Why The Boys in the Band Is Still Relevant

boys_in_bandThe Boys in the Band

Upon its first staging in 1968, The Boys in the Band was seen as a groundbreaking work of true daring and honesty. Its hilarious portrayal of a group of gay men in New York was unapologetically queer, and for the first time none of the homosexual characters would “bump themselves off at the end of the story.” Yet, in just three short years, by the time the film version was released, attitudes towards the play and film had changed. The characters then seemed dated, stereotypical, and worse, self-loathing.

But over forty years later, the play seemingly has regained its relevance. The Transport Theater Group presented a sold-out off-Broadway revival this year that helped solidify its importance as not only an historic work of gay theater, but also a timeless mirror of ourselves. While each character can be seen as stereotypical, each is also very much a true representation of a specifically queer neurosis plus the joy and sadness of being a homosexual man. The group that Mart Crowley assembles is exactly like the one that I have surrounded myself with as my surrogate family, imperfections and all.

If you are gay, it is easy to identify with all eight of the gay characters, nine if you want to count Alan, because each one of them has a characteristic that gay men find in themselves. We gays, at times, all get a little nelly like Emory, or slutty like Larry, and even self-loathing like Michael. After Stonewall, though, these stereotypes were not something the queer community wanted to promote, except for maybe that slutty side . . . that is until the AIDS crisis arrived in the early '80s. Yet each one of the characters is still with us, and their problems are just as real.

All of us know an Emory. He could be the most stereotypical character in the play with his effeminate sensibility and elongated “ssssss.” He is a poster child for everything the Christian right finds repugnant about queers. But Emory is more complex than a limp wrist. He and Bernard, the token minority characters in the play, are really the two true outsiders. Unfortunately, while the two are friends, Emory needs to feel superior to someone and it happens to be Bernard.

This need manifests itself in Emory’s racist comments aimed at Bernard: we are introduced to Bernard by Emory as “the queen of spades.” Eventually, Bernard is given a chance to set up his own character, but you can tell that Mart must have felt that he could not tell a true black queer story. Bernard is often in the background or being the first to fall apart after playing the “telephone game.” He follows Emory’s order to “have a piece of watermelon and hush up!”

But, importantly, Bernard allows the racist bon mots, which sometimes seems to define his friendship with Emory, for a reason:

“I don’t like it from him and I don’t like it from me—but
I do it to myself and I let him do it. I let him do it because
it’s the only thing that, to him, makes him my equal. We
both got the short end of the stick -- but I got a hell of a lot
more than he did and he knows it. I let him Uncle Tom me
just so he can tell himself he’s not a complete loser.”

Bernard martyrs himself so that Emory can have a victory. And Emory does come to the defense of his friends when Bernard refers to himself as “Francine’s boy” during the game of telephone. Emory is quick to correct that it is “son, not boy.”

This type of dynamic between two friends is not foreign to me. I have a friend who is half black and half Puerto Rican and another that is Italian. They say the most horribly racist things to each other, but neither one means what he says. I believe it may have transcended the superiority complex and now is just a vulgar way to insult each other.

Larry and Hank represent a gay couple that may have disappeared during the AIDS crisis, but seems to be making a comeback. Larry has an appetite for sex: “numerous relations” is how he satisfies it. Hank, of course, is none too thrilled by Larry’s promiscuous ways, but the interesting twist, at least for today’s audiences, is that promiscuity wins out.

Growing up as I did in the '80sduring the reign of Reagan, I was taught that a monogamous relationship was the only type that existed. Then after coming out, in my twenties in the early 1990s, I did not understand why there were gay men in relationships. We were gay! We could be with whomever we wanted without being tied down. As the new millennium approached, there seemed to be a sea change in what I saw as a “normalizing” of the LGBT community.

