And the Band Plays On
Revisiting a fifty-year-old play rebooted on Netflix
by Hank Trout
Watching the new version of The Boys in the Band on Netflix a few nights ago caused me an episode of déjà vu like I haven’t had in eons.
In 1970 I was a senior in high school in Morgantown, West Virginia. I had read in After Dark, the gayest non-gay magazine ever printed, about a scandalous play on Broadway called The Boys in the Band and also read that it had been turned into a film by William Friedkin. When the film surprisingly came to the Morgan Theater downtown, I knew that I must see it. I had known for ages that I’m gay, but I was hiding at the bottom of a closet as deep as any coal mine in West Virginia. I didn’t know even one other gay man in Morgantown so I went to the film alone. I remember standing outside the ticket booth of the Morgan, probably looking like an old man about to enter a “dirty” bookstore surreptitiously, glancing around, shuffling my feet, checking my watch, looking as nonchalant as I could, waiting until I could see no one on the block who might recognize me. With the coast clear, I purchased my ticket and nearly ran into the theater and sat in the back.
What I watched for the next two hours was shocking, appalling, terrifying, and… absolutely riveting. The behavior of the men in the film——at a birthday party, no less!——shocked and appalled me. Except for a few clever laughs along the way (Emory’s line, “Who do you have to fuck around here to get a drink?” still makes me guffaw), I saw nothing in the film but nasty, self-loathing, vicious queens shamelessly, pitilessly slicing and dicing each other for sadistic enjoyment! “THIS is gay life?” I remember asking myself, shuddering. Still, there was something in me that cried out, “Sign me up!”
Fifty years after its original run, the play was revived on Broadway in 2018; and now, in 2020, fifty years after I first saw the film, I sat with my husband Rick a few nights ago and watched the Ryan Murphy film of Boys with the Broadway revival cast. I spent half the film as that scared high school senior, reliving those emotional somersaults, and the other half as the Elder in the Tribe, explaining my 2020 reactions to Rick.
Why are they so mean and nasty to each other?
Well, I’m just guessing here, I’m not that old, but I think it might be due to all the violence and outright hatred that they faced every single day. I think they’re just misdirecting their rage at each other because “each other” is all they’ve got. The notion of “pride” in being gay was alien to them. Remember, this film was set a year before Stonewall.
Why don’t they just leave? Why do they stay there and take such abuse?
Again, just guessing but, where would they go? The bars were unsafe, they were raided regularly and patrons got arrested and photographed and exposed. The primary “safe” outlet for social gathering for gay folks was private parties. They could leave Michael’s, but maybe even a crappy party was better than drinking alone or getting beaten up on the street.
Well, I’ve never known any gay men that mean and sarcastic!
Sadly, I have. Luckily, not lately.
Watching The Boys in the Band again, after fifty years, reminded me, among other things, that I’m not supposed to be here. I wasn’t supposed to live long enough to see a revival of Boys. I was expected to die in the 1980s, the early ’90s at the latest, just as my entire circle of San Francisco friends did. Every long-term HIV/AIDS survivor knows how much your perspectives change when you’ve outlived so many of your young friends. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find the Boys shocking or appalling this time. Instead of fearing them, I wish I could have gotten to know them.
Mart Crowley wrote a sequel to Boys, but it takes place thirty-five years later, well into the pandemic. The storyteller in me can’t help wondering how the Boys would have coped with the pandemic that came along just thirteen years later, when they would have been in their forties. Between 1984 and 1993, five of the gay actors in the original production, as well as the director, Robert Moore, and the producer, Richard Barr, all died of AIDS. But what about the characters in the play? Would Michael have learned a little compassion as he nursed a sick and dying lover? Could Harold’s narcissistic heart have been broken open by the loss of his sarcastic friends? And what of poor sweet Emory? Can we all hope he found safer ways of getting a drink? Would Michael, Harold, and Emory have survived? Would they get along with my other long-term survivor friends in their seventies?
I have no idea how younger folks reacted to The Boys in the Band, but for me and many in my generation, the play/film is a touchstone in our history and culture. We’ve progressed since 1968. We’ve codified into law more freedoms than the Boys could have hoped for, but we’ve also suffered losses and faced terrors the Boys could never imagine. We survived.
Here’s hoping they did too.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick Greathouse. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.