“It’s not like in the plays”: on the relevance of ‘The Boys in the Band’

After a successful run at the Park Theatre at the end of last year, Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band is returning for a very limited run – closing next week – at the Vaudeville Theatre. Reviving The Boys in the Band isn’t good because it isn’t just a great play. It is a great play, but a new production of Boys in the Band offers a chance to take stock of a play that always gets called “landmark,” or “historic.” A new production gives a chance to answer the question of what a play can offer in the present once it becomes historic.

In reviews of the new production, the 60s setting of the play always gets mentioned. Reviews call it “a play that investigates a love that, […] still dared not speak its name,” or that the setting meant that “to be homosexual still meant, by and large, to be in the closet.” So a production of Boys in the Band in the 21st century, almost fifty years after its premiere in 1968, gives a chance to show how far things have come since then, since the first time the immortal question of “who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” was asked, or since the first boozy, battered game of ‘Affairs of the Heart.’

When it first premiered, Boys in the Band “broke new ground for the way it explored the psyche of gay men,” and was, of course, called “a gay version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But plays like Boys in the Band aren’t a rarity or a curiosity now. Seeing gay characters explored in depth isn’t something that you struggle to find. Between Angels in America coming up at the National this year, or last year’s revival of Falsettos on Broadway, major production of gay shows are appearing with more frequency and getting more attention.

But to think of Boys in the Band as nothing more than a stepping stone towards other plays, or as a historical document for 60s gay life, not just how it was lived, but how it was written about, does the play a great disservice.

In a roundtable discussion about the play, featuring its author, Mart Crowley, there is the almost obligatory reference to the historical significance of Boys in the Band. It gets called “the gay Raisin’ in the Sun. It was the first play to put our lives out there.” But there’s more to the discussion than that, and one of the most interesting things about it is the contention that “things haven’t changed at all,” and a lot of that is true for the characters of Boys in the Band.

Even if the end of the play feels a little heavy-handed now, there’s something about the phrase “if we could just learn not to hate ourselves,” that will resonate from Boys in the Band far beyond any historical significance the play has. While it might have been the first play to show gay men like this, it also remains one of the best. The self-hatred that some of the characters feel is influenced by the time they live in, and the prevalence of the closet, but those aren’t the only reason that the characters treat themselves, and each other, in the ways that they do.

Michael, the character at the centre of the play, doesn’t hate himself purely because to live in the 60s means to live in the closet. Michael’s Catholic guilt is fuelled by his sexuality, to the point where he’s told by Harold “you’re a homosexual and you don’t wanna be.” This sort of crisis between faith and sexuality isn’t something that goes away just because living in the closet isn’t taken as read the same way that it was fifty years ago; it isn’t difficult to think that there are men like Michael out there, tormented by the stance that religion often takes on homosexuality. Or men like Hank – whose “bravery” is discussed in the video above – who leave their wives to be with a man. Hank “goes both ways, but with a decided preference.” Men like Hank still exist. Men like Harold and Emory and Larry all still exist. These men don’t stop existing just because their lives are no longer lived in the closet.

Before, Boys in the Band was a major achievement not just artistically, but politically. It showed gay life in a way that it had never been seen before. Now, the statements against self-hatred, and “condemnation of the closet” in Boys in the Band isn’t for the advancement of grand political causes and ideologies. Now, more than anything else, it’s about the boys and not the band. Boys in the Band will always be relevant because, whether or not we want to admit it, these men still exist; in ourselves, and in those around us.