Beebo Brinker and the Legitimacy of Naive Art in the Theatre

Originally posted March 3, 2008

“Beebo Brinker and the Legitimacy of Naive Art in the Theatre”

Rare are those moments — horrible and wonderful — when our waking lives assume the heightened quality of a strange and unexpected dream. Surely that is what Ann Bannon (Ann Weldy) is thinking these days, given the Second Coming of her Sapphic Savior Beebo Brinker over a half century after she was created. Penned in the closeted fifties and early sixties, cherished by a small but avid cult following since, this series of lesbian pulp novels has recently been turned into an off-off (and now an off) Broadway stage play called The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, inspiring fans of the book to travel from as far away as San Francisco and Saskatchewan to see it. The Beebo Brinker creators know what the producers of  The Bible knew — it pays to adapt a classic.

To folks in the lesbian community, the Beebo Brinker novels are apparently a sort of founding scripture — the “tablets” if you will. More than just the steamy exploitational outings their paperback covers might suggest, the books seem to have offered their fans feelings of validation and acceptance, and to have cast a much longer shadow than most similar so-called pulp publications. They tell tales of house wives and farm girls coming to the big city, finding and joining the gay community — and not getting struck by lightning.

The producers of the play were and are adamantine in their determination not to have this production be a mere exercise in camp. While the play contains many light and (if you’ll excuse the expression) even broad moments, the main tone of the production (currently playing at 37arts in NYC) is one of earnestness and respect. And here, by God, is where they really, really get it right.

The late Susan Sontag was of the opinion (certainly borne out by the historical record) that the gay community was a principle driving force behind the invention of camp in the first place, which is ironic. But as Sontag pointed out, the camp attitude is sort of one of despair. It is a disowning of the thing one loves. One feels guilty for loving Mildred Pierce. One feels even guiltier for wanting to dress like Mildred Pierce. So Mildred Pierce is hung in effigy. There is a cruelty in it, an ungenerousness, a killer instinct, one at least partially directed against oneself. Furthermore it is superficial, and it is easy.

The step beyond that tone of mere destructiveness was there from the beginning, ironically. Charles Ludlam, often considered one of the founding “mothers” of camp, is said to have brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with his Camille. Compassion and humanity – isn’t that what the theater is for? Cruelty is for the coliseum.

I felt a kinship with the philosophy behind Beebo Brinker. A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to take part in the Ed Wood Festival produced by Ian Hill and Frank Cwiklik and their respective companies. I was overjoyed to be able to do so, having been a fan of Wood’s movies since the early 90s when I was introduced to them by my psychopharmacologist and pedicurist Robert Pinnock. (Prior to that, I’d only really known about Plan 9 from Outer Space, because it was the name of a garage band in Rhode Island.) My colleagues and I have had many a discussion on the silly topic of Ed Wood, and there’s an attitude about him and his work I believe we all share. All of us, at some relatively early stage, moved BEYOND a mere scoffing at Ed Wood’s ineptitude as a film-maker (which, don’t get me wrong, is near total in every conceivable way) to an APPRECIATION for the virtues he possesses. Anyone can laugh at something “bad.” And I assure you, I continue to howl all through Wood’s films, and to quote his terrible lines, and to impersonate his terrible actors. I must, or I wouldn’t have watched these films dozens of times.

And this is the crux of it. Something about these films compelled me to watch them dozens of times. And not just me, but many strangers from around the country, as though we all had the Close Encounters tune planted in our heads. I’ll be damned if I know what it is. I do think Wood is very good at conjuring up an atmosphere. I also think