No matter how you look at it or how hard you work to parse the language of Mart Crowley's caustic, biting and witty dialogue into something uplifting and inspiring, The Boys in the Band is a hard pill to swallow-even if you need a valium, a martini or a joint (or any combination thereof) after the curtain falls on the 1968 dramatic comedy that is revived at Murfreesboro's Out Front on Main in celebration of Pride Month 2012.
There's not a lot to be proud of in Crowley's epochal play that made history as the first piece for mainstream theater to look at homosexuality with a clear, if assuredly off-putting, gaze. The playwright took off the rose-colored glasses that his character Emory would likely have worn to present a no-holds-barred examination of the modern homosexual's manners and sexual mores that now come across as a shocking blend of witheringly disdainful glances, the then-surprising and liberal use of expletives, and the evisceration of the modern gay man's voyeuristic and wanton interactions.
Crowley's comedy has been the source of controversy since its off-Broadway premiere-and its subsequent transfer to the main stem-what with his treatment of his subject, which in hindsight can be relegated to the ranks of theater about the self-loathing homosexual. Sure Tennessee Williams had dealt, however obliquely, with his fair share of gay characters; Gore Vidal's novel The City and The Pillar had been published some 20 years earlier (haven't read it? You should pick it up.); and playwrights from Oscar Wilde to Edward Albee had mined the depths of the homosexual lifestyle to provide thematic inspiration for many of their works. But Crowley was the first to put it on the Broadway stage in all its campy, Judy Garland-infused and drugs-and-alcohol-fueled "glory."
Certainly, it can be argued that The Boys in the Band provides a slanted and skewed vision of homosexuals (even that word reads "dated" in these enlightened times of the 21st century), but consider this: In 1968, it was downright courageous to lift the curtain and allow the heteros a glimpse into the "secret" world of the boys who loved boys. And the play's role in ushering society toward "gay liberation" cannot be discounted, coming as it did only months before the riots at New York's Stonewall Inn precipitated the start of the modern gay rights moment in 1969.
I first read the script of The Boys in the Band in 1973, at 15-years-old (I bought the book that included the script at a book fair at my high school) and I was mesmerized by the characters, the situations revealed in Crowley's fiercely funny dialogue (which convinced me I had my work cut out for me if I were ever to engage in such bitchy banter-and generous chunks of his language found its way into my daily conversation from that day forward), and the heartbreaking stories told in the play. Yet, even as I was fascinated by this far-off, foreign world in which Crowley's characters lived and played, I was even then embarrassed by some of their antics, wondering where in this world would there ever be a place for me. The Boys in the Band, however, provided me with the dream of a bigger, brighter world outside the very small Tennessee town where I was growing up-even if my delivery of such pithy, idiosyncratic bon mots as "Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty" or "Spring: When a young man's fancy turns to a fanCy Young man" seemed rather incongruous and overtly queer for study hall conversation.
As a result, one must approach any production of The Boys in the Band with eyes wide open and with an appreciation of where the play falls in the history of the movement, in particular, and in contemporary theater, in general. There is no denying that it has historic value, even if the scenario and the characters make you cringe. In other words, I have great respect for playwright Crowley and his creation, I fully understand where it falls in our shared heritage and history, yet I cannot help but look at it now as a sort of gay-themed minstrel show, with the actors in garishly colored makeup rather than blackface.