When a theater-maker of a certain age who identifies as LGBTQ asks a younger theater-maker who identifies as LGBTQ, “Who was Robert Patrick?,” it seems to me that a younger theater-maker either ought to know the answer or to prep for a glorious education. For to know Patrick’s work is to acknowledge and revel in a truly indelible historical point — the one at which the American theater intersected with, and was immeasurably enriched by, America’s LGBTQ movement. There are only so many artists of whose work this truly can be said, and Patrick’s will always be one of them.
Born to migrant workers in Texas in 1937, Patrick was washing dishes at a small theater in southern Maine one summer when he was bitten by the stage bug. He stopped off in NYC en route back to the southwest and walked into the Caffe Cino — the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway, and gay theater — in September 1961.
It was as if destiny had put Patrick there. Considering himself primarily a poet, by 1964 he had written his first play, The Haunted Host, and saw it mounted at the Cino more or less immediately. Patrick’s next decade of work meshed almost perfectly with the golden age of downtown LGBTQ theater, an era in which names like Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Doric Wilson and William H. Hoffman were both redefining and expanding what could be said and done from the stage.
Patrick, however, belongs to an especially select category because of all the playwrights of the Cino era, comparatively few made it uptown to Broadway — or, probably, wanted to. Albee and Lanford Wilson did, of course, but by 1972, when script publisher Samuel French heralded Patrick as “New York’s Most-Produced Playwright,” his crossover appeal both to producers and to audiences was validating his ascent. The next year, Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children opened in the back room of a pub in London — well, in Islington, a distance from the tony West End — and by 1975 the play appeared on the Main Stem, where it earned Shirley Knight a Tony Award:
Not that Samuel French needs The Clyde Fitch Report to provide it with free marketing, but there is a reason that I reprint, below, its description of Patrick’s play:
…an evocative drama of American idealism and the tragic fallout from the euphoria of the 1960s. Five lost souls are gathered in a bar, Valentine’s Day, 1974: Wanda, a secretary-turned-schoolteacher, keeping John Kennedy’s memory alive despite the inevitable slurs; Sparger, an actor grown bitter and cynical as New York’s vital underground theatre movement becomes a commercial wasteland; Rona, a political activist who sees the movement collapsing from self-indulgence and apathy; Mark, a Vietnam veteran, now a confused, dissipated drug addict; and Carla, a dipsomaniacal actress channeling Marilyn Monroe. Through distinctive, compelling monologues, the author limns both the birth and the end of an era and its dreams.
I began this introduction by noting and, I hope, celebrating Patrick’s place as one of the founding forefathers of gay theater in America. But Kennedy’s Children, as you can tell, is not of that genre. While I doubt that Patrick or any other LGBTQ-identifying playwright of any era would articulate the following in quite this way, it does seem to me that his real triumph was not conquering the commercial stage, however impressive that may be, but rather proving that it is possible to assimilate into the (dreaded) theatrical mainstream without playing cute and coded with one’s identity, as Tennessee Williams did, or selling out. Nearly a decade before Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy took top honors at the Tonys, thus elevating the LGBTQ experience to wider prominence, Patrick proved that a gay playwright can spurn compartmentalizing and labelling — unless it’s on their terms.
I know that the calendar tells us that it’s 2018 and it might seem that this point, this fight, is old hat, won and done. But I’m not nearly as sanguine on that on some might be. I don’t think our current politics offers us very much assurance that the cancer of homophobia — even in the arts, even in theater — isn’t ready to return and grow and metastasize at an unsuspecting moment’s notice. This is just one of many reasons for us to revisit Patrick’s 60-plus plays. To remind us of how far we have come, sure, but also to teach us that the journey never really ends.
Patrick has long considered his 1973 play, Judas, to be his best work. And it is Judas to which NYC’s Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is concluding its current season. In the playwright’s take on “the greatest story ever told,” Mary is the political revolutionary mother of a reluctant pacifist 30-year-old prophet; Pilate is the urbane, witty, reasonable Prefect of the Roman Province of Judea; and Judas is a young man who is both a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth and the protégé of Pontius Pilate. Judas struggles with what to believe and who to follow in this modern-dress battle of wills. The play concludes with Pilate and the prophet in an explosive ultimate showdown between simple faith and political opportunity.
And now, 5 questions that Robert Patrick has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Does it fulfill your purpose — or does it do what you want it to do?” Because, really, that is all you can know or hope for anyway — if it does what you intend.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“What does your work mean?” Because if the viewer can’t see that, or come up with their own idea of what it means, then the piece hasn’t succeeded. The goal is to always have a certain reaction from the audience, and whether it fulfills that or not is what matters.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?” Ha!
Why did you write Judas and why do you consider it your best play?
I wrote Judas as one of a series of film parodies I was working on. During the process, it took me over and became a serious play rather than a parody. I feel every time I have seen it read or acted that it still rather profoundly fulfills the intention of parodying the usual purpose of religious dramas and presents the opposition in a realistic and believable way. One of the most interesting things about my play is that it takes all the points of view of Jesus, Judas and Pilate and treats them in the same way equally.
We know charismatic people can lead for good or for ill. When you wrote Judas in 1973, did you, even subconsciously, have Nixon in mind? If so (or if not), is your play more salient now, given our current politics?
I think the specific branches of politics and religion displayed are more interesting if you think of them from the point of the view of people who believe in them, rather than thinking of anyone as the villain. Just realize that everyone involved believes positively in what they espouse, and no one is really there standing around thinking “ha ho huh — I’m going to be evil!” I don’t think there is ever a shortage of people who feel pro either side.
Arriving in the afterlife, you find Jesus and Judas beside each other to greet you. They say they want to talk to you about your play, and have just one question each — and you get to decide what those questions will be. What do they ask you?
Oh, I doubt any of them were interested in me at all, being such a simple poet as myself. Perhaps both of them might ask something like “Where do you get your nerve?” I can’t imagine they’d have anything left to ask of me.