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What If I Don’t Glow in the Dark?: Why Arnold Can’t Find Love in a Backroom

(By Victoria Harley, Issue 20)

“Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like my sex in a bed.”

Thus spoke Arnold Beckoff, the central character of Harvey Fiertstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, the story of one drag queen’s pursuit for meaning, fulfillment, and love in 1970s New York. The Human Race Theatre will present the entire series, comprised of three one-act plays, at the Loft Theater from January 30th to February 15th, as a part of their ongoing mission to produce thought-provoking and emotionally stimulating theatre.

Set against the backdrop of the sexually untamed seventies, Fiertstein’s tale balances acerbic wit with devastating poignancy as his protagonist, Arnold, yearns for a meaningful relationship both with himself and those around him. Director Scott Stoney commented, “Arnold has his own creed, his own moral sense. His approach to finding romance is pretty traditional. And—even though he’s gay—it’s pretty straight.”

I’ll admit ignorance here. When my editor gave me this assignment, I had never heard of the Torch Song Trilogy and the last time I saw (or heard) Harvey Fiertstein was in that episode of the Simpsons when Homer becomes a junior executive and gets a personal assistant. However, drag life is not entirely foreign to me. My best friend growing up—I’ll call him Randy (and no, the pun is not lost on me, nor would it be lost on Arnold)—was a teenage drag queen. His family was not accepting of his sexuality and it got so rough that Randy came to live with my family during our senior year of high school. Today, his own mother confesses, “I wish I would have realized what a blessing having a gay son is.”

Randy, like Arnold, donned dresses, robes, hot shorts, feather boas, high heels, kitten heels, stiletto heels, mermaid tails, cocktail dresses, sun dresses, dominatrix boots, bandanas, foundation, concealer, foam padding, false eyelashes (falsies), and hell of a lot of wigs—all for his persona, the woman he became when those colored cabaret lights hit his makeup-contoured décolletage. Strutting up and down whatever makeshift catwalk the bar had set up that night, men and women, gay and straight alike, would bring him singles, coyly folding them between skin and four layers of tights, as Randy emulated the much admired songstresses of his youth. (Brittney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and sometimes Cher.) Arnold’s act is “strictly torch,” as part of his loving emulation of Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, and Billie Holiday— his much admired songstresses of the twenties and thirties.

The journey begins in International Stud (1978) with Arnold’s search for a partner in contemplation of that age old question: What does it take to get a man? It continues in Fugue in a Nursey (1979) when Arnold has found a partner while his former lover from the first act, Ed, claiming to be bisexual, has chosen a woman as his. In Fierstein’s wonderfully complex weave of dialogue, the two couples explore the social mores of the period, inadvertently (or advertently) questioning all sexualities, straight, gay, or in between.

When Fiertstein combined his third act with the first two, he created the Torch Song Trilogy. This makes the third act supreme in terms of thematic and dramatic action. Set five years after the action of Act Two, the third act is set in the future and concerns Arnold’s desire to adopt a child. Stoney posits that this third act makes the Trilogy particularly relevant for a modern audience, as adoption rights remain an outstanding social issue. “I think [Fierstein is] being prophetic, thinking about a future in which it would be easy to do, or it would be legal…There is still a struggle about that.”

“And it hurts me…To see this multitude of men so love starved that they resort to sex in a dirty backroom instead of the way God meant us to be. It is cheap, Murray. And I refuse on moral grounds to support the degradation these men have brought themselves to. Period.”

Fierstien was writing in the wake of Stonewall, but before the high water mark of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Prior to the events of 1969, the American landscape remained a hostile environment toward homosexuality and as a result, toward all sexualities. On the sliding scale of “normative” behavior, the further one was from white, hetero-Christian patriotism, the more adversity one was likely to face. Compounding fears about an international communist conspiracy pushed the move for conformity to devastating levels. Homosexuals became a sore point for the State Department who believed them to be more susceptible to blackmail, the thinking being: because homosexuals have something to hide, they could be induced to commit crimes under the threat of exposure.

“Sweeps” of public parks and bars were common; anyone found in violation of the law would face not only arrest, but public humiliation, harassment, termination of employment, jail time, and possible institutionalization. Homosexuality has been treated as sin, as crime, and most recently as illness, and in the 1950s and 60s, all three. Blacklisting became common practice, as did the intrusive presence of federal, state, and local government officials.

No establishments welcomed openly gay people, with the exception of a handful of bars, frequently run by straight management, and not infrequently by organized crime. Though club owners were providing a service to a niche market, they by no means catered to their customer. Bars were frequently raided by police (who patrons referred to as ‘Betty Badge’ or ‘Lily Law’), or were subject to ludicrous sting operations. For instance, any conversation that led to two men leaving together could be grounds for arrest, as could a man buying another man a drink. A woman could be arrested for wearing more than three articles of men’s apparel or vice versa.

