALD rocks him back and forth. He quiets. Pause]
Michael: … If we… if we could just… not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so very much.
Donald: Yes, I know. I know. [A beat] Inconceivable as it may be, you used to be way worse than you are now. [A beat] Maybe with a lot more work you can help yourself some more- if you try. [MICHAEL straightens up, dries his eyes on his sleeve]
Michael: Who was it that used to always say, “you show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”
Donald: I don’t know. Who was it who always used to say that?
Michael: And how dare you come on with that holier-than-thou attitude with me! “A lot more work,” “if I try,” indeed! You’ve got a long road to hoe before you’re perfect, you know.
Donald: I never said I didn’t.
Evan Souza is a first-year student with an intent to major in theatre and biology. He is open to any further questions about this chapter at firstname.lastname@example.org. This email domain will expire in the spring of 2024.
- Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band. (New York: Farrar, Straus + Giroux; 1968), page 63 ↵
- While you might have heard of Broadway productions of shows, productions often start “Off-Broadway” before transferring to the Great White Way. An Off-Broadway theater is distinguished from a Broadway one by size; Off-Broadway theaters seat 100-499 audience members. ↵
- Robert Hofler, Sexplosion: from Andy Warhol to “A Clockwork Orange”-- How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos First edition. New York, N.Y: itbooks, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014. pg 23 ↵
- Hofler, Sexplosion, pg 24 ↵
- Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” features this trope. The protagonist Blanche’s ex-husband Allan Gray killed himself after being caught in a homosexual affair, but he is only mentioned in passing and is not a character in the actual show. ↵
- Yes, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper were not the first to play those roles! In 1937, Janet Gaynor and Fredric March picked up the lovers’ roles. In 1954, it was Judy Garland and James Mason. In 1976, it was Barbara Striesand and Kris Kristofferson. And of course, we are familiar with our latest 2018 remake. Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2019), pg 186 ↵
- Some clarification on the party game. The challenge is to call someone on the phone who each player believes they have loved. If you call, that’s a point. If the old flame picks up, that’s two points, if someone else does, that’s only one. If you say your name, that’s two points. And for a declaration of love, you get five. Therefore, each player can get up to ten points. ↵
- Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 10 ↵
- Last three slurs: Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 10 ↵
- Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 31 ↵
- Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 31 ↵
- Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 32 ↵
- Last three slurs: Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 57 ↵
- Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 24 ↵
- It is more appropriate to say white, middle-class gay life than make such a broad generalization. While some characters in the piece do not fit all those labels, the majority do and so the piece centers more around that view of life. Also, Crowley himself was a white, middle-class gay man, so that viewpoint colors his writing. ↵
- Murray Gitlin stage-managed the first workshop production of Boys. See footnote below for citation. ↵
- For all of the quoted material in this paragraph: Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis, pg 187 ↵
- Hofler, Sexplosion, pg 87 ↵
- Albee was an outstanding critic of the show despite being involved with the earliest workshop of it. This might be because Boys was meant to answer the pointed attack Kauffman made to Albee and the other homosexual playwrights of the day. Or it might have been that the plot of Boys oddly resembles and emulates Albee’s own Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and was arguably more revolutionary and successful than Woolf. ↵
- Hofler, Sexplosion, pgs 43-44 ↵
- Frank Kameny is one of the most important names in the battle for gay rights. Kameny was discharged from federal office for being homosexual and fought tirelessly for gay rights a full decade before Stonewall. His “homophile” movement was the first gay organization to march before the White House. However, in order to remain an air of respectability, Kamey’s movement was shockingly conservative, at least by today’s standards. For further reading on Kameny and his impact, I recommend The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America by Eric Cervini. ↵
- Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis, pg 190 ↵
- Hofler. Sexplosion, pgs 181-182 ↵
- The musical Hair is a psychedelic rock musical that shocked audiences on Broadway with songs entitled “Sodomy” and “Going Down” as well as full cast nudity and the burning of draft cards onstage. ↵
- Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis, pg 190 ↵
- Gunn, Drewey Wayne. For the Gay Stage : a Guide to 456 Plays, Aristophanes to Peter Gill (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017), pg 6 ↵
- Rodger Streitmatter, From Perverts to Fab Five: The Media’s Changing Depiction of Gay Men and Lesbians (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008), pg 36 ↵
- Emory imitates police raiding a gay bar as a twisted joke for his first entrance, reminding the audience of the harsh reality queer individuals faced at the time. Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pg 24 ↵
- Cruising is the practice of searching public places for sexual partners; it was a practice common for gay men historically. ↵
- A colloquial term for prostitution; one character in Boys is a male prostitute named Cowboy who is hired to be a present for Harold, the birthday boy. ↵
- Something interesting to note about the 2018 revival is that Mantello specifically casted gay actors to play each role in the piece. ↵
- Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis, pg 189 ↵
- Crowley, The Boys in the Band, pages 125-129 ↵
- Short for psychoanalysis, meaning therapy. Harold is saying that all the therapy Michael could ever attend would never make him straight. ↵
- A Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the Torah. This is Harold joking about his Jewish identity and saying he’d rather not see Donald again. ↵