I am neither a film nor theater critic but I am excited to see that Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is being staged again in Salt Lake City, forty-one years after it first opened Off Broadway in New York City.
Mart Cowley wrote The Boys in the Band in 1967 and it was first performed in 1968. Within a year the world in which these characters were placed was rapidly disappearing as the youth movement began replacing the old homophile organizations with the Gay Liberation movement. Because a lot of things have changed for gay people in the last 30 years, the play elicits strong feelings—and debate about its merits—among people who watch it, depending, I suppose, on what era a person came out of the closet. However, the play is important because it is a time capsule of a period in American history when the Gay Rights movement was on the cusp of a revolution.
In other words, this play is about a different time and a totally different mindset of what it means to be gay. The Boys in the Band is about eight friends, who, on the average, are about 30 years old. These men came to age during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and it is important to note that one of these characters is black. But these men are not Baby Boomers, hippies, or anti-war activists. They grew up in a time when homosexuals were considered security risks and subversives, and could not be employed in the government. As homosexuals they were considered unfit to serve in Vietnam even though they were all of an age to be drafted. These eight friends lived in an era when homosexuality was considered a pathology by the American Psychiatric Association, and they could be fired for being mental unstable if their sexual identity was disclosed. They lived in a time where it was even illegal to serve a homosexual alcohol in New York City, where this play takes place.
What is remarkable about these characters, however, is that they were all “out of the closet” according to what that term meant before the Stonewall Riots. To be “out” simply meant you accepted that you are a homosexual. You might not have liked it, but you accepted it.
The first mention of The Boys in the Band in Utah was in a Salt Lake Tribune article dated 24 June 1969. It said simply that members of the play’s original cast had just held a reading of the screenplay for the upcoming movie. Less then three days later, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village would be the site of the beginning of a movement known as Gay Liberation. This movement would sweep aside all the issues that made the play compelling. Basically, the characters of The Boys in the Band would have been more comfortable drinking at an upscale bar then burning one down.
By the time the movie version of the play was released in April 1970 a new day was dawning. I was a freshman in college in Orange County, California. The place was not a hot bed of liberalism. The Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin wrote a review of The Boys In The Band which was also printed in the Salt Lake Tribune. It read, “Its content is historic, in that the joys and sorrows of adult male homosexuals have never to my knowledge been treated so unreservedly and unevasively in a movie aimed for a commercial rather than a cultist market … Crowley’s tale is of an odd squad of queers gathers for a birthday party which becomes a drunken hell night largely because of the arrival of the host’s pal from the straight world. The question is whether the cold college chum is the prince of a fellow he takes himself to be or a latent princess. The answer remains ambiguous but meantime we’ve all had a good look at the anguish behind the mincing gaiety.” While the Los Angeles Times praised the film as “unquestionably a milestone,” it refused to run ads for it.
I learned about The Boys in the Band from homosexuals in the theater department at Cypress College. I was not “out” nor had admitted that I was a homosexual even to myself, so I stealthily went alone. In the parking lot I sat in my car until I could steel up enough nerve to go buy a ticket. I was petrified that by buying a ticket someone might think I was a queer. Choosing to see The Boys In the Band was one of many first steps to acknowledging that I was indeed a queer and that my love for a boy named John Cunningham was not just a phase.
The movie was a revelation. Of course there was self-loathing and alcoholic-induced rancor in it, but more importantly there also was love and affection.
The Boys In the Band was also a real milestone for the portrayal of gays in film. At the time it was released, it was only rated R when just the year before, The Killing of Sister George and Midnight Cowboy were given X ratings simply because there were homosexual characters in both films. Just for your information, many forget that Midnight Cowboy was the only X-rated movie to win best picture at the Academy Awards. It has since been reduced to an R.
Gay Liberation was gaining ground quickly during the heady days of the early 1970s, and many college theater departments were performing The Boys in the Band. In 1971 Cal-State Fullerton’s theater department put on a production of the play which I attended. Attending the play was a way of seeing who else on campus might be also gay. They were easy to spot, because the gay guys always came with a girl on their arm.
Even in Zion, The Boys in the Band was making history as being the first openly gay play performed in Utah. In May 1971 Theater 138’s Underground performed the play to a full house. Only the University of Utah ’s Daily Chronicle, however, would review it. Jerry Andersen wrote that “the audience responded with a great amount of sympathy and in some cases uncertainty.” An ad in the Chrony for the play also stated: Theater 139 Underground “Gayly Presents” The Boys in the Band.
The last time I am aware of that The Boys In the Band was performed in Salt Lake City was in the early 1990s, and it was staged at Beau Chaine’s Aardvark Caberet by local gay actors.
The Boys in the Band fell out of favor for decades after it was released. The Celluloid Closet’s author Vito Russo commented: “The internalized guilt of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.” A harsher critique, however, came from Edward Guthman, a San Francisco Chronicle critic. In 1999 he called the play “the gay equivalent to a minstrel show.”
The Boys In the Band is a period piece that captures pre-Stonewall gay life. It is pre-AIDS, pre- Human Rights Coalition, pre-gay gentrification. The play terrified me, but it also excited me. Shortly after seeing the play performed at Cal-State Fullerton I felt empowered enough to join the first gay student Union on campus, in part because I never wanted to be like the self-depreciating Michael. I wanted to be Harold.