Torch Song Trilogy Analysis
by Harvey Fierstein

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The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 3,907 words.)