Harvey Fierstein Essay - Critical Essays


The feelings experienced by Harvey Fierstein when learning of the death of student Matthew Shepard are expressed in his plays. In his speech at the memorial, he gave voice to a theme that is at the center of his dramatic works: Because politicians and moral leaders—and thus society—assault the “dignity and humanity” of the gay and lesbian community, its members “must take hold of [their] own destinies.” The characters in his plays display their pain, their dignity, and their humanity as they show how capable, or at least how determined, they are to be masters of their own destinies.

Fierstein’s drama is New Wave in its expression of his personal viewpoints and experiences. It is expressionistic in its frequent depiction of experience in a way that distorts reality in order to present psychological truths. It is existential in that it emphasizes the individual’s freedom of choice and the distortion of society’s role in its seeking to inhibit the choice of so many of its constituents.

Torch Song Trilogy

In adapting his three one-act dramas for the screen, Fierstein had to eliminate some of his expressionistic techniques. This is most obvious when in a comparison of the stage and screen versions of Fugue in a Nursery. In the stage version of Fugue in a Nursery, there is little action: Four actors appear in a large bed with light focused on the speaker who reveals unseen aspects of the action or the drama to the audience or on speakers whose conversation carries the essence of the present dramatic moment. In the film, the action and emotional development are presented in linear fashion, and scene changes are frequent. Fierstein has bemoaned the loss of many good jokes in the transfer from stage to screen. However, his writing as well as his acting in both versions of Torch Song Trilogy have been widely appreciated.

The International Stud

The difficulty of being a homosexual in the second half of the twentieth century is poignantly rendered in this first play of the Torch Song Trilogy. Ed Reiss is a boyish-looking thirty-five-year-old man who cannot commit to drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the trilogy’s main character, because he is ashamed to admit that he is gay. The two men, Ed and Arnold, come to care deeply for each other, but Ed stops seeing Arnold and forces himself to spend time only with Laurel, who is not shown in this play but is featured in the second play of the trilogy.

Other evidence of Ed’s ambivalence can be found in his avoidance of Arnold while Ed’s parents are in town. When they leave, he turns once more to Arnold. Fearing the displeasure of his parents and society, Ed tries to conform to the standards they have set, but the denial of his true self is deadly. His return to Arnold is a plea for salvation.

In the final scene of The International Stud, Ed appears in Arnold’s backstage dressing room after an absence of several months. He tells Arnold that he and Laurel are engaged. He also tells him that he has had a dream, which he can discuss with no one but Arnold. In his dream, Ed searches his father’s workroom for a rag and turpentine. He takes the rag soaked in turpentine and a plastic bag to his bed. When Laurel calls, he wakes to find the soaked rag and the bag actually beside him on his pillow.

The grand finale of The International Stud leaves the audience with a heartbreaking image of what society’s impact on its offspring can be. Ed, a young, appealing teacher, has been driven to the point of suicide by the demands placed on him by a society that reviles him. Arnold confesses that he still loves Ed. However, in this context of societal pressure and imposed self-hatred, Arnold’s final question “Is love enough?” rings loudly in the ears and hearts of audience members.

Fugue in a Nursery

Ed has told Arnold that Arnold’s boudoir is the place that has offered him the most comfort in his life. In Fugue in a Nursery, each of the four occupants of a large bed are searching for the comfort of a nursery. Ed, who had found comfort with Arnold, is trying, still, to find comfort in the life that society favors. Laurel, Ed’s fiancée, wants the comfort she hopes that Ed’s seeing Arnold with Alan will bring to her relationship with Ed. Alan wants the comfort he hopes that Arnold’s seeing Ed with Laurel will bring to his relationship with Arnold. Arnold, comfortable with himself and with his relationship with Alan, wants only to return to the comfort of the home that he and Alan have made together. In all of this comfort seeking, of course, there has to be—and is—an added conflict: Ed and Alan create a fleeting partnership of their own. It is this final complication that sets up the framework for the third play of the trilogy.

Widows and Children First!


(The entire section is 2012 words.)