Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

The Boys in the Band was certainly not the first popular drama to have gay characters. For the most part, however, homosexuality was disguised in plays and film. One of the most powerful examples of this, which critics often point to as an immediate predecessor of Crowley’s play, is Robert...

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The Boys in the Band was certainly not the first popular drama to have gay characters. For the most part, however, homosexuality was disguised in plays and film. One of the most powerful examples of this, which critics often point to as an immediate predecessor of Crowley’s play, is Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama Tea and Sympathy, about an effeminate boy who is mocked and threatened at a preparatory school. (He is given the nickname ‘‘Sister- Boy,’’ and the headmaster’s wife makes it her mission to ‘‘cure’’ him sexually.) What makes The Boys in the Band such a groundbreaking work is that it was the first mainstream piece to show gay men in their own environment, interacting with each other, acknowledging camp posturing, in-jokes, and psychological torment without mocking or overemphasizing. Critics took note of the fact that the characters are gay, and they pointed out the ways in which that situation, though central to their personalities, was overshadowed by their basic humanity. As Clive Barnes put it in the New York Times, ‘‘The power of the play, which I saw at one of its press previews, is the way in which it remorselessly peels away the pretensions of its characters and reveals a pessimism so uncompromising in honesty that it becomes in itself an affirmation of life.’’ In general, reviews were as positive as Barnes’s, crediting Crowley with getting beyond the stereotypical aspects of each character to a deeper understanding.

Though it opened off-Broadway, the play gained the attention of national publications, bringing awareness of The Boys in the Band into households across the country that were in small communities where the subject was still much more hidden than it was in New York. It received favorable reviews in Time, Newsweek, and the Nation; Harold Clurman, the reviewer for the Nation, noted that, while not being ‘‘profound, moving or ‘psychological,’’’ it is a polished piece of entertainment, with ‘‘a smooth veneer applied in a vein now becoming fashionable.’’ The unsigned review in Time praised the cast, which it called ‘‘expert,’’ noting that they ‘‘interact with such flawless skill, timing and grace that they could declare themselves an ensemble company right now and be ranked with the best.’’ Like most mainstream publications, Time’s favorable review comes with a warning for the squeamish: ‘‘Uncompromising in its vision, totally unfettered in its four-letter speech, The Boys in the Band is a play that may be repellent for some viewers.’’

Two years after its theatrical debut, the play was revisited by critics and audiences when the screen adaptation of it opened. Because the screenplay was written and produced by Crowley and the same actors appeared in it, the reviews for the film often referred back to the play. Vincent Canby, a respected and influential critic, noted that ‘‘My reservations about [the film] all have to do with the source material, which sounds too often as if it had been written by someone at a party.’’ After noting Crowley’s talent for ‘‘comedy-of-insult,’’ Canby notes that ‘‘there is something basically unpleasant, however, about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.’’

Whether by coincidence of timing or a sign of the spirit of the times, The Boys in the Band was a groundbreaking work in a movement that gained power and popularity quickly. Soon after the play appeared, taking a bold and unflinching look at the gay world that many heterosexuals knew existed but knew little about, the Stonewall Rebellion pushed the Gay Power Movement into high gear. The play’s greatest innovation was to show people that homosexuals are people too; within the next few years, dozens of advocacy groups sprung up across the country, taking over that function. As the GayGate web page explains it, the play became obsolete as soon as the Stonewall riots took place. To modern gays, the play that once seemed liberating is now a threat, reaffirming old stereotypes about self-hating, psychologically tormented homosexuals to straight audiences who take its overly dramatic elements as a lesson in gay life. Modern critics also find it difficult to accept this play as a look at gay life because it was written with no awareness of the most critical, sweeping social change to affect the gay community during the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS epidemic. Reviewing a 1997 revival of the play for Tucson Weekly, Margaret Regan notes the undeniable effect of AIDS: ‘‘The specter of early death has unequivocally transformed the gay community, as plays like Jeffrey . . . so readily attest.’’ But it is not only the absence of any knowledge of the disease that softens the impact of The Boys in the Band for Regan: ‘‘Some of the play’s psychology is dated, too. Crowley trots out the old myth of the overbearing mother creating the gay son, a tiresome staple of antediluvian psychotherapy now mercifully laid to rest by more persuasive genetic research. And let’s hope that the stereotype of the selfloathing gay man, alive and well in the play, is on the way to the same archetypal graveyard.’’ Like most material that was considered cutting edge in its time, The Boys in the Band is considered a quaint and naïve museum piece, interesting for its historical value but not really relevant today.

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