Torch Song Trilogy

by Harvey Fierstein

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

Arnold Beckoff

Arnold Beckoff, a female impersonator, twenty-five years old, Jewish, and gay. Arnold plays Virginia Hamn, a singer of torch songs. He is proud of his sexuality, and his life revolves around the gay culture. Arnold meets Ed, a bisexual schoolteacher, at a bar called the International Stud. He is devastated when Ed jilts him to take up with a woman. Arnold later meets a young hustler, Alan, and they become lovers. Still in love with Ed and not over his hurt, he is unfaithful to Alan, making routine trips to the back room of the International Stud for indiscriminate sex. When Arnold finally meets Laurel, the woman in Ed’s life, at Ed’s country home, he tells her that Ed is using her to prove his own normalcy. Arnold and Alan plan to adopt a child, but Alan is killed by a group of homophobic punks before the adoption goes through. Arnold assumes the responsibility alone, caring for David, a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent. Ed finally leaves Laurel and moves onto Arnold’s couch until he can find another place to live. Arnold indicates to Ed that there is a good chance that they can renew their relationship.

Ed Reiss

Ed Reiss, a Brooklyn schoolteacher. He is thirty-five years old, handsome, charming, and, at times, insensitive. Ed claims that he is bisexual; Arnold labels him a closet case. Ed approaches Arnold at a gay bar and, for two weeks, sees him consistently. Confused over his sexuality, he is unable to make a commitment to Arnold or to the homosexual lifestyle. He becomes involved with a woman named Laurel and, after participating in group therapy, decides to marry her. When Arnold and his new lover, Alan, visit Ed and his wife at their farmhouse near Montreal, Ed experiences pangs of jealousy and seduces Alan. Ed eventually realizes that his relationship with Laurel is not a panacea and decides to leave her. Turning to his only gay friend, Arnold, he moves in and becomes a surrogate father to David. He wants to renew his relationship with Arnold, but Arnold will accept him only if he is willing to confront his sexuality. Ed assures Arnold that he is at least willing to try.


Alan, a former hustler turned model. He is eighteen years old and extremely good looking. When he was fourteen years old, he arrived in New York City with dreams of opening a disco. He quickly learned that the only reason men would give him money was in exchange for sex. These sexual encounters provided connections that led to his career as a model. One evening in a nightclub, Alan gets drunk, becomes involved in a fight, and is almost knifed; he is saved by Arnold, who is in full Virginia Hamn attire. As a result, he falls deeply in love with Arnold, even tolerating his infidelity. Alan remains faithful until his trip to the Reiss farm, where he is seduced by Ed. After deciding to adopt a child with Arnold, he is killed by a street gang.


Laurel, Ed’s average-looking, liberal-minded wife. She has a history of falling in love with gay men and has numerous gay friends. She attends group therapy and has involved Ed in these sessions. Despite knowing that Arnold is Ed’s former lover, she invites him and his new lover up to the Reiss farmhouse. When she learns that Ed has seduced Alan, she leaves him. She returns to him, however, and when Ed finally decides to withdraw from the relationship, Laurel has difficulty letting go.


David, Arnold’s adopted son. He is fifteen years...

(This entire section contains 842 words.)

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old, bright, handsome, and gay. Mistreated in foster homes, he lived on the streets for three years. Although skeptical and streetwise, he has been transformed in his six months with Arnold into a fun-loving prankster, comfortable with both home and school. At times, he is a typical teenager, but he displays an uncanny wisdom. Not wanting Arnold to devote his whole life to him, David would like to see Arnold and Ed back together.

Mrs. Beckoff

Mrs. Beckoff, Arnold’s mother. She is a widow in her sixties who has retired to Florida and is presented as a stereotypical Jewish mother. She loves to meddle and kvetch, or complain. She rambles constantly, saying very little. She cannot accept Arnold’s homosexuality and prefers to deny it. When she meets David, she takes a liking to him but is completely opposed to Arnold’s plans to adopt him. She is insensitive to her son’s feelings about the death of Alan (although the cause of death has been concealed from her) and is incensed that he would dare to compare their affair with her many years of marriage. They quarrel, and Arnold asks her to leave. Before she departs, they reconcile, and she tries to comfort Arnold about Alan’s death.

Lady Blues

Lady Blues, a blues singer employed between scenes. She sings 1920’s and 1930’s torch songs in the tradition of Helen Morgan or Ruth Etting.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Alan Alan is a handsome young man, eighteen-years old, who models and aspires to be an actor. He enters into a relationship with Arnold following Arnold's break-up with Ed. He is considerably younger than Arnold, and he is accustomed to being wanted for his looks. Alan is a hustler, who has always been able to make money selling sex.

Arnold Beckoff Arnold is the central character of the play. He first appears in The International Stud segment. It is Arnold who begins the play with a monologue in which he reveals his loneliness and his desire for a lover who will commit to him totally. Arnold finds Ed and the two begin a loving and passionate relationship, but Ed is tormented by guilt over being gay. After Ed leaves Arnold for a heterosexual relationship, he finds Alan, a much younger lover. They commit to a "marriage," but Alan is murdered in a street killing five years later.

Arnold continues with a plan he and Alan had to adopt a child, and David is placed with Arnold as a foster child. Finally, in Widows and Children First, Arnold confronts his mother and the two open up for the first time, but not before a terrible argument that nearly splits the family. In the end, Arnold is finally able to accept his mother and the possibility that Ed may once again have a place in his life.

Lady Blues Lady Blues sings the songs that separate the scenes in The International Stud. She has no real role, but her songs help establish mood and in some ways act as a Greek chorus, enhancing the action and dialogue that occur on stage. Her songs are not intended to comment upon the action, but are left open to the interpretation of the audience.

David David is a fifteen-year-old foster child that Arnold considers his son and who he wants to adopt. David is gay and has been abused by his parents. He has been in other foster homes and has been placed with Arnold so that he can have the example of an adult with a positive attitude toward homosexuality. David is bright and wise beyond his years. It is also clear that he loves and respects Arnold very much.

Laurel Laurel is the woman Ed meets while he is still seeing Arnold and who later becomes Ed's lover. She is in her mid-thirties and has been involved in many relationships—though none of them have worked to her satisfaction; every man that she has been involved with was either bisexual or married. She seems to see Ed as a last chance for happiness, although it is also clear that she loves him. It is her idea to bring Arnold and Alan to the farm for a weekend getaway. She does this in an effort to prove to herself that Ed will choose her over Arnold.

Ed Reiss Ed first appears in The International Stud as Arnold's love interest, and although he loves Arnold, he wants to belong to straight society, thus his heterosexual relationship with Laurel. By the end of Fugue in a Nursery, Ed and Laurel are engaged. Ed reappears at the beginning of Widows and Children First. He has separated from Laurel and the audience later learns that he has come back to Arnold looking for a reconciliation.

Mrs. Beckoff Mrs. Beckoff is Arnold's widowed mother. She disapproves of her son's homosexuality and continues to hope that he will find a nice girl to marry. She arrives to visit and finds David, who she did not know was to be Arnold's adopted son. Mrs. Beckoff and Arnold finally confront their differences and find a sense of resolution. At the play's end, she indicates a willingness to accept both Arnold's homosexuality and his adoption of a gay teenager.




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