The 1968 Exhibit: The Boys in the Band, premiered April 14, 1968

A new breed of gay plays--and the 1968 ancestor

A front-page article in the New York Times on February 23, 2010, offered an analysis of "a new breed" of plays with gay themes, plays that present "gay characters in love stories, replacing the topical and political messages" of the 1980s and 1990s, and placing "the everyday concerns of Americans in a gay context." Timely, I thought, since I was just about to add a post to "Covering 1968" about Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band--the granddaddy of all gay plays--which was first produced on the New York stage at Theatre Four on West 55th Street on April 14, 1968.

[caption id="attachment_1219" align="alignleft" width="510" caption="The Boys in the Band, cover, first edition, 1968"]boys-band[/caption]

1968 becomes 2010

I've never seen the play or the 1970 movie version (directed by William Friedkin, who would direct The French Connection the following year), but I had just read the play for the first time.  I was going to write about how funny and smart it was, but also how incredibly dated it seemed, how it evoked as many cringes as laughs, and how I could not imagine it being revived in this day and age.  Wrong:  the very next day in the Times was a review ( of a new production, staged in an actual penthouse apartment in New York's Chelsea neighborhood (which, in 1968, was probably not called "Chelsea" and was certainly not fashionable or as gay as it is today).

Gay, off-Broadway, and a smash hit

The original off-Broadway production of The Boys in the Band was an undisputed hit, playing just over 1,000 performances before closing on September 6, 1970.  It was a period that encompassed the event known simply as "Stonewall"--the June 1969 police raid on the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village and the subsequent nights of rioting, nearly universally recognized as the birth of the gay rights movement.   In retrospect, the period of triumph and celebration and some measure of acceptance that followed in the wake of Stonewall--an "era" that was in part symbolized by the success of this play in New York--was tragically brief.  By the early 1980s the gay male community was beginning to be engulfed by the horrors of the AIDS epidemic--which would eventually claim five of the original cast of The Boys in the Band.

Self-loathing as a way of life

"The "boys" of the play's title are nine men, their names and ages and descriptions listed in the front of the play's text (e.g., "Michael, thirty, average face, smartly groomed," "Larry, twenty-nine, extremely handsome"), gathered in Michael's fashionable New York apartment for a birthday party.  One of the guests is black, one is notably more outrageous and campy than the others (and gets most of the laugh lines), one is a "too pretty" street hustler (a "midnight Cowboy") whose services have been bought as a birthday present; and one is ostensibly straight--Michael's college roommate, Alan.  Except for Alan, the guests are described by Michael as "the same old tired fairies you've seen around since day one."  The evening proceeds in ways that were familiar to anyone who had seen Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) -- lacerating, at times vicious humor, fueled by plenty of alcohol.  The language is mildly profane and scatological (mild in today's terms, at least), and the many sexual references are couched in snarky innuendo.  At least two of the characters launch into speeches in which they "blame" their domineering, smothering mothers for making them gay.  The bitchy zingers fly fast and furious, but the ultimate impression one is left with is one where self-loathing seems to be a way of life. In the play's most quoted line: "Show me a happy homosexual, and I'll show you a gay corpse."

A funhouse hall of mirrors

From Times theater critic Ben Brantley's review of the 2010 production:  "The feelings of entrapment enforce a sense of unhappy men trapped in personas that are either lies or exaggerations of qualities they may possess but also hold in contempt. They are also trapped, it seems, in a masochistic funhouse hall of mirrors in which they serve as one another’s unflattering, distorting reflections....  Audiences expecting a frolicsome the-way-we-were evening are advised to stay home. This time the boys of 'Boys' demand that you feel their pain."