Fear and Loathing in a Chelsea Loft // by Jonathan Hammond
An actor explores how he endured the psychologically draining starring role of THE BOYS IN THE BAND.
“If we…if we could just…not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just…learn…to not hate ourselves quite so very much.”
At the end of a shattering evening of hateful repartee, emotional recklessness, dangerous games, and gallons of alcohol, Michael, the lead character in Mart Crowley’s iconic play The Boys in the Band, speaks the words above in a desperate attempt to try to come to terms with the wreckage that his own cruelty, inner turmoil, and addictions have caused his loved ones and himself.
Intent on hiding his deep self-loathing and crippling inner conflict, Michael begins the play as the witty and charismatic host of a fun, frothy, and oh-so-gay birthday celebration for his best friend and a few of his closest buddies. But alas, once the vodka kicks in, Michael becomes a monster of an “angry drunk” who turns a whimsical birthday party on the Upper East Side into a desolate and existential nightmare of fear, jealousy, rage, and paranoia. Over the course of the play, we witness this bright young man’s demons nearly overtake and destroy him.
The Boys in the Band fascinates, titillates, and horrifies us. We delight in the hilarity of a group of unselfconscious gay men outrageously camping it up with dirty jokes, Judy Garland impressions, and Bette Davis-like zingers. While at the same time, we sense a cold internalized homophobia and self-hatred within these men that lies just beneath the surface.
These “boys” lived at a time (1968) when they had no civil rights to speak of, where they could be randomly arrested for going to a gay bar, and where even congregating together in a private apartment was something to be done “on the sly.” The play shows us the rapture of gay men’s sociological emergence as culture-makers and trend-setters in a hostile world that would never fully accept them and would even try to destroy them.
Michael, the character I played in the celebrated Transport Group production in 2010, was unable to hold the dichotomy of “fabulous” and “aberration” that all gay men grappled with at the time. He lived in a deep psychological compartmentalization of grandiosity and self-hatred, joie-de-vivre and suicidal tendency, faith in God and nihilism; and he could only manage these extreme polarities within himself through the use of alcohol and drugs.
When Michael drank, as the play tells us, the psychological war inside of him would rage. The booze would set off a rampage of emotional violence with an acid tongue that could eviscerate and annihilate. The challenge for me in playing Michael was to hide his negative qualities (until they would inevitably explode later in the play), and at the same time allow those darker or shadow aspects to subtly inform the external charm and wit of his outer persona.
About an hour before curtain, I would have to go to my private dressing room (a broom closet) to await my first appearance onto Sandra Goldmark’s ingenious environmental set—a converted loft space in Chelsea that was made to look like an actual apartment with the audience surrounding and infiltrating the space. It was in that tiny and lonely room where I would mentally prepare to play Michael.
Each night in a journal, I would write down in great detail everything about my own self that I hated. It wasn’t enough for me to just imagine Michael’s self-loathing. I knew that the only way that I could get to the harrowing emotionality of the final scene in which I was to have a full nervous breakdown that was real enough to be convincing to an audience (who were less than a foot away from the action), was to draw upon my own personality and history. So, I didn’t write about Michael’s self-hatred. I wrote about my own.
I filled that journal with how much I hated my body, my looks, and my hair. I wrote about what a terrible actor I was, and that I will always be financially unstable. I wrote about the falsity of all of my relationships, that I was “too old” to have a real theatre career, and how I was unintelligent and unpopular. I wrote that I was not worthy of love and that I would probably be alone forever. I wrote that the pursuance of a happy life was futile. I wrote that I was effeminate and weak. I wrote that I was sexually dysfunctional and stupid. I wrote about the pointlessness of life and I wrote about the non-existence of God. Every aspect of me was fair game. My journal was a journal of self-annihilation.
And it worked.
When I reached the big “breakdown” scene at the end of the play, I gave a raw and harrowing performance that was so “real” that many audience members told me that they felt uncomfortable; others said that it was “very hard to watch.” True story: my psychotherapist saw a performance of the show, and in one of our sessions afterward, he told me that he was “worried” about me psychologically. “I don’t know how you’re holding all of that negativity,” he said.
But then something strange happened.
A month into our six-week run, I started having to emotionally “manufacture” that last scene. It just wasn’t quite working anymore. And, as much as I diligently kept my nightly ritual of writing in my “self-hate” journal, its contents started to feel hollow and false. It was as if my self-loathing somehow no longer rang true. When I got to the big “breakdown” scene, it felt like I had nothing to call on. No one really noticed that I had started to fake my performance (muscle memory probably kicked in), but I knew that something had shifted, and I didn’t understand what was happening.
Now, these many years later, I understand it all.
I retired from acting about eight years ago, and I now have a career in spirituality and mental health. In my work now, it has become clear to me that the only way to change a problem or a negative mental pattern is to acknowledge it and accept it as it is. This is somewhat counter-intuitive because we are wired to avoid negativity and pain. But implied in the naming of a problem is the freedom to change it. Carl Rogers, one of the “fathers” of Humanistic Psychology, wrote in his book, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
All the destructive and virulent beliefs about myself that I wrote in my “self-hate” journal were, in some way, true for me at the time when I played Michael in The Boys in the Band. Little did I know the loving attention of my awareness was all I really needed to start to let it all go.
And that’s how I healed myself at the most toxic birthday party ever.
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