By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/30/21 – Robert Patrick Playwright deserves more attention as a man of the theatre, a playwright, an actor, a poet, and a performance artist. I have known Robert Patrick for a number of years and finally sat down with him to ask him about his amazing career in theatre and his contribution to both experimental and gay theatre. He was born Robert Patrick O’Connor in 1937 in Texas to migrant workers. He never went to one school for a full year until his senior year of high school, in New Mexico. Books, film and radio were the only constants in his early life. After working briefly in Maine in the early 1960s, he stopped off in New York City and happened upon the Caffe Cino, the first Off-Off Broadway theatre in 1961. He stayed in New York, working for free at the Caffe Cino and other early Off-Off Broadway theaters, supporting himself with temporary typing jobs while observing and participating in dozens of productions. He had already been writing poetry, and in 1964 wrote his first play, The Haunted Host. The play was soon produced at Caffe Cino, and playwriting became his main focus. Patrick went on to write and publish over 60 plays.
In 1964, Caffe Cino produced Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright, which featured a gay character. This was Caffe Cino’s breakthrough hit and an early play to deal explicitly with homosexuality. It was at the Caffe Cino later in 1964, where Patrick’s first play, The Haunted Host, premiered. “Foolishly,” Patrick says, “he denied Neil Flanagan, the Caffe Cino’s star performer, the title role (because Flanagan had recently played Lanford Wilson’s gay character, Lady Bright).” After other prominent Off-Off actors refused the role because they feared playing a gay character might damage their careers, Patrick appeared in the play himself alongside fellow playwright William M. Hoffman. The coffeehouse itself also served as a significant meeting spot for gay men. It closed in 1968, a year after Joe Cino’s suicide following the accidental death of his lover, Jon Torrey.
Robert Patrick was especially proud of his work at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, another of the first Off-Off-Broadway theatres. Café La MaMa was established in the East Village by American theatre enthusiast Ellen Stewart (known as Mama), the fashion designer who was La MaMa’s director from its establishment in 1961 until her death in 2011. La MaMa has been home to such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, and Terrence McNally; directors including Tom O’Horgan, Joseph Chaikin, Robert Wilson, and Richard Foreman; such actors as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Irwin, and Danny DeVito; and hit plays ranging from Godspell to Blue Men.
Neil Flanagan directed a production of Patrick’s play Mirage at La MaMa in July 1965. In November 1965, Patrick was production coordinator for BbAaNnGg, a benefit to raise money for electrical work at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue theatre, which included plays, spoken word, performance art, and film by many prominent Off-Off artists. This was age of experimental theatre in New York City and it was here that were launched the plays of Jean-Claude van Itallie, whose anti-Vietnam War play Amerika Hurrah ran for almost two years. In 1968, Jean-Claude van Itallie wrote his ensemble play The Serpent for Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre. The Serpent was the winner of the 1969 Obie award and arguably the most successful ensemble work ever created for Open Theatre.
I asked Robert Patrick about van Itallie’s experimental play The Serpent and what he thinks about Ron Sossi’s resurrection of The Serpent at the Odyssey Theatre in October 2021. He told me this: “How fascinating to think of a group-improvised creation like The Serpent being revived fifty-three years later by the grandchildren of the generation which created it. The kaleidoscopic, dance-like, “orchestra of flesh” approach, developed largely out of La Mama Experimental Theater Company and Judson Church Theater by directors such as Joseph Chaikin, Marshall W, Mason, Tom O’ Horgan, Harvey Tavel and John Vaccaro, with an obligatory tip of the hat to the Caffe Cino whose floor was too small for such productions but which was nonetheless the heart of the movement, has become the rule rather than the exception for commercial productions like Hair, Pippin, Follies, Godspell, A Chorus Line and incalculable imitations of them.”
Robert Patrick elaborated: “The plays for which the style was developed may have been largely forgotten — Rochelle Owens’ Futz, Paul Foster’s Tom Paine, Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, Megan Terry’s Massachusetts Trust, Ronald Tavel’s Gorilla Queen, Tom Eyen’s raucous revues. But their premise – a stage is a bare space which can be anything, any place, any time, inhabited by players who are equally flexible, and anything that can be imagined by the authors (playwright, director, designers) can be created or suggested by any theatrical means available – with such works, theater entered the Modern Era of experimental art which had two unspoken but pervasive mottos: ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘The Purpose of Art Is the Advancement of Art.’”
