Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Torch Song Trilogy addresses the basic human need for love and respect. Harvey Fierstein’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, Arnold, is young, Jewish, and homosexual, yet he is an Everyman. His quest for love in the 1970’s is different in detail but not in essence from the universal, timeless human search for emotional esteem and security. Fierstein’s own stated goals for the play are remarkably simple and straightforward:There are no answers forthcoming. But you might just catch a line, like an old familiar half-heard song playing on a jukebox, that reaches out and touches something going on inside of you. And for that instant you are relieved of the isolation. That is the worth of a Torch Song.

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In act 1, “The International Stud,” the superficially exotic is systematically demystified. Whatever shock or perverse curiosity there might be in watching Arnold transform himself from a man into a female impersonator is quite dissipated by his intimate soliloquy on the qualities of the good man and on his own private search for love. Arnold may be unusual, but his personal dilemmas have universal currency. He is not unlike the aged prophet Tiresias of Greek mythology, who gained a certain wisdom about love from having been both a man and a woman in his lifetime.

In act 2, “Fugue in a Nursery,” both Arnold and Ed are in committed relationships. The anxieties of the single life have been replaced with the day-to-day adjustments inherent in sharing one’s life with another. While the superficial features of their relationships are quite different, the emotional context is remarkably similar—they are all in the same boat, or in Fierstein’s metaphor, the same enormous bed.

In act 3, “Widows and Children First!” the play goes beyond the single life, and beyond simple coupling, to explore issues of family. In this act, Arnold reaffirms his belief in the traditional values represented by his mother, while still believing in the possibility, and dignity, of the alternative family that he, Ed, and David have forged by the end of the play. Arnold, who is cast in the roles of son, father, mother, and lover in act 3, must reconcile all these competing demands, while at the same time remaining true to himself. His valiant attempt to balance his need for love and his need for respect is bound to strike a chord of recognition in even the most isolated playgoer.

Torch Song Trilogy asserts that gay or straight, young or old, male or female, all people are brothers and sisters under the skin. By eschewing special pleading, Torch Song Trilogy has succeeded in making the microcosm of Arnold’s life suggest the macrocosm of human experience.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Betrayal
Betrayal is a central theme in Torch Song Trilogy, since much of the play focuses on Ed's betrayal of Arnold's love. Ed loves Arnold but cannot accept his own homosexuality. In a very real sense, Ed betrays himself as well. He hurts the person he loves because he feels he must live as a heterosexual, fulfilling his parent's expectations. His betrayal of Laurel is also an issue, since he leaves her emotionally, long before he physically leaves their marriage.

Early in the play, Ed approaches Arnold, and although he wants to continue with Laurel, and in fact live with her, he also wants Arnold in his life. Ed wants the best of both worlds, Laurel and Arnold; he ends up betraying the two people who love him. Arnold is so wounded by Ed's treachery that he fears loving Alan, who certainly loves Arnold. It is only after a sexual betrayal that Arnold realizes that he and Alan need to have a more committed relationship. By the end of the play, Arnold is making his first tentative moves toward trusting Ed again.

Loneliness
The play opens with Arnold's monologue on loneliness. He wants a committed relationship with another person who will love him as much as he loves that person. Arnold is so lonely after Ed abandons him that he seeks out anonymous sex in the back room of a bar. Laurel has also been lonely; she meets Ed on a blind date and bonds with him. Having been abandoned by several previous lovers, Laurel views Ed as a means to end her loneliness. She agrees to a relationship in which Ed can still see other people—namely other men.

Loneliness is an important theme in Torch Song Trilogy because it illustrates how forlorn an existence can be when behavior does not fit certain defined social parameters. Because Arnold is gay, he feels isolated after Alan's death, since, as he points out, people do not think that queers can have feelings or grieve for a lover.

Love and Passion
That homosexuals can share love, passion, and a depth of feeling is an important theme in this play, since all too often the nature of homosexual love is misunderstood. Fierstein makes it clear to the audience that love offers the same joy and happiness and pain to gays as it does to heterosexual partners. Arnold's fight with Ed when he learns of Ed's betrayal sounds much like the argument that any other couple would have. Laurel's fears that Ed will love Arnold more echo the fears that any person might have when confronted with their partner's previous lover. And the nature of the love-hate relationship between mother and son is based on the same kinds of misunderstandings that any child and parent might experience. This play reveals to audience that love is the same whether it is between two men or between a man and a woman.

Prejudice and Tolerance
The violent death of Alan illustrates the danger of prejudice. He is beaten to death by a crowd of baseball bat-wielding bigots who fear what they cannot understand. The prejudice against gays is further illustrated by Arnold's mother who thinks that he cannot adopt a son because of his sexual orientation. She thinks that Arnold will teach David to be gay, and when she is told that David is gay, she responds with surprise that Arnold's conversion of the boy only took six months. Prejudice against gays is also the reason that Ed wants to have a girlfriend and later a wife. He thinks that a woman will provide him with a level of social acceptance and protection against prejudice. His sexuality is hidden in the closet because of his fear of prejudice.

Sex Roles
There is a lot of humor in the sex roles assumed in this play, especially in the last few scenes with David. David has several opportunities to joke about Arnold as his new mother, and he also jokes that with Arnold and Ed together, he would have a mother and father. Many of Arnold's dreams center on his desire to have a marriage as stable and happy as his parents. He wants a family and a home and that same kind of stability, but he states that his dream has only a few minor alterations. Arnold's dream substitutes male for female. He and a partner, whom he will love as much as his mother loved his father, will build the same kind of stable relationship that heterosexual partners enjoy.

Violence and Cruelty
Fierstein illustrates how dangerous the world can be for homosexuals when he tells the story about the death of his lover, Alan. Alan dies offstage, between the second and third act, but his death casts a shadow over the last third of the play, since Arnold has now been left alone. That Alan was murdered on the street, in a violent attack provoked by the mere fact that he was a homosexual, illustrates the dangers for anyone who does not fit prejudiced people's idea of normal. Although the audience never sees the violence onstage, the effect becomes part of the story, and the telling of the details provides a horrifying moment in the last act of the play. Arnold uses the site of the attack as a daily reminder of this violence when he rents an apartment overlooking the place where Alan was killed.

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