Looking back at The Boys in the Band

I have no agenda in writing this play except expressing myself” – Mart Crowley

In the 1960’s gay American playwrights were often forced to present work that was closeted on stage. Writers like Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams would thinly disguise the homosexual traits in their male characters by implying rather than stating their sexual preference, plays like ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘Zoo Story’ had their ‘camp factor’ forcibly watered down by Broadway producers for fear of never selling a ticket at the theatre box office.

Some people eat, some people drink, and some take dope’

Theatre-goers like the writers themselves felt stifled by the moral standards of the day. If you can’t be creatively honest on stage about being gay (or being heterosexual for that matter) where could you be? Certainly not in Hollywood films that were being made at the time! Gay characters were more often than not on stage and screen, simply there as comic relief and never in the lead storyline. But in 1968 (pre-Stonewall riots and AIDS epidemic) all that changed thanks to Mart Crowley’s acid-tongued boozy birthday party, The Boys in the Band.

Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?’

Set in New York late 1960s, The Boys in the Band was a game-changer in writing for the theatre. It tells the story of nine gay men who gather in a Greenwich Village apartment to celebrate the birthday of a mean spirited, acne-scarred fag called Harold. Like most parties held on rooftops with lashings of alcohol and drugs, it’s all fun and games and cheap sexual innuendo until someone loses an eye…or at least gets their feelings very badly hurt.

Well… That’s the pot calling the kettle beige!’

What starts out as a gay comedy where we laugh at all the silly queers camping it up, much like we’ve done in hundreds of shows before The Boys in the Band, turns rapidly into a psychological drama as the men, prompted by the main ringleader, Michael, phone the one person they really cared about, and confess their undying love. As the party hats fall to the floor, the men reveal their most intimate secrets and insecurities, and the audience starts to identify with the characters as if the men were their best friends. Suddenly the matter of being straight or gay becomes irrelevant, the characters in The Boys in the Band become real people, like you or me, thin-skinned, fractured and frightened. Doing their best to survive as the gay movement sweeps the globe, making way for the sexual freedom of the 1970s.

Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?’

The brilliance of Mart Crowley’s writing is clearly in the lead character of Michael, a lapsed Catholic with a drinking problem. A lesser writer would have tried to find a few redeeming qualities in Michael, or at least let him say something warm and fuzzy occasionally but Crowley doesn’t. Like Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,’ Michael has no social filter and uses his inadequacies to fuel his rage and attack the men at the birthday party that he classifies as weak. This is particularly true for the character of Alan, a college friend, who may or may not be closeted. Michael attacks him towards the end of the play, which makes Michael feel superior and validated, and for a moment he finds inner peace. It’s an ugly character at a hideous party full of sad and often pathetic queens. But it’s this ‘meanest’ that permeates throughout the play and that lives inside the characters, that’s a stroke of genius by writer, Mart Crowley. As it doesn’t matter if we like the men or hate them, all that matters is that we remember them, 50 years later we do. Boys in the Band started a revolution by putting gay lives unfiltered onstage without judgement. It changed forever how the world viewed gay men and liberated the American stage.

The Boys in the Band premiered Off-Broadway in 1968 and was revived on Broadway for its 50th anniversary in 2018. It was adapted into a feature film by ‘The Exorcist’ director, William Friedkin in 1970. And re-adapted for Netflix in 2020 starring the 50th anniversary Broadway cast, all of whom are out gay actors.

Playwright Mart Crowley died on the 7th March 2020. Crowley’s sequel to The Boys in the Band was entitled The Men from the Boys. Crowley was openly gay.

Boys in the Band Netflix trailer

Making of 1970’s Film version

About the author – Noel Anderson is putting the finishing touches on his feature film script Sammy & Dave and recently adapted Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ into a play called ‘Ghost Story‘. Read an extract of Ghost Story on Amazon. More info: Australian Plays Org