A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights: Harvey Fierstein

April 5, 2012

Harvery Fierstein accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 New Dramatists Spring Luncheon
Harvery Fierstein accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 New Dramatists Spring Luncheon


A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights is a regular column on HowlRound.com by Todd London. It is part of an ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights. Mostly begun as speeches at New Dramatists—for career achievement awards, to mark the end of seven-year residencies, or, in a few cases, as eulogies—these portraits celebrate the body of work, lives, and singular gifts of those brave, ferocious, foolhardy souls of those who write plays for the American theater.

Harvey Fierstein

In a couple of weeks I’ll take my not-quite-five-year-old son to see his first Broadway musical: Newsies. This means that, among other things, I’ll be exposing him, before anything else, to a show whose book is written by a playwright, performer, and drag artist named Harvey Fierstein. I like the thought of that.

In 1956 a playwright and screenwriter named Paddy Chayefsky came to speak to the New Dramatists playwrights. Paddy had been one of the group’s first member playwrights in ’49, the year New Dramatists was founded. After some discussion of his play, A Catered Affair, which was then being filmed, the talk turned to the lessons of playwriting. Paddy’s lesson, he claimed, was something he’d learned from Howard Lindsay, co-author of the longest-running Life with Father and paterfamilias to a generation of playwrights “‘The greatest rule for writing in the world,’” Lindsay said, is: ‘Where is the love story?’ Every time you’re in trouble, stop and say, ‘Where is the love story?’”

This is a lesson that Harvey Fierstein never had to learn. He was born knowing how to find the love story. As a playwright and as a performer, love is the impress of his work in the world.

Nor did Harvey have to learn the next part of Paddy Chayefsky’s lesson: “The love story may be a guy in love with a priest or a man in love with his son. It could be anything…” The love story could be anything. Harvey’s plays and libretti brim over with these anything loves—robust, complex, mournful, mysterious, sexy, and profound.

Where is the love story? Everywhere. In Torch Song Trilogy a female impersonator falls in love with a bisexual man who loves him back but wants to marry a woman. That’s one. A beautiful young man falls in love with Arnold, the drag queen, and together they make home. Two. Three is a love story for the dead: Arnold’s young partner, who’s been bashed to death in the street for being gay. Four: The story of the lover’s return when the bisexual ex- wants him back. And more. Filial love stories: Arnold moves to adopt a smart, much-abused homosexual teenager and, beat of a heart, they’re family. Then there’s that ferkakdeh mother-son love, the mom wishing her son were other than he is and the son unwilling to be any less than all he is.

The Fierstein love story may be as complicated as the gender-crossing, romantic extravaganza of La Cage aux Folles. Or, as in his musical adaptation of Chayefsky’s A Catered Affair, it might be as plain as the nose on your face. Aggie, a Bronx housewife, resigns herself to scraping by day after day in what she calls “a loveless marriage.” “I’m sorry you feel that way,” her husband counters, “but don’t put words in my mouth.” And with that terse admission, “Don’t put words in my mouth,” her silent man professes to feel what in all their years they’ve never named.

Silent, inarticulate, or torch sung—anything or everything—this love is the reason I like the thought of Fierstein as a first librettist for my son, as his introduction to the Broadway musical.

Yes, Harvey Fierstein is the downtown drag artist who paraded uptown at a spectacularly young age. Yes, he’s that sassy, tell-it-like-it-is sister wit who came out, in Brooklyn, when other pishers were getting bar mitzvahed. He’s the gay activist who’s been knocking down closet doors ever since. He’s been a Virgil of the gay bar backroom, written plays with beds center stage and moaning in the dark. Guys cruise and tease, kiss and tell.

But if you think Harvey Fierstein is all about sex, you’ve been staring at the wrong organ. It’s the heart he’s trained on. Your heart. Mine. Our group heart. Our national heart.

