The Boys in the Band

by Mart Crowley

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Critical Context

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At the close of The Boys in the Band, the guilt-ridden Michael, attempting to suggest to Donald the impossibility of comprehending human relationships, says: “As my father said to me when he died in my arms, ’I don’t understand any of it. I never did.’ ” That phrase, suggestive of both the implausibility and the enigma of human relationships, is a recurring touchstone in the drama of Mart Crowley.

Michael, the embittered homosexual protagonist of The Boys in the Band, also appears as the central figure in Crowley’s other, less known plays, Remote Asylum, produced in Los Angeles in 1970, A Breeze from the Gulf, produced in New York in 1973, and For Reasons That Remain Unclear (pr. 1993, pb. 1996). In each of these plays the remark about the impenetrable mystery of human relationships is repeated. In Remote Asylum Michael says it to a dying man, while in A Breeze from the Gulf Crowley gives the scene in which a youthful Michael hears the words from his dying father. The Michael figure appears as an adult in For Reasons That Remain Unclear.

Michael clearly is a surrogate for the playwright himself. In The Boys in the Band, Michael refers to there being no Shubert Theatre in Hot Coffee, Mississippi, a hamlet not far from Crowley’s hometown of Vicksburg. Crowley’s third play, A Breeze from the Gulf, recapitulates events in Michael’s teenage years that are mentioned in passing in The Boys in the Band.

Both Remote Asylum and A Breeze from the Gulf reverberate with echoes of another Mississippi playwright, Tennessee Williams, who was also homosexual. Remote Asylum is set among rich decadents in Acapulco, and its mood recalls Williams’s The Night of the Iguana (pr., pb. 1961) and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (pr. 1963). Similarly, the intense family struggles of Crowley’s A Breeze from the Gulf evoke recollections of Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (pr., pb. 1955) or of Sweet Bird of Youth (pr., pb. 1959). The young Michael of A Breeze from the Gulf, caught between an obsessive, smothering, drug-dependent mother and an alcoholic father who does not understand his sensitive son, is the clay from which the older, insecure Michael of The Boys in the Band is shaped.

In later years, Crowley devoted his writing to television works, with such adaptations as his 1986 teleplay of James Kirkwood’s There Must Be a Pony (1960). Of his dramatic work, only The Boys in the Band had enormous critical and commercial success, but in that play, Crowley found a true voice, that of the long suppressed gay milieu. Since the presentation of The Boys in the Band in 1968, other plays about homosexuals have flourished in the American theater.

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Critical Overview