by Charles Busch
I was never in a school play and for a good reason: I couldn’t remember a line of dialogue. I nearly hyperventilated the moment I hit the stage. It was because I loved it too much. To be “up there” was almost too magical to imagine. Ever since the age of seven, when I was taken by my father to the old Metropolitan Opera House to see Joan Sutherland in La Sonnambula, I’ve been obsessed by the image of that magnificent red-headed lady drifting ethereally through a painted nineteenth-century landscape. It’s not unfair to say that my entire career has been an attempt to recreate that first impression.
I was desperate to be a child star, only there was no one willing to exploit me. I went so far as to send a snapshot of myself to the producers of the film version of Oliver offering my services for the title role. Growing up in Manhattan was helpful. Sometimes after school, I’d go to the Palace Theatre, and persuade the stage doorman to let me go onstage. I can’t even imagine what old “Pops” thought of this fragile twelve-year-old boy belting out “The Man That Got Away.”
All but one of the plays in this volume were written to allow me to be “up there”. I started out as a performer who needed lines to say and, through necessity, grew to be a writer. Along the way, I discovered that the plea
sure I derived from writing nearly equaled the joy I received from being onstage. From 1984 through 1991, I was the leading lady and playwright-in-residence of “Theatre-in-Limbo”. We were very much a throwback to the acting troupes of the nineteenth- century. Considering that the group was assembled merely on the basis of who was available and willing to work for free, it was rather remarkable that each of us filled a very specific role in the traditional stock company. Arnie Kolodner was the handsome stalwart leading man. Ken Elliott, our director, played the effete villains. Theresa Marlowe was always the ingénue. Andy Halliday was our character man, Julie Halston, the comic soubrette, Bobby Carey, the juvenile, Meghan Robinson, the dark villainess -- and I was the leading lady, a Sarah Bernhardt of Avenue C.
The advantage of writing play after play for an ensemble is that you’re never facing a blank page. There are so many givens to constructing a plot. There must be a role for everyone in the company. The playwright has to take into consideration everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. If an actor played a small role in the last play, he’s owed a better opportunity in the next. In Theatre –in-Limbo, if an actor was in drag in the last play, he might feel the need to butch it up in the next. My early plays were Chinese puzzles constructed of promises and budgetary considerations. The style of the plays was dictated by our performing venue. The Limbo Lounge was an art gallery/after hours bar (sans liquor license)/ performance art space. There were actually two Limbo Lounges that we performed in. The first was a small floor-through on Tenth Street off First Avenue. Several months after our first show, the Limbo Lounge moved to a large garage on Ninth Street between Avenues B and C. It was impossible to store scenery or costumes in either place, so I wrote plays that required no set and collected shopping bags to schlep the costumes back and forth.
When I say “no set”, I mean an empty stage, no furniture. These were “stand-up” plays. I learned a great deal about doling out exposition. In the first few lines of every scene, I had to make perfectly clear the location and time and in an unobtrusive and entertaining manner.
Our acting style was also affected by the venue. A large percentage of the audience was standing and drinking Rolling Rock beers. To command their attention, we had to be highly energized and emotionally intense. This fit perfectly with my perversely French fin de siecle melodramatic aesthetic. Indeed, two of our shows, Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium and Pardon My Inquisition or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets were directly inspired by the plays of Victorien Sardou, author of many of Bernhardt’s greatest roles.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was the first play I wrote for Theatre-in-Limbo. I like to say I wrote it in four hours while working as a temp receptionist. In truth, I did a little rewriting the next day. But not too much. It really was meant to be just a sketch performed over one weekend. I had no idea it would become my calling card for years to come. The historical periods of the play were chosen because they lent themselves easily to cheap improvised costumes. Everyone knows that the women of Sodom and Gomorrah sauntered around town in G-strings and spike heels.
