By Robert Heide
In my play West of the Moon, a down and out aging hustler named Luck meets a young man in a doorway during a rainstorm. Luck begins to talk about his wild adventures working as a masseur/prostitute for a male escort service. But now he is dealing drugs on the street, and when he spots the young man he proceeds without a second thought to seduce and corrupt. This play did not fare well with the critics. One suggested that I break my typewriter over my hands and another predicted that I would never again publish another play. I hadn’t realized then that the word “gay” was verboten and never mentioned in the press until well after the 1969 Stonewall Riots; it was actually 1987 before the New York Times changed that policy.
John Gilman (left) and Robert Frink in Moon at the Caffe Cino. Photo credit: James Gossage
One night, sitting at the San Remo Bar and wondering what the hell I would do next, the actor Warren Finnerty, then playing a junkie in the Living Theater’s The Connection, handed me an apricot brandy spiked with mescaline. On my way home I was going in and out of light bulbs and neon signs and looking up at a black sky filled with stars; I said to myself: “Hey! There is no time—I’m just in this eternity.”
It was then that I decided I would write the play that Joe Cino had asked me to write for his tiny coffeehouse/theater, the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street. “Make it for two blond men,” he had suggested cheerfully, “Just like West of the Moon.” This time around, I thought I would develop a situation taken out of my own experience, wherein two men trapped in an existential time warp cannot get out of bed. I used “Bed” in the play title, and drugs and disillusion as the focal point of despair, and decided to experiment with time in the philosophical sense of Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in which he details concepts such as “the being of non-being” and “the non-being of being.” The play was cast with Jim Jennings and Larry Burns playing two handsome young men fueled by liquor and drugs and caught in a time-warp—not in the shadows, but on a brightly lit gleaming white slab of a bed. The direction included a precise sense of prolonged time co-mingled with non-time, and the actors had a field day, twice just staring at the audience during the full volume playing of a three-minute recording of Any Way You Want It by the Dave Clark Five. Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider, showed up several times to see it and we became fast friends, getting together to discuss existentialism, Sartre, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. He compared my play to Sartre’s No Exit. The FBI showed up but left in frustration after realizing there was no actual subversion or sexual hanky-panky going on. And this time, surprise (!), the New York Times gave it a rave review, saying, “What we are witnessing here is the anguish of existence.” Andy Warhol also came to see the play on a number of occasions, proclaiming it to be a work of genius and ultimately deciding he wanted to film it, which he did, with his assistant/lover Danny Williams shooting close-up footage resulting in a one-hour-long split-screen film that premiered at Film-Makers Cinematheque.
Jim Jennings (left) and Larry Burns in The Bed at Caffe Cino. Photo credit: Nat Finkelstein
For me, the most remarkable story in the annals of The Bed (directed by Tim Cusack) was seeing the (actual) bed on wheels pulled by ropes up Seventh Avenue with the two men (this time with a Black man playing one of the characters) acting “in motion” in a site-specific 2006 Obie-winning production of several plays— including West of the Moon (which I was amazed and delighted to see had somehow come of age)—presented in the streets of Greenwich Village by Peculiar Works Project under the auspices of the producers Barry Rowell, Catherine Porter, and Ralph Lewis. In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of The Bed, The Great Beast Theater in New Orleans, directed by “Agnes Knows” aka Edmond Garron, produced a really way-out version with mattresses strapped to the naked backs of the two actors.
With my play Moon set to open at the Caffe Cino in mid-February of 1967, I was thinking of the time I spent at the PDU (Playwrights/Directors Unit) at the Actors Studio, conducted by Harold Clurman. Harold would say to the assembled group, “Just do it,” and with that in mind I decided it was a good idea to just jump in and direct the play myself. I was good friends with Victor Lipari and Jacque Lynn Colton, who were members of Tom O’Horgan’s La Mama Troupe. They wanted to join me in this endeavor along with Jim Jennings, who had been one of the actors in The Bed, and John Gilman who, newly arrived in town from San Francisco, had been introduced to me by Joe Cino at Mother Hubbard’s on Sheridan Square (now Two Boots Pizza).
