March 9, 2020 at 11:48 pm EDT | by John Paul King
Mart Crowley, ‘Boys in the Band’ playwright, dies at 84
Mart Crowley in his office (Photo courtesy UCLA Library)

Mart Crowley, the playwright behind one of the most groundbreaking queer plays of all time, has died at 84.

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi as Edward Martino Crowley, his play “The Boys in the Band” was the first major American drama explicitly dealing with the lives of gay men. Reportedly written at the suggestion of the actress Natalie Wood, for whom he worked as a personal assistant, it debuted off-Broadway in 1968 – at a time when queer representation on the stage and screen was largely non-existent. It drew packed audiences, both gay and straight, and was made into a film by director William Friedkin in 1970.

While the play has long been seen as a seminal work in the LGBTQ canon, it has not always been embraced by critics or by the community; its caustic, bitchy characters, who viciously take out their frustration and self-loathing on each other at a birthday party as they get progressively drunker, have been criticized by many as presenting a negative image of gay life – such as the legendary out gay playwright Edward Albee, who said in an interview for the 2011 documentary “Making the Boys,” “I went to see ‘Boys in the Band’ several times, 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.”

It was only within recent years that the play has been reassessed to take its place as an important piece of LGBTQ history, a portrait of gay existence before the Stonewall Uprising jump-started the Gay Liberation Movement the following year. When “Boys” was remounted on Broadway in 2018 with an all-star cast, director Joe Mantello told the New York Times, “The people who criticize the play have the luxury to do so because of the play.”

The Tony-winning 2018 production, which was the play’s official Broadway debut, is being brought to the screen later this by Netflix; it will feature the acclaimed revival cast reprising their roles, including Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, and Jim Parsons.

Crowley wrote a sequel, “The Men from the Boys,” in 2002. He also wrote several television scripts, including for “Hart to Hart,” starring Robert Wagner, the widower of former employer Wood who remained a lifelong friend to the playwright.

Wagner, speaking to the New York Times in a phone interview after Crowley’s passing, said, “He was his own man at a time when it was really, really difficult.”

Crowley died Saturday night in Manhattan as a result of complications from heart surgery following a heart attack. He has no immediate survivors.

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