The aesthetics of experimental theatre of the 60s did not last long. Robert Patrick points out: “The negative side of such this revolution [in theatre] was sensationalism (How many people saw only the first act of Hair because they knew that was all the nudity?) and incomprehensibility (still very much with us in the most extremes] obliquity of much “performance art”). The shock tactics have become a common vocabulary: Bohemia and Broadway swallowed one another whole. Bette Midler, who started by imitating Ethel Merman at La Mama for Tom Eyen, winds up parodying the very essence of good old-fashioned show business for record prices in Hello, Dolly for audiences today who have never seen it done sincerely, and Harvey Fierstein (perhaps the ultimate inheritor and implementer of all the Off-Off tendencies) gets applause for entering in male costume in Fiddler on the Roof. It is quite possible, as all the arts are learning, that everything has been done. So, this [new] production of The Serpent is of unusual interest.”
In his own career as a playwright, Robert Patrick kept producing plays for Off-Off Broadway in the 1970s. In 1969 after the demise of Caffe Cino, Robert Patrick wrote his play Joyce Dynel, Salvation Army, and Fog – for which he won the Show Business magazine Best Play Award. And in the same year of 1969, his play Camera Obscura was produced on PBS, starring Marge Champion and received many accolades. Perhaps more importantly, Robert Patrick became a prolific pioneer in gay theatre and Off-Off Broadway theatre, with over 300 productions of his plays during the 1960s in New York City alone. In 1972, the publisher and licensing company Samuel French called Patrick “New York’s Most-Produced Playwright.” Patrick directed a production of his own play, The Richest Girl in the World Finds Happiness, at La MaMa in 1970. In 1972, he directed his own play Valentine Rainbow at La MaMa..
In 1973, Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children opened at a London pub theatre and was soon signed for a West End production and international productions. 1974 was the first season of gay theatre in the United Kingdom, to which Patrick contributed three plays. His play Cleaning House was produced in California during the summer of 1974. A 1974 Boston production of The Haunted Host was the first time Harvey Fierstein appeared on the professional stage as a man. The 1975 Broadway production of Kennedy’s Children earned actress Shirley Knight a Tony Award in 1976 – a role she reprised in a 1979 CBS production of the play.
In 1976, Marlo Thomas commissioned Patrick to write My Cup Runneth Over for her and Lily Tomlin. Although they never performed in the play, it would become Patrick’s most produced work. Most recently, he published his memoir Film Moi or Narcissus in the Dark and the plays Hollywood at Sunset and Michelangelo’s Models. He retired from theatre in 1990, published a novel romanticizing the Golden Age of Off-Off Broadway – Temple Slave, and has lived in Los Angeles since 1993.
In 2010, he published a DVD of his lecture “Caffe Cino: Birthplace of Gay Theatre” and two books of poems, A Strain of Laughter and Bitter with the Sweet, with Lulu.com. Robert Patrick has often taught classes and lectured about Alternative Theatre. In 2013, Robert Patrick was brought back onto the stage by young Los Angeles underground theatre artists, appearing as a reader, singer, and actor. In March 2014, he gave a solo performance about his career entitled, “What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes a Great Story Later,” which featured a cappella renditions of many of his original songs. This was followed by two more solo evenings of song, entitled “Bob Capella” and “New Songs for Old Movies.” In recent years, Robert Patrick has been part of an on-going Monday cabaret production of “Planet Queer” at the gay bar Akbar in Silverlake (pre-COVID) and some outdoor performances elsewhere in the COVID era. He regularly posts his poems and videos of himself performing on stage on Facebook, as his writing skills seem undiminished and his spirit brimming with his poetic gifts.
Patrick expresses much interest in the influence of the internet on performance art. “It’s possible for anyone anywhere to make their work available to millions of people. And there is no central force, such as the New York press once was, determining who becomes respected. It’s easy to make one’s work available, harder to make it prominent or profitable. And political correctness, such as the Cancel Culture movement, threatens the freedom of speech for which so many have struggled. A recent example: My play, Kennedy’s Children, has been produced thousands of times in theatres of all statures. This week, for the very first time, I received a request from a producer to ‘politically correct’ the language and thoughts and make them ‘up to date’ in the play, which is set in 1973.”