The Bed on the streets of the Village, 2006. Photo credit: Peculiar Works
Joe, sometimes wrapped in an American flag, would introduce the show to the audience by playing one of his favorite Kate Smith recordings, When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, which contains the lyric, “Each day is dark and dreary, but the night is bright and cheery.” Recorded music was also used for the play itself; choices included the Rolling Stones’ 1000 Light Years From Home, the Dave Clark Five’s Do You Love Me, Darlin’ Be Home Soon by the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Stones’ 19th Nervous Breakdown. At certain points in the play I slowed movement down to create intensity in a super-realistic way and to add tension. One scene with rock music playing loudly had the character Sam dancing alone to a disco beat, Ingrid isolated on the sofa popping pills, and Sally and Harold staring blankly outward. What helped to make it all happen for this production was the extraordinary and artful lighting by Johnny Dodd. For the scene late in the play of the Christ-like visitation of Christopher, the upstairs neighbor (played by Gilman) with his freshly-baked bread offering and dressed all in white (in contrast to the beatnik black costumes of the others), Dodd’s lighting scheme reflected Christopher’s line, “I paint mostly circles, in blinding colors that hurt your eyes if you look at them too long,” with intense, multi-colored circles of light projected on the stage and back wall. The Christopher character, called by one critic “the Parsifal figure,” eventually came to be viewed as: gay! Ross Wetzsteon came to review Moon for the Village Voice. He wrote, “I found Moon hilarious—in fact, one of the most delightfully funny plays of the season. Linda Eskenas is brilliant and delicious as a pale, tense, post-teeny bopper, and the other cast members are excellent. I recommend it highly.” In those years, and especially after the play was published, there were productions across the country at many colleges and at regional theaters like Eric Krebs’ George Street Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey: in that production the actor Frederick Forrest— portraying the ex-Marine Harold—went on afterwards to Hollywood stardom. Moon was performed at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., in Hollywood at the Actors Studio West, and at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village where it was paired with my play At War with the Mongols. It also had a run, with Jayne Haynes and Paul Lieber, as part of the Theater Strategy Festival of plays at the Manhattan Theater Club.
In 1976, to celebrate the Bicentennial, Theater for the New City, then at the Jane West Hotel, produced a festival of new plays related to Greenwich Village. Harvey Fierstein’s play International Stud, set in the back room of a gay bar on the Hudson River waterfront, was enacted almost totally in pitch darkness. The play later became part of Torch Song Trilogy. My contribution was American Hamburger. It featured three ghosts, George Washington, the writer Maxwell Bodenheim, and a New Jersey tourist, who meet in Washington Square Park; the tourist, a conservative history teacher by day, would at night head down to “the trucks” dressed in black leather, jeans, and boots to act out his fantasies. In the play he leaves the notorious Keller Bar and heads across the street to the trucks and onto a pier where, following a sexual encounter, he is stabbed and thrown into the river.
After Stonewall, during the decade of the 1970s, there was another kind of American revolution going on in New York and other cities; this “sexual revolution” was being practiced in bars with dark backrooms and cellars where groups of gay men congregated to play indiscriminately at sex, sex, and more sex. Along the waterfront in Greenwich Village were the parked trailer trucks and abandoned dilapidated piers (former passenger ship terminals) where it all took place. Danger was also the name of the game, and many wound up in the river following anonymous sex.
Heterosexual couples also engaged in back-room antics in places like The Hellfire Club and Studio 54. For just men, on the wild west waterfront it was The Anvil, The Mine Shaft, Dirty Dicks, The Eagle, Jack Rabbit’s, or The Toilet.
After 1980, with the arrival of AIDS, it was time to straighten up and fly right. Death was knocking at the door. The good-time party was over; and the cruising on Christopher Street, the bathhouses, the discos with backrooms, the after-hours all night revelries at the river dives, and furtive sex gradually became no more than a memory to be reckoned with as time moved on.
Often cohorts talked about all this as being part of “the avant-garde;” but I was never sure about that. I think the meaning was “of our time,” but could have also been “ahead of our time.” As history evolves a day at a time, I go back to one of my own first plays, West of the Moon, which opened in 1961 at Lee Paton Nagrin’s New Playwrights Theater on 3rd Street. It was savaged by the critics. Was it too gay? Who can say? When I was taking posters of my play Suburban Tremens around the Village I went into the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, then on Christopher Street, a longtime emporium for gay-related books, literature, magazines, and newspapers. I asked the tough butch lesbian who sat at the desk if I could put one up on the bulletin board. Gazing at me she asked pointedly, “Is it a gay play?” With some hesitation I responded, “Yes.” She followed with, “How gay?” Though the short curtain-raiser entitled Increased Occupancy had in it two artistic men who had the same last name (Wilcox), I felt uncertain as to whether the play was gay enough. I realize now that my having two men living together with the same last name might have anticipated same-sex marriage. At the time, I was amused but still could not fully justify how gay the play was. Today I still ponder and wonder if a play should be tagged gay or not, or be thought of as just another “It’s Only a Play.”
All of Robert Heide’s plays from the 1960s through the 1980s are gathered in the collection Robert Heide 25 Plays published by Fast Books Press (fastbookspress.com), and are available from the publisher and online wherever books are sold.