The Boys in the Band, Unabandonable

Written for an English class in the fall of 2011. I really like the first paragraph but find the final sentence laughably lurid.

An easy yet rare way to dismiss the typical claims that cheese, wine and other expensive liquors improve with age is to point out that both those people who espouse such opinions, and the overlapping group of those who profit by such views being held, are considerably aged themselves and so have an obvious bias of affinity; such “cultured” men and women are decaying, fermenting and being devoured by fungi and bacteria just like the drinks and foods they critique and esteem. Children, meanwhile, find alcohol and fine cheese repulsive – bitter, stinky, and gross, just like an unpleasant and uncaring grandparent. Therein lies the difference: the child craves the precisely engineered satiation of the sweet and salty neural mainlines offered by junk food and candy, drinking in the pleasure of his or her own instincts, while after enduring education, work and other traumatic experiences he or she comes to appreciate, to a greater degree, things as they are independent of their ability to immediately gratify the body, whether that thing be a crotchety ancestor or an acerbic mouthwash of liquid grapes. It is in the increasing interactivity of self with surroundings provoked by strange sensuous intakes that do not aim to please that man looks for meaning and finds dialogue. Art, then, which we craft to give each other these stimuli and meanings, must have a double effect with age; dramaturgy, the medium of live conversation, carries double the dialogic force. Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was just as cutting, bitter a play in 1968 as it is in 2011, but the four decades which have passed have given it much more potential for meaning and sublimation, and hence relevance, to the world today than it could have possibly given to the world then.

On the most basic level, that of the general setup and characters, Crowley’s play readily evokes contemporary attitudes. While homosexuals in America may enjoy greater acceptability and tolerance today than they did in the 1960s, the very concepts acceptable and tolerant, on which the greater society assuredly prides itself, inherently indicate that homosexuality is still foreign to and outside of that society – one accepts and tolerates mosquitoes on a camping trip, but one does not “accept” or “tolerate” one’s friends, only their shortcomings and flaws. Gays and lesbians, as with other minorities, certainly have more representation in modern media than in earlier years, yet rare is the character who is not the caricature or the comic relief, and almost nonexistent is the hero or main character. The play shows an impressive prescience when viewed as a satiric prefiguration of gay media stereotypes, thrown together and at each other, that flourish today in separate works; the characters themselves are somewhat aware of this, referring to themselves as “…six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer” (8). Crowley does not insult the homosexual by reducing him to a trope amidst other full-fleshed characters, but stages a meeting of these tropes and images to reveal the gamut of struggles and agonies that every individual homosexual faces. As technology progresses to proliferate media images with greater breadth and rapidity than ever before, the individual is bombarded with simplistic reductions much more often, and the subsequent pressures and confused flurries of maddeningly self-restrictive depictions may be worse than they were in a less “tolerant” era, making Crowley’s dialogues even more immediate and pressing. While Boys was written shortly before the famous Stonewall riots in 1969, provoked by policemen raiding a gay bar (x), similar events still occur today, such as the recent raid of the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 28, 2009, the exact date of the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. “ALL RIGHT THIS IS A RAID! EVERYBODY’S UNDER ARREST!” (23) is a blackly humorous encapsulation of an uneasiness and oppression that has not dissipated over the years.

The specific psychological dilemmas and breakdowns undergone by Crowley’s characters have clear correlates in modern life. One can find frequent scandals in the news in which men who preach of the evils of homosexuality, such as conservative senators and religious leaders, are found to be themselves homosexual, though they hide it from their wives and supporters; politicians and Catholic priests have been caught molesting young boys. Michael is the one church-going character in the play and also the one who exacts the most vitriolic persecution against all of the others, which Harold describes:

You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be. But there is nothing you can do to change it. Not all your prayers to your God, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live. You may very well one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough – if you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate – but you will always be homosexual as well”. (125)

