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A well-known actor who became prominent as a gay rights and AIDS activist beginning in the 1980s, Harvey Fier-stein also is highly regarded as an author of such popular plays as Torch Song Trilogy (1981) and La Cage Aux Folles (1983). Such award-winning plays helped open up American theater audiences to homosexual themes. His plays focus on the joys and grief’s of gay life and often address problems of love, relationships, and commitment. Fierstein often draws on his own life and experiences as a gay man to write his plays and film scripts.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Coming Out as Homosexual
Fierstein was born on June 6, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Irving and Jacqueline Harriet (Gilbert) Fierstein, who were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father worked as a handkerchief manufacturer, while his mother was employed as a school librarian. Raised in Brooklyn, Fierstein and his brother were encouraged by their parents to take in the many cultural offerings in New York, including opera and Broadway. By the time he was thirteen years old, Fierstein realized he was gay and ”came out” to his family, who were supportive of him.
As a teenager, Fierstein began appearing on stage in gay clubs as a drag queen, often performing the songs of such bygone stars as Ethel Merman. During this time period, gay clubs were common but not always accepted and often the focus of police raids. While several such clubs were raided and closed in June 1969, a raid on the Stonewall Inn that month that ended in the building being engulfed in fire. This incident sparked the gay rights movement in the United States.
Launched Professional Acting Career
The popularity of Fierstein’s drag performances caught the attention of pop art icon Andy Warhol, who cast the seventeen-year-old Fierstein as the lead character in Warhol’s 1971 stage revue Pork. While this production launched Fierstein’s professional acting career, and he knew that his future lay in the theater, he chose to earn a fine arts degree in art from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, graduating in 1973.
While Fierstein’s acting career was taking off after he completed his degree, he also began writing plays. His early plays, such as In Search of the Cobra Jewels (1973) and Freaky Pussy (1975), were primarily campy vehicles for his exploration of homosexuality’s raunchy aesthetic dimension and were generally ignored outside of Greenwich Village, New York City. Such plays were not indicative of his talent as a writer, which did not fully bloom until after his first relationship ended when his partner of two years left him for a woman he later married. While seeing a therapist, Fierstein was advised to channel his emotions into words.
Torch Song Trilogy
This advice led to Fierstein’s breakthrough work, Torch Song Trilogy, composed of three one-act plays he began writing in 1976 with International Stud. Drawing from his own life, the play, as a whole, focuses on a young man as he comes out as a homosexual, his relationship to his mother, and his search for love and a family. In the long-running original productions, which moved from Off-Off-Broadway to Broadway, Fierstein played the primary character, Arnold Beckoff, and became a star. He won numerous awards, including Tony Awards for both the play and his performance. Fierstein later wrote the screenplay for the popular 1988 film version.
Fierstein’s next major work was the book for the musical La Cage Aux Folles (1983), another gay-themed Broadway smash that won him a Tony Award. Adapted from Jean Poiret’s play of the same name, the musical is the story of a middle-aged homosexual couple who must deal with one of the men’s son’s forthcoming marriage to a fiancee from a highly conservative family. This gay love story emphasized the commonality of the characters with their predominantly straight audience.
Becoming AIDS Activist
Not all of Fierstein’s plays found a wide audience or were critically embraced. Spook-house (1983) depicted a troubled family that owned and lived above a Coney Island spook house. His 1987 play Safe Sex—made up of three one-acts about homosexuals learning to live in the era of AIDS, two of which he starred in, essentially playing himself—was not a success and closed after only a week on Broadway. By this time, AIDS was greatly affecting gay life. The disease that became known as AIDS was first diagnosed in 1980. The blood-transmitted disease spread rapidly among promiscuous gay men at first, though they were not the only group affected. Still, for many years, AIDS was considered a gay men’s disease, leading to controversy over funding-related medical research, treatment, and the many people who suffered from it.
After writing the book for another notorious musical fop, Legs Diamond (1988), Fierstein generally moved away from stage acting and writing to focus on roles in film and television. One acclaimed project was adapting Tidy Endings, the last play in Safe Sex, into an award-winning drama for HBO. Fierstein also starred in the project. He also narrated a number of television shows on AIDS awareness and appeared on television sitcoms. Within a few years, Fierstein was garnering as much attention for his acting as his plays. He had supporting roles in two blockbuster films, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Independence Day (1996), for example.
Triumphant Return to Broadway
In the early 2000s, Fierstein returned to the stage, first as an actor, then as a writer. He was highly acclaimed and won another Tony Award for his role in drag as Edna Turnblad, the mother of the teenage heroine in the 2002 hit Broadway musical Hairspray, then played a well-received Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof in 2004. In 2002, he published a book for children, The Sissy Duckling, and five years later, he wrote A Catered Affair (2007), the book for his first new Broadway production in years. Based on previous television and film versions of the story, the musical focuses on the broken Hurley family, which has been trying to cope with loss by moving forward. As of 2008, Fierstein is still a committed AIDS activist, and he continues to live and work in New York.