The three scenes that make up Vampire Lesbians of Sodom were written very much to showcase various characters and performance styles that I had been playing with for the previous eight years. The first scene, set in ancient Sodom, is written in the form of a burlesque sketch. The Succubus and the young virgin were played as aging strippers performing a bawdy scene between strip numbers. Scene Two, set in Hollywood in the early twenties, gave me the opportunity to play a theatrical grande dame on the order of Mrs. Patrick Campbell or Nazimova. The third and final scene, set in contemporary times, allowed me to create a world-weary, hardboiled showbiz dame somewhere between Lucille Ball and Lauren Bacall.
For a long time I was embarrassed by what I considered to be the flimsiness of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Rereading it recently, I was struck by how entertaining a little sketch it is. Never meant to be considered a play at all, this little decadent dream achieved its goals quite well. It was created merely to entertain a late night crowd on a hot summer night in the East Village. The crazy miracle is that the play has had such an incredibly long life.
Each of us in our troupe had struggled long and hard for a place in the theatre -- and with little success. How extraordinary it was for us to see the campy little Vampire Lesbians of Sodom develop such an intense cult following. Lines formed hours early in the crack-infested neighborhood. Once inside, people would be seated on top of the ice machine, crammed into the corners and sometimes standing in the hallway where they could only hear the play. On the heels of such hoopla, we tried to find a commercial producer to move the play to a real theatre. No one would touch it. My director Ken Elliott decided that we should produce the play ourselves. With herculean effort, we raised what was to us the astronomical sum of $55,000 and opened at the historic Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal Street on June 19, 1985. After the opening night performance, all of our friends jammed downstairs into the Green Room just in time for the early edition of the New York Times to be read aloud. It was an incredible rave that left no one out. I slipped away from the crowd and retreated to my dressing room, shut the door and wept. I knew at that moment that I could finally achieve my hard-won goal, which was to earn my living in the theatre.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom went on to run five years and is one of the longest running plays in
Off-Broadway history. Apart from a pretty fantastic title, one of the reasons for its longevity was, oddly enough, a sweet innocence that made people feel good. The two ladies of the title bitch and compete against each other for two thousand years, but at the end realize that the intensity of their relationship is what has sustained them. They belong to each other. I like to think the sweet innocence of our original company and our affection for each other played a great part in the show’s success. We were an old-fashioned troupe of players.
Very early on, Ken Elliott and I decided to create the Pirandellian conceit that our East Village audience was actually watching a slightly faded theatrical star on tour with her somewhat seedy stock company. I was always, in effect, Charles Busch playing an aging actress playing the vampiress Madeleine Astarte or whatever was the current role in her vast repertoire was. We heightened this concept through the use of footlights, a show curtain decorated with the titles of our many plays, a delayed star entrance, elaborately staged curtain calls, and lastly, the curtain speech. It was a curtain speech that inspired Psycho Beach Party.
After each performance, still in my “actress” persona, I’d make a curtain speech graciously imploring the audience to sign our mailing list. To make my pitch more entertaining, I’d improvise the titles of future plays they might see. One night, the title Gidget Goes Psychotic popped into my feverish brain. It got a big laugh and I used it as the punch line of my curtain speech for quite some time. Eventually, Ken said, “You know we’ve been promoting this play for years. Maybe we should do a show called Gidget Goes Psychotic. Initially, it didn’t appeal to me at all. I found no glamour or fake grandeur in the Frankie and Annette beach party movies or in the film and television series Gidget. The shows I was writing for Theatre-in-Limbo were built on fantasies of who I’d like to play. A Byzantine empress, yes, a teenage surfer girl -- I don’t think so. Then it occurred to me that if Gidget were indeed psychotic, perhaps that would manifest itself in multiple personalities. These other selves, particularly her main alter ego, the dominatrix Ann Bowman, would give me the flamboyant acting opportunities I sought.
