Torch Song Trilogy

by Harvey Fierstein

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The Play

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Torch Song Trilogy was originally conceived and performed as three separate one-act plays: The International Stud (pr. 1976), Fugue in a Nursery (pr. 1979), and Widows and Children First! (pr. 1979). As the completed three-act, four-hour, Tony Award-winning play Torch Song Trilogy, each act retains its original title.

“The International Stud” opens to the soulful strains of a torch song, sung by Lady Blues. The stage is divided into five sections, each characterized by a minimal number of props: Lady Blues’s dais with its grand piano, Arnold’s dressing room with its vanity table, Arnold’s apartment with its comfortable chair, Ed’s apartment with its uncomfortable chair, and the International Stud platform, a bare but successful evocation of a typical gay back-room bar.

In Scene 1, the audience is introduced to Arnold, a witty Jewish drag queen who, while primping at his vanity, delivers a long, poignant, self-deprecatory, and self-revealing soliloquy, in which he conveys his surprisingly conventional views on men, love, and relationships.

Scene 2 is played in the front room of the International Stud, a New York bar where Arnold meets Ed. Both men decide to forgo the immediate gratifications available in the back room and instead retire to Arnold’s apartment, where Lady Blues’s third song accentuates the tentativeness of their first sexual encounter.

Scene 3 finds an anxious and rejected Arnold waiting for a telephone call from the less-than-attentive Ed. In the call that follows, initiated by Arnold, Ed’s bisexuality is revealed, and the inevitable conflict between Arnold’s flamboyant homosexuality and Ed’s confused bisexuality results in an estrangement between the two men.

Scene 4 finds Arnold back at the International Stud with his friend Murray, who cajoles him into the back room despite Arnold’s protestations that he is old-fashioned, likes his sex in a bed, and does not “see sex as a spectator sport.” What follows is a very bawdy, humorous scene in which Arnold, alone onstage, pantomimes sex with an unseen partner, who is apparently disturbed by his ingenuous attempt to humanize the act through conversation and a mid-coital cigarette.

In scene 5, Ed returns five months later to Arnold’s dressing room in a state of confused affection. As much as Arnold would like to remain aloof, his love for Ed and his innate optimism make him vulnerable to Ed’s distressed call for help. At the end of this act, the future of the two men is left ambiguous.

The second act, “Fugue in a Nursery,” takes place one year later. Where act 1 is an exploration of the vicissitudes of single life, act 2 is more concerned with the dynamics of relationships. Rather than traditional scenes, the action of this section of the play is divided into the musical entities of a fugue. Ed and his fiancee Laurel have asked Arnold and his new lover Alan to spend the weekend with them in Ed’s farmhouse in upstate New York. What follows is an Oscar Wildean comedy of manners, in which the two couples attempt to be extremely civilized but end up having a series of arch conversations, most of which are orchestrated in a huge bed—a giant, adult nursery. At the close of this act, a brief sexual encounter between Ed and Alan brings Alan and Arnold closer together and stampedes Ed into an ill-fated marriage with Laurel.

Act 3, “Widows and Children First!,” takes place five years after “Fugue in a Nursery” and widens the perspective of the play to include the issues of family. In the interim between acts, Arnold has lost Alan in a tragic incident: He was beaten to death by a...

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group of homophobic young men.

After the austerity of the stage in the prior acts, the audience is surprised to be confronted in scene 1 by a stage that is realistically decorated, in the fussy late 1950’s kitsch of situation comedies. Fannie Brice is singing “I’m Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love,” as the lights come up on Ed, who, recently estranged from his wife, is cooking breakfast for Arnold and David. David is a young boy, previously thought to be incorrigible, who has, in six months of Arnold’s foster care, become a nearly typical teenager. The household is in a state of considerable anxiety as the three men await the arrival of Arnold’s mother, Mrs. Beckoff, who has not been told of Arnold’s plans to adopt David. Mrs. Beckoff is feisty, witty, and strong—the prototype for the more domestic Arnold of the third act.

Scene 2 is an extended and explosive argument between Arnold and his mother, in which both sides fire powerful shots about Arnold’s gay life-style and his desire to adopt David. Nowhere in the play is the complexity of character clearer than in this go-for-the-jugular, because-I-love-you free-for-all between mother and son.

Scene 3 includes intimate conversations between Ed and David, and David and Arnold, in which clearly tender emotions are incompletely disguised under a veneer of sarcastic language. Scene 4 provides an uneasy resolution for each of the major conflicts in the play: Arnold and Mrs. Beckoff find common ground over the issue of their mutual widowhood; David acts as a loving ombudsman between Arnold and Ed; and Ed comes to terms with his sexuality. Arnold and Ed commit themselves, as best they can, to a life resembling, but not mimicking, the traditional “heterosexual” way of life whose values Arnold has held, however tenuously, throughout the entire play.

