Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

The Boys in the Band is a drama about coming to terms with oneself—in this instance, the acceptance of one’s homosexuality. The central figure of the play, Michael, is unable to accept his homosexuality, as his friend and onetime lover Harold tells him at the end of the play; thus,...

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The Boys in the Band is a drama about coming to terms with oneself—in this instance, the acceptance of one’s homosexuality. The central figure of the play, Michael, is unable to accept his homosexuality, as his friend and onetime lover Harold tells him at the end of the play; thus, he remains a self-hating and unhappy man. However, Mart Crowley’s drama made such self-acceptance possible in many ways. When Michael finally tells Donald that homosexuals must learn not to hate themselves quite so much, he is speaking not merely of himself but also of the gay community at large. Crowley’s play was probably the first commercially successful drama to deal realistically—in both its language and its wide range of character types—with homosexuals. As a result, it is historically important in the American theater tradition. It was produced in early 1968, prior to the Greenwich Village Stonewall Inn riots, which, later that year, initiated the gay liberation political movement. Crowley’s play has come to be seen by some as dated, exploring fears of being publicly known as homosexual that for the most part have been set aside, particularly by gay men in large urban areas of the nation. In effect, homosexuals have learned exactly what Michael states they all must learn at the end of the drama: not to indulge in self-hatred.

Crowley’s play was distinctive when first presented in that it offered the arch stereotype of homosexuals generally held by the heterosexual public in the character of Emory, but then proceeded effectively to break that erroneous image by presenting a diverse group of gay men of all types, with differing interests, personalities, intellects, professions, and physical mannerisms. The play told its audience, as the party told Alan—the symbolic antigay heterosexual—that homosexuals are everywhere, in every conceivable role. In a role reversal, Alan is the outsider in a world he does not comprehend, and he displays the typical reactions of the heterosexual world he represents: All gays are effeminate; all homosexuals should be closeted so the public will not have to deal with them as they actually are.

The events in the play gradually shatter Alan’s preconceptions. At the beginning Alan is censorious of Emory, but at play’s end he apologizes to Emory, whose honesty and compassion he has come to appreciate. Emory is more likable and sincere than the frustrated, angry Michael, who is filled with self-loathing. Further, the drama sharply criticizes Michael for not accepting his true nature. Crowley’s play was revolutionary in two ways. It developed the theme that homosexuals, to be happy, must accept themselves; second, the play educated heterosexual audiences by carefully redefining the nature of homosexuals. In so doing, the play, notwithstanding later gay political attacks on it, created an atmosphere of tolerance to the extent that it forced the audience to evaluate each character on his own merits and his particular individual faults. If Emory is superficially less acceptable at the beginning and Michael is more acceptable, by the end of the drama all viewers have come to a change of attitude about who is the better-adjusted individual. That message is clearly stated by Harold, in his final lengthy speech to Michael.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1210

Self-Image
Much of The Boys in the Band is concerned with the various ways that gay men thought of themselves in the late 1960s. Each of the different characters represents a lifestyle or perspective that has one meaning in mainstream society but that operates on an entirely different level within this small social setting of New York homosexuals. Michael, for instance, cannot come to any clear understanding of his own religious feelings because the Catholic Church, which he was raised believing in, rejects homosexuals like him. Bernard is comfortable with being the only African American in his group of friends and can joke about it and accept their jokes, but he is humiliated when he has to contact the world that he grew up in, where his family was considered socially inferior: the combination of the social expectations about race with the need to keep his sexuality a secret leaves him shattered in the end, barely able to function. Hank and Larry are hampered as a couple by Larry’s reluctance to promise that he will be faithful: the same problem, which affects many heterosexual couples, is made worse by the inability of homosexuals in 1968 to enter into any legally binding agreement like marriage. Harold’s self-image is tied up in his youthful good looks, which diminish every day, causing his self-image to deteriorate before the audience’s eyes. Emory seems to have a secure image of himself as a result of exaggerating the feminine aspects associated with homosexuality. His effeminate attitude makes him stand out, even among other homosexuals, but he is the member of the group who least wants to change who he is.

