The Writer Who Fell Happily Out Of Favour

Christopher Fowler
Some authors are chameleons; they'll write for decades and never produce a piece of work that defines them to a readership. Others create something so much from the heart that the work takes on a larger life and defines an era. Martino Crowley is from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Born in 1935, he grew up to love film and theatre, majored in drama and went to New York City. He remembered meeting Elia Kazan back home, and became a production assistant for his film company. The job led to Hollywood and a secretarial post with Natalie Wood. She protected herself in Hollywood by keeping an inner circle of friends who were required to pass a kindness test. He passed, and she gave him time to work on a play. The play didn't so much open as explode in April 1968 off-Broadway. It ran for over a thousand performances.
Back then
homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness in the USA, and this look at the exotic creatures turned audiences into gawkers. Before this there had been plays with gay themes, like 'The Children's Hour' and 'Tea and Sympathy', but no-one had ever written about the gay milieu until 'The Boys In The Band'. In it, Harold, 'a 32 year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy', is thrown a party by his exclusively gay circle. During the evening, a heterosexual college friend turns up unexpectedly and sparks a brutal series of confrontations. 'Boys' was not experimental. Rather, it was structured like a classic traditional West End play, and in its bitter self-examination unfolds along the lines of Tennessee Williams' work. It was described as a landmark play about acceptance and self-denial, and proved groundbreaking, not least as a historical snapshot. However, as the seventies progressed it was vilified for its self-loathing attitude, particularly as it contained lines like 'Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse.'. In 1969 William Friedkin made a lurid film version which was filmed only blocks from the Stonewall bar, where a riot broke out as gay men fought police oppression. The Stonewall Riot not only changed the political landscape - it sounded a death-knell for the play. The world was moving on fast, and sexual variety was becoming just another element of urbanisation. The partygoers caught in the pre-liberation closet no longer reflected the lives of audiences, even though dialogue from the play eventually wound up in 'The Simpsons'. Crowley wrote a negligible sequel entitled 'Men from the Boys' and some TV shows, but his poison-laced play, which now looks like a male version of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', paved the way for a generation of books, films and plays incorporating characters with more complex sexuality. By 1980 public awareness had changed so much that Friedkin's film 'Cruising' was picketed for its negativity, just as 'Basic Instinct' was in the nineties. Crowley's play was buried, its once exotic characters incorporated into the everyday world, its job done. And uniquely among all the authors I've covered here, there's no real need for its rediscovery, although that's not to deny its power or its place in history. But having said that, there's a new 50th anniversary production which serves as a reminder of the long road travelled.


Brooke (not verified) Wed, 27/03/2019 - 11:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Perhaps Crowley does deserve to be "rediscovered," or at least re-read. From where I sit, times have not changed so much that we can forget the past.

kevin (not verified) Thu, 28/03/2019 - 02:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"The past is never dead, It's not even past."
~ William Faulkner

My issue with a rediscovery is that I don't think this play was written for gay men. It was written with a distinctly heterosexual audience in mind. "Their" idea regarding our interior lives. I've got issues . . .

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 28/03/2019 - 12:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Kevin's on it. Crowley meant to reflect back to heterosexual audiences their own bigotries, as incarnated by the characters. Real characters with fully fleshed out lives don't emerge for another 20 years or so. Yes, issues.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 28/03/2019 - 16:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I hope "Boys in the Band" is never re-visited, though wasn't there a recent revival at the Hampstead theatre club with Mark Gatiss? I saw the film in 1971 at the then new, and awful, Cinecenta in Panton St. It was an execrable self-pitying, self-indulgent freak show which was truly vomit inducing. As a 20 year old gay man just coming out it was the last thing I wanted to see. Fortunately, I was soon to meet gay men who where a joy to be with, and I soon spent many very happy years as a member of Croydon CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality). There was very little actual campaigning involved and it was more of a social group. In fact-most of the gay men I have met, and meet, are so wonderfully ordinary. I have come across some gay men who are ghettoised as in the film and I can't stand to be in the same room as them.

The above play came out at about the same time as "The Killing of Sister George" which in its own way is something of a freak show but nowhere near as bad as "BITB" Written by a man, it has always struck me as a straight man's sexual fantasy as he would like to think gay women behave. If not written by a woman, a play about women is more accurately written by a gay man who seems much better placed to write about women's lives and feelings. Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward are the best examples. Look at Coward's "Still Life", filmed as "Brief Encounter". It is about the illicit love affair of a middle-age couple, yet refreshingly it is seen totally from the woman's point of view to the extent we only "go home" with the woman and not the man, and the centre point is about the pressure put on women to be a good wife and mother. It is also seen as a gay play/film, with the "secret love" practised by gay men in the days when homosexuality was illegal in the UK.

By the way, I have purposely avoided "Cruising", and I have never even heard of "Basic Instinct" until now.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 28/03/2019 - 16:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

PS. I must admit, though, Willie Russell and Alan Ayckbourn write some cracking plays about women!

J F Norris (not verified) Thu, 28/03/2019 - 19:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Never heard of Basic Instinct? Really? NEVER?! That scene with Sharon Stone crossing her legs has been turned into a tacky gay reference since its release. After Showgirls (not too coincidentally also written by Joe Eszterhaz) it's the most infamous movie of the 1990s. It's been joked about for decades in American pop culture. Not such a big deal in the UK, I guess.

The only Broadway production of Crowley's play with an "all-star", all gay actor cast had a limited run and closed in the summer of 2018. Has it been remounted in London? I've heard nothing at all about it since it closed in NYC. I was hoping we'd get to see it but our summer trip to NYC was delayed until January 2019!

Interesting that you draw comparison to Albee's play. For years it was thought that George and Martha in <i>...Virginia Woolf?</i> were modeled on a notorious ever-feuding gay couple that Albee knew.

Ramsey Campbell (not verified) Fri, 29/03/2019 - 09:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Interestingly, Robin Wood defended CRUISING.