1964: The Birth of Gay Theater

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IF “GAY THEATER” is defined as being by, for, and about uncloseted gay people, then 2014 arguably marks the 50th anniversary of the genre’s existence. In 1964, despite a social climate of homophobia that pervaded American life for the second third of the 20th century, two one-act plays presented Off-Off-Broadway at the Caffe Cino revolutionized how gay characters could be represented theatrically. The plays were Lanford Wilson’s “The Madness of Lady Bright” and Robert Patrick’s “The Haunted Host.”

Premiering four years before Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band opened Off-Broadway, Wilson’s one-act was the longest running play ever to appear at the Caffe Cino, where it was performed over two hundred times to consistently packed houses. Similarly, since its successful inaugural run at the Cino, Patrick’s “The Haunted Host” has reached countless viewers in its many dozens of productions in the U.S. and internationally, including a 1975 Boston-area production that featured Harvey Fierstein in his first male role. Both plays were frequently revived in subsequent years, including at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros in the late 1970s. More recently, “Lady Bright” was produced at Met Theater in Hollywood in 2002 and at TOSOS II in Greenwich Village in 2006. The Celebration Theater in L.A. produced a reading of “Haunted Host” in 2008 in an evening honoring Robert Patrick for his contribution to gay theater over the past five decades.

These plays marked a major cultural turning point, considering the outright censorship that gay playwrights faced in the preceding decades. At the height of the Pansy Craze in the late 1920s, Mae West penned The Drag, a “social problem” play that argued for sympathetic treatment of homosexuals. However, after out-of-town tryout runs, the play received a scandalous reception. Never making it to the Great White Way, The Drag was censored, and West was arrested. Draconian measures from City Hall, including the passage of New York City’s 1927 “padlock bill,” prohibited homosexual subject matter on the Broadway stage. A few years later, the Hays Code of 1934 banned images of homosexuality on the Hollywood screen. Consequently, censorship of gay themes in theater and film was the norm in the U.S. from the 1930s through the 1960s. During these decades, a few playwrights—notably Robert Anderson, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams—evaded the censors and wrote plays featuring tragic closet cases. Although Doric Wilson had written gay characters in historical settings for the Caffe Cino as early as 1961 (Now She Dances! satirized the trial of Oscar Wilde sympathetically), the Wilson and Patrick one-acts were unique in that both featured gay characters set in the present time who were not only open, but boisterously defiant. Patrick’s Jay might even be described as “out and proud.”

Tom Bigornia, Neil Flanagan, and Lucy Silvay in “The Madness of Lady Bright.” Photo by Conrad Ward from the 1964 revival.
Tom Bigornia, Neil Flanagan, and Lucy Silvay in
“The Madness of Lady Bright.”
Photo by Conrad Ward from the 1964 revival.

Expanding on the concept of the coffeehouse as a forum for beatnik poetry readings, Joe Cino opened his small Cornelia Street café in 1958 with the intention of creating a space where theater artists could develop their individual voices and form a community. In an interview I conducted with Doric Wilson in 2008, he admitted that “None of us was really aware at the Cino at the time that we were in the process of making history.” Tucked away from New York’s hustle-bustle on a Greenwich Village side street, the Caffe Cino’s locale rendered it out-of-the-way enough to feel like a private sanctuary and accessible enough for urban audiences to find it.

Inside, the Cino resembled a converted living room decorated for a very festive occasion. Its walls were encrusted with glitter and spangles, strung with flapping photographs, flickering Christmas lights, and twinkling wind chimes, with a shiny jukebox in the corner. The decor evoked the inside of a grandmother’s jewelry box or perhaps a pirate’s treasure chest. Cino wanted his café to be a magic box that would feel like home but simultaneously conjure a sense of child-like fantasy, play, and nostalgia. On its stage were premiered the works of such emerging playwrights as Maria Irene Fornes, William M. Hoffman, Robert Patrick, Sam Shepherd, and two of the late, great Wilsons of U.S. theater, Doric and Lanford. “It’s magic time!” Joe Cino would incant every night when announcing the show in his warm Italian-American accent, casting the theater as a space in which idealism, sleight of hand, and transformation could reign.