Gore Vidal writes: “A work of art, like an act of love, is one small ‘yes’ at the center of a vast ‘no.’” Fierstein’s A Catered Affair was a rewrite of the play and of Vidal’s screenplay. In it, he rewrites Vidal’s exquisite statement, too. “Resigning oneself to small is sad,” a character says. “Requesting it is tragic.” For Harvey Fierstein art and love are big yeses in the world of no. Love, like art, becomes a radical act.

A mark of important artists is how they play the hand history deals them. As an artist and citizen, Fierstein has played out every hand: liberation, plague, fear, mourning, hate, and triumphant solidarity. Decades before America began to debate gay marriage, he showed us how they work. Long before Heather had two mommies, he cast men as natural parents, father and mother both. A designated troubadour of AIDS, he’s sung of death and dying, so-called safe sex, and the ABC’s of AZT. He’s shone his heart’s incandescence on the survivor’s afterlife.

When gays in America were still, to quote Edmund White, living among straights like “…those Spanish Jews who pretended during the Inquisition to convert to Christianity but continued to observe the old rites in cellars, when alone, in the greatest secrecy,” Harvey took the stage at La MaMa on East 4th Street in the full flower of himself. He made his own proclamation: I’m a drag queen, a son, a lover, a husband, a wife, father and mother. All these things are in me. This anything. This everything. Harvey Fierstein stood up early and he stayed out front, demanding respect and earning it, refusing to go back in the closet, refuting the silence that came to equal death.

“I am what I am” is the famous Jerry Herman anthem from La Cage, and you know it had to be inspired by Harvey himself.

A few years back, when America was aghast at Don Imus’s racist, sexist radio talk, Harvey held his mirror to our own hypocrisy, the pass our culture gives to homophobic hate speech. “Rise up in righteousness when you witness the words and deeds of hate,” he urged, “but only if you are willing to rise up against them all, including your own.”

This is the how Harvey turns the straight world upside down. It’s not his sexuality that’s threatening; it’s the enormity of his self-acceptance. It’s the power of his refusal to be denied.

There’s a shocking moment in The International Stud, the first play of his early trilogy. Arnold’s ex-lover, the bisexual Ed, shows up in Arnold’s dressing room five months after walking out. He tells Arnold how great his sex life is with his girlfriend, Laurel, and how he loves her. Then he gets to the reason he’s there, a dream he can only tell Arnold:

I dreamt that I was in my parents’ house and I went down to my father’s workshop and got an old rag and a can of turpentine. Then I went to the kitchen and got a plastic bag. I took all the stuff back up to my bedroom where I soaked the rag in turpentine and put it into the plastic bag. Then I got into my bed, made myself comfortable, pulled the covers right up to my neck and then put the plastic bag over my head. The strangest part was: as I gathered all the stuff, as I got into bed, as I began blacking out from the fumes…I was enjoying myself, laughing up a storm. The phone woke me in the morning. It was Laurel. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Half of me was trying to listen to her, the other half trying to figure out the dream. I felt dizzy so I went back to bed and there, on the pillow, was the plastic bag with the turpentine soaked rag.

To be out, to be yourself, is to be free. It’s the closet that’s deadly.

This man, instantly recognizable by his literal voice, becomes a metaphor for writers speaking from their own deepest voices. His voice—which sounds like something scraping up the crust and gravel of the earth even as it draws you close with its warm purr—his voice is itself a metaphor. It says: Use the voice what god gave yiz.

One of the things I love about Harvey Fierstein as a performer is how he turns on a dime, how he tracks the tortuous ride of emotion in a moment or scene. Watching him is like watching a wire walker: laughter is on one side, tears on another. Dancing on the wire, he flirts with camp but never veers from his serious, redemptive goal. He is, as Zaza sings in La Cage, his “own special creation.”

As a playwright and performer increase is the glory of Harvey Fierstein’s art: the increase of feeling, increase of self, love’s increase. He is “the one who feels the most,” and in response we grow fuller, more human. He keeps us honest. His art increases us.

Open your eyes, he demands. And we do.
Feel more, he urges. And we do.
Raise your voice. We shout out.
Refuse to be denied. Yes.
You are extravagant, he tells us; live big. Bigger yes.
Yes. I like the thought—and example—of that.

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