Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy , which won the 1983 Tony Award for best play and earned its author a Tony for best actor in his role as Arnold Beckoff, is often cited as the first play with a clear gay theme to be popular with mainstream theater audiences. Although...

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Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which won the 1983 Tony Award for best play and earned its author a Tony for best actor in his role as Arnold Beckoff, is often cited as the first play with a clear gay theme to be popular with mainstream theater audiences. Although one of its themes is the difficulty of being gay in a heterosexual society, it is not essentially a problem play. The play insists that Arnold’s problems are common to all relationships. Fierstein drives home the vulnerability of gay men through Alan’s murder and David’s fight, but his real interest is in the similarities—not the differences—among gays, heterosexuals, and bisexuals. David says that a person’s relationship with his or her mother involves the same difficulties whether that mother is Mrs. Beckoff or Arnold. Although Arnold’s mother is initially offended when he compares his mourning to hers, her advice about coping with grief and loneliness establishes her awareness of the similarity between the relationships.

Another central theme of the play is honesty. “Honest” is the first adjective Fierstein uses to describe the characters of The International Stud. He wants Widows and Children First! to be performed with “pace” and “honesty.” Arnold is troubled that Ed will not acknowledge him to his parents or Laurel. As he asks himself whether he really cares if those who say, “I love you” are truthful, he concludes that his honest answer is yes. In Widows and Children First! Arnold’s mother protests that she is tired of hearing about his homosexuality. Arnold responds that he is not “flaunting” his sexual orientation but is just being himself. David is the play’s best testament to the importance of allowing people to be themselves, having been subjected to therapists who tried to make him heterosexual.

The play advocates a traditional family atmosphere. The set for Widows and Children First!, the most domestic of the three segments, is described by Fierstein as “the set of a conventional sit-com,” and Arnold’s interaction with David, from his reviewing the young man’s report card to encouraging him to carry a handkerchief, is vintage television mom. The questions about relationships between lovers that Torch Song Trilogy examines are also quite common: What happens when one partner is much more attractive than the other? How are parents to be introduced to the lover? What happens when new lovers meet old ones? How does it feel when the lover says he will call but does not? Does the couple want to raise children? What happens if the lover dies?

Fierstein also has a knack for provoking the new perspective. When his mother complains about how often she hears about homosexuality, Arnold asks her to imagine herself, as a heterosexual, living in a world saturated with images of and norms based on homosexuality. A few pages later, David plays the same card on Arnold, attempting to show him how parents feel when their offspring violate their expectations. David asks, “What would you do if I met a girl, came home and told you I was straight?” Arnold’s responses are as pat as his mother’s: “If you were happy, I’d be happy.” At the end of the scene, Arnold asks David to reassure him that he is not, in fact, heterosexual.

Although Fierstein’s themes are ultimately conventional, his staging is often heavily stylized. This is particularly true in Fugue in a Nursery, the majority of which is acted by the four principals—Arnold, Alan, Ed, and Laurel—in a huge bed. As lighting focuses on one pair and then the other, Fierstein constructs a polyphony of voices all talking about the same themes. The similarities between the homosexual and heterosexual relationships are underscored by the occasional overlapping of conversations, with a person in one relationship answering a question asked by a person in the other. The trilogy’s handling of impersonal sexual encounters between gay men, such as those experienced by Arnold in the back room of the bar, is reminiscent of a time before HIV and AIDS. The International Stud, for example, was first performed in 1978, about five years before HIV and AIDS became household words. Fierstein sees such anonymous sexual encounters as desperate acts; he told Newsweek’s Jack Kroll, “Gay liberation should not be a license to be a perpetual adolescent. If you deny yourself commitment then what can you do with your life?”

Perhaps Fierstein’s greatest achievement is the character of Arnold, a slightly overweight drag queen, or cross-dresser, who is simultaneously drawn to and frightened by romance. “Beckoff,” Fierstein has said, is a combination of the words “beckon” and “back off.” Arnold is, in many ways, a conventional romantic heroine who, no matter how many Mr. Wrongs he finds, continues to search for Mr. Right. Described by his creator as “a kvetch of great wit and want,” Arnold practices quick, sometimes biting, humor. “What’s the matter?” he asks Ed, “catch your tongue in the closet door?” Playwright Marsha Norman has said that a playwright nominates characters for preservation in the public mind and then lets audiences do the voting. It seems likely that Fierstein’s Arnold Beckoff will be among the elected.

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