(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)