We originally performed Gidget Goes Psychotic as late shows at the Limbo Lounge while we were performing a full eight show a week schedule of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Provincetown Playhouse. As soon as the curtain came down on Macdougal Street, we’d jump into cabs and race across town. Our audience would be waiting outside the club before we got there. It was exhausting but exhilarating. The response was so overwhelming that we decided to transfer that play Off-Broadway as well.
There was some concern that there could be copyright problems with the title Gidget Goes Psychotic and that I should think of an alternate. Frankly, I was glad to retitle it Psycho Beach Party. What had begun as strictly a spoof of a specific movie and TV series had become a very personal piece of writing. I don’t imagine I’m alone in having experienced as a young person a feeling of being a different person in each facet of my life. My heroine, Chicklet, learns that each of the various roles she plays in life are all part of one being, and that they only make her stronger. It was fascinating for me to realize that all creative writing is “personal.” The campiest theatrical spoof full of movie references could be a revealing self-portrait that others might identify with. In 1989, Ken Elliott and I met with Kyle Renick, the artistic director of the WPA Theatre, to discuss the possibility of doing a play there. There was never a question of doing an already- written play from my trunk. The trunk has always been empty, except perhaps for wigs, shoes and corsets. I only wrote when I had an opening night date set in my calendar. We were tossing around story ideas for possible plays when I remembered that I had a gorgeous 1940’s gown gathering dust in the closet that had been made for me to wear at a charity benefit. It had always evoked for me Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama. I pitched that idea to Kyle and it turned out that he, too, had great affection for embattled heroines skiing to safety across the Alps. It was assumed that we would do this play in the same burlesque-sketch style and on the same bare stage as we had before. However, this would be my first opportunity to write a play to be specifically performed in a real theatre and not in a club. I felt free to write it in two rather leisurely acts. Though it was a film spoof, we were performing it on the stage and so my frame of reference also ran to such stolid theatrical wartime fare as Lillian Hellman’s Watch On The Rhine and Robert Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night.
Besides being a movie-genre satire, the play also had something to say about the New Age philosophy popular in the late eighties. I was very disturbed by the idea that everything that happens to us happens because we somehow created it. While I certainly believe that we can affect our fates, this enlightened selfishness exhibits a dangerous lack of sympathy for those whom fate turns against, and has been the essence of many faddish religions, certainly from the mid – nineteenth-century onward. I had my myopic wartime heroine, Gertrude Garnet, falling under the sway of a somewhat suspect swami.
The genre we were satirizing was definitely not a B-movie. It was a luxurious, star-driven vehicle and, now that I was no longer writing for the Limbo Lounge, I wanted a set. Indeed, I wanted a divan and a fireplace to dramatically lean against. The play being produced before us was Larry Kramer’s Just Say No, which took place in an opulent Washington D.C. townhouse. It had a lavish double decker set complete with a massive staircase leading to the upper level. With some paint and a moose head, there was no reason why it couldn’t be transformed into a Bavarian schloss. I rewrote my play to accommodate all seven doors and a portrait hiding a safe. It may not sound like a lot, but it was a genuine thrill to finally be able to sit onstage.
I have such intense nostalgia for The Lady In Question. At the risk of sounding like one of my own pretentious heroines, I believe it to be the apotheosis of my years with Theatre-in-Limbo. Everyone was perfectly cast and working at a highly skilled level. I can’t imagine any other production of that play being more definitive in its set, costumes, lighting, sound, direction and performance.
We had established a great relationship with the WPA Theatre, which continued with my next play Red Scare On Sunset. Once again, I sold Kyle Renick with a one-line description of the plot. “I play a 1950’s movie actress, filming a movie about Lady Godiva, who gets beaned on the head and dreams that she’s back in medieval England.” I suppose I found it comic fodder for me, a drag performer, to play a woman famous for being naked. As Ken Elliott and I developed the story, it was clear that he was more interested in the McCarthy era framing device than the saga of Lady Godiva. Before I knew it, we’d concocted a 1950’s red scare melodrama with a short medieval dream sequence. I’m very grateful it turned out that way.
