Mart Crowley Left Behind an Important if Imperfect Portrait of Gay Life

The Tony-winning playwright of "The Boys in the Band" died Saturday at age 84.

Mart Crowley died on Saturday, March 7, at the age of 84 from complications related to heart surgery. Born Edward Martino Crowley in Vicksburg, Miss., to an alcoholic father and a drug-addicted mother, Crowley parlayed his dramatic childhood into dramaturgical success, working with famed film and theater director Elia Kazan and befriending legendary actress Natalie Wood, who hired him as her personal assistant.

Inspired by a 1966 New York Times essay calling for gay playwrights to write more openly about their experiences, and tired of drinking himself “into oblivion,” Crowley wrote The Boys in the Band over the course of five weeks while house-sitting for his wealthy friend, socialite and sometime actress Diana Lynn.

Depicting the lives of nine gay men in 1960s pre-Stonewall New York (well, maybe eight given that one gent’s sexuality was questionable), The Boys in the Band has been one of the most enduring theatrical works of the past century.

Debuting Off Broadway in 1968, the show had successful runs in New York and London before Crowley adapted it into a 1970 film directed by William Friedkin, who would go on to direct the even more controversial Cruising. By the time The Boys made it to the big screen, its brand of self-loathing, melodramatic homosexuality already seemed out of step with the burgeoning gay civil rights movement.

“Show me a happy homosexual,” the protagonist Michael says, “and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
The original cast of The Boys in the Band reprising their roles for the 1970 movie.

Still, the play remained popular in the gay imagination because, as problematic as it may have been, it was one of the few mainstream works of art explicitly and exclusively about gay people written by a gay person. It was revived a number of times over the years, mostly in small playhouses, until Ryan Murphy came a-knockin’, mounting a Broadway revival starring a who’s who of gay thespians.

The production won Best Revival of a Play at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards in 2019, more than 50 years after its theatrical debut.

“I’d like to dedicate this award to the original cast of nine brave men who did not listen to their agents when they were told their careers would be finished if they did this play,” Crowley said upon accepting the award.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Crowley and the cast of The Boys in the Band at the 2019 Tonys.

Though Crowley may have passed, The Boys in the Band lives on. And on and on. Not only will the success of the recent revival inspire more productions, but Netflix is releasing a film version of the revival with the original cast in tow.

“No matter whether we’re gay or straight, I think everybody’s got something about themselves that they don’t like,” Crowley said in 2018 ahead of the Broadway revival, trying to explain the play’s appeal. “There’s some sort of, I don’t know, shame or self-shame—feeling guilty about things and feeling isolated and dejected and abandoned. There is all of that in the play and I think that’s common to humanity.”

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat