Torch Song Trilogy

by Harvey Fierstein

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The Universal Appeal of Torch Song Trilogy

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When Torch Song Trilogy opened Off-Off-Broadway in the late fall of 1981, Harvey Fierstein's comedy became the first commercially successful play to openly feature homosexuality as both star and theme. Fierstein's play is a semi-autobiographical story. Thus homosexuality is central to the play, since it is an essential part of the playwright's life; Fierstein takes special care in the opening lines to make clear his identity as a homosexual. But he does not announce he is gay; instead, Arnold/Fierstein offers a monologue that offers his position on any number of important issues: beauty, youth, love, dating, commitment. And while he never says, ''I am gay,’’ the words are there, unspoken and just as visible as if he had held a sign up for the audience.

Indeed, Fierstein's stage mother's complaint in the final act is that Arnold's homosexuality is a part of every conversation. She tells him, ‘‘You're obsessed by it. You're not happy unless everyone is talking about it.’’ This is true of Fierstein's play, as well. The audience leaves the theatre equally obsessed with the topic and continues to talk about it. In his commentary on the play in Maske und Kothurn: Internationale Beitrage zur Theatrewissenschaft, Willliam Green attempted to determine the elements in Fierstein's play that made it ''Broadway's first successful play on the subject [homosexuality]’’ Green offered the theory that it is Fierstein's positioning of homosexuality as normal and accepted that accounts for the play's popularity.

Instead of approaching his play as a means to make an abnormal behavior acceptable, Fierstein ''has not taken the negative view... but has built on the positive view of his own life,’’ according to Green. Love, breakups, pain, loss, and death are all part of loving someone. Fierstein makes it clear that these events are the same for homosexuals as they are for heterosexuals. He uses comedy because it is an almost subversive form of theatre that can entice and seduce an audience before they are aware of it. Through the playwright's wit and his character's entertaining humor, the audience comes to appreciate and love Arnold and the characters in his life as human beings not stereotypes.

The viewer cannot help it; Fierstein insists upon it. Arnold's forthright manner and humor force the audience to realize that Arnold is no different from a heterosexual person; the basic truth that homosexuality is not abnormal is powerfully transmitted to the audience. His grief at Alan's death rings true for any person who has ever lost a loved one. He wins the audience's sympathy when he tries to explain to his mother that his "widowing" is much the same for him as her experience in losing her husband. Green declared that ''Fierstein uses it [homosexuality] to make a larger statement about the joys and the pain and the struggle which are the lot in life for most human beings—straight or gay.'' This is why audiences, whether homosexual or heterosexual, enjoyed Torch Song Trilogy, and it is why audiences found a way to identify with the central protagonist—a necessary act for any work to succeed. Quite simply, Arnold's loves and disappointments are the same as everyone else.

This is the same point that Madeleine Cahill made in The Conception, Realization, and Reception of a Controversial Film, a thesis on the film adaptation of Fierstein's play. Although she is discussing the film, the same points are applicable to the theatrical staging of Torch Song Trilogy . The audience, according to Cahill, cannot sit through a performance uninvolved. We cannot simply sit and watch; Fierstein will not allow that; he beckons us into...

(This entire section contains 1616 words.)

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his room, onto the stage, into his life. Cahill argued that ''we are being addressed directly, engaged in Arnold's life, forced to identify with him because of his frank expressions of human pain and longing.’’ Although, Cahill was discussing only the opening scene in Fierstein's play where Arnold turns to the audience and tells us of his desires and dreams, this expression of sharing with the audience is present throughout the play. In performance, Fierstein often addressed the audience as if he were simply living his life up on the stage. But even beyond that, he is using a ''blend of pathos and comedy,’’ as Cahill noted, to keep the audience involved in his life. Before much of the play is completed, we are already involved. We already care about this character.

