Mart Crowley

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Martino Crowley was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on August 21, 1935. Crowley’s parents were conservative and religious, and they scrupulously brought up Mart, their only child, in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, enrolling him in a parochial high school in Vicksburg. His father, an Irishman from the Midwest, owned a pool hall called Crowley’s Smokehouse, which bore the motto “Where all good fellows meet.” As a child, Crowley was asthmatic and sickly, a condition that changed, he claims, immediately after his departure from Vicksburg. An avid filmgoer and starstruck reader of Hollywood gossip magazines since early childhood, he left home in the early 1950’s, moving to Los Angeles, where he took a number of low-paying jobs in order to be near the motion-picture studios. His father, who had cherished the hope that his only son should attend Notre Dame, finally compromised and convinced Mart to attend Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he won awards for costume and scene design. After two years there, Crowley, unhappy with the conservative social atmosphere in Washington, returned to Hollywood and began working on a degree in art at the University of California, Los Angeles, hoping to become a scenic designer in films. Crowley returned to Catholic University not long afterward and worked in the university theater. At one point, he collaborated with fellow collegian James Rado, later one of the writers of the rock musical Hair (which ran concurrently in New York with Crowley’s hit The Boys in the Band in 1968), and the two of them produced a revue sketch. Crowley also worked in summer-stock theater in Vermont.

After his graduation from Catholic University in 1957, Crowley briefly considered joining the Foreign Service but moved back to Southern California instead, where he wrote a number of unproduced scripts for motion pictures and television. He took jobs with various film production companies, working on such films as Butterfield 8 (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). He also worked as a scriptwriter in the early 1960’s for several television production companies. The popular film star Natalie Wood, whom Crowley met while both were working on Splendor in the Grass, hired him as a private secretary in 1964, a position he held until 1966. During this time, he wrote a screen adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s novel Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) expressly for Wood and French director Serge Bourguignon. The film was never produced. Ridden with anxiety and depression, Crowley moved to Rome for a winter, staying with film star Robert Wagner and his wife, Marion.

In 1967, Paramount Studios completed a film from an original screenplay by Crowley entitled Fade-in. The project was a hectic and disappointing experience for the young writer, and after all of his effort, the studio did not release the film. After six months of rest and psychoanalysis to cope with this ego-flattening experience, Crowley got the idea to write a play about homosexual friends at a birthday party. (His notes on the theme of homosexuality, including fragments of dialogue and character sketches, were begun as early as 1959.) Crowley finished the play, The Boys in the Band , in five weeks during the summer of 1967 while he was house-sitting in the Beverly Hills home of performer Diana Lynn. The agent he subsequently contacted about the script replied that although the play was very good, she did not believe the American stage was ready for a drama almost exclusively about homosexual men. She nevertheless sent a copy of the play to producer Richard Barr, who liked it and decided to produce it...

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at his Playwrights Unit workshop. Robert Moore, an actor who had known Crowley at Catholic University and in summer stock, expressed interest in making his debut as a stage director with the play. More difficult, however, was the task of finding performers willing to be cast in the play. A number of actors read the play and liked it but refused to risk their professional images by performing homosexual characters onstage. The play was finally cast with an ensemble of largely unknown performers. Gay civil rights agitation began to make news in the years shortly preceding his play, but Crowley remained detached from being an activist, and asserted that he did not writeThe Boys in the Band with revolutionary intention.

The Boys in the Band first appeared at the Vandam Theatre in January of 1968. Three months later, the play made its debut on the New York stage at Theatre Four. It was a success both at the box office and with most of the theater reviewers. Apart from viciously homophobic reviews from critics such as Martin Duberman and John Simon, the reviewers judged the play for its composition and production, rather than for its subject matter. Surprisingly, the play became controversial not so much in the heterosexual as in the homosexual community. The source of the contention may be inferred from the emphasis and wording of some of the favorable mainstream reviews, which commented on the play’s portrayal of the “tragic” or even “freakish” aspects of the “homosexual life-style.” Such generalizations were not, however, necessarily invited by the play. The production ran for more than one thousand performances in New York and was produced with great success in London, in regional theaters across the United States well into the 1970’s, and as a 1970 film featuring the original Off-Broadway cast directed by William Friedkin. The play’s director, Robert Moore, won a Drama Desk Award, and Cliff Gorman, who played the role of Emory, received an Obie Award (for performances in Off-Broadway theaters). The play was also included in several lists and anthologies of “best plays” of the 1960’s. Many persons accounted for the play’s success by observing that it offered the homosexual community a chance to see and hear itself represented onstage and the heterosexual community a chance to eavesdrop on the former. By the time the play had been made into a motion picture, however, a considerable portion of the gay public objected to the play on the grounds that it made homosexuality seem like a form of neurosis characterized by religious guilt, loneliness, and self-loathing. However, the 1996 WPA Theatre production brought about some amelioration of this attitude. Crowley has stated that by 1990 The Boys in the Band “was beginning to be politically correct again.”

The year the film adaptation of The Boys in the Band was released, an earlier play by Crowley, Remote Asylum, was produced in California to universally unfavorable reviews. Opening at the end of 1970 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, Remote Asylum was not subsequently produced in New York. A third play, A Breeze from the Gulf, opened at the Eastside Playhouse in New York in October of 1973 to a somewhat better response. The writer’s most intimate play, A Breeze from the Gulf, though praised for its competent writing and acting, lacked the audience appeal and the ability to stir up controversy that had made his first play a success. Its run was scarcely longer than Remote Asylum’s, but it took second place for a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Crowley thereafter retired from playwriting and returned to television.

During the 1979-1980 television season, he was executive script consultant, then producer, for the ABC series Hart to Hart. In 1993, his latest play, For Reasons That Remain Unclear, was produced at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts in Maryland and received further regional theater productions in Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and elsewhere. Co-incidental with the 1996 New York revival of Boys in the Band, an anthology of three of Crowley’s plays, including For Reasons That Remain Unclear, was published.

In 1986, he began writing and adapting novels, such as James Kirkwood’s There Must Be a Pony (1986), for television. He also appeared in the film adaptation of Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet (1995). He is working on The Men from the Boys, a sequel to The Boys in the Band that unites all but two of the original characters. According to interviews, he has also explored some areas for new theatrical productions.

The success of Crowley’s work signaled a social change that allowed artistic discussion of the gay personality in the hands of more competent playwrights, as with Michael Cristofer’s Shadow Box (pr. 1975, pb. 1978), Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (pr., pb. 1978), and Martin Sherman’s Bent (pr., pb. 1979). Contemporary plays dealing more directly with the gay experience, such as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (pb. 1978-1979, pb. 1979) and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (pr., pb. 1985), about the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) epidemic, owe much to Crowley’s groundbreaking achievement.

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