For playwright Robert Patrick, who literally stumbled into the Cino on his first day in New York, the café was the mecca of freedom and creativity about which he had daydreamed. Beatniks, homosexuals, and alienated artists like Patrick were flocking to the Village from all over the country in the late ‘50s. Lecturing at Pomona College in 2008, Patrick spoke about his impressions of what New York symbolized to him before he moved there. He emphasized the repressed lives that most gay people led in rural America during those years, and the extent to which most representations offered were negative ones:

 I was a southwestern art fairy, and gays outside major cities had to live totally underground lives back then. People in more remote parts of the country were vaguely aware of the gay culture in New York City, but in an extremely negative way. We couldn’t just log on to the internet or turn on the television to find representations of ourselves, we had to triangulate and hypothesize from half-hints and casual deprecatory remarks by New York writers about Greenwich Village parties and coffeehouses that within an only half-discerned arty Bohemian environment there might possibly be a little more acceptance of homosexuals. The Cino fulfilled the dream of a Bohemian enclave, and at the same time startled with its undreamed-of possibility of gay fraternity as well.

For artists like Patrick, the Cino offered the freedom to stage experimental work, create friendships, and play with alternative forms of sexuality. As Patrick observed, the concept of “gay liberation” didn’t exist at the time these early plays were performed. In tandem with the work of activist political groups, which had begun organizing in the late 1950s, the writers at the Caffe Cino—with their wild talents for turning fantasy into theatrical reality for their countercultural audiences—metaphorically gave birth to the concept of “gay liberation.” Insofar as they presented subject matter that had been repressed for decades, these collaborators vividly realized aspects of their lives that had theretofore been closeted. In this way, they used the stage to shape public discourse, and the communities that resulted can perhaps be described as direct predecessors of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance. (In fact, Doric Wilson, perhaps the first playwright of the “Gay Theater” movement at the Cino, was also a pioneer of gay political activism: he participated in both the GLF and its descendent, the GAA.)

 

Robert Patrick and William Hoffman in “The Haunted Host,” December 1964 production.
Robert Patrick and William Hoffman in
“The Haunted Host,” December 1964 production.

LANFORD WILSON and Robert Patrick were not unaware that their impulse to write plays about openly gay characters was charting new territory, as witness Wilson’s “author notes” to “The Madness of Lady Bright”: “I believe the idea of the play shocked me. I called Neil Flanagan and said, ‘What can we do at the Cino? I mean can we just do anything? Could we, for instance, do a play about a screaming queen?’ To my knowledge Lady Bright was the first on stage.” With the opening of “The Madness of Lady Bright,” Wilson shamelessly presented such a personage at the Cino on May 19, 1964. At a time when GLBT people were essentially invisible, Wilson’s loquacious drag queen’s commandeering of a public stage must have seemed the height of improbability even to the Cino’s progressive patrons.

In the small café space, the stage represented Lady Bright’s claustrophobic apartment. At first she seems to resemble earlier stock gay sidekicks. But Leslie Bright is different from them in three important ways: first, she’s fully conscious of her sexuality and gender identity, and she attempts neither to hide it nor run from them; second, she doesn’t automatically come to a bad end; and third, the play is written from her point of view. By featuring Bright as the star of the show whose fate rests in the audience’s hands, Wilson cleverly altered that paradigm of the “tragic” ending by leaving open the possibility that the audience might save Leslie from her melancholy. Haunted by two muse-like anonymous characters (“Girl” and “Boy”) who take on a variety of roles (including abstract personifications of “gender” and Bright’s past lovers), Leslie descends into a pit of nostalgic despair brought on by her obsessive attachment to memory. Having had every lover who visited her studio apartment autograph its walls, Leslie literally exists in a space in which memory has become materialized as the very architecture which imprisons her.

Bright’s cluttered apartment—notably the miscellany of cosmetics and other drag paraphernalia on her dresser—projects her chaotic, fractured sense of identity and experience. Writes Wilson: “The room seems tucked like a pressing book with mementos, post cards, letters, photographs, pictures of men from body-building magazines.” While defying traditional gender constructs, Bright nevertheless surrounds herself with imagery that reinforces traditional gender roles, thus living in a constant state of reminder that her body, neither fully masculine nor feminine, is not what it “should” be. Bright compares herself to the images of movie-star divas and hyper-masculine body builders who border the edges of her looking glass, furthering her sense of dislocation. As if her mirror is the homophobic lens of a psychiatrist from the ’50s, Bright sees herself as a transgressive freak of nature. Comparing herself to normative gender representations, Bright self-reflexively muses: “Built like a disaster. Oh, do go away. You should be preserved somewhere. You are a very rare specimen that should be saved for posterity. Lowered into the La Brea tar pits in a time capsule as a little piece of the 20th century that didn’t quite come off.”