As a consequence of the state treating homosexuality as criminality, these “criminals” found relative safety in corruption. An underground railroad of bars provided just about the only place for homosexuals to meet publicly—or as public as a discrete alley-way watering hole can be. Stonewall was just such an establishment. It had no running water, (glasses were cleaned by running them through a tub of water), no fire exits, and the toilets were frequently overrun, but it had one thing that set it apart: a dance floor. Despite its flaws, it didn’t take long for Stonewall to become the gay bar in New York. Lily Law was paid off to stay away, or to run a scheduled raid. This meant the management had time to signal its patrons, and prevent unnecessary arrests. Like any law, it could be circumvented and paid for.

But when a raid took place on a hot June night in 1969, something about an overzealous Betty Badge, or the frustration of being treated as criminals (yet again), or maybe the summer heat pushed its patrons to the brink, resulting in the spontaneous break out of a riot in the club and on the street outside. This was by no means the first blow struck for sexual freedom, but it might be considered the birth of the “gay community” as a visible and active citizenry. By 1970, communities in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago held their first gay pride parades—making visible the invisible, as a diverse and newly anointed society took its place on the cultural stage.

Law is slow to change. But culture is even slower. Our basic national premise that is the pursuit of individual liberty and freedom from coercion should cover the basics– but its selective application can be attributed to political opportunism and dominant cultural ideologies. (As Orwell put it, “some animals are more free than others.”) As a result, arbitrary changes to our legal codes create hideous lapses in liberty and the institution that was designed to protect our natural rights now deems itself the source of liberty. This hurts everyone, gay or straight—we’re all expected to wait for our overlords to hand down equality and freedom, when in fact, it was never theirs to give.

That’s the problem with freedom; you can’t get upset when someone uses theirs.

When the federal government introduced the personal income tax in 1913, marriage became the public’s business, and an institution that once solely resided in the realm of community found itself under bureaucratic scrutiny. Prior to this time, culture was the arbiter of marriage. It was the dominant cultural ideology that informed sodomy law and made illegal all sexualities that didn’t fit a “normal” experience. The law is slow to change, but culture is even slower. Today, Americans’ exposure to “alternate lifestyles” remains largely relegated to what mass media presents to us, particularly in fly-over country where contact with gay culture is limited to what seen on the Bravo Network or Modern Family.

“Heterosexuality has done ‘nada’ for your wit.”

Nearly ten years after Stonewall, Fierstien wrote the first two single-act plays, International Stud (1978) and Fugue in a Nursery (1979). On its surface, the play might appear as a tool for raising consciousness about homosexual lifestyles—after all, the play’s the first act is set entirely at a gay bar, The International Stud. (This was an actual pickup bar at the time, complete with a backroom.) However, Fierstien’s concerns quickly bloom from the particular to the universal, as his characters articulate their deeper yearnings. Though a sheltered Midwestern audience can certainly expect to have their consciousness raised (among other things), they should also expect a suspenseful, vivid, and honest story about the human condition.

Fierstein indicts sexual mores, both straight and gay, that were common to the period, and does so with the sharp wit of experience. Though aspects of the Trilogy might be autobiographical, Stoney agrees “Arnold, certainly sounds a lot like Harvey.” The stories, gleaned from the common experience of that time and place, render the production a loving period-piece. That said, it’s important to consider the particular context for the words spoken and actions pantomimed. “A lot of the 70s and early 80s were all about the sexual freedoms we had gotten as a result of the 60s. We all went a little crazy, and everybody went a little bit crazy, and everybody was a little confused,” Stoney admits. An audience can mistake even the most staid playwright’s humor as “antiquated” and “irrelevant” when context is abandoned. Take anything at face value and expect to miss its soul.

“There’s nothing I need from anyone except love and respect. And anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.”

From the moment I picked up a copy of the Torch Song Trilogy, I couldn’t put it down. Not because of spectacle. The Trilogy is not a play about a drag queen—it’s a play about Arnold. Arnold finds plenty of admirers as a performer, but he wants a fulfillment from the rest of his life, the life he lives offstage. The play supports his desire and the audience is only treated to a view of Arnold in full drag at the start of International Stud. Drag has found a straight audience and the act of female impersonation finds homes in vaudeville, all-boys schools, TV sketch comedy, and other avenues, but there remains a fine line between entertainment and artistry, performance and embodiment. Two people may laugh hysterically at the same thing for entirely different reasons.

Arnold is not a spectacle; he lives in music, in the deep, sad sentimental croons that came crackling out of his mother’s phonograph during his childhood and out of his persona on stage. “You sound like one of your songs,” Laurel says. “I am one of my songs,” Arnold replies. His performance is a dedication to those who suffer for love, like the old, tired, cabaret singers of the blue twenties. Throughout the play, Arnold nurses his lovers as if they were children and offers the unconditional love and acceptance of a mother.

The Trilogy is a period piece, a glimpse into a time and place gone by. It is not an endorsement, nor a roadmap, nor a ratification of any one lifestyle, and in some ways, it remains relegated to a showmanship our culture now demands of the queer community. Fierstein entertains and quips for an audience as much as he questions and indicts. Though some scenes may unseat a sheltered theatre-goer, the Trilogy was mainstream enough to garner a Tony award in 1982. Come on Dayton. It’s 2014. Put on your big boy pants and come to the Loft.

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