Invisible Ink: no 162 - Mart Crowley

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The Independent Culture

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. Mart Crowley came from Vicksburg, Mississippi. He loved film and theatre, majored in drama and went to New York City. Having remembered meeting Elia Kazan back home, he 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 Boys in the Band.

The play opened in April 1968 off-Broadway and ran for over 1,000 performances. 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 it, Harold, "a 32- year-old, ugly, pockmarked 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. The Boys 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 contains lines such as: "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse."

In 1970 William Friedkin made a film version, but the world was moving on and sexual variety was becoming just another element of urbanisation. The bitchy partygoers caught in the pre-liberation closet no longer reflected the lives of audiences – although dialogue from the play did eventually wind up in The Simpsons.

Crowley wrote a negligible sequel entitled The 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 of more complex sexuality. By 1980, public awareness had changed so much that William 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 in this column, there's no real need for rediscovery.