BY Alastair Curtis in Opinion | 16 MAY 24
Featured in
Issue 243

On the Playwrights Restaging Queer History

Does our understanding of pre-Stonewall theatre rely on the memories of vanishing people?

BY Alastair Curtis in Opinion | 16 MAY 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 243, ‘Behind the Scenes

On a hot summer’s day in a cramped Manhattan apartment, Leslie Bright totters between the telephone and the dresser, complaining of old age and heartache. Two characters named Boy and Girl, ghostly conjurings of his feverish imagination, torment him with happier memories of the male lovers who would, in days past, sign their names above his bed. ‘I grow brittle and break,’ Bright cries out in desperation. ‘Can’t you see I’m losing my mind?’

The Madness of Lady Bright (1964) was 27-year-old Lanford Wilson’s breakthrough play, a tragicomic monologue for a lonely drag queen, inspired – he later claimed – by one of his gay co-workers at the reception desk of the Americana Hotel in New York. To write a queer character as fiercely outspoken and sympathetic as Bright was still taboo in those pre-Stonewall years. Little did Wilson realize, however, when his one-act play premiered 60 years ago this month, on 19 May 1964, at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, that it would represent the birth of queer theatre.

Neil Flanagan in the Caffe Cino stage production of The Madness of Lady Bright, 1967. Courtesy: © Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; photograph: James D. Gossage

The Cino, as it was called, had been established six years earlier in a small storefront on 31 Cornelia Street, the brainchild of Joe Cino, a retired Sicilian-American dancer from Buffalo who nurtured dreams of running a coffee shop. During the 1960s – on a tiny, two-and-a-half-metre stage built out of recycled milk cartons, old rugs and fairy lights – the Cino hosted a series of late-night readings of homoerotic plays by Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams. To avert a possible raid, Cino paid sizeable sums of money to the local police and, by the mid-1960s, the venue had become a regular queer hangout, a safe and fashionable alternative to the nearby bars and bathhouses.

It was only with Wilson’s play, his second to be performed at the Cino, that the venue became known as New York’s first theatre dedicated to contemporary queer writing. A number of the early reviews were, unsurprisingly, negative; the Village Voice blasted it as ‘repulsive’. But, given that the small number of queer characters who had so far managed to reach the American stage tended to be tragic closet cases, Bright’s bold sexuality provided an audacious, not to mention popular, antidote.

Brixton Faeries, cast of Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family, 1975. Courtesy: Ian Giles; Ian Townson Archive, Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives, London

Reading The Madness of Lady Bright now neither captures nor entirely accounts for the excitement it generated at the Cino 60 years ago, where it ran for 205 performances to become one of the theatre’s most popular plays. Undoubtedly, its success relied in part on Neil Flanagan’s Obie Award-winning performance to excavate the genuine feeling behind Bright’s histrionic arias of loss and self-pity. But, if it is a play of its time, it also provides a rare glimpse into a theatre that – short-lived though it was – went on to blaze a path for queer playwrights, amongst them Tom Eyen, William M. Hoffman, Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson. In the years since the theatre closed in 1968, shortly after Cino’s death by suicide, many of its records and scripts have been lost, meaning the majority of these productions are now remembered only through faded photographs.

Ian Giles and Louis Rembges, On Railton Road, 2021–23. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Rob Harris

Queer theatre in the mid-to-late 20th century thrived on the margins, in financially precarious off-off-Broadway venues, performance spaces, basement bars and community groups, where it could be performed by and for a queer audience without the threat of censorship or commercialism, but where it also, more often than not, went undocumented. We are fortunate, for instance, that Charles Ludlam’s commandingly silly turn as a diva-ish opera singer in Galas (1983) – complete with his famously withering, extravagant eye-rolls – survives on a precious videotape in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Archives, New York, one of only a handful of films to capture the ‘Ridiculous’ theatrical style he famously pioneered between the 1960s and ’80s. But, for the most part, our understanding of these performances rely on the memories of the vanishingly few people who were at his One Sheridan Square theatre more than 40 years ago; Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s partner and collaborator, passed away last year.

Our understanding of these performances rely on the memories of vanishingly few people.

Scripts, where they exist, can be archived and accessed relatively easily but, as a guide to what went down on the night, they fail, by their nature, to record the immediacy and improvisation that is unique to live performance. Take, for instance, the published script of Ethyl Eichelberger’s solo drag show Nefert-iti (1976), first presented at Dance Theater Workshop, New York: it exceeds no more than eight pages but, through musical interludes, acrobatics, fire-eating, magic tricks and the occasional cameo from his pair of Saluki dogs, this manic play about the life and death of the ancient Egyptian queen is said to have lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours in performance, depending on the night. In the years since Eichelberger’s AIDS-related death in 1990, these unscripted, impromptu inventions – named the ‘Eichelberger Etcetera’ by the drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys – have come to occupy a near-mythical status in the history of downtown performance.

Ian Giles and Louis Rembges, On Railton Road, 2021–23. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Lara A Dunn

These inevitable gaps in the queer theatre archive recently prompted playwright Louis Rembges and director Ian Giles to create On Railton Road (2023), a play about a radical gay performance group called the Brixton Faeries, who produced community theatre in south London between 1974 and 1980. Staged last year at the Museum of the Home in London, and now published in script form by Polari Press, On Railton Road draws on the diaries of Ian Townson, one of the Faeries’ founding members, to commemorate the group’s achievements and to retool their activism for a contemporary audience.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘Faerie Tales’

Main image: James D. Gossage, Exterior of the Caffe Cino, 1965. Courtesy: © Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Alastair Curtis is a playwright based in London, UK.