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What Queer Theater Trailblazers Larry Kramer, Terrence McNally and Mart Crowley Gave Us & What We Owe to Them

Queer Theater Trailblazers Larry Kramer Terrence
Kramer, Crowley: Photofest (2): Mcnally: Warner Bros./photofest

Mart Crowley and Larry Kramer were born eight weeks apart in 1935. Terrence McNally, fashionably late, was born three years later. All three redefined American theater and ushered in the first wave of mainstream queer theatrical expression. All three died 12 weeks apart this spring, dealing a painful blow to the theater community, which was already reeling from the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” was a revolutionary act of exposure for a community that had, up to that point, been nearly invisible in American society. While many were troubled by Crowley’s depiction of gay men, it is undeniable that he was the first queer American dramatist to create a sensation with what for him was an honest portrayal of the community he belonged to. In writing the play, Crowley insisted that we will be the authors of our own stories, and they will be told on our terms. It was a risk that paid off. The play was a hit, running 1,000 performances Off Broadway. 

While Crowley’s play prefigured AIDS by 15 years (and even Stonewall by 13 months), both Kramer and McNally wrote their most enduring work amid that crisis. With “The Normal Heart,” Kramer channeled his rage not just at the nation’s indifference to the epidemic, but also its history of antipathy to and violence against queer lives.

McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” as well as “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” looked at the epidemic from the perspective of those who were living with and alongside it as well as those who mourned the dead. If Kramer wrote about the war from the battlefield, McNally wrote about its impact on the homefront.

Together, the lives and the work of these three men helped define for a generation what queer theater could be. They created indelible impressions on the minds of so many young queer writers and, particularly for Terrence, supported and helped amplify the voices of those artists who would follow them.

Terrence was the first writer to take me seriously and encourage me. I wouldn’t be a writer today if it hadn’t been for him. It’s possible I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Larry. And it’s possible none of us would be celebrating Terrence’s or Larry’s work if it weren’t for Mart.

Their passing in quick succession felt like a cruel trick of timing, but it also can be viewed from a hopeful perspective: 30 years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine reading obituaries for gay men dying in their 80s.  

It’s important to mention that, as essential as they are to the legacy of queer theater, the fact that all three were white men is itself a legacy not just of queer theater, but of American theater. The average American theatergoer has likely seen or at least heard of the work of these men. But ask the average theatergoer who Jane Chambers or María Irene Fornés was, and they’re likely to not have heard of them.

It is no surprise that the doors of opportunity first opened for white gay men. The writing of Crowley, Kramer and McNally — at once blistering and humane, highly comical and deadly serious — demanded an equal place at the table for queer stories to be told. And too many voices in the decades that they worked remained unheard or silenced, and the journey toward visibility for lesbian writers, trans writers and queer writers of color has been maddeningly slow and painfully imperfect. Thankfully, that journey is finally hastening, and there has been an explosion in recent years of works that challenge and expand our notion of what queer theater can be — and by extension what American theater can be.

Whether reexamining American history like Donja R. Love, Azure D. Osborne-Lee or Ricardo Pérez González; or defining 21st-century America like Jordan E. Cooper, Jeremy O. Harris or Geraldine Inoa; or creating singularly personal works like Michael R. Jackson, C.A. Johnson or Haruna Lee — the  21st century is nurturing artists who are continuing the revolution that Crowley, Kramer and McNally helped start 50 years ago. 

Matthew López is the award-winning playwright of “The Inheritance.”