Michael R. Schiavi
Mart Crowley was born on August 21, 1935, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The son of an alcoholic father and drug-addicted mother, Crowley describes his childhood as a “Eugene O’Neill nightmare.” 1 In fact, he wryly notes, “I was always sort of pissed off that O’Neill had stolen all my material.” Other trappings of his deeply southern youth suggest Tennessee Williams at his finest—A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and The Rose Tattoo (1950) debuted on Broadway during Crowley’s adolescence and left him “a Southern playwright with nowhere to go.” Young Crowley could hardly have realized that his own unspoken sexual anxieties would one day anchor the most controversial “gay play” of the twentieth century.
Crowley attended a Catholic boys’ high school (graduating class: fifteen) but preferred the company of “sophisticated” little-theater adults who thrilled him with their stagings of Arsenic and Old Lace, Angel Street, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. While still a high school student, Crowley began to cut his theatrical teeth on set design, a craft he also pursued at the Catholic University of America. As an undergraduate, he won awards for costume and set design. One of his more notable sets rescued a sinking production of Billy Budd starring fellow undergraduate Jon Voight.
Crowley graduated from Catholic in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama. “Hellbent to work in the theater” and determined not “to go back to Mississippi, of course,” he moved to New York City. In Manhattan, he pursued connections he’d made with Elia Kazan, on whom he’d “forced” himself during the 1955 Mississippi production of Kazan’s film Baby Doll. In New York, Crowley began working as a production assistant on “quickie” films before becoming Kazan’s “one and only p.a.” on Splendor in the Grass (1961). The job, which