Torch Song Trilogy

by Harvey Fierstein

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675

Reviews for Torch Song Trilogy were generally positive with most of the negative commentary focusing on the play's considerable length (four hours). In his review for the New York Times, Mel Gussow called Fierstein's play an ‘‘illuminating portrait of a man who laughs, and makes us laugh, to keep from collapsing.’’ Fierstein's portrayal of Arnold (while other actors have assumed the role, the playwright is the actor most closely associated with Arnold) is often cited by reviewers as the centerpiece of the play. Gussow echoed this sentiment, equating Arnold and Fierstein as a single person. Gussow noted that he found himself ‘‘enjoying Arnold's wit—he has the pithy humor of a Fran Lebowitz—at the same time I was moved by his dilemma. He is a man of principle who compulsively plays the fool.’’

Gussow also observed that ‘‘the author is so accomplished at playing Arnold that he cannot resist an extra flourish or an easy wisecrack.’’ Of the play, Gussow noted that the ‘‘sociological implications are complex and the author treats them with equanimity, demonstrating that the flamboyant Arnold is truly a reflection of his assertive mother, which is why they are destined to spend their lives at loggerheads.’’ Arnold is, stated Gussow, in his own torch song, and ‘‘the role is inseparable from the actor-author. Gussow concluded that ''Mr. Fierstein's self-incarnation is an act of compelling virtuosity.''

In her review of Torch Song Trilogy, the New York Post's Marilyn Stasio began by asking, ''Who could resist Arnold Beckoff? He's more comforting than your mother, more understanding than your shrink, and funnier than your puppy.’’ Stasio declared that Arnold's ''lovable drag queen is a triumphant affirmation of the romantic soul in a cynical age.’’ This assessment was seconded by Don Nelson of the Daily News, who noted that Fierstein's hoarse, gravelly voice is ''the ideal vehicle for the character of Arnold.’’ One of the strengths of the play, according to Nelson, is that the action ''arises from contradictions that we also face as humans rather than as labels like homo or hetero.’’

The play's wide appeal is something that Jack Kroll mentioned in his review in Newsweek. Kroll argued that Torch Song Trilogy is a play for the whole family. He stated that Fierstein's play is ''the most truly conservative play to come along in years ... [with its commitment] to the classic values of fidelity, family, loving, parenting et al.’’ Kroll added that the play is ‘‘very funny, poignant and unabashedly entertaining.’’ Of special note, said Kroll, is ‘‘Fierstein's ability to combine almost nonstop humor with a complex texture of emotional levels.’’ Kroll also commended the other members of the cast, stating that they do ‘‘absolute justice to this play, which is both far out and central to the civilized values of loving and caring.''

Torch Song Trilogy's praises were also sung in Clive Barnes's review, which appeared in the New York Post. Barnes stated that ''Fierstein has written a devastatingly comic play with just the right resonances. It is a play about love and the merciless mayhem love wrecks.’’ Noting that the play is just longer than four hours, Barnes nevertheless observed that ‘‘it is a marathon very much worth running. It is—through Fierstein's fluent invention and buoyant humor—strangely untiring.’’

Not all reviews were so positive, however. Gerald Clarke's mixed review in Time began by stating that the play ‘‘is too long ... it is often inconsistent; and for embarrassingly long periods it becomes as mawkish as an afternoon soap opera.’’ But Clark also found that Fierstein ‘‘has created characters so vivid and real that they linger in the mind, talking the night away, long after the lights have been turned out.’’ Referring to Fierstein's Arnold, as "arresting," Clarke declared that he ‘‘seduces the audience.’’ One major problem, said Clarke, is that there is ' 'enough material in act three to construct another separate three-act play, and consequently, there are too many rough edges.’’ Despite his reservations, Clarke conceded, ‘‘with all its flaws ... Torch Song Trilogy is a remarkable achievement.’’

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