Dramatic Devices

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While Torch Song Trilogy is not a musical in the conventional sense, it is a drama whose connections with the world of music are essential to both the tone and the structure of the play. Torch Song Trilogy is permeated with the atmosphere of the torch song music of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The play opens to the sounds of Lady Blues singing in the manner of Helen Morgan or Ruth Etting and ends with Arnold in his kitchen listening to the Big Maybelle song that David has just dedicated to him on the radio: “I Will Never Turn My Back on You.” What all these songs have in common with one another and with the concerns of the play is their obsession with love. While they focus on the extreme discomfort and pain of love, they nevertheless make that anguish seem desirable, at least in comparison with having no love at all. One of Arnold’s strengths in the play is his ability to love the imperfect human beings around him, rather than waiting helplessly for the International Stud of his fantasies. Through the music, one more unusual point of connection is made between the tortured female lyricists of an earlier era and the contemporary Jewish drag queen whose repertoire includes old standards such as “Cry Me a River” and “Who’s Sorry Now?”

More intriguing perhaps is the importance of musical forms to the structure of the play. The organization of act 2, for example, is reminiscent of the imitative, repetitive, counterpoint format of the late seventeenth century fugue. In a fugue, two or more melodies combine in some not strictly defined way that does, however, make musical sense. A fugue is usually written for two to six instruments or parts. In act 2, “Fugue in a Nursery,” Harvey Fierstein presents a composition of four parts, with Ed, Laurel, Alan, and Arnold acting as separate instruments.

By using slides to signal the various sections of act 2 to the audience (“Subject,” “Codetta,” “Stretto,” “Counter Subject,” and “Coda”), Fierstein highlights the musical underpinnings of his design. The Subject, or theme, of this fugue is love. In the most interesting section, “Stretto,” where one would expect overlapping statements of the subject, Fierstein has created some of the most intriguing dialogue of the entire play: Each character asks and answers overlapping questions, which can only be clarified by the judicious use of lighting to show who is talking to whom. In “Coda,” an independent passage used to summarize the preceding themes and motifs, Fierstein leaves the audience with a bantering, but sincere, declaration of love.

In Torch Song Trilogy, music is a great palliative, remembrancer, and spur to action. It is also a wonderful exemplar of the form, the meaning, and the order in Fierstein’s universe.

Places Discussed

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*International Stud Bar

*International Stud Bar. Gay men’s hangout in New York City’s Greenwich Village that contained the most notorious backroom bar of its time. Opened in 1969, it consisted of two rooms, one with a regular bar setup and the other a venue for casual sexual encounters. In Harvey Fierstein’s play, it is depicted onstage as a series of platforms with as little scenery as possible. The sparse sets force the audience to focus on the characters and not their surroundings.


Apartments. Both Arnold’s apartment and Ed’s apartment are merely platforms on stage; each is furnished with only one chair, one table, and one telephone. The chairs themselves are descriptive of their owners: Arnold’s is worn and comfortable, hinting at both his experience and his comfort with his sexuality, while Ed’s is new and straight, a reference to his prudish and closeted attitude toward his bisexuality.

Vacation house

Vacation house. Farmhouse in upstate New York where Ed and Laurel invite Arnold and his new lover, Alan, to spend the weekend. The set consists of an eight-by-nine-foot bed, heaped with all the props needed in the course of the play. The bed serves as all the rooms in the house. Although both couples are in the bed at the same time, they are illuminated separately so they never appear to be in bed together. The intent is to show the vulnerability of the characters without being offensive. The conversations are orchestrated in the same manner as the musical style of a fugue, and different colored lights are used to indicate the pairings when the conversations become more complex.

Arnold and David’s apartment

Arnold and David’s apartment. Two-bedroom apartment overlooking New York City’s Central Park. The stage directions describe it as “a realistically represented living/dining room and kitchenette.” In scene 3, the sofa doubles as a park bench. The nighttime Central Park setting is produced through the use of lightshields (gobos) and projections. This serves to make the audience aware of the simultaneous events unfolding.

Historical Context

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In 1981, when Torch Song Trilogy opened, the first cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were becoming important medical news. When AIDS was discovered, it was soon recognized as deadly and, at the time, untreatable. It was unknown exactly how the disease was spread. Public fear was probably similar to the panic that spread across Europe in the fourteenth century when the Black Plague claimed every third person as a victim.