With this self-effacing comedy that attempts to enlighten her audience, Bright urges us to view her as a relic of the past that may serve as a lesson for future generations. Although alive and present, she sees herself as already dead: with her witty and willful acknowledgment of the obsolescence of her own self-loathing, she encourages the audience to imagine a brighter future, even as they relegate her pathetic self-image to the dustbin of history. She thereby offers herself sacrificially to inspire the audience.

Although Leslie Bright’s lifestyle defies traditional morality, the play begins and ends with a prayer. In her first entrance, she carries a telephone that she uses to call “Dial-A-Prayer,” which plays the 23rd Psalm. She jokes that the Psalm gives her no comfort, with its imagery of the seductive Lord (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”) only further reminding her of the lack of a man in her life. As the opening monologue proceeds, she continues to call her friends, none of whom is home. As Wilson’s magnificent prose poem unfolds, Bright emphasizes her sense of lonely solitude: “No one is home … All of you are never, ever, ever at home… You at least never had homes.” In the play’s final moments, when Bright is supposedly at her weakest and most vulnerable, her plea for someone to “take me home” is repeated as a mantra, at first frantically, but fading to a peaceful, even euphoric, prayer. In this way, the audience becomes the “god” to whom this theatrical queen is praying.

Staged in a grassroots manner in an intimate space, the conflict stemming from Leslie’s homesickness was perhaps symbolically resolved in the minds of the viewers by their presence at the Caffe Cino itself. As the audience sympathized with Leslie, and drew together in a moment of collective feeling, the Cino literally became the home for which she pined. As Robert Patrick writes in 1994’s Temple Slave—a “totally romanticized” novel by his own admission, loosely based on the Cino scene—the artists who played there under Joe Cino’s generous guidance were “making a home. A home for people chewed up and spat out by a cookie-cutter culture that tries to make us all one shape. … A quiet cave. A steamy sanctuary. … An artisan’s retreat … An age’s incubation.”

As if Dorothy yearning for the comforts of her Kansas farm home which she might never think of as “dull” again now that she has experienced the Technicolor fantasy of Oz, Bright’s repetitive incantation as she longs for a home potentially transforms the viewer’s preconceived image of domestic American life. As if variations on a theme, Bright’s commands echo and alter Judy Garland’s perhaps most famous cinematically rendered statements: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” By aligning the figure of the mad drag queen with the undeniably popular American icon of Dorothy/Judy, Wilson effectively carved a niche for Bright not only in the actual physical space of the underground downtown theater, but symbolically, in the audience’s collective unconscious as well.

ROBERT PATRICK’S “The Haunted Host” features another highly emotional, apartment-bound drama queen, in this case one who uses a quick wit to triumph over the ambitions of a manipulative straight hustler. Opening on December 6, 1964, only a few months after “The Madness of Lady Bright,” “The Haunted Host” has as its protagonist one Jay, a wildly funny gay playwright who has recently lost his lover Ed to suicide. Jay is haunted by the memory of Ed and, like Leslie Bright, immobilized by despair. Jay’s friend Joe-Wanda (perhaps a reference to Joe Cino?) sends a young male hustler and aspiring playwright named Frank to Jay’s home, perhaps intended as a form of shock treatment—as Frank bears an uncanny resemblance to Ed—but mainly to give Jay an opportunity to make peace with the past.

Envisioning an alternative ending for the tragic queen archetype, the play enacts a critique of homosexual identities by offering a vision in which the stereotypical power dynamic between the gay man and the straight man is inverted. For a 1964 audience, this was a radical representation, considering how that particular pairing had typically been conceived. (Consider Andy Warhol’s films, in which the straight hustler holds all the power vis-à-vis a smarter gay man.) In the play, by toying with Frank, using him as a means to perform a self-exorcism, then ultimately throwing him out, Jay finds comfort and freedom in his solitude as well as in his artistic success. Doing so, he makes a home for himself rather than depending upon another person to provide it for him. Rather than succumbing to the crippling effects of the loss and guilt he feels in the wake of Ed’s suicide or the lust Frank’s handsome presence inevitably provokes, Jay sustains himself, overcoming grief through his own acerbic wit.

