Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

Harvey Fierstein (FIR-steen), the son of Eastern European immigrants, made his homosexuality public when he was thirteen and became a female impersonator in a gay nightclub in New York’s East Village when he was sixteen. His father, a handkerchief manufacturer, died in 1976. His mother was a librarian in a...

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Harvey Fierstein (FIR-steen), the son of Eastern European immigrants, made his homosexuality public when he was thirteen and became a female impersonator in a gay nightclub in New York’s East Village when he was sixteen. His father, a handkerchief manufacturer, died in 1976. His mother was a librarian in a junior high school. Fierstein and his older brother, who became an attorney, were brought up on a regular diet of Broadway matinees.

The Fierstein family was close, and Harvey’s early revelation of his sexual orientation did not diminish that closeness. Harvey’s first homosexual friends were two men whose relationship had continued for more than thirty years, so, although he was regularly exposed to the world of one-night stands and promiscuity that he encountered in the smoke-filled bars where he entertained, he also knew another side of gay life. It was this side that he wanted for himself. He took to cross-dressing as a teenager.

Fierstein enjoyed painting and, because his parents wanted him to continue his education, he enrolled in the Pratt Institute, near the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn. He received a degree in fine arts from Pratt in 1973. Two years earlier, he had begun acting in Off-Off-Broadway plays in Greenwich Village, making his debut as a lesbian cleaning lady in the Andy Warhol play Pork at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. By 1973, he had begun writing himself, and his early plays were presented in the Village.

It was not until 1976, however, that Fierstein began work on the three one-act plays that record six years in the life of Arnold Beckoff; in 1982, the plays, collectively entitled Torch Song Trilogy, brought him a Tony Award for best playwright and, for his portrayal of Beckoff, the same award for best actor of the year. Fierstein wrote the autobiographical sketches of Torch Song Trilogy at the suggestion of a psychotherapist he consulted to help him handle the trauma and depression brought about by the failure of a two-year relationship. These sketches were first presented in the East Village as one-act plays. Assisted by The Glines, a nonprofit organization founded by John Glines and Lawrence Lane to encourage projects in the arts with homosexual themes, Fierstein welded them into a unified play.

Torch Song Trilogy presents gay men as people who share the aspirations common to all human beings. They want to have jobs that give them some fulfillment, decent places to live, enough money to get along, and someone to love. Fierstein does not apologize for homosexuality and does not believe that gay people require approval from the straight world. They, like heterosexuals, have an inherent right to live as they choose.

Before Torch Song Trilogy ended its Broadway run, Fierstein was asked to write the libretto for La Cage aux folles on the basis of the Jean Poiret play. He relinquished his role as Arnold Beckoff and began to work on the new project, which in his eyes was similar thematically to Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936), for in La Cage aux folles two gay men live with the son one of them fathered in his only straight experience; the son is straight, making him the orthodox offspring in a heterodox household.

By the time La Cage aux folles reached Broadway, its advance sales exceeded the five-million-dollar cost of the show. Both Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage aux folles received less negative press from straight critics than from gay critics, who saw both plays as glorifying the surrogate straight situations in which Fierstein places his characters. To many gay people, the plays appeared to disparage a lifestyle that consisted of one-night stands and little commitment. However, Fierstein demonstrated the ability to address universal themes within a gay context, explaining that homosexuality was not about perpetual adolescence. By 1988, when the film version of Torch Song Trilogy was released, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was more prevalent, reversing the criticism by charging that Fierstein did not depict the dangers of one-night stands.

Spookhouse portrays the fears and frustrations of trying to raise decent children. The Coney Island amusement park ride is a metaphor for the unexpected problems of life that haunt parents. Fierstein addressed the AIDS crisis in Safe Sex, another trilogy of one-act plays. Manny and Jake shows an HIV-positive Manny, surrounded by the corpses of his dead lovers, fearful of infecting more men. In Safe Sex, Ghee, who is HIV-negative, refuses all intimacy. On Tidy Endings portrays two characters mourning the death of a lover; here, the gay lover remains HIV-negative but the former wife becomes infected. A 1988 cable television production of Tidy Endings was enthusiastically received and won four ACE awards for cable excellence.

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