R.I.P.: playwright Robert Patrick (1937-2023)

April 27, 2023


The gay theater pioneer Robert Patrick had a huge impact on me as a young journalist. He was one of the prolific early contributors to Off Off Broadway, but weirdly I first encountered his work at the time of his one and only Broadway production, a wonderful play called Kennedy’s Children, which I saw in its pre-Broadway tryout at the Wilbur Theater in Boston in 1975. (See photo below of the playwright with his cast, which included some legendary performers: Shirley Knight, Barbara Montgomery, Kaiulani Lee.) The following year, someone mounted a revival of his very first play, The Haunted Host, at the equivalent of an Off-Broadway theater in Boston, starring the force of nature that is Harvey Fierstein. That show blew my mind. I got to know Bob a little and saw and admired many of his plays, including Judas, T-Shirts, and My Cup Ranneth Over. He was an unforgettable character who left a big imprint on the gay theater worlds in New York, Los Angeles, and beyond.

In 1979 I wrote a piece about him for the Boston Phoenix. The opening three paragraphs give you a good sense of this artist at his most personal and eloquent:

Playwright Robert Patrick sits in the kitchen of his tiny East Village apartment. Posters from his shows and pictures of movie stars paper the walls. The shelves bulge with art books and manuscripts. A teeny-weeny Royal manual typewriter perches atop a makeshift desk overflowing with papers. Boxes of letters and clippings compete for floor space with what looks like shredded bedding. This homey disarray suggests the abode of someone who has more important things to think about, and Patrick usually does: his career, the theater, the universe.

“In California, when they revived my play Judas for the summer in their big 800-seat outdoor arena theater, I was afraid the play was too talky, and I really worried,” Patrick recalls, speaking in a soft voice still tinged with traces of his native Texas. “All around us were poplar trees rippling in the moonlight, a full California moon, stars like burning bees — you know, just incredible beauty. And here was this little stage with not even a very elaborate set…And the audience was sitting there looking around at all this beauty, and I thought, how could this talky play compete with this? Then I suddenly remembered that whenever people have done plays outdoors competing with nature, they’ve been the most talky plays in the history of the theater: the Greeks, the Elizabethans, the Indians, for Christ’s sake.

“And, at that moment, the actors started talking, and 800 heads looked away from the universe down to that stage to have it explained to them. and I realized that that’s the point of theater — not to relax tired businessmen, not to titillate teenagers. You may do all that incidentally. But the point is those words and actions that make the universe clear.”

When I interviewed him for this article, we covered a multitude of topics. He did like to talk! I got more material than I could possibly use, but there are a few passages I think are worth sharing — the equivalent of DVD extras.

On Judas: “I wrote the play in one night. I then read books for five years to understand the play. And out of 500 books, for 10 books I would get only one line, but that was all right, it clarified one scene. History, history of religion books, history of history books, Bibles, Korans, Confucius, Tao, Madame Blavatsky, theosophy, Chariots of the Gods, Worlds in Collision, African Genesis, and a million tracts, pamphlets, secret societies, crazy magazines on man, myth and magic, anything anyone handed me on the street. Eventually everything related to it. That’s what happens when you’re really researching. It wasn’t til the very last screaming raving draft of the play that the words finally came into Pilate’s mouth at one time: ‘You may think that a young man’s only concerns are sex and food, sleep and sports, but you are wrong, wrong. A young man’s main concern is morality. A young man wants to be good, to make good. That is why young men are so obsessed with authority, with testing it or protesting. They want someone to show them or tell them how to be or not to be good.’ The point being that people want morality, that morality is a stronger urge than sex, country, race, love, food. People will die to feel they’re doing right. They’ll kill. Convince someone that something is good and he will die trying to do it.”

On the future: “It’s pretty inevitable that we’re in for immense regimentation. But what will happen in our heads? Will the very idea of freedom have any meaning? This is the first age in the history of the world when people have even considered the possibility of freedom or the importance of the individual or the value of the intellect. We’re in the pioneering time as far as the existence of the importance of the individual mind and soul are concerned. And it may be the last. The whole experiment may have failed. The whole renaissance may have been proved to be a very unworkable idea. As more and more people survive and live, it may be absolutely impossible for them to have any individuality. It may be too grating. Too many people go too crazy for us to doubt it. It may be we’re evolving toward termite people – good, solid, unthinking functionaries. The overall sketches of totalitarianism have been made; it works pretty well. All you have to do now is make people love it or take away from them the idea that they need to love anything.

“On the whole I don’t think they’re going to want much thought in the decades to come. As I say, things work pretty well, the machines make enough food for people, etc. etc. I don’t think people want thought beyond that. They want the novelty of art, but even that they’re willing to surrender; after adolescence, they’re content to lull themselves to sleep with slight variations on the TV. Thought is the enemy of the state; and ‘the state’ is the same no matter what it’s called. I don’t like thinking all that, but it seems to be the logical next step unless there’s a war or something that wipes out so many millions of people that a lot of creative thinking is needed. But we certainly do live in an interesting time. A time of collapse like this is fascinating for an artist because when a thing collapses you see its most intimate structure. By the time America collapses, we will see whether the rot is really at the roots or whether it’s some corruption that’s crept into the American idea that’s made everything go wrong.”

On gay life in 1979: “Anyone who spends any time in the gay section of New York comes out of it saying, ‘This can’t go on.’ Not even morally. One reason I live in such isolation in New York is that the alternative, if I were to run around with the people I know – and I know thousands – would be to spend all my time as drugged and drunk as I could financially and physically afford to get every night and be discoing or fucking in backroom bars until I staggered home and got dressed to go to a job. That is how they live. They do not even see the possibility of any other kind of life. And the suggestion that they might be able to lead another kind of life is met with jeering cynicism. I mean, that cannot go on. People will be dying in those bars, if they are not already, from the amount of drugs those people are taking, the amount of sexual exertion. I have no close friends in New York because I’ve stepped out of the drug-and-drink cycle. Almost everyone I know lives for drugs and drink. People keep telling me there’s another world. I don’t know about it. I don’t meet anyone from it.”

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