The Boys in the Band was first performed at the off-Broadway Theatre Four back in 1968. The Stonewall Riots were still more than a year away, the main momentum of the Gay Liberation movement further still. Mart Crowley’s play, set in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment at a birthday party thrown for a gay man by his six (mostly gay) close friends, shocked its early audiences. Filled with often crass, explicitly frank dialogue about gay men, pain, life and sex, it brought audiences face to face with the lived experiences of a subculture that was at that point in time still hidden from view — forcibly, and through the necessity of self-preservation.
But if mainstream audiences were not ready or prepared for a play like The Boys in the Band, New York’s gay community absolutely was. A prominent theatre critic in the New York area, Peter Filichia, has even charged The Boys in the Band with being one of the reasons that the Stonewall Riots and the Gay Liberation Movement happened. He described how, ‘After gays saw The Boys in the Band, they no longer would settle for thinking of themselves as pathetic and wouldn’t be perceived as such any longer. Now that Michael and his friends had brought their feelings out of the closet, this new generation would dare to be different.’
Prominent queer theorist Judith Butler has argued that, ‘Those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, regarded as less than human, or indeed, not regarded at all.’ During the Gay Liberation, one of the earliest and most basic tactics of resistance profilated by the movement amongst the gay population of America involved persuading their peers to come out, and to live openly as a gay person where they feared to before. The Boys in the Band, as a channel for the self-representation of gay men (Crowley himself is openly gay) and as a medium for making the gay man visible, may very well have been a big part of that. Perhaps just as significant is the effect the play (and its Hollywood film adaption, which was released two years later) had on heterosexual audiences, among whom Filichia also claims to have witnessed a shift in attitude; ‘Just as some whites’ view of blacks changed after seeing A Raisin in the Sun, so too did the outlook of many straights after they caught The Boys in the Band. Some whom I personally know felt terrible and — I saw this happen! — actually changed the way they treated gays.’
However, The Boys in the Band is also a play that has been seen to grow less popular, perhaps less liberating, over the years (members of the Gay Liberation Front actually protested outside the 1970 film’s premiere). One of its standout features is its abundant self-deprecating (even self-loathing) humour, and exploitation of stereotypical character archetypes, who are often the butt of the ‘bitchiest’ lines — the black one, the most effeminate one, the ‘Jew fairy’, for instance. As many critics point out, this brand of humour has not always aged well; as gay men have taken further strides out of the proverbial closet, they also grew more eager to shake off clichéd cultural forms that bound them to a homogenous, often unflattering gay identity. Filichia has also argued that the play, despite being seen by many gay audiences today as self-homophobic, was an accurate, resonating portrayal of the gay experience in the 1960s, remembering his fellow men in the original audience openly weeping as they watched — ‘It’s not the story of today’s gays, but it certainly was the story of yesteryear’s.’ Ben Brantley, of the New York Times describes how the unpalatable characters, riddled with low self-esteem, in The Boys in the Band were the reflection of their position in the world; ‘They enforce a sense of unhappy men trapped in personas that are either lies or exaggerations of qualities they may possess but also hold in contempt.’
Though audiences may be divided on the play’s relevance to the experience of gay men today, its huge historical importance cannot be overestimated. Park Theatre’s adaptation comes from the producers of Beautiful Thing, Our Boys and Another Country, while Adam Penford, whose credits include One Man, Two Guvnors and A Small Family Business, directs.
Previews for The Boys in the Band will begin on Wednesday September 28th, and run until October 30th. More information here.