Torch Song Trilogy is Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking portrait of a gay man’s struggle for respect and love in a homophobic world. The play, comprising three one acts titled “International Stud,” “Fugue in a Nursery,” and “Widows and Children First,” chronicles the journey of the central character, Arnold Becker, from a life of transitory sexual encounters with strangers in the back rooms of New York’s gay bars to his insistence on relationships based on commitment, respect, and love.
In the first play, “International Stud,” Arnold meets Ed Reiss in a gay bar. For Arnold, the encounter offers the possibility of an honest relationship that will put an end to his loneliness. Ed, however, sees his meeting with Arnold as simply a one-night stand and returns to his developing relationship with Laurel. He describes himself as bisexual but chooses to hide his gayness for fear of public opinion. Ed attempts to terminate the relationship but finds himself returning to Arnold and is even able to acknowledge his love for Arnold. Arnold, however, cannot accept an undercover and uncommitted relationship and finally walks away.
“International Stud” presents the reader with two characters who are at different places regarding their understanding of themselves. Arnold is comfortable with himself as a gay man and is in search of a lover who is also a friend. Ed, however, is in denial as to his sexuality and, therefore, incapable of giving himself to anyone as either friend or lover.
“Fugue in a Nursery” takes place one year after “International Stud.” By this time Ed and Arnold have what each wanted; Arnold has Alan, an eighteen-year-old model, and Ed is involved in a relationship with Laurel. The action of the play takes place on an oversized bed. Arnold and Alan have been invited to spend a weekend with Ed and Laurel. In a brilliantly written series of overlapping lines and interwoven actions, the playwright demonstrates the confusion of each character as he or she attempts to resolve the conflict between what one has and what one wants. It becomes clear that none of the characters has found all that he or she was seeking. In Alan, however, Arnold has found someone who loves and respects him.
“Fugue in a Nursery” continues the argument of “International Stud.” It clearly demonstrates that one cannot give love until one has learned to love oneself. Alan and Arnold have a better chance of building a solid relationship because each is aware of who he is and can, therefore, be honest with the other. Ed, however, can talk to Laurel about his confusions but cannot confront the truth of his attraction to and preference for Arnold.
The final play in the trilogy, “Widows and Children First,” takes place five years after the preceding play. Arnold has lost Alan to a mob of gay-bashers and is currently in the process of adopting David, a gay teenager. Ed’s marriage to Laurel has failed, and he is temporarily staying with Arnold. The action of the play centers around a visit from Arnold’s recently widowed mother and her inability to accept her son’s need for love and the security of a family. Although she is aware of Arnold’s lifestyle, she does not accept it. She is insulted when he compares his suffering at the death of Alan to her loss of her husband, and she questions the morality of a gay man rearing a child. A series of arguments ensues, and Arnold states that his mother is unwelcome in his life unless she can respect him and the validity of his feelings and desires. She leaves. David affirms his love for his soon-to-be father, and Ed finally confronts the truth of his desire to be with Arnold.
Torch Song Trilogy addresses the issue of gay identity and asks its audience to deal with the broader questions of honesty and respect regardless of sexual preference or lifestyle.
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