Since the public had no real understanding about how the disease was transmitted, they focused on the early victims, who were largely homosexual men. Homosexuals were unfairly blamed for both the cause and spread of the virus and thus became the victims of even greater prejudice. Information that was disseminated by the press included data on the disease's growth pattern—including the assertion that gay bath-houses, where anonymous sex could be enjoyed, was responsible for much of the spread of the disease. In response, many people began to think that gays where preoccupied with promiscuity, anonymous sex with many different partners. The rumor spread that committed monogamous relationships were a rarity among gays.

One of the social points that Fierstein makes in Torch Song Trilogy is that gay men really desire the same committed relationships that heterosexuals enjoy. Through Arnold's speeches, the audience understands that love is the same regardless of the participants' genders. When Arnold tries to equate love with anonymous sex and fails, the play further reinforces the idea that love and sexuality are partnered with commitment.

Fear of AIDS also meant that homosexuals were even less likely to become accepted by mainstream America. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan squashed attempts by the government to fund additional research into the causes and cures of AIDS. He viewed the disease as solely a gay epidemic and saw no point in channeling large sums of money into research. It would be years before the government would start to fund research and only after it became clear that heterosexuals were also acquiring the disease.

The debate on the transmission of AIDS and funding of research—widely covered, sometimes to sensational effects, by the world media—fed into the public's paranoia that AIDS was a death sentence too easily caught. People became so afraid that violence against homosexuals increased. Another unfortunate side-effect of AIDS's proliferation was that the nation's blood supply had became contaminated by unwitting donors infected with the virus. As a result, the disease was spread to a number of new victims; where previous cases could be traced to either intravenous drug use or unprotected sex, these new victims became infected through routine blood transfusions. Especially at risk were hemophiliacs, people whose blood can not properly clot and who required frequent infusions. A young hemophiliac, Ryan White, became infected with AIDS by such a transfusion. His experience with prejudice regarding the disease—he was kicked out of his school solely because of his illness—made him a poster child for the movement to educate the public and humanize the disease.

White was not the only child to experience prejudice. When other children became victims of AIDS, they also became victims of the public fear. These infected children were banned from schools and from neighborhood businesses, and they were forbidden to enter other children's homes. Rational people became irrational and were afraid to touch anything that an infected individual have touched. Parents did not want their children to breath the same air as a child with AIDS, and they petitioned schools, sometimes violently, to have an infected child removed from school. Early in the epidemic, scientists made it clear that the only way to transmit the virus was through contact with infected blood, touching or breathing the air of an AIDS victim posed no threat. Despite this fact, irrationality and fear won out over common sense; people remained prejudiced and fearful of AIDS sufferers well into the 1990s.

The largest benefit of the public's acceptance of Torch Song Trilogy was that Fierstein was able to demonstrate to a large number of people the stupidity and hurt that comes from prejudice—and violence—against gays.

Literary Style

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Character A character is a person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits. ''Characterization'' is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. For instance, in the beginning of the play, Arnold tells the audience how important it is for him to find a partner who will love him freely and commit to a relationship. When he meets Ed and is later hurt by him, the audience is already aware of the depth of Arnold's pain, since it has already been stated how important love is to him.

Coda A coda is a conclusion. It usually restates, summarizes, or integrates the themes of the literary work. In the case of Torch Song Trilogy, Fierstein uses a coda in the Fugue in a Nursery segment as a division in the act.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. Historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, the word drama is used as an adjective to describe a certain kind of play, typically one that explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.

Fugue A fugue is most often defined as a musical composition in which different parts successively repeat the theme. This is the case in Act II, when each set of partners repeat both the action and the dialogue in a type of round—almost like the repetition of a chorus in a song.

Plot Plot refers to the pattern of events that occur within a play. Generally plots have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes with a loose thematic connection, such as the epic plays of Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage and Her Children). Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Torch Song Trilogy is the story of how Arnold finally finds love. But the themes are those of loneliness, commitment, and love, what Arnold must experience and learn before arriving at the play's happy ending.

Scene Scenes are subdivisions of an act. A scene may change when all of the main characters either enter or exit the stage. But a change of scene may also indicate a change in time or place. In Torch Song Trilogy, the third scene of Act I occurs several months later, and thus, indicates the passage of time in the play.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical period in which the action takes place. The locations for Fierstein's play are varied, but they include his apartment, a bar, and a country home. The action occurs over a period of several years.

Stretto A stretto is a musical term for when the subject and the answer overlap. Fierstein uses a stretto in Fugue in a Nursery as a division in the act.

Compare and Contrast

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1981: The prime interest rate is at 21.5% and President Reagan ask for $13 billion in government spending cuts. The biggest victims of these cuts are social welfare programs.

Today: The prime interest rate is 7.5% and the federal budget is as close to being balanced as it has been at any time in the last thirty years. Despite the relative prosperity, social programs are still in danger of being terminated. Many conservative politicians want to do away entirely with the funding of arts programs and many forms of social welfare.

