Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which won the 1983 Tony Award for best play and earned its author a Tony for best actor in his role as Arnold Beckoff, is often cited as the first play with a clear gay theme to be popular with mainstream theater audiences. Although one of its themes is the difficulty of being gay in a heterosexual society, it is not essentially a problem play. The play insists that Arnold’s problems are common to all relationships. Fierstein drives home the vulnerability of gay men through Alan’s murder and David’s fight, but his real interest is in the similarities—not the differences—among gays, heterosexuals, and bisexuals. David says that a person’s relationship with his or her mother involves the same difficulties whether that mother is Mrs. Beckoff or Arnold. Although Arnold’s mother is initially offended when he compares his mourning to hers, her advice about coping with grief and loneliness establishes her awareness of the similarity between the relationships.
Another central theme of the play is honesty. “Honest” is the first adjective Fierstein uses to describe the characters of The International Stud. He wants Widows and Children First! to be performed with “pace” and “honesty.” Arnold is troubled that Ed will not acknowledge him to his parents or Laurel. As he asks himself whether he really cares if those who say, “I love you” are truthful, he concludes that his honest answer is yes. In Widows and Children First! Arnold’s mother protests that she is tired of hearing about his homosexuality. Arnold responds that he is not “flaunting” his sexual orientation but is just being himself. David is the play’s best testament to the importance of allowing people to be themselves, having been subjected to therapists who tried to make him heterosexual.
The play advocates a traditional family atmosphere. The set for Widows and Children First!, the most domestic of the three segments, is described by Fierstein as “the set of a conventional sit-com,” and Arnold’s interaction with David, from his reviewing the...
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