Mart Crowley, whose 1968 play, “The Boys in the Band,” put homosexual characters and their tales entrance and middle in a method that had not often been seen in a mainstream New York theater, died on Saturday evening in Manhattan. He was 84.
His buddy the actress Natasha Gregson Wagner mentioned the trigger was issues of coronary heart surgical procedure.
Where earlier performs and films usually tiptoed round a personality’s homosexuality or, worse, demonized homosexual characters, Mr. Crowley’s play offered homosexual males speaking forthrightly and in depth about their lives. It featured 9 males at a celebration in which alcohol flowed and dialog grew brutally trustworthy because of this.
“The power of the play,” Clive Barnes wrote in his evaluation in The New York Times, “is the way in which it remorselessly peels away the pretensions of its characters and reveals a pessimism so uncompromising in its honesty that it becomes in itself an affirmation of life.”
The play, opening greater than a yr earlier than the Stonewall Inn rebellion in Greenwich Village, a catalyst of the gay-rights motion, gave new visibility to the world it depicted, with the present drawing each homosexual and straight viewers members, together with high-profile ones like Jacqueline Kennedy and Mayor John V. Lindsay. Staged at Theater Four on West 55th Street in Manhattan, it ran for greater than two years and greater than 1,000 performances.
Fifty years later, the play lastly made it to Broadway, in a revival directed by Joe Mantello and with a cast that included Zachary Quinto. The production won the Tony Award for best revival.
“I think that was the highlight of his life,” the actor Robert Wagner, Ms. Gregson Wagner’s stepfather and Mr. Crowley’s longtime friend, said in a phone interview.
Although groundbreaking, “The Boys in the Band,” which was made into a movie directed by William Friedkin in 1970, was not universally embraced. With the gay-rights movement evolving quickly and vocally even as the play was still in the midst of its initial run, some critics attacked it as presenting an image of gay men that was unflattering and full of self-loathing.
“I went to see ‘Boys in the Band’ several times,” Edward Albee said in the documentary “Making the Boys” (2011) by Crayton Robey, “and more and more I saw an audience there of straights, who were so happy to be able to see people they didn’t have to respect.”
Yet over time it has come to be seen as pivotal to opening up dialogue.
“The people who criticize the play,” Mr. Mantello told The Times in 2018, “have the luxury to do so because of the play.”
Edward Martino Crowley was born on Aug. 21, 1935, in Vicksburg, Miss. His father, he said later, was an alcoholic, and his mother was a drug addict.
“I always resented that Eugene O’Neill already had my best plots,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2002.
He attended an all-boys Roman Catholic high school and graduated from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1957 with a degree in theater. While there he designed a production of a stage adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” whose cast included Jon Voight, a fellow student.
Mr. Crowley went to New York and was hired as an assistant by the director Elia Kazan. Kazan was filming “Splendor in the Grass,” and Mr. Crowley befriended one of its stars, Natalie Wood (Ms. Gregson Wagner’s mother). When she was cast in the film version of “West Side Story,” Ms. Wood — who was twice married to Mr. Wagner — hired Mr. Crowley as her personal assistant.
“In society the homosexual’s life must be discreetly concealed,” he wrote. “As material for drama, that life must be even more intensely concealed.”
Mr. Crowley, who had dabbled unsuccessfully in television writing, was among those struck by the essay’s call for more open playwriting.
“Kauffman’s article was, ‘Isn’t it about time that one of these homosexual writers writes a play that’s openly about his own experience?’” he said in a 2013 interview on the television program “Theater Talk.” “And I thought that was a very, very good point.”
Mr. Crowley wrote “The Boys in the Band” in five weeks while house-sitting for the actress Diana Lynn. It was his first play. The New York production spawned productions in England and elsewhere.
“I ran around the world on ‘Boys in the Band’ money,” he told The Washington Times in 1993.
Mr. Crowley wrote several other plays, including “The Men From the Boys,” which looked in on the apartment and some of the characters from “The Boys in the Band” 30 years later.
Another Crowley drama, “For Reasons That Remain Unclear,” involved an encounter between a priest and a younger man who share an unsettling past.
“The play has its hard nugget of truth,” Lloyd Rose wrote in a review in The Washington Post when the play was staged at the Olney Theater in Maryland in 1993. “Crowley is more honest, and wiser about human nature, than many playwrights with more obvious and accessible writing skills.”
Mr. Crowley leaves no immediate survivors.
In 2010, when “The Boys in the Band” was being revived by the Transport Group Off Broadway, several playwrights spoke of the work’s influence on them. Larry Kramer had seen the play both in New York and in London.
“It was the London one that was life-changing in a way for me,” he said, “because it showed me as a writer, as a gay person, as a gay writer, what was possible to do in the commercial theater. The theater in London was packed, and people loved the play and gave it a standing ovation.”
Mr. Wagner, in the phone interview, said simply of his longtime friend, “He was his own man at a time when it was really, really difficult.”
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