My plays up to this point had been strictly comic melodramas. As a student of nineteenth- century boulevard theatre and Hollywood film, I was intrigued that a contemporary audience could be swayed by the same melodramatic plot conventions that had slayed ‘em in the balcony in days gone by -- if they were leavened by parody and knowing laughter. In Red Scare on Sunset, I thought it would interesting if the two leading characters we were led to root for -- the lovable heroine and her wacky best friend, spouted ideologies reprehensible to our modern sensibility. I thought that would be a fascinating moral challenge to the audience. In writing a play about Hollywood during the McCarthy era, it seemed to me that the obvious story would be about a sympathetic leftist who is hounded out of his career. I thought it would be more outrageous to write the play as a mad right-wing nightmare. A very conservative movie actress discovers to her dismay that everyone in her circle is involved in a communist conspiracy to destroy the Hollywood star system. In this reversal of melodramatic convention, it is the lovely heroine who sanctimoniously “names names” who is revealed at the end to be the true horror.
The play dealt with the American fear of self-reflection, the fact that anyone who challenges the clichés of our Hollywood-inspired white picket fence fantasies is considered foreign, subversive and dangerous. However liberal my own sympathies were, I thought it was important to show that radical extremists of both sides share ideological similarities; i.e., a fear of homosexuality, and the desire to deny the other side its freedom of speech. It required a well-developed sense of irony to traverse the morally askew territory of the play. I was taken by surprise at the number of critics and audience members who jumped to the odd conclusion that if I, the playwright, was playing a woman who “names names”, somehow that implied that I was personally advocating blacklisting. It amazed me that anyone would take at face value what was, to me, clearly a satiric attack on radical conservatism.
By 1991, I felt that in writing play after play for myself in drag and for the same ensemble of actors, I was imposing too many limitations on myself as both writer and actor. I embarked on a decade of experimentation. I tried my hand at the novel, cabaret, musical revues, journalism, acting in other writers’ plays, writing myself a non-comedic drag role and, my God, even writing myself a male role. Some of these experiments were more successful than others but it was all a journey to discover what I did best and what I enjoyed most. It wasn’t difficult for me to see that my search for an artistic identity mirrored the quests for re-invention pursued by the heroines I played on the stage.
The protagonists of all of my plays are women who, in their struggle to find a place in the world, create a new persona that enables them to navigate life’s rough waters. Eventually, they feel a terrible conflict between the false self and the girl they once were, and out of that conflict they emerge a stronger person. I never intend to tell that story, but it’s always there: whether it’s a virgin who evolves into a glamorous vampire, a teenage girl who requires a virago-like alter ego to feel complete, a honky-tonk piano player who streamlines herself into an elegant concert virtuoso, or an Indiana farm girl who becomes a popular movie star. I am my heroines. The Limbo Lounge transformed a skinny, confused performance artist into a parody grande dame of the theatre.
One of my projects in the nineties was writing the libretto to a musical entitled The Green Heart. The show, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, wasn’t terribly well received, but I established a wonderful rapport with Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of MTC. On opening night, when the reviews were less than stellar, she told me that she’d love Manhattan Theatre Club to be my artistic home and that she would produce and direct my next play. I was extremely touched by her gesture of faith.