Gay marriage now seems to be on the lips of every gay activist out there. While it may work for some, transversely it cannot work for everyone. Larry and Hank might get married if they were around now, but chances are they’d be having an open relationship. Larry feels it is the most honest way for them to be since “the ones who swear their undying fidelity are lying.”

The thing is that he is right.

This idea of open relationships is not new and certainly seemed sexually freeing in a generation of free love. I think even today it has not lost any of its power. Larry feels it’d be a “respect for each other’s freedom” if Hank would allow Larry to sleep with other people without judging. The argument being that if we are just honest with ourselves and each other, then there is “no need to lie or pretend.” This honesty is never more needed than with Michael.

In the past couple of years, the economy sort of collapsed. One of the many causes of this meltdown was America’s obsession with having things they cannot afford. Queers are not immune to this problem. In fact, you could make an argument that we fall victim to it most often. We are an advertiser’s dream with our disposable incomes and no children to support. But the things we want are also expensive.

Michael is the kind of queer who spends as if he had the money to back it up. He lives off unemployment and when he is employed we do not know what it is he actually does. He complains to Donald about how his life is not as glamorous as it looks. It is a cycle of “run, charge, run, buy, borrow, make, spend, run, squander, beg, run, run, run, waste, waste, waste!” On the surface, Michael seems to be put together immaculately, but there is the constant running away from any type of problem, especially financial ones.

Harold also knows that Michael cannot afford to live in the way that he does. When Michael begins to dissect Harold’s “mutilation” of himself, Harold reminds him that it may be true, but “the cosmetics and astringents are paid for, the bathroom is paid for, the tweezers are paid for, and the pills are paid for!” This culture of consumerism that Michael has fallen into is the same culture that we live in today. Nothing has changed.

Audiences looking at Michael’s financial problems in 1968 would probably share the same emotional responses as an audience from today. It is an issue that does not seem to want to go away. Yet this quality, while irresponsible, makes Michael a little more human than a complete caricature that seems to just live to shop and annihilate his friends.

Michael is not happy with his life. There seems to be an empty space that none of the shopping can fill. His lover, Donald, is close to him, but yet they seem estranged. Everyone is at a distance when it comes to him. Michael projects all his fears, loathing, and shortcomings on all his friends and no one is safe from his tongue-lashings. He is a classic example of the self-loathing homosexual. And if people think they are passé, well they are alive and well in 2010.

The character of Michael has to be the most infuriating to a queer audience. He is meant to represent the average queen, but Mart Crowley seems to weigh him down with so much emotional baggage it becomes depressing. He begins as the witty, sophisticated Manhattanite queer, but by the end he is a babbling mess. Harold astutely points out just exactly what Michael’s major problem is:

You are a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual
and you don’t want to be. But there is nothing you can do
to change it. … You may very well one day be able to know
a heterosexual life…but you will always be homosexual as
well. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.

This same speech should be told to every born-again homosexual out there.

A while back I read an article spotlighting an older gentleman who showed his younger friends the film version of The Boys in the Band. He recalled how they laughed in the beginning, but by the time it ended, they were bored. They felt very disconnected from it as a cultural milestone. The older gentleman tried to explain the importance of the play, but it fell on deaf ears. It can be said that this illustrates the point that the film and the play have become relics of a pre-Stonewall way of thinking, reinforcing the fact that the younger generation is not ready for the maturity of the play, which deconstructs their lifestyles.

Sure, there are its fun moments, but the play has a truth to it that I feel the younger generation is not mature enough to hear. I know I wouldn’t listen when I was younger, and as I re-read the play, it starts to have a strong nostalgic hold on me. Yet it is still relevant to me. Everything about this play seems fresh, and though the lingo may be different, there is a hipness to being able to pull off “Connie casserole. Oh, Mary, don’t ask.” - Jason Dugger

jason-dugger

Mr. Dugger used to be a child actor, singer, writer and dancer. Then he wasn’t. Now he resides in New York City and is about to begin graduate school for English Literature. And sometimes he still writes if provoked.

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