Crowley’s play, radically new in 1968, was extremely popular in its original New York City production and enjoyed another successful run in London before being released as a feature film in 1970. The play was enjoying commercial success as the Stonewall Inn riots launched the gay liberation movement in the summer of 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, and for many years the play was performed in regional, community, and college theaters around the United States as the gay rights movement gained momentum. With its significant popular success, The Boys in the Band set a precedent for stage and film honesty in succeeding decades, paving the way for sympathetic portrayals and increasing tolerance of homosexual characters and the homosexual lifestyle. For example, Terrence McNally’s widely popular 1994 award-winning Broadway play, Love! Valor! Compassion!, certainly has its roots in Crowley’s groundbreaking comedy. The Boys in the Band became somewhat dated in subsequent decades because of its politically incorrect caricature of Emory and its pre-AIDS tolerance of sexual promiscuity.
The Boys in the Band opens with Michael, a thirty-year-old New York homosexual, preparing to entertain a group of gay friends at his smartly appointed East Side apartment. The party is to honor the birthday of one of the group, Harold, a Jewish man and a former ice skater. Michael is dressing when one of the guests, Donald, arrives early, dressed casually in khakis and a LaCoste shirt. Donald, who has driven in from Long Island, explains that his psychiatrist canceled his regular appointment. The conversation between Michael and Donald reveals the latter to be insecure about his career and goals, while Michael is revealed as egocentric, selfish, extravagant in his lifestyle, possessed of a sharply bitter wit, and lacking responsibility. Michael admits that he is unprepared and undisciplined, a fault he blames on his parents, just as Donald does his failure to complete his goals. They term this parental influence the Evelyn-and-Walt-Syndrome.
Complications begin when Michael learns from a telephone call that his former college roommate from Georgetown University is in New York and urgently wants to come by and talk with him. The roommate, Alan McCarthy, is a married attorney, ostensibly heterosexual, but he begins crying on the telephone, and Michael is moved to allow an immediate visit. Michael expresses concern about how Alan might react to a homosexual gathering, but before Alan can get to the apartment, other party guests begin to arrive: Emory, an effeminate, flamboyant interior decorator; Hank, a conservatively dressed schoolteacher who is awaiting a divorce; and Larry, a commercial artist with whom Hank currently is living. Michael warns the group that his heterosexual former roommate is en route, information that sparks conversation about Michael’s “coming out”—his beginning to realize his homosexuality—while in college. There is another in a series of false scares as another gay guest, a black man named Bernard, arrives.
As the various homosexual guests mingle and talk, Alan again calls, this time to tell Michael he is not coming after all, a revelation that temporarily puts the gay group at ease as the party continues. The door buzzer sounds, but it is not Harold, the guest of honor, merely a delivery boy from the bakery with a cake that has been ordered. As the guests reminisce about summers past at the gay resort on Fire Island, Emory, Larry, and Bernard form a chorus line to do an old dance routine. With the music and talk and laughter creating a din, the group does not hear the door buzzer as it sounds again. Hank innocently opens the door to reveal the now-unexpected straight college roommate, Alan, who has shown up after all.
A scene of awkward comedy follows as the gay party guests try to suppress their high spirits and gay behavior and make innocuous small talk with the formally dressed Alan. Alan is cordial to all the guests he meets, except for Emory, whose effeminacy and bitchy camp humor offend him—an attitude he reveals to Michael when the two of them adjourn to the bedroom for private conversation.
During this conversation, Alan repeatedly is socially condescending and makes derogatory comments about Emory, terming him “a goddamn little pansy” and “a butterfly in heat.” Michael becomes infuriated by Alan’s attitudes. Alan then will not tell Michael why he has come nor why he was crying on the telephone. As Alan goes into the bathroom, Michael returns angrily to the party. The door buzzes yet again, and when Michael answers, he is confronted not with the absent guest of honor, Harold, but with Cowboy, a handsome but dim-witted male prostitute Emory engaged for the evening as his gift to Harold. Cowboy mistakes Michael for Harold, kisses him, and begins to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Cowboy then amuses the...
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The Boys in the Band is—like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), with which it frequently has been compared—a drama for theater purists. In its economy of dramatic structure and the singularity of its conflict, it relies absolutely on the traditional unities of classical theater—time, place, and action—for its impact.
Like the Albee drama, The Boys in the Band confines its presentation time to exactly the amount of time the events would take in reality, from the moment when Michael is first revealed making arrangements for the evening’s party right up to the moment when he exits the apartment at play’s end. Although the play is arbitrarily divided into a two-act format, it could easily be played without an intermission, since the first act’s ending—with Harold laughing—is picked up without any time lapse at the opening of the second act. It is a pure example of dramatic time unity, and doubtless would have met the standards of either Aristotle or the French drama theorists of the seventeenth century.
The play’s use of the single setting of Michael’s apartment, on the occasion of the gay birthday party, similarly unifies the dramatic tension: The single setting forces the audience into an active identification with the developing conflict between the gay group and the intruding Alan. The play’s viewer either becomes an entrapped, unwelcome guest (as Alan is) or a horrified observer (like the gay men) as Michael...
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Beams, David W. “Mart Crowley.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988.
de Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. 1992. A thorough and interesting history of the portrayal of homosexuals on the stage.
Duberman, Martin. Review of The Boys in the Band. Partisan Review 35 (Summer, 1968): 418.
Feingold, Michael. “Queerly Beloved.” Village Voice 27 (July 2, 1996).
Jay, Karla, and Allen Young. “Theatre: Gays in the Marketplace vs. Gays for Themselves.” In Lavender Culture. New York: Jove, 1978.
Kroll, Gerry. “And the Band...
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