Works in Literary Context
Together with such dramatists as Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner, Fierstein is one of the major gay playwrights in the late twentieth century. In his writings, especially his plays, Fierstein draws on his background as a gay man and writes about the homosexual experience in the United States in ways that appeal to a heterosexual audience. Coming of age in a pre-AIDS world, he embraces conventional values and often depicts gay men dealing with family situations, both their families of origin and the families they create for themselves. Along the same lines, the theme of searching for love and relationships also is a major concern for Fierstein. As an author, Fierstein was influenced by Warhol, who cast him in his one and only play, Pork (1971); the twentieth-century English playwright Noel Coward; and Restoration dramatist William Wycherley (c.1640-1715), as well as his own life experiences.
Importance of Family
In many of Fierstein’s plays, he explores familial relationships, deeming them important but often complicated and conflicted. He is frequently concerned with and depicts an allegiance to family values, though never without difficulties. Widows and Children First!, the last one-act play that makes up Torch Song Trilogy, features a number of struggling familial relationships. Arnold Beckoff must deal with the rebuking, and often disrespectful, nature of his mother, Mrs. Beckoff, who has problems accepting his homosexuality. Arnold also is a single father to a gay teenage son, David, whom he adopted. Spookhouse focuses on a more conventional, yet still problematic, family. The straight but dysfunctional Janiks family features a sociopathic son whom his mother wants imprisoned for his own good and the good of the family. At the heart of La Cage Aux Folles is a stable gay couple, Albin and Georges, who have raised a son, Jean-Michele, to adulthood. Jean-Michele poorly repays Albin’s mothering by banishing him from the family flat when his fiance and her right-wing parents visit to meet the in-laws. Fierstein emphasizes the long-term commitment between Albin and George and stresses the importance of respecting oneself and others, especially parents.
Romantic and Sexual Relationships
A number of plays by Fierstein feature characters who are looking for, trying to maintain, or dealing with the effects of romantic and sexual relationships. As a result of this quest, the characters often face challenges, personal sacrifice, and pain. Each play in Torch Song Trilogy explores the complex love relationship between Arnold and Ed. Arnold cannot be impersonal about sex, longing for romance, commitment, monogamy, and children to mother. The three one-act plays in the Safe Sex trilogy examine the effects of AIDS on gay men’s lives, particularly their love lives. Fear is the predominant emotion as Fierstein depicts relationships out of balance from scares about AIDS, fears of letting a lover get close, and of the potential loss of both lover and life. The character Manny, who used to live for sex, paralyzes himself with worry over infecting more men, even while praying for the renewal of the romantic possibilities he regards as now blighted by his HIV status.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have responded more positively to Fierstein’s hit plays, such as Torch SongTrilogy and La Cage Aux Folles, than his failures, such as Safe Sex and Legs Diamond. While the playwright has some detractors who point to his appeal to straight audiences as a negative, other critics laud his ability to depict the lives of gay men in a way that straight audiences can relate to. Critics generally agree that Fierstein’s writings—whether they address AIDS, sexuality, or family conflicts—touch all groups of people.
Torch Song Trilogy
When the three plays that form Torch Song Trilogy premiered separately at various Off-Off-Broadway clubs between 1976 and 1981, they were, at first, modestly received. With support from the Glines, a cultural organization devoted to homosexual issues, the plays opened together as Torch Song Trilogy at an Off-Off-Broadway theater in 1981. The show was about to close during its first year when it began receiving enthusiastic reviews from mainstream critics, such as Mel Gussow of the New York Times. The play then moved to Broadway and ran for several more years. Gussow commented that the three separate pieces were skillfully integrated into a single cohesive play, ”giv[ing] us a progressively dramatic and illuminating portrait of a man who laughs, to keep from collapsing. . . . The cumulative effort is one to be experienced and savored.” Further explaining the success of the play, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote ”It is not concerned with homosexuality or minority-group rights but with more universal matters such as the relationship between mothers and sons and flowering of narcissism into love and familial bonds.”
La Cage Aux Folles
During the original Broadway run of La Cage Aux Folles, critics derided Fierstein’s book for not taking chances. Despite being the first Broadway musical to feature a homosexual couple, the play was ”hardly the great gay breakthrough that advance reports had touted,” according to Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune. Other reviewers agreed that the potentially controversial musical was much less daring than expected, but they still lauded the show as highly entertaining and enjoyable. Christiansen wrote that the show was ”definitely a hit and a show that gets the new Broadway season off to a smashing start.” New York Times theater critic Frank Rich agreed, describing La Cage Aux Folles as ”the schmalziest, most old-fashioned major musical Broadway has seen since Annie.”
- Christiansen, Richard. Review of La Cage Aux Folles. Chicago Tribune (August 23, 1983).
- Gussow, Mel. ”Fierstein’s Torch Song.” New York Times (November 1, 1981): 81.
- Kakautani, Michiko. ”Fierstein and Torch Song: A Daring Climb From Obscurity.” New York Times (July 14, 1982): C17.
- Rich, Frank. Review of La Cage Aux Folles. New York Times (August 22, 1983).
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