Many things have been written about The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's acidic, unsparing look at the jousting within a circle of gay friends attending a 32nd birthday party, and opinions have swung widely from “groundbreaking” to “retrograde.” Some of the gay men old enough to be activists when it bowed treated it like anti-gay propaganda, while some younger gay men simply find it depressing, filled with too many low blows and angst.
Is this what my life will be like?
Even now, as the show opens for the first time on Broadway — 50 years after its premiere Off-Broadway at Theater Four on April 14, 1968 — the positive pre-press it has received is filled with arguments about how it's a period piece that represents the way we were, not the way we are, as writers attempt to persuade still younger gay audiences it is a play that's probably worth seeing as a historical marker if the production is on point.
I think those writers are getting it wrong; The Boys in the Band is not a great play that is of another era, some time-capsule peek at the bad old days and bad old gays, but a great play, period. It was and remains an unflinching look at the unique ways in which many gay men, coached our whole lives by society, pick at each other's emotional scabs, wearing each other down to lift ourselves up.
As Vito Russo once wrote, the play, which came out at a time when most gay representations in the theater and all gay representations on film were dismissive or pathological, is negative, but fair. It's easy to tell it was written by a gay man who understood that testosterone spiked with lavender is still testosterone. Gay men who are friends will not hesitate to be competitive, to be jealous, to attempt to take each other down a notch, to hand off their earrings ahead of a rumble.
To the play's great credit, it presents drama-filled gay relationships not as the by-products of abomination, but as the by-products of social pressure not to be gay in the first place. The self-loathing is accepted by the play, but only in the context of the story at hand, and even then, the play's central figure expresses hope that things will improve in the future as he darkly jokes about the only happy homosexual being “a gay corpse.”
Yes, things have improved in the past 50 years, but whether or not you're familiar with the play, you'll be surprised — as you, hopefully, watch the Broadway revival that officially opened at the Booth Theatre tonight — by just how timely and relevant it still is.
I would argue that The Boys in the Band is not a crystal ball, and this is no seance; rather, the play is a mirror, so make sure your hair looks good ...