Torch Song Trilogy is a groundbreaking gay theatre piece by Harvey Fierstein. Fierstein wrote the three plays to give himself acting work, and he became a famous writer accidentally. The three plays included were each written and produced separately, at La Ma Ma, etc. in New York in the '70s, before coming to Broadway in 1983. The three plays have radically different styles, but all of them concern a character named Arnold Beckoff, and his on-again-off-again relationship with his bisexual lover Ed.
The plays are:
- International Stud 3 characters. Told in fragments as Arnold, a drag queen, talks to the audience, then Ed tries to pick up Arnold in a bar (the real-life gay bar "International Stud"), they break up when Ed cant come out of the closet. The sections keep the actors apart, with monologues and speaking together on the phone, until they finally share the stage in the last scene. It is intended that a character called Lady Blues will sing a torch song between each section.
- Fugue in a Nursery Arnold and his new young lover Alan come to visit Ed and his new wife at their country house for the weekend. Jealousy abounds. The set is an enormous bed with a back for four musicians who play thematically, each of the musical instruments represented a character in the original score.
- Widows and Children First! Naturalistic style. Alan has died in a gay-bashing, and Arnold is left to raise their adopted gay teenager David alone. His intolerant mother comes to visit from Florida (a role written for Estelle Getty, who won great acclaim in the Broadway production it was this that brought her to the attention of the producers of The Golden Girls). Ed meanwhile has divorced his wife, and it seems he and Arnold may reconcile.
Since the plays were originally done stand-alone, the full evening runs close to four hours.On Broadway it won the 1983 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Leading Actor and the 1983 Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor for Harvey Fierstein, and the Theatre World Award. Producer John Glines' Tony speech was historic for acknowledging his male lover and co-producer, Larry Lane.
A film adaptation was made in 1988, with Fierstein starring and writing the screenplay adaptation. It co-starred Matthew Broderick (who'd played David in the original production) as Alan and Anne Bancroft as Arnold's mother.
Torch Song Trilogy provides examples of the following tropes:
- Brainless Beauty: Averted with Alan. He's a model. Arnold says to him in the film "If you have an I.Q. of over 30, then there is no God." But in fact, Alan is not dumb at all.
- But Liquor Is Quicker:Arnold: I am upset, I am uptight, I am up to my nipples in Southern Comfort, and you're trying to take advantage of me. [he sprawls in Ed's lap] Fine!
- Calling the Old Man Out: after Arnold's mother belittles his relationship with Alan while Arnold is literally in the middle of praying over Alan's grave.Ma: What loss did you have? You fooled around with some boy. Where do you compare that with a marriage of forty years? Come on. I'm not one of your pals.Arnold: I lost someone I loved.Ma: So you felt bad. Maybe you cried. Forty years I lived with this man. He got sick, I took him to the hospital. I gave them a man. They gave me a place to visit on holy days. How could you know how I felt? It took two months before I slept in our bed. It took a year before I could say "I" instead of "we." How dare you?!Arnold: You're right. How dare I? I couldn't know how it feels to put someone's things in plastic bags and watch garbage men take them away. Or how it feels when you forget and set his place at the table. The food that rots because you forgot how to shop for one. You had it easy! You had your friends and relatives! I had me. My friends said "At least you had a lover." You lost your husband in a clean hospital. I lost mine on the street! They killed him in the street! Twenty years old, laying dead, killed by kids with baseball bats! That's right, Ma, killed by children! Children taught by people like you that queers don't matter! Queers don't love! And those that do deserve what they get!!
- Cast Full of Gay: Two straight women. Even more so in the movie, where the cast is expanded a bit.
- Deadpan Snarker: Arnold and the drag queens.Bertha Vanation: Just wait until you see my act: Bertha Vanation and her Dance of the Virgin.Murray: Which she does completely from memory.
- Drag Queen: Arnold is one, professionally. Theatrically, this is only touched on in the first play, the movie expands a bit and includes some musical numbers and other drag queen colleagues.
- Gay Euphemism:Ma [about Ed]: Friend-friend or euphemism-friend?David: He used to be a euphemism, now he's just a friend.
- Gayngst: From Ed. Pretty much the reason he and Arnold break up.
- Homophobic Hate Crime: how Alan dies. Happens off-stage in the play; portrayedwhile Arnold watches helplessly from the windowin the movie.
- Jewish Mother: Mrs. Beckoff.
- No Bisexuals: Averted with Ed.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: The unorthodox style of the four-hour-long play obviously couldn't translate to film, except maybe as a filmed play. Instead, Fierstein elected to change the film into a more straightforward narrative that followed the main outline of the play but smoothed it over considerably. One result is that the title becomes something of an Artifact Title in the film version, since it's presented as a single story instead of three separate pieces with the same characters.
- Queer Romance: Duh.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: To people who know about how LGBTQ+ people tended to be treated by social services agencies in the US before the last decade or so (and still today too often), it could be surprising that Arnold and Ed could adopt a gay teenage foster child in 1980. As it turns out, that was actually a thing as early as the 1970s, sympathetic social workers were discreetly placing LGBTQ+ teens, especially ones who had already been through homo/transphobic placements, with same-sex couples who would understand and support them.