". . . If we . . . if we could just . . . not hate ourselves so much. That's it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much."
Those words, as Gavin Lambert reminds us in his foreword to a new paperback edition of 3 plays by Mart Crowley (Alyson Publications), were first spoken from the New York stage to a paying audience seven months after the first issue of the gay-oriented newspaper The Advocate and 14 months before Stonewall, the drag-queen anti-police uprising one summer night in Sheridan Square that marks the birth of the Gay Pride movement.
They were spoken by Michael, host of a birthday party attended by himself and eight other characters in The Boys in the Band, and Michaelwith all his problemswas pretty much a stand-in for playwright Crowley and all his problems that were working their way out through all nine voices, especially Michael's, in this closet-smashing drama.
"You must remember," said Crowley one recent afternoon, "when this play was written, there was no such thing as homosexual drama." As he spoke, the hit New York "25th anniversary" production (three years late) was preparing to move from the WPA on 23rd Street to the Lortelthen and now two blocks west on Christopher Street from the Stonewall Inn.
In the now 28 years since its original opening at Theater Four on Easter Sunday, 1968, The Boys in the Band has come under heated revisionist attack as a sort of masochistic Uncle Tom's Cabin of gay guilt, not pride. But that the play stood up -- as something much more than that, perhaps the opposite of that -- has been proved by the smash production at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre three years ago, and now this one. "Was I happy when they said they wanted to do it?" said Crowley. "I was available for dancing in the streets."
He gestured toward Kenneth Elliott, director of the New York show. "This is completely due to Ken," Crowley said. "He instigated all of us."
Crowley is 60 now; Elliott, who has staged all the marvelous transvestite farces by and starring Charles Busch, is 41. In 1968 he was a 13-year-old in Indianapolis. Until the Hollywood production he'd never seen The Boys in the Band except, long ago, the William Friedkin film version.
"The Fountain Theatre was a very hot ticket. I found it hilarious, enlightening. My roommate at the time went out and got a Samuel French edition, and we acted it out in our apartment. I called Kyle Renick, the artistic director of WPA, where I'd done some of Charles's shows, and suggested we do our own 25th Boys in the Band production." Three years later it happened.
"It's clear to me," said Elliott, "that the play is not the diatribe of self-loathing and angst it's made out to be. Many of its characters are rather well-adjusted, though the lead character"Michael"doesn't want to be gay."
"He's a mess," Crowley interjected dryly.
"To me," said the director, "it throws an interesting light on gay life before Stonewall, and it's also a very funny, human play that says a lot about the human condition in general. It doesn't need to be defended; it just needs to be seen."
"I'm just happy if people see it," said the playwright. "When I get: 'You changed my life,' 'You saved my life,' 'You ruined my life,' I wonder: What are they talking about? This is theatre. It was never meant to be a . . . "
"Self-help guide?" Elliott suggested.
If The Boys in the Band preceded and indeed cleared the way for Stonewall, it also precededby a full dozen yearsthe arrival of something called AIDS.
"My play," Crowley had said on another recent day, "is about coming out. It was written before The Plague. Since then we've had some serious and important plays about The Plague, and now I think we must go on, addressing the credibility of gay life." He'd like to see plays written about gays in the military, gays in the clergy, gay marriage"issues in the headlines every day."
Mart Crowleyproduct of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Catholic University, Washingtonputs his past and his family, in one guise or another, into his plays. Ken Elliott met New Yorker Charles Busch at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where they took part together in a production of Romeo and Juliet. After one season at Seattle Rep and three years working for Michael Stewart, Elliott started staging screamers by Busch at a haunt on the Lower East Side called The Limbo Lounge. When he got ready to direct The Boys in the Band, he made a point of not re-seeing the movie: "Mr. Friedkin had his strong take on the material, and I had mine. His is . . . darker."
"As a footnote," said Crowley, author of the play and screenplay, "I must take some of the credit or blame for that 'darkness,' by putting in a rainstorm and thunder. Billy Friedkin didn't do that. I did." --
By Jerry Tallmer