Well, here we go again, I thought, I had no play to hand to her. Just as I had written Vampire Lesbians of Sodom for the Limbo Lounge, I set about writing a play for Manhattan Theatre Club. I wasn’t starting from scratch. A few years before, I had performed a solo show called Flipping My Wig. One of the pieces in it was a six-minute monologue of a woman named Miriam Passman. Mrs. Passman was an emotionally intense Upper West Side matron who releases her long pent-up creativity by performing a musical tribute to Edith Piaf at a Greenwich Village cabaret. That monologue was one of the few times I had tapped into the satirically-rich Suburban New York Jewish milieu that I’d grown up in. That lady was as much in my bones as my most arch movie-inspired heroines. For a long time, I wanted to write a play built around that bitterly raging character but it was difficult coming up with a plot that didn’t read like a TV sitcom episode. Spurred by Lynne Meadow’s offer, I wondered what would happen if I placed Miriam (renamed Marjorie Taub) in a theatrical genre at odds with her manic New York attitudes. What if I flung her and her allergist husband into the middle of a very cryptic, enigmatic Pinter or Albee play? That concept forced me to take these comic urban characters onto foreign turf, which liberated my imagination and formed the essence of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.
Marjorie suffers from the same feelings of dissatisfaction as my other heroines. However, this being a more naturalistic play, she doesn’t abandon her family to become the world’s most glamorous philosopher. She remains in her Riverside Drive apartment, raging in impotent frustration. Her only transformations lie in her frustrated fantasies. The character of her childhood friend, Lee Green, nee Lillian Greenblatt, bears a resemblance to my earlier ladies. A refugee from Bronx River Road, Lee has reinvented herself as a globe trotting free spirit. I can’t escape it.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife was the first play of mine that wasn’t a vehicle for me to perform in. That was never an option. One of my strengths as a performer is to play a female character with, one hopes, a psychological truth, but at the same time to add a layer that comments on the history of star acting. I find it an easy balancing act to play an emotionally honest scene while throwing in a dash of Susan Hayward’s Brooklyn-inflected standard stage speech for satiric spice. The role of Marjorie Taub required none of that theatrical distancing. Though outrageously self-dramatizing, Marjorie has to be played for total reality. Early in the play’s gestation, I went to see the play Death Defying Acts. I had long admired its star, Linda Lavin, but seeing her once more, I realized that she was the perfect actress to play Marjorie. I couldn’t get her voice out of my head and began to write every line for her. An important part of my life has been the worship of actresses, and I wanted the challenge of writing a very rich role for a great actress. It’s difficult for me to express the thrill of hearing Linda read the role of Marjorie for the first time. Everything I hoped she’d be was there. I’ve relived that excitement at every performance of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife that I’ve seen her play.
Lynne Meadow’s beautiful production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife received glowing notices and prompted a Broadway transfer. Though it was pouring rain the first day the marquee went up at the Barrymore Theatre, nothing could have stopped me from gazing at it from every angle. The honky-tonk drag queen was now reinvented as a Broadway playwright. My overnight legitimacy was exciting, but like my self-created heroines, this new identity left me confused. It disturbed me when so many people kept telling me, “You must be so thrilled to finally be mainstream.” I became very defensive and quipped, ad nauseam, “I always thought I was mainstream. I haven’t performed in a bar for fifteen years. I don’t think my audience has been composed of pinheads and carny folk.” It bugged me that I was so prickly. Why couldn’t I just shut up and be grateful? Was embracing the importance of being “mainstream” tantamount to a put-down of the work I’d done for the past twenty years? In truth, I didn’t think my other plays were so on the fringe. Most of them had been commissioned by respected non-profit theatres and transferred to commercial runs. They’ve been performed in theatres and colleges coast to coast. Is it that drag and plays deemed camp parody are never considered “mainstream”, no matter how genteel their pedigree? Please forgive the chip on my shoulder. The first four plays in this volume have great emotional resonance for me and they represent collaborations that I found extraordinarily fruitful.
In my ongoing artistic trek, I envision a career where I can continue to grow as a writer and actor. To expand my horizons as a playwright will necessitate my writing plays that won’t have to take into account the limitations of a very demanding drag actress. However, I’m still as hopelessly stagestruck as ever, and that means that the “actress” will continue to prosper.Whenever she feels the great ache for a comeback, no doubt she will be provided with a vehicle perfectly suited to her peculiar charms. After all, she’s sleeping with the playwright.