Torch Song Trilogy

by Harvey Fierstein

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Torch Song Trilogy is Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking portrait of a gay man’s struggle for respect and love in a homophobic world. The play, comprising three one acts titled “International Stud,” “Fugue in a Nursery,” and “Widows and Children First,” chronicles the journey of the central character, Arnold Becker, from a life of transitory sexual encounters with strangers in the back rooms of New York’s gay bars to his insistence on relationships based on commitment, respect, and love.

In the first play, “International Stud,” Arnold meets Ed Reiss in a gay bar. For Arnold, the encounter offers the possibility of an honest relationship that will put an end to his loneliness. Ed, however, sees his meeting with Arnold as simply a one-night stand and returns to his developing relationship with Laurel. He describes himself as bisexual but chooses to hide his gayness for fear of public opinion. Ed attempts to terminate the relationship but finds himself returning to Arnold and is even able to acknowledge his love for Arnold. Arnold, however, cannot accept an undercover and uncommitted relationship and finally walks away.

“International Stud” presents the reader with two characters who are at different places regarding their understanding of themselves. Arnold is comfortable with himself as a gay man and is in search of a lover who is also a friend. Ed, however, is in denial as to his sexuality and, therefore, incapable of giving himself to anyone as either friend or lover.

“Fugue in a Nursery” takes place one year after “International Stud.” By this time Ed and Arnold have what each wanted; Arnold has Alan, an eighteen-year-old model, and Ed is involved in a relationship with Laurel. The action of the play takes place on an oversized bed. Arnold and Alan have been invited to spend a weekend with Ed and Laurel. In a brilliantly written series of overlapping lines and interwoven actions, the playwright demonstrates the confusion of each character as he or she attempts to resolve the conflict between what one has and what one wants. It becomes clear that none of the characters has found all that he or she was seeking. In Alan, however, Arnold has found someone who loves and respects him.

“Fugue in a Nursery” continues the argument of “International Stud.” It clearly demonstrates that one cannot give love until one has learned to love oneself. Alan and Arnold have a better chance of building a solid relationship because each is aware of who he is and can, therefore, be honest with the other. Ed, however, can talk to Laurel about his confusions but cannot confront the truth of his attraction to and preference for Arnold.

The final play in the trilogy, “Widows and Children First,” takes place five years after the preceding play. Arnold has lost Alan to a mob of gay-bashers and is currently in the process of adopting David, a gay teenager. Ed’s marriage to Laurel has failed, and he is temporarily staying with Arnold. The action of the play centers around a visit from Arnold’s recently widowed mother and her inability to accept her son’s need for love and the security of a family. Although she is aware of Arnold’s lifestyle, she does not accept it. She is insulted when he compares his suffering at the death of Alan to her loss of her husband, and she questions the morality of a gay man rearing a child. A series of arguments ensues, and Arnold states that his mother is unwelcome in his life unless she can respect him and the validity of his feelings and desires. She leaves. David...

(This entire section contains 656 words.)

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affirms his love for his soon-to-be father, and Ed finally confronts the truth of his desire to be with Arnold.

Torch Song Trilogy addresses the issue of gay identity and asks its audience to deal with the broader questions of honesty and respect regardless of sexual preference or lifestyle.


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The International Stud. In the first of the play’s three one-act segments, Arnold Beckoff, twenty-four years old, prepares for his performance as torch singer Virginia Hamm in a New York City nightclub. As he applies false eyelashes in his dressing room, Arnold complains about the difficulty of establishing successful romantic relationships. Disappointed with the casual nature of many gay encounters, Arnold longs for a committed, domestic relationship. Arnold meets Ed Reiss, a thirty-four-year-old teacher, in the International Stud bar. Arnold makes clear that he is not interested in a backroom sexual encounter, and Ed reveals that he also dates women. The men leave for Arnold’s apartment.

Four months later, Arnold waits for Ed to call. Arnold finally phones Ed, who is expecting a new friend—a woman named Laurel. Arnold declares his love for Ed and accuses him of preferring the woman because she will seem more acceptable to Ed’s parents. Ed insists that he loves Arnold but wants more than their relationship. Three months after his break-up with Ed, Arnold accompanies his friend, Murray, to the International Stud. Although he protests the impersonal backroom encounters, he finally allows Murray to talk him into venturing there, and another man has sex with him in the dark. Still not jaded, Arnold halfway expects the man to meet him outside the bar. Two months later, Ed comes to Arnold’s dressing room after a show. Still feeling rejected, Arnold asks Ed to leave, but Ed pleads for Arnold’s friendship. He tells of a good summer with Laurel and his parents at his farm in upstate New York. Despite the fact that he and Laurel are considering commitment, Ed declares that he still loves Arnold and confesses that he sometimes thinks about him during sex. Arnold decides that he loves Ed “enough” to endure the frustrations of their relationship, and the men leave together.

Fugue in a Nursery. One year later, Arnold and his new lover Alan, a handsome eighteen-year-old model and former hustler, spend a few days at the farm with Ed and Laurel. Laurel is excited about the visit, but Ed is jealous of Arnold’s solicitousness toward Alan. When Ed and Arnold disappear to review their relationship, Laurel makes a pass at Alan. Pressed by Ed to clarify his relationship with Alan, Arnold admits that he still spends two or three evenings a week in the International Stud’s back room. He explains that he stays with Alan because he feels somewhat maternal toward him. Ed recalls that he had once wanted a son. The next day, while Arnold helps Laurel with the dishes, Ed seduces Alan in the barn. Arnold learns that Ed has lied to Laurel about receiving phone calls from him. He and Alan leave a day early.

Ed soon telephones to say he and Laurel are having problems and that Arnold should not cross him off his list. Visiting the city, Laurel talks with Arnold about whether she will leave Ed, and Arnold learns that Alan had sex with Ed but not with Laurel. Despite Arnold’s pessimism, Laurel and Ed become engaged, and Arnold and Alan decide to make a commitment—to raising a puppy.

Widows and Children First! Five years pass: Arnold and Alan stay together. Alan is beaten to death by gay bashers. Arnold, partly to assuage his grief, takes in a foster son, David, a fifteen-year-old gay boy, and promptly becomes his overbearing Jewish “mother.” Four days later, Ed, who is now separated from Laurel, moves in with Arnold and David. Arnold’s mother herself comes for a visit. Although she knew of Arnold’s sexual orientation even before he had told her when he was thirteen years old, his mother clings to the hope that he will marry a woman and have children. Arnold’s mother arrives confused about his relationships with Ed and David, who she thinks is his “friend,” her euphemism for lover.

David, skipping school, arrives when Arnold is in the shower and breaks the news to his foster grandmother about his status in the household. After the initial shock, Mrs. Beckoff returns David to school and spends the rest of the afternoon with him.

Despite her affection for him, she disapproves of Arnold’s plans to adopt David because she fears that Arnold will develop a sexual interest in the boy. During the ensuing argument, when Arnold compares his loss of Alan to his mother’s widowhood, Mrs. Beckoff becomes outraged. She complains that she is tired of hearing about his sexuality, and she attributes her husband’s decline, in part, to the strain of it. Arnold asks how she would feel if the world were predominately homosexual and she were in the minority as a heterosexual. Confronted by Arnold’s insistence that she accept his honesty or leave, Mrs. Beckoff escapes to her room.

Meanwhile, near the place where Alan had been killed, David and Ed discuss Ed’s future. David, noting that Arnold lives “like an old Italian widow,” encourages Ed to resurrect the relationship. When Arnold shows up and Ed departs, David remarks to Arnold that Arnold is just like Mrs. Beckoff—no more understanding about Ed’s bisexuality than she is about Arnold’s homosexuality.

The next morning, when Ed asks a very drunk Arnold for another chance, Arnold’s bitterness about Ed’s bisexuality becomes apparent: Ed can stay with Laurel and have a traditional family, children included. Arnold notes that, ironically, he wants almost exactly the kind of life his mother had had. Ed says that he loves Arnold and thinks that he can find the family he wants with Arnold and David. Mrs. Beckoff, departing for the airport, interrupts, and finally notices the black eye David got in a school fight. Softened, she asks Arnold if he loves Ed, and he says yes, but not like he loves Alan. She cautions him that, although his mourning will get easier, he will never stop missing Alan. Distracted by a song dedication David had phoned in to a radio station to remind Arnold of Alan, Arnold does not notice when his mother slips quietly out the door.