Friday, March 11, 2011

In Defense of The Boys in the Band

There's a documentary playing at the Film Forum I'm dying to see. Making the Boys is about the seminal Stonewall era gay play and subsequent film The Boys in the Band, by Mart Crowley. The documentary includes interviews with awesome people like Edward Albee and Tony Kushner.

For the uninitiated, The Boys in the Band revolves around a group of gay men at a birthday party on the Upper East Side in 1969. Things start out great, until somebody's straight college friend shows up and makes things awkward. Things only get worse when the birthday boy appears two hours late, stoned and miserable and ready to fight. As the evening progresses and the booze and pot is consumed, dark secrets and painful memories come out and all the party attendees are left wondering why, as gay men, they hate themselves so much.

It's an examination of loneliness and self-loathing and despite being very clever and funny at times, some people find its bleakness excruciating. Unfortunately, it didn't fit into the narrative of the gay liberation movement of the past few decades and so it kind of got thrown under the bus as a relic of another time, at best, or a shameful, hateful embarrassment to the gay community, at worst. That's a fucking shame, because it's a masterpiece, and one a lot of young queer people probably don't know.

I keep thinking how brave Mart Crowley was. He wrote this play at a time when gay men were getting the shit beat out of them in gay bars (not that they don't anymore, but still.) The film version was the first major motion picture about gay lives and I can't think of one since that features all gay men and examines their lives in a way that's honest, even if painful. And I, for one, think it's still pretty radical to see a story that has only gay men in it without any wacky female buddies or understanding straight bros.

I mean, when I was a closeted gay teen in the 90's there was an explosion of gay movies, but they really fell into two categories:

1. Gay teen coming out movie
2. White, gay men with money romantic comedies

And in the theater we had Jeffrey and Love! Valour! Compassion! etc. which often became indie films too. With the exception of Angels in America, nothing feels as radical in gay theater as The Boys in the Band. (Although I'm so optimistic and excited about The Normal Heart remount coming up.) In general though, they were mostly apolitical and kind of wholesome, even.

I guess what I'm getting at is that gay plays and movies seem so safe to me now. But why? Our lives are easier, but still not easy. We haven't assimilated into mainstream culture that much. The struggle is still a struggle. Why are all these plays and films about white, Urban men with money? I'm starting to think there's a difference between being gay and being queer.

I guess part of being a queer artist is coming to terms with never crossing over to the mainstream? Is that it? As far as I'm concerned, Charles Ludlam should be in the pantheon of great American playwrights, but he isn't really. Ditto Mart Crowley. Ditto Charles Busch. Ditto Doric Wilson. And that's just the theater. If I went into music or film and the wonderful, over looked artists I'd write a list that goes on forever.

People can say what they will about The Boys in the Band, but at least it's bold. At least it's honest. At least it's authentic. Three things I want all queer artists to be. Three things I want to be too.


Anonymous said...

As a young, gay playwright, I found this entry super relevant and nail-on-the-head spot on. Thanks for expressing this!

MYW said...

Great post. It is an interesting challenge to find (or write!) a gay play that isn't "just another coming out" play. Finding and articulating any struggle of any minority group without falling into the pitfalls of the "genre" is always tough, as so many honest truths and struggles have become cliches in their own right over time.