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Fierstein, Harvey (b. 1954)  

Award-winning Harvey Fierstein is one of the finest gay male playwrights currently working in the American theater.

Harvey Forbes Fierstein was born on June 6, 1954, in Brooklyn. His parents were Irving Fierstein, a handkerchief manufacturer, and Jacqueline Harriet Gilbert Fierstein, a housewife. He was educated in the Brooklyn public schools and received a B.F.A. in art from the Pratt Institute in 1973.

He appeared as a performer in various New York City area clubs in the early 1970s and made his first appearance in a more serious artistic venue playing an asthmatic lesbian in Andy Warhol's only play Pork in 1971.

His earliest plays (Freaky Pussy, Flatbush and Tosca, and Cannibals--all unpublished) are set in the drag world of New York.

In addition to his work as a playwright and a performer in the stage and film versions of his own plays, he has continued to act, appearing in the films Garbo Talks (1984), The Harvest (1993), and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), in the successful New York revival of Robert Patrick's The Haunted Host (1991), and on television episodes of "Miami Vice." He also provides the voice of a gay male secretary in "The Simpsons."

Fierstein is best known for his Broadway plays Torch Song Trilogy (1982) and Safe Sex (1987), his off-Broadway show Spookhouse (1984), and his book for the award-winning Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles (1983). He won Tony awards for best play and for best actor in 1983 for Torch Song Trilogy and won again the next year for best book for a musical for La Cage aux Folles.

The early, experimental drag plays of Fierstein are reflected in "International Stud," the first part of Torch Song Trilogy, and in "Manny and Jake" and "Safe Sex" from Safe Sex. For many critics, these represent Fierstein's finest work.

These uncompromising, lyrical portraits of gay men and their lives do not partake of dramatic realism or naturalism. In these plays, Fierstein depicts lives outside the boundaries of the mainstream by means of a dramaturgy that itself transgresses the boundaries of mainstream theater.

On the other hand, many critics have seen "Widows and Children First" from Torch Song Trilogy and "On Tidy Endings" from Safe Sex as failures precisely because they fit a traditional, "living room comedy" model that has for so long been used to present heterosexual romantic comedy.

Some theorists have difficulty accepting portrayals of gay men's lives in terms that have so often been used to show how straight people live, and thus find Fierstein's work irrelevant. Furthermore, in their final acts both Torch Song Trilogy and Safe Sex depict gay "marriages" (each complete with a child) based overtly on heterosexual paradigms.

But perhaps Fierstein's greatest achievement is his ability to humanize drag queens, to portray them as characters worthy of an audience's understanding and sympathy, and not as the pathetic victims or exotic divas that they have so often been depicted.

Thus Fierstein's choice to present these characters through the trappings of realism can be seen as a brave attempt to show drag performers as being as "realistic" as the characters who inhabit the plays that make up traditional Broadway comedic fare.

As a visible spokesperson for gay people, queer theater, and AIDS causes, Fierstein has achieved a celebrity that transcends the world of New York avant-garde theater. In his best pieces, Fierstein is one of the finest gay male playwrights working in the American theater today.

Don S. Lawson


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A publicity photograph of Harvey Fierstein provided by Outright Speakers and Talent Bureau.
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Clum, John M. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Cohen, Jodi R. "Intersecting and Competing Discourses in Harvey Fierstein's Tidy Endings." Quarterly Journal of Speech 77 (May 1991): 196-207.

de Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. London: Routledge, 1992.

Gross, Gregory D. "Coming Up for Air: Three AIDS Plays." Journal of American Culture 15 (Summer 1992): 63-67.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. AIDS: The Literary Response. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Powers, Kim. "Fragments of a Trilogy: Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song." Theatre 14.2 (Spring 1983): 63-67.

Scott, Jay. "Dignity in Drag." Film Comment 25 (January-February 1989): 9-12+.


    Citation Information
    Author: Lawson, Don S.  
    Entry Title: Fierstein, Harvey  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 29, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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