Playwright Mart Crowley was born on 21 August 1935 in Vicksburg, where he attended St. Aloysius High School, served as equipment manager for the football team, and donated his time and talent to the Vicksburg Little Theatre. As Ellis Nassour wrote about Crowley’s Vicksburg childhood, “His father operated Crowley’s Smoke House. The motto was ‘Where All Good Fellows Meet’—for pool, dominoes, cigars, punch-board gambling, a bit of illegal drinking, and the best hamburgers anywhere . . . but movie theatres were [Crowley’s] world, where he developed his writer’s imagination.” Attracted by the quality of the school’s drama department, Crowley went to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1957.
During the winter of 1955–56, Crowley watched the filming of Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll in the Mississippi Delta and hung out with Elia Kazan, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville. These experiences influenced his decision to go into show business. After working on the set of William Inge’s Splendor in the Grass (1958) with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, he went on to become Wood’s assistant and executive story editor for her ABC television series, Hart to Hart, and was named godfather to her children.
Sometimes called “the granddaddy of gay theater,” Crowley is best known for his long-running 1968 play Boys in the Band, which opened Off-Broadway and made theater history by creating sensitive portrayals of a group of gay men attending a birthday party in New York City. USA Today’s David Patrick Stearns celebrated Crowley’s play, which premiered before the Stonewall Riots and before ACT UP, Queer Nation, and the Gay Liberation Front, as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of homosexual literature.” Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote, “The Boys in the Band is one of the best-acted plays of the season. It is quite an achievement. I have a feeling that most of us will find it a gripping, if painful, experience—so uncompromising in its honesty that it becomes an affirmation of life.” A successful revival of The Boys in the Band appeared at the WPA Theatre in New York in 1996. In 2002 Crowley’s sequel, The Men from the Boys, debuted in San Francisco at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.
In between, Remote Asylum (1970) pitted the effete masculinity of the rich against the instinctive virility of the natives of Mexico. Opening in Los Angeles and starring William Shatner, it proved a failure. Crowley’s most southern play, the autobiographical A Breeze from the Gulf, opened at the Eastside Playhouse in New York in 1973 and received critically favorable reviews. The three-character play, which Crowley prefaced with the warning that it should not “drip with magnolias,” portrays familial dysfunction as psychological violence, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse bring out the worst in parents who strive to love one another and to do their best by their son. The horrors of regular trips to Whitfield (Mississippi’s psychiatric hospital), free-for-all brawls at Antoine’s in “Noo Awlens,” and heavy drinking on Bourbon Street are juxtaposed with moments of happiness at places such as Edgewater and Paradise Point on the Gulf Coast, with the sound of the surf and a touch of the ocean breeze.
In For Reasons That Remain Unclear, which premiered at the Olney Theatre in Maryland in 1993, Crowley mines his experiences as a boy who was molested by a teacher. Crowley re-creates his character from Breeze as an American priest who is lured to a hotel in Rome by an American writer and placed stage center.
Crowley’s work has received praise for its individualized prototypes, tight structure, razor-sharp dialogue, and witty wisecracks. Lines from Boys in the Band have become legendary in gay culture: “Give me lithium or give me meth”; “Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty”; and “Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” The 2011 documentary Making the Boys explored the impact, influence, and controversy surrounding the play. Themes of self-loathing and self-destruction, deep-seated homophobia, and social maladjustment appear as his characters search for love in all the wrong places and come to grips with themselves, love one another, and achieve meaningful relationships. A new performance of The Boys in the Band opened on Broadway in 2018, fifty years after its debut.
- Clive Barnes, “The Boys in the Band Still Plays Well,” New York Times (21 June 1996)
- John M. Clum, Acting Gay (1992)
- John M. Clum, Still Acting Gay (2000)
- Ellis Nassour, “The Leader of the ‘Band,’” Jackson Clarion-Ledger (30 June 1996)
- Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet (1987)
- Alan Sinfield, Out on Stage (1999)
- Claude J. Summers, The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (1997)