Mart Crowley

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Mart Crowley’s plays are not entirely autobiographical, but, as the playwright points out in an interview with Mel Gussow, “Any fool knows you have to live through something to write about it.” As a device for giving his plays immediacy, however, each play contains a character named Michael, whom the audience is invited to let stand for the playwright himself. Crowley’s persona is spared little in the psychological flayings that are characteristic of the writer’s work. Contrary to what one might expect of an autobiographical protagonist, Michael/Mart does not embody positive, ideal, or necessarily healthy outlooks on life. In all of Crowley’s plays, but especially in The Boys in the Band, Michael is characterized as self-pitying, debt-ridden, guilt-stricken, and vindictive; a failure as a friend, son, lover, and artist; a victim of excessive, intense self-scrutiny. The other characters stand in contrast to this negative image, or, to be more accurate perhaps, their personalities are in tension with his, caught in a web that alternately feeds and falls prey to Michael’s repression, egotism, and anger.

Each play divulges a different part of the author’s life, and consequently each play presents a separate but related galaxy of affection and social belonging. As they were produced, the plays run in reverse chronological order. The Boys in the Band presents a thirtyish Michael in the company of his homosexual friends and former lovers in his rented lower-Manhattan apartment. The setting for Remote Asylum is a run-down mansion in Acapulco, and its dramatis personae include a bizarre assortment of misfits and outcasts surrounding an aging female film star. The characters abuse one another in a sort of shark frenzy of emotions, and the result is a more vicious, bleaker version of Lanford Wilson’s multicharactered comedies, with Crowley’s emphasis falling more definitely on decadence.

A Breeze from the Gulf

A Breeze from the Gulf presents Michael from age fifteen to age twenty-five. It is the most intimate of the three plays. Its only characters are Michael, his mother, Loraine, and his father, Teddy. Most of the dramatic action occurs in their family home in Mississippi, though the stage setting is only suggestive, avoiding naturalism or a sense of definite place. The play is not a simple exercise in nostalgia. The Connelly family is pathogenic; each of the three members is both victim and abuser of the other two. The play does not idealize bygone times. Its focus, which becomes gradually evident in the first act, is the painful psychological interdependency of son, father, and mother. The second act portrays a scene out of the playwright’s life to which Crowley’s previous two plays had only referred: the father’s dying confession in the arms of his son on the floor of a hospital ward. The impact of this scene in the context of all the others is to assert that family relationships can be, and often are, morbidly corruptive to the individual human spirit.

For Reasons That Remain Unclear

By the playwright’s admission, a now older Michael appears in the character of the screenwriter Patrick in For Reasons That Remain Unclear . Crowley’s 1993 play concerns a forty-five-year-old Hollywood writer who spends the day in Rome with an elderly American priest (Conrad) from Los Angeles whom he has encountered by chance. Retiring to Patrick’s hotel room, the play’s setting, the two engage in a long evening discussion that ultimately reveals that they share a disturbing past. Patrick has recognized the unsuspecting priest as one who molested him as a child. During the evening, the writer, whose character scarcely masks a cynical nature, playfully but progressively baits the...

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priest and eventually confronts him with the latter’s shameful past. When finally naming Conrad’s crime to his face, Patrick is less offended by its nature than devastated that he once admired being loved by a man who withdrew his love and called it a sin. Bereft of the priest’s attention, the young Patrick has been left hollow with nothing left inside but indifference and a detachment toward everything that is given any emotional credence. The experience has caused him to fill his emptiness with expensive, inanimate possessions and has blocked him for many years from writing a play. The once sunny but now shamed priest begs his former student for absolution. Patrick ultimately forgives him but his inability to love endures. Crowley, who had suffered sexual abuse as a child and had not written a play in nine years until this one, gives the drama a self-reflexive quality by making Patrick a writer. He admits that he had written the play as a kind of exorcism that helped him to purge the childhood sexual abuse he suffered. Baltimore and Washington, D.C., critics essentially praised the play and its 1993 production, calling it strong stuff that was “particularly good and gutsy.” Crowley’s principal plays feature protagonists grappling with low esteem stemming from homophobia, family breakdown, and child abuse.

The Boys in the Band

Of the five plays Crowley produced within half a decade, only one, The Boys in the Band, earned a reputation for its writer. Twenty years after its New York opening, the play was still regarded as a landmark (historical, if not ideological) of gay drama. Its chronological proximity to the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969, lends added significance to its first production. Critic James W. Carlsen made the play the dividing point in the dramatic representation of gay men on the stage, his subtitles demarcating “Pre-The Boys in the Band Perceptions” and “Post-The Boys in the Band Portraits.” The changing attitudes toward homosexuality that the play helped to inspire turned eventually against the neurotic and self-demeaning “boys” in the drama. Without making an undue claim to “literary greatness” for the play, it is possible to defend it against its detractors, whose objections are primarily ideological, by asserting its social importance as a vehicle for making gay men more visible, and thus more vocal and politically viable, in American society. While the play does reinforce certain stereotypes of male homosexuality in the characters of Michael and Emory, The Boys in the Band also includes a number of other “types” that were hitherto unrepresented on the stage: The gay man as athletic, virile, capable of both fidelity and promiscuity, self-knowing, “ordinary,” or “masculine” appeared in this play for the first time. The play also debunked a number of flattering truisms about homosexuals, such as that all gay men are more sensitive, tasteful, or witty than heterosexual men.

The focus of most of the criticism the play has received is its central character, Michael, who experiences more than his share of self-loathing and bitterness because of his homosexuality. As his friend Harold points out to him at the end of the play, Michael’s problem is not his homosexual nature but his failure to accept himself as he is. Psychologists call this type of homosexuality “ego-dystonic,” and the condition is considered a treatable psychological problem. It is thus possible to interpret Michael’s personality as indicative of a real psychological disorder and not as symbolic of an inherent or typical maladjustment of the homosexual mind. That it is not the latter is evident in that other characters, such as Harold, Hank, and Larry, do not appear to suffer from the same self-hatred and in that Michael’s identity problem is explicitly compared to Bernard’s, who struggles with feelings of inferiority because he is black. The charge that the play reinforces the prejudice that all gay men are really unhappy and that homosexual relationships are spurious is largely accurate, but it fails to take into account the tremendous step that was taken by the playwright in presenting even a somewhat compromising portrait of gay culture.

The Boys in the Band falls into a category of mid-twentieth century American drama sometimes labeled “comedy of exacerbation”: An assortment of characters reveal themselves to themselves and to one another through some sort of excruciating ordeal, often, ironically, a party game. Whatever device is used, the veneer of each participant is stripped in order to bare the fact that the basis for much of his existence is rationalization, repression, or fantasy. The characters’ relationships with one another flicker between love and loathing, and the repartee is savagely witty and unnervingly accurate. The epitome of this style of drama is Edward Albee’s comedy-drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), to which The Boys in the Band is often compared. Albee’s “Get-the-Guests” scene is structurally similar to Crowley’s second act. In both, the device of a game is used to trick one of the participants into making a painful admission. Yet Michael’s obsessive attempt to make his college friend Alan admit that he had a homosexual affair with a mutual friend fails and, like George and Martha’s “game,” backfires on him, revealing his own vulnerability and sadness.

The 1996 revival at New York’s WPA Theatre had critics and theater colleagues continuing to support the play and pointing out that its portrait did not suggest that all gay relationships were as ill fated. Actor-playwright David Greenspan, to cite one example, who played the role of Harold in the 1996 production and is quoted in a review of Gerard Raymond, commented that the play was about “a specific group of people who are not conscious. . . . You see how twisted these guys have gotten from whatever experience they’ve had. It’s like a bad Christmas dinner.” Greenspan further observed that a 1990’s audience still had much to learn from the drama whose less than admirable characters are all carrying torches for unavailable people and looking for love in just the wrong places, which is “still a relevant issue, and it’s what makes the play so powerful.”

The least that can be said for Crowley’s contribution to the American theater is, sadly, also the most that can be said for it: His play The Boys in the Band opened up the subject of homosexuality to dramatic treatment. Though less positive than its successors, the play is no less forthright, and dramas such as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (pb. 1978-1979, pb. 1979) and Jane Chambers’s Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (pr. 1981, pb. 1982) would perhaps have never been were it not for Crowley’s timely and trailblazing effort.