Fierstein uses our feelings toward Arnold to involve us as sympathetic participants in the gay issues that he is promoting. If the audience cares about Arnold, then we must also care about prejudice and anti-gay violence, and we also care about the conflicts between heterosexuals and homosexuals. In a review of Torch Song Trilogy for Theatre, Kim Powers drew an analogy between the mother-son conflict and the lines that separate gays from straights. Powers pointed out that when, in the last act, Arnold and Mrs. Beckoff argue, ''much of the anger from both combatants can be excused by the heat of battle, but a new and different truthfulness has been uncovered. The eternal bond (Mother/Son) has become less important than the sexual, societal conflict (homosexual/heterosexual).''

Instead of being simply a mother-son fight, their argument becomes an debate between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Initially, Mrs. Beckoff cannot find a way to compare her thirty-five year heterosexual marriage to Arnold and Alan's five year homosexual union. She cannot conceive of the loss being the same. She represents those people who would say, ‘‘everybody knows that queers don't matter! Queers don't love.’’ The irony of these words, is that the audience knows just the opposite, the preceding portions of the play have proven it. When Mrs. Beckoff can finally admit to her son's pain and loss, the bridge between homosexuality and heterosexuality has been crossed—at least for a few moments. Fierstein forces the audience into accepting his homosexuality just as he forces his mother into some level of acceptance.

Powers stated that ‘‘The extremity of Fierstein's personality forces some sort of judgment [from the audience]. He is abrasive, shocking, flamboyant; the audience must resolve, or at least come to understand, any discomfort it may be feeling with an effeminate man. It must see beyond the bitchy gestures to the basic issues.’’ Fierstein succeeds in opening the gay community to the heterosexual world. He puts the pain, the alienation and isolation, the loss, and the issues on stage, and he dares the audience to care. In the end, we do care. Arnold's love and fear and pain are very much the same for him as they are for anyone who has ever taken a chance on love. His portrayal of homosexuality as an emotional equal to heterosexuality helps to remove much of the fear that the uninformed may have about homosexual love.

In many ways, Torch Song Trilogy serves as a lonely sentinel to the past. The same year Feirstein' s play was staged in New York, a new disease was being unmasked, starting in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco. Suddenly, doctors began noticing an unusually high number of men succumbing to diseases of the auto-immune system. The disease was named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It would forever change the homosexual community and it would change the way theatre and film approached gay issues. In a discussion of Fierstein's subsequent play Safe Sex, Gregory Gross said in the Journal of American Culture that plays about gays have changed because of AIDS; there is a division in the theatre. Gross stated that ''Gay writers know that both drama-time and real-time break down into pre-AIDS and post-AIDS.’’

Where Torch Song Trilogy deals with acceptance between heterosexuals and homosexuals, the plays that followed it deal with survival. How do gays confront a disease so insidious, so deadly? Gross stated that these new plays are ''history plays that are performed in the midst of their own history.’’ But that is true for Torch Song Trilogy, as well. The history of conflict between homosexuals and heterosexuals is more involved that a violent murder on a New York City street or in the argument between mother and son, but Fierstein uses these examples because the nature of their intimacy can involve the audience.

Gays have been the targets of violence in the past. They were victims of German leader Adolf Hitler and the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust of World War II. The Holocaust included the deaths of homosexuals, just as it included many other disenfranchised groups. But even before the Nazis made them a target, homosexuals were targeted by laws intended to punish or marginalize their behavior. British playwright and writer Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), was imprisoned for ‘‘homosexual offenses’’ in 1895, thus proving that talent and notoriety offer no protection from persecution. But an audience for a play needs an emotional center with which to identify. They can sometimes be convinced of an issue's importance through emotional identification with the protagonist. The history of Wilde's trial and imprisonment will no doubt appeal to a small, select audience, but Arnold's comedic travails will capture our hearts, as well as our intellects. Audiences need to belong to Fierstein if he is to make progress in his desires to promote gay issues, especially progress in the fight against AIDS. Gross argued that each new play about gays ' 'laments the loss of a better time before the AIDS abyss.’’ But, in truth, even pre-AIDS plays lament the lack of equality and acceptance that has been so long denied to homosexuals.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999. Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico.