1981: AIDS cases are beginning to be reported. Doctors in New York and in San Francisco are seeing an increasing number of new cases of this especially deadly disease which attacks the immune system, rendering the victim unable to fight off even simple infections. Within the next few years, nearly 60% of all cases will end in death.

Today: People with AIDS are living much longer, thanks to the discovery of new medications and a greater understanding of the body's immune system. Funding for research has made a critical difference in treating a disease that while still incurable is now treatable.

1981: The world's population reaches 4.5 billion people. Female infanticide is on the increase in the People's Republic of China where parents are limited in the number of children they can have and boys are more desirable than girls.

Today: Female infanticide is still a problem in China, where male children are still greatly prized, but a greater effort is now being made to place infant Chinese girls for adoption in Western countries. The biggest benefit from this is that single, and often gay, parents can now adopt a child more easily.

Media Adaptations

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Torch Song Trilogy was made into a film in 1988. The screenplay was written by Fierstein and directed by Paul Bogart. The film stars many of the same actors from the stage production. Fierstein reprises his role as Arnold and Matthew Broderick, who originally played David on stage, plays Alan. Anne Bancroft plays Mrs. Beckoff and Brian Kerwin plays Ed. What is notable about the adaptation is that many characters who are only discussed in the play actually appear in the film.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnes, Clive. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in the New York Post, July 15, 1982.

Cahill, Madeleine A. Torch Song Trilogy: The Conception, Realization, and Reception of a Controversial Film (thesis), University of Massachusetts, 1992.

Clarke, Gerald. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in Time, February 22, 1982.

Green, William. ''Torch Song Trilogy: A Gay Comedy with a Dying Fall'' in Maske und Kothurn: Internationale Beitrage zur Theatrewissenschaft, Volume 30, nos. 1-2, 1984, pp. 217-24.

Gross, Gregory D. ''Coming up for Air: Three AIDS Plays'' in Journal of American Culture, Volume 15, no. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 63-67.

Gussow, Mel. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in the New York Times, November 1, 1981.

Kroll, Jack. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in Newsweek, March 15, 1982.

Nelson, Don. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in the Daily News, November 11, 1981.

Powers, Kim. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in Theatre, Volume 14, no. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 63-67.

Stasio, Marilyn. Review of Torch Song Trilogy in the New York Post, November 20, 1981.

Further Reading

Brozan, Nadine. ‘‘When a Son or Daughter is a Homosexual’’ in the New York Times, March 12, 1984, p. B11.

In this article, Brozan discusses the reactions of parents who have discovered that their child is gay.

Dynes, Wayne and Stephen Donaldson, editors. Homosexuality and Homosexuals in the Arts, Garland, 1992.

This book is the fourth volume in a series, ''Studies in Homosexuality.’’ This volume contains a selection of essays that examines the role of homosexuality in film, stage, and fiction.

Helbing, Terry, editor. Directory of Gay Plays, JH Press, 1980.

This book is a survey of the growth in the production of plays with homosexual themes.

Pastore, Judith L., editor. Confronting AIDS through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

This is a collection of essays that examine the history of AIDS in literature.

Summers, Claude. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition, Continuum, 1990.

This anthology of twentieth-century fiction includes works by Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin and several others.

Wilde, Oscar. Novels and Fairy Tales, Cosmopolitan, 1915.

This book is a collection of Wilde's fiction, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost, and The Sphinx without a Secret. All these works are considered seminal gay fiction.


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Clarke, Gerald. “No One Opened Doors for Me.” Time 119 (February 22, 1982): 70. Explains Fierstein’s process in getting the play produced and the effect of the work’s success on his career.

Dace, Tish. “Fierstein, Harvey (Forbes).” Contemporary Dramatists. 5th ed. Edited by K. A. Berney. London: St. James, 1993. Overview of Fierstein’s career, with emphasis on Torch Song Trilogy. Discusses the play’s themes and Fierstein’s styles of presentation, particularly the use of fugue.

Fierstein, Harvey. “His Heart Is Young and Gay.” Interview by Jack Kroll. Newsweek 101 (June 20, 1983): 71. Fierstein explains why his play is not homosexual propaganda. Also explores the autobiographical nature of the play and a gay reaction against it.

Oliver, Edith. “Tripleheader.” The New Yorker 58 (February 1, 1982): 116. One of the country’s foremost theater critics explains why Torch Song Trilogy deserves the high praise it has received. Excellent analysis of the characters.

Wiloch, Thomas. “Fierstein, Harvey.” In Gay & Lesbian Literature, edited by Sharon Malinowski. London: St. James Press, 1994. Discusses the play’s thematic and stylistic similarities with Fierstein’s other prominent works including La Cage aux folles (1983).


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide