The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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

(Drama for Students)

In 1981, when Torch Song Trilogy opened, the first cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were becoming important medical...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Playwright Fierstein as his alter ego Published by Gale Cengage

A character is a person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story....

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1981: The prime interest rate is at 21.5% and President Reagan ask for $13 billion in government spending...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Discuss the impact of AIDS on the gay population in the United States.

Consider Arnold's pending adoption of David. Research the...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Scene from the film adaptation Published by Gale Cengage

Torch Song Trilogy was made into a film in 1988. The screenplay was written by Fierstein and directed by Paul Bogart. The film stars...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Plato's Phaedrus, written c. 388 B.C., is a dialogue about love and passion. Although designed as an exploration of the subject of rhetoric, the examples used by Plato and Socrates are based on love. Plato's Symposium, written c. 370 B.C., explores the nature of beauty and examines the male response to male beauty.

Fierstein's Safe Sex is a trilogy of plays that was first performed in 1987. These combined one-act plays deal with the problems that homosexuals face when AIDS becomes a factor in dating and intimacy.

M. Butterfly (1988), by David Hwang is a play about a French...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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

(The entire section is 359 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 179 words.)