Drag Queen Romance

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It is a film about an eccentric Jewish drag queen struggling for some semblance of a normal life in New York City. It is also a funny, poignant and surprisingly wholesome tale of romantic love and old-fashioned family values. It could almost be a Hollywood movie—but it is not. Although Torch Song Trilogy as a stage drama captivated audiences on Broadway for two years—winning Tony awards for best play and best actor in 1983—Hollywood producers were nervous about bringing it to the screen. They proposed a sanitized version of the play with the sex cut out. They suggested Dustin Hoffman or Richard Dreyfuss for the lead role. And at least one studio executive said that Torch Song Trilogy's 1970s-era ‘‘gay esthetic had been rendered obsolete by AIDS.

But Harvey Fierstein, the author and star of the play, persisted. He was encouraged by both Hoff man and Dreyfuss: after seeing the play, the two actors individually told Fierstein that he himself was the best man for the part onscreen. Then, with the help of New Line Cinema, an independent U.S. producer, Fierstein wrote and starred in a movie made on his own terms. With a story that spans the years 1971 to 1980—before AIDS had begun to spread through the homosexual community—the film makes no mention of the virus. And Fierstein expresses outrage at suggestions by some critics that the omission of AIDS makes his story outdated. In Toronto last week to attend a benefit première of the movie for local AIDS groups, he told Maclean's, ''Very well-meaning people have gone out of their way to mention AIDS in every review of the movie when it's not even an issue.'' Added Fierstein: ''It's heinous to suggest that gay people have no issue other than AIDS.’’

One issue that the movie does deal with—aside from the right to be unapologetically gay—is the importance of being honest in matters of intimacy. Arnold (Fierstein), who performs in nightclubs as a female impersonator, is glibly pessimistic about his emotional future. He wants a loving relationship, and Torch Song encompasses his frustrating attempts to find one. The first is with Ed (Brian Kerwin), a confused bisexual who sleeps with men as a diversion from his romance with Laurel (Karen Young). The second is with Alan (Matthew Broderick), a pretty-boy prostitute who settles down with Arnold. Meanwhile, Arnold's most tempestuous relationship is with his caustic mother (Anne Bancroft).

Petulant, narcissistic and immature, Arnold is not an especially sympathetic character. And his liaisons with both Ed and Alan are unconvincing. As Alan, Broderick gives the movie its few faint sparks of erotic energy. In the original stage version, Broderick played David, the 15-year-old orphan adopted by Arnold, and that Broadway debut in 1982 led to starring roles in such movies as Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Broderick fills the screen with charm, but his character seems contrived, a fantasy figure all too eager to comply with Arnold's romantic game plan. In no uncertain terms, Arnold sets the agenda: ''There are a couple of things we better get straight,’’ he says. ''A) I want children; B) If anyone asks, I'm the pretty one.’’

Fierstein's trenchant wit continually redeems the movie. But Arnold has a capacity for self-dramatization and self-mockery that tends to overwhelm everyone around him. Too often, the other characters seem like accessories in a would-be one-man show. The crucial exception is Arnold's mother. Although she represents all the prejudices that her son detests, she is also the only person with enough vitriol to penetrate his self-centred universe. In a cathartic series of verbal brawls between her and Arnold, Torch Song finally purges cynicism and burns with a clear, hot flame. Rising to the occasion, Bancroft breaks the tight Jewish-mother caricature that confines her in earlier scenes and delivers a heartrending performance. She fights guilt with guilt. ‘‘You cheated me outta your life,’’ she tells Arnold, ‘‘then blamed me for not being there.’’

The script has the keenly whittled quality of stage drama. But the movie's naturalistic look and chronological structure depart radically from the play, which relied on flashbacks. In the opening shot, the camera sweeps from the skyline of Manhattan, down to the equally grey gravestones of a sprawling cemetery, and finally settles on the house in Brooklyn where Arnold grew up. Although such cinematic flourishes are rare, director Paul Bogart has at least succeeded in re-creating Torch Song as a movie in its own right rather than simply committing a play to film.

Since writing Torch Song in 1976, Fierstein has talked about it so much that, in an interview, an understandable fatigue darkens his voice, already a dry baritone. There are obvious parallels between Fierstein and his sardonic character in Torch Song. Explaining that his story is only semiautobiographical, Fierstein said, ‘‘I'm not as naïve as Arnold, not as moonstruck—Arnold is really a very specific personality, not a gay Everyman.’’ Torch Song indeed has a deeply personal quality. Still, as Fierstein carries the torch from the stage to the screen, he illuminates social terrain rarely explored in American movies.

Source: Brian D. Johnson, ‘‘Drag Queen Romance’’ in Maclean's, Vol. 102, no. 8, February 20, 1989.

The Gay Desperado

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Kenneth Tynan created a stir some years ago by asserting that the two principal types of humor in the American theater were the Jewish and the homosexual. If this is so, and it well may be, the good news is that the two strains have been successfully crossbred in Harvey Fierstein' s Torch Song Trilogy, which is a very amusing as well as moving affair for whose enjoyment, be it said right off, neither Jewishness nor homosexuality is a prerequisite.

This trilogy of shortish plays that lasts, all told (and is all ever told!), a little over four hours is about half the length of Nicholas Nickleby, but has at least twice as much to tell us about the way we live now. And when I say we, I mean people, any people, except perhaps those living in an offshore lighthouse or in the very buckle of the Bible Belt. Fierstein wrote, and performed the lead in, these three plays one at a time, but it is much better to see them as they are now: the long acts of one extended but not excessive work that gathers meaning as it progresses until, at last, all parts of it resonate in the mind in a bittersweet harmony made of dissonances, pain, resignation, and a little daredevil hope.

Arnold Beckoff, the protagonist, has all the earmarks of a stylized projection of the actor-author himself; yet even though one feels this potentially stifling closeness, one is not, or not for long, an embarrassed voyeur. Buttonholing immediacy is transmuted—by wit, irony, fair play to one and all—first into a bearable distance, then into a sense of wonder. For Beckoff-Fierstein emerges at the far end of identification in a state of liberated semi-detachment that is not quite so good as serenity but that will—will have to—do.

In the first play, Arnold, a drag queen, is either backstage at the nightclub where he performs (a performance we do not see—an unfortunate evasion), or at a gay bar called the International Stud, which gives the play its name, or in his apartment, when not in that of his new lover, Ed, a bisexual who is also involved with a young woman called Laurel. The themes here are Arnold's drifting into the orgiastic back rooms of gay hotspots versus his yearning for a solid relationship, Ed's shuttling between two kinds of sexuality and styles of life, and the difficulties with commitment to anything, even noncommitment. In dialogues, monologues, phone conversations with a homosexual friend, Arnold reveals himself and his world with a sweet campiness, an outrageousness whose bark is worse than its bite, an arrested development that does not preclude perceptions of devastating lucidity. ‘‘I always thought of myself as a kind person,’’ says Arnold; ''not small, but generous in a bitchy sort of way.’’ Or: ‘‘To me a lap in bed is worth three in a [gay] bar, because deep down I know they don't marry sluts.’’ Or: ‘‘That's really hitting below the belt: appealing to my Susan Hay ward fantasies!’’

Now, these lines may not be funny out of context, and they lose a lot on paper, without Fierstein's engagingly abrasive presence: the face of a weather vane whirling between corruption and innocence; the movements of an overgrown, precociously epicene baby; and the mind of a tirelessly impudent, lubricious wit that can instantly switch to self-mockery and comic Weltschmerz enunciated with a provocatively rasping voice that seems to be picking away at existential scabs on the self, on others, on the world. An upside-down world that one meets with tragicomic defiance: "I could make love to an 80-year-old woman. I could probably make love to an 80-year-old camel. I could make love to an 80-year-old anything as long as it kept its mouth shut.’’