Jay presents himself as a master of repartee. Punning on nearly every utterance, he reveals the power of what might be called “queered” language. Although Jay answers Frank’s questions, he often twists their intended meaning, exposing the thoughtlessness of Frank’s literal intent. For example, speaking of Jay’s deceased lover Ed, Frank asks:
Frank: How’d he die?
Jay: Alone.
Frank: Oh. Suicide?
Jay: No thanks, I just had one.
Using wit à la Oscar Wilde, as a weapon which bests one’s adversary, Jay embodies the image of a free, powerful, and intelligent gay man. While Jay is what we might call a “power bottom” today, he constantly positions himself “on top” of Frank, even as he shamelessly flirts with his prey, emasculating Frank in the process:
Frank: You know, you’re not worth talkin’ to.
Jay: So? I do all the talking.
Frank: You know, you’re in love with yourself.
Jay: Jealous?
Frank: You make me furious!
Jay: It works!
Frank: What works?
Jay: Jiu-jitsu; using the other fellow’s weight against him.
“Queered” language becomes both literally and figuratively revolutionary, as Patrick’s circular meanings shake up conventional relations of power. By subverting ordinary language, Patrick opens a space for social transformation, whether or not the play catalyzes subsequent concrete political action. Indeed, many of Jay’s words work to “queer” the audience’s conception of reality. Consider the following passage:
Frank: You’re evading my question!
Jay: No, I’m ignoring it!
Frank: Are you a homosexual?
Jay: I’m the homosexual!
Frank: Now, look—
Jay: You look! There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask someone.
Frank: What is it?
Jay: I hope you won’t be offended.
Frank: Well, what? No, of course not. What?
Jay: Well—you’re heterosexual, aren’t you?
Frank: Sure!
Jay: Now, don’t get angry, I’m only satisfying my curiosity—or perhaps I should say I’m satisfying only my curiosity—
Frank: Oh, come on –
Jay: Tell me, Frank, how long have you been heterosexual?
Frank: What do you mean? I’ve always been heterosexual!
Jay: Started as a kid, huh? Tsk-tsk. Tell me, do you think one of your teachers, or possibly even one of your parents might have been heterosexual? Do you think that might have been the reason you—
Frank: (Interrupting) All right, all right, just shut up, okay?
Jay: Okay, Frank. Gee, I didn’t think you’d be so touchy about it. Wow. (Brief pause) Tell me, is your play heterosexual?
Frank: (Snappy) You mean does it sleep with plays of the opposite sex?
Jay: (Delighted to have drawn wit) Oooo. Getting off, ain’tcha? Well, you know, you people do tend to let heterosexuality creep into all your work.
By reversing the presumption of heterosexuality as original truth, and putting the “straight man” in a position in which he must explain his “foreign” sexuality to a gay man, the playwright uses language to undermine the heterosexist perception of reality. In this passage, homophobia and heterosexism are held up to the light, demanding further consideration. This move would have been quite affirming in a society in which gay people were frequently arrested for merely appearing in public. Patrick’s queer theater contributed to a nascent sense of “gay liberation” by promoting visibility, destabilizing normative social constructs, providing a template for individual self-empowerment, and exposing oppression.

In the play, the hustler repeatedly attempts to induce Jay to read and find a venue for his script, but Jay refuses to even glance at it, preferring to use it as a footstool or resting place for his coffee mug. By representing theater-making as a battle of the wills, Patrick claims the stage as a valuable tool in the political arsenal. His play implies that visibility is the first step in acquiring not only social acceptance but also an inner sense of power. In the world of Patrick’s play, creative resistance leads to the realization of a gay man’s robust and virile self-conception. By using theater to “come out” into an alternative society, Jay empowers himself to move beyond his mourning. This literal “coming out” of the self is perhaps facilitated best by the stage. Perhaps the most elemental form of queer theater, this “coming out” process, the revealing of oneself though mutual witnessing, enables Jay to give birth to his own truest self, a type of theatrical “procreation.” A revealing of self happens, fittingly, through his creative writing, an alchemy in which art imitates life and vice versa.

Jay’s redemption depends on his sense of self-esteem and artistic talent as well as on his network of comrades, who provide him with a feeling of queer kinship. In my conversations with him, Patrick has often fondly reminisced about the gay fraternity that he found at the Cino. An ephemeral utopia for Patrick and his friends, the Cino was nevertheless a place where numerous relationships were built, and where gay artists could find the camaraderie that affirmed their common interests, perspectives, and sexual desires. At the Cino, artistic creation served as the medium through which social life flourished.

Consider these words from Jay’s opening monologue, as he reflects on a tacky, mass-produced Kandinsky print that he has just hung in place of an old photo of Ed, symbolizing art’s healing ability both to express and to salve human loss. To Jay, as ugly as it is, the print embodies art’s power to create community. Speaking to both Ed and the audience, Jay says:

 Just because it bores you, because it is a strange way of feeling forced on you from outside … just possibly it might help you get out of yourself for a minute. … We are such a crowd, every one of us; so much of us is other people that have come at us all our lives like—cookie cutters!—that only some constant kind of openness, availability, can let in enough ideas to help us even begin to determine who in Hell we are. Who on earth we are. Who in Heaven we are!

The device of the Kandinsky print allows Patrick to outline a theory of the function of theatrical representation: it creates both society and self. Jay’s self-actualizing performance enables us to come together as a community that stands apart from the “cookie-cutter crowd.” By manifesting this openness, the visibility that art engenders generates the community it simultaneously addresses. Between the lines, the passage articulates a theory of art and society, and spawns both in the process.

The Kandinsky painting also symbolizes the power of art in the lives of the marginalized. Whether it bores or shocks, that “strange way of feeling imposed on you from the outside” enables spectators to connect with each other. In Patrick’s world view, art acts as a mediator between isolation and participation. In this monologue, which can be read as a plea for the audience to “come out” to one another, self-knowledge and group identity are intricately interconnected. For Patrick, this vision of individuals linked through art is ultimately and defiantly utopian: one must participate in order to have knowledge of “Who in Heaven we are!”

Originally staged in the Cino’s small space, the two main characters are akin to the animals in a cockfight, each strutting his stuff and attempting to gain the upper hand, surrounded by an eagerly attentive crowd. This ability of the stage to make the private public is what gives theater the ability to reshape society. Seeing themselves reflected in what transpires before them, spectators in turn begin to envision their own hidden lives as taking place within a larger public sphere, a commonly shared queer culture. These “staged” moments acted as catalysts for shared consciousness and subsequent public action, insofar as they publicly affirmed these otherwise “closeted” or “private” identities. The stage is inherently a site of ritual, which is what enables it to perform this social function.

Patrick’s semi-autobiographical novel Temple Slave provides anecdotal evidence. In it, there’s a passage (based on an actual experience Patrick had had while performing as Jay at the Caffe Cino) in which the performer becomes aware of how his performance is resonating with the public: “And now that crowd was my audience, not just my job! We played so close to them that I rested against a table in one scene. … I’d noticed a young gay man at the table opening night. Another night he returned with his parents. During a pause, while Willy looked for lines, I heard the boy say, ‘You see, Mom? Dad? I’m like that, I’m a homosexual.’ I felt like an Old Testament prophet.” That the play provided this boy with a mirror, a role model, a language with which to come out to his parents—this was the takeaway for so many young men in search of an identity who visited the Cino.

At the play’s finale, Jay throws out both the hustler and his script, thus disposing of the demands of the heterosexual. Victorious, the gay artist here emerges as a creative force with which to be reckoned, rather than a victim to be pitied. The writer is left with his own apartment and his own creative powers. His final action is to dump his dead lover’s writings into the trash can. In his final phone conversation with Joe-Wanda, Jay seems poised to move forward, as the interaction with Frank provided a therapeutic experience and enabled him to exorcize Ed’s ghost. As instigators of change, then, our relationships help us develop into fuller people, and it is only through experiencing them in all their joy and pain that we ever get to the other side of the looking glass. As a venue for these artists, Caffe Cino did exactly that: it allowed artists and audiences to confront their ghosts and demons, experience relationships with one another, develop bonds that enabled a transcendence of self. In doing so, the Cino’s artists paved the way for the stronger queer communities and political movements that were to come.
References

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Basic Books, 1994.

Crespy, David A. Off-Off Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960’s Ignited a New American Theater. Back Stage Books, 2003.

Patrick, Robert. “The Haunted Host” in Robert Patrick’s Cheep Theatricks: Plays, Monologues, and Sketches. Samuel French, Inc., 1972.

Patrick, Robert.  Temple Slave. Hard Candy Books, 1994.

West, Mae. “The Drag: A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts” in Three Plays by Mae West. Routledge, 1997.

Wilson, Lanford. “The Madness of Lady Bright” in 21 Short Plays. Smith and Kraus, 1993.

 

Darren Patrick Blaney, PhD, currently teaches theater history and practice at the University of Miami, Florida. He maintains a blog at www.darrenblaney.blogspot.com.

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