Alan is the play’s most obvious example of someone whose image of himself does not match his behavior. When he calls Michael on the phone, he cries, and when he arrives in a roomful of obviously gay men, he develops a close bond with Hank, whom Alan describes as ‘‘an attractive fellow.’’ But after a short while and a few drinks, he lashes out at Emory, the most feminine of the group, shouting insults that were commonly used against homosexuals. Alan’s behavior seems to be overcompensation or panic because this evening has made him aware of homosexual yearnings within himself, especially when Michael reveals his past relationship with Justin Stuart. In the end, though, Alan returns to his wife, raising the possibilities that he has either narrowly avoided an identity crisis or that the signs of his unwilling homosexuality were not true.

Humiliation and Degradation
As he becomes more and more drunk, Michael becomes more offensive to his friends, making racial slurs at Bernard and anti-Semitic statements to Harold and even calling Emory a ‘‘nellie coward.’’ His insults are bitter and crude, and the other men do not take them very seriously. This might be because they know that Michael is drunk and they forgive him, but it is also, in part, because they are used to living in a society that tries to heap degradation on homosexuals every day. To some degree, the anger that comes from Michael is a reflection of the anger that Alan lets out when he attacks Emory, even though Michael is openly gay and Alan is not. They both lash out in ways that reflect more on themselves than on the people they are attacking.

The game that Michael devises in the second act is indicative of the sort of humiliation that homosexuals felt at the time that this play was produced. In order to get the men to participate, Michael shouts at them, swears at them, and does what he can to be offensive. His behavior is terrible, but the results of the game can be seen as being good for the participants, forcing them to come to grips with the reality of their lives. In most cases—as with Bernard, who plays first—the game actually has harmful psychological effects, leaving them dispirited and without hope. One of the central messages of The Boys in the Band is that the reality of being gay in a predominantly heterosexual—and often homophobic—society, which these characters are forced to face, is often humiliating and degrading. Hank and Larry come the closest to finishing the game with some dignity, but they still have to deal with a fundamental difference about whether their relationship should be monogamous or not. The other character who leaves his humiliation behind is Alan, who leaves the gay world and goes back to the married life that society accepts as ‘‘normal.’’

Secrecy
The lives of the characters in this play are based upon keeping their sexual orientation a secret from the general public. They frequent places like bathhouses and gay bars where they can be open about their sexuality, but for the most part their lives are spent pretending that they are not gay, as Michael asks his friends to do when he thinks Alan is coming over. Keeping the fact that one is gay a secret is compared to living life in a closet, and so openly admitting that one is gay is called ‘‘coming out of the closet,’’ often shortened to ‘‘coming out,’’ as when Michael explains that ‘‘long before Justin and I came out, we used to get drunk and ‘horse around’ a bit.’’

Because this play takes place in a limited, progay environment, it can be difficult for contemporary audiences to understand the threats faced by these characters if they did not keep their sexual identities private. Most homosexuals kept their sexual preferences a secret in the 1960s because they suffered innumerable prejudices from society at large, from offensive slurs to random acts of violence to employment and housing discrimination. Many states in the country had laws against sodomy, meaning that homosexuals could be arrested for their sexual practices alone. The numerous activities that are meant to raise public awareness of homosexuality have served to remove some of the shame and threat from being gay, allowing homosexuals to live more openly.

Gender Roles
Although all of the characters in this play are men, their homosexuality leads them away from stereotypical masculine behavior. The clearest example of this is Emory, who acts almost thoroughly girlish, from pretending to be a topless cocktail waitress when serving drinks to noting, when complimented on the food he has prepared, ‘‘I’d make somebody a good wife.’’ Emory has a complete list of feminine names that he calls the other men, like calling Bernard ‘‘Bernardette’’ or Harold ‘‘Hallie.’’ Like most of the others, he refers to other homosexual men as ‘‘she’’ or ‘‘her’’: in fact, his fight with Alan is a direct result of his saying, regarding Alan’s wife, ‘‘they’d love to meet him-her. I have such a problem with pronouns.’’

Other than Emory, though, none of the characters in The Boys in the Band acts in a particularly feminine way. They may mock themselves for not conforming to traditional masculine values (as when Emory does his parody of a straight man by asking, with a deep voice, ‘‘Think the Giants are gonna win the pennant this year?’’), but most of the conversation goes beyond gender roles, creating a middle ground for men who are not masculine but still are men.

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Characters