Alan, the apparently straight man who finds other men attractive and latches onto them very quickly, delivers the most hateful lines when confronted with the flamboyant, lisping Emory: “Faggot, fairy, pansy… queer, cocksucker! I’ll kill you, you goddamn little mincing swish! You goddamn freak! FREAK! FREAK!” (58) Violence is still committed against gays in many parts of the US, and continual humiliation and intimidation at universities even in “progressive” cities led to the recent spate of gay student suicides that prompted the “It Gets Better” campaign, which is not far from Emory’s high school experience with ostracism and guilt: “Pretty soon everybody at the dance had heard about it and they were laughing and making jokes” (102). Current films from Y Tu Mamá También to Brokeback Mountain deal with the “Christ-was-I-drunk-last-night syndrome” (28), and for nearly every other problem the characters go through there is some corresponding modern example, all of which are embellished by the fact of persistence – every psychological hangup and confrontation is all the more notable and profound in Crowley’s work because it has not gone away over the years.

While riding the zeitgeist ensures dissemination and discussion of a popular modern work, temporal enmeshment prevents the most thorough examination of the identity of any particular face in the crowd of events and attitudes. Because The Boys in the Band tossed and turned in the nightmare of Stonewall-era homophobic torments and rages, at the time of release it was liable to be read as addressing the particular concerns and problems of homosexuals alone. As its historical backdrop factors less into its current context, more of its implications and suggestions can seep into the reader and theatergoer. That its history is not so distant is clear (as shown above), yet the history developing since then has provided both more food with which to churn together in the reader’s stomach and more intestinal contours to catch and reshape the digestion. Cowboy, the apparent throwaway gag character of the play, might only have represented the tendency for some homosexuals to favor brawn over brains (MICHAEL “…[H]e can’t even follow from sentence to the next.” HAROLD “But he’s beautiful” (71)) to an audience in 1968, but in the political climate of the 2000s a different reading presents itself: Cowboy, extremely stupid but with a very well-maintained appearance, paid to serve the people who come to ridicule and ignore him as irrelevant, is a symbol not just adaptable to the ineptitude of George W. Bush but American presidents and even America itself in its place in the world. One can then view the play as an elaborate political drama in which the ubiquitous image of American manhood and domination is torn apart by juxtaposition with those peoples (and countries) with rich historical awareness, values and insights. At the same time, one is now more able to take the different route of seeing homosexuality as merely a potent metaphor for any trait that alienates a person from broader society: the gay characters may be replaced with OccupySF protesters, the obese and “overweight,” Muslims, quadriplegics, and ultimately, unsettlingly, the individual him/herself. “…If we…if we could just…not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much” (128) and “…[H]ow dare you come on with that holier-than-thou attitude with me! ‘A lot more work,’ ‘if I try,’ indeed! You’ve got a long way to hoe before you’re perfect, you know” (129) possess a universality that addresses frustrations both specific and general to every individual; the play’s power only shifts focus if instances of “gay” etc. are substituted for any of the previous examples. After that realization follows the humanizing thought that since reading about homosexuals is so similar to reading about the struggles of oneself, for the heterosexual it is no longer so easy to marginalize gays or to differentiate oneself from them.

With the recent repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in the military and a start to legal gay marriage in states and cities, homosexuals are becoming increasingly visible and integrated into American society, to a much greater degree than they were forty-three years ago. On the surface these notable achievements may seem to date The Boys in the Band, just as Barack Obama’s presidency may seem to date 19th-century tales of slavery. Yet just as blacks are still imprisoned in gross disproportion to their rate of criminality, homosexuals are still harassed and assaulted well beyond what their behavior “asks for,” and the same goes for minorities of all kinds – tallied by the Census or not. That Crowley’s play still speaks to very real struggles is unfortunate, but the fact that it is speaking to them is anything but. Readers now, just as then, can find strength and validation in the stark revealment of human plights, and because of the swirling blizzard of worldwide injustices that seems to intensify (if not simply rage on) with each passing year, the applicable plights continuously broaden the work’s resonance. As gays pursue freedom and friendship that far surpasses “tolerance,” the audience recognizes that that pursuit is not so distinct from the same drive within itself; in 2011, perhaps, we discover that those who seek peace of mind and peace on Earth in all forms are really all after the same thing: the great banquet of exotic flavors and conversations in a hall of loving equals.

Works Cited

Crowley, Mart. The Band Plays: The Boys in the Band and its Sequel The Men From the Boys. Alyson Publications: Los Angeles, 2003.

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