In the second play, Fugues in a Nursery, it is a year later in the upstate farmhouse shared by Ed and Laurel, now living together and playing weekend hosts to Arnold and his new lover, Alan, a very young male model. Fierstein situates the entire action in an enormous symbolic bed in which the two couples talk, argue, copulate. and crisscross both emotionally and sexually. The writing is in the form of a fugue, which is clever, but also means something: The overlapping, intermingling dialogue, in which we are often not sure about who is talking to whom, conveys thought-provoking parallels between homo- and heterosexual relationships—though the captious might argue that Ed's bisexuality muddies the analogies. In any case, Fugues is an extremely droll and ingenious scrutiny of sexual politics whose humor, honorably, never hides the underlying cruelty or, still deeper down, the underlying pathos. With gallant gallows humor, Arnold wonders about this foursome: ''If two wrongs don't make a right, maybe four do?’'

It is the last play, Widows and Children First!, that rises to true heights and ties all the foregoing together. Ed is unhappily married to Laurel, has had a fight with her and is temporarily bunking chez Arnold, after whom he still hankers; Alan, who had been living with Arnold, has met a horrible, homosexual death; Arnold is trying to adopt legally a problem teenager, David, a tough, street-wise, homosexual kid, chock-full of precocious knowledge and sarcasm, but not without a touching residue of childishness. Into this ménage, on a visit from Florida, comes Mrs. Beckoff, Arnold's widowed mother. She knows about her son's homosexuality, but cannot really accept it, and keeps needling him. Mother and son try to love each other, but cannot quite make it; their defense, which is also an offense, is wit: her Jewish wit against his homosexual one. While they fumble for each other's affection out of one side of their mouths, they cleverly lacerate each other out of the other side. The combat, fought with bare tongues and occasional desperate gestures, is verbal Grand Guignol of matchless humor and horror.

It turns out that the two widowed creatures, mother and son, are, except for their different sexualities, deeply alike down to their very jokes. The Jewish ones, to be sure, suggest a sad, lonely stand-up comedian resorting to an almost metaphysical sardonicism; the homosexual ones suggest a sarcastic masquerader, flamboyantly theatricalizing everything. But they climax in a very similar, murderous and suicidal, bitchiness: envenomed chicken soup against poisoned paillettes. When mother accuses son of not knowing how to bring up David, Arnold answers: ‘‘What's there to know? Whenever there is a problem, I simply imagine how you would solve it.... And then I do the opposite!'' But in fact—and here lies the play's subtlety—Arnold does the same, or nearly. And sometimes he realizes it. Reminiscing about Alan, he says: ‘‘It's easier to love someone who's dead. They make so few mistakes. Mother: You have an unusual way of looking at things. Arnold: It runs in the family.’’

All values are inverted and subverted. ‘‘Arnold: What would you say if I went out and came home with a girl and told you I was straight? Mother (patronizingly): If you were happy, I'd be happy.’’ There are ironies within ironies in this, a whole topsy-turvy world. And alongside the mother conflict are, cunningly and touchingly orchestrated, the David problem, the Ed problem, and even the Laurel problem. The author's ultimate achievement is the perfect blend of hard justice and warm empathy with which he embraces all characters, his own alter ego included. The performances by Joel Crothers, Diane Tarleton, Paul Joynt are very fine; more remarkable yet are Fierstein's Arnold, Matthew Broderick' s wryly abstracted David aroused to sudden spurts of insistence, and Estelle Getty's quintessential Jewish mother.

There are flaws. Arnold's source of income grows unclear: Could a drag-queen single parent adopt even as unwanted a kid as David? Alan was presented as a fling in the second play; the third makes him out to have been a beloved spouse. No matter: Peter Pope's staging and the production values are good; the play is better. What are you waiting for?

Source: John Simon, ‘‘The Gay Desperado’’ in New York, Vol. 14, no. 49, December 14, 1981. Simon is one of the best-known and respected drama critics of the late-twentieth century.


Critical Overview