The Writer Who Fell Happily Out Of Favour
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.