Mart Crowley’s first play, The Boys in the Band, is considered to be a groundbreaking work in American theater, the first truly honest portrayal of the lives of contemporary homosexuals. It opened in New York on April 14, 1968, at the off-Broadway Theater Four and ran for 1002 performances before being adapted to a successful motion picture. At a time when gay characters were seldom seen in commercial media except as crude stereotypes, this play presented a well-rounded view of what critics of the day referred to as ‘‘the homosexual milieu.’’ Taking place in an apartment in New York’s posh Upper East Side, the action concerns nine acquaintances who converge for the birthday of one of their friends. The group includes Michael, a lapsed Roman Catholic alcoholic who is undergoing psychoanalysis; Donald, a conflicted friend who has moved far from the city to spurn the homosexual lifestyle; Harold, who is turning thirty and is morose about losing his youthful looks; Bernard, an African American who still pines for the wealthy white boy of the house where his mother was a maid; Emory, who revels in his homosexuality by acting flamboyant and girlish; and Larry and Hank, a couple that lives together despite the fact that they do not agree on the issue of monogamy. Joining them are a male prostitute who has been hired as a ‘‘present’’ for Harold’s birthday and Alan, an old college friend of Michael’s, who claims to be straight but who becomes a little too emotional when his manhood is threatened and who is strangely reluctant to leave each time he says he is going. Modern audiences may find these character types overly familiar, in part due to the success of The Boys in the Band, which has bred countless imitations. Some of the plotting and staging devices used by Crowley show his inexperience as a writer, but his characters are presented with an honesty that is still effective today.
In The Boys in the Band, an affluent, thirty-year-old gay man named Michael has invited a number of his homosexual friends to his stylish New York City apartment for a birthday party honoring their gay Jewish friend, Harold. The group includes Donald; Michael’s present lover; Emory, a portrait of the effeminate gay stereotype; Hank, once married and the father of two children but now living with Larry; Bernard, a gay black man; and a male prostitute who is Emory’s birthday gift to Harold. Michael’s former college friend, Alan, who is married and hostile toward homosexuals, crashes this party. Alan soon recognizes the stereotypical Emory as a homosexual, is offended by his behavior, and punches him; however, Alan is later surprised to discover that the others also are gay, especially Hank, who Alan thinks is heterosexual. The action of the play culminates in a party game that Michael designs; each guest must telephone the one person he truly believes he has loved and confess his deepest feelings. Michael intends for this game to reveal Alan’s latent homosexuality, but Alan’s telephone call goes to his wife. The play ends with Harold characterizing Michael as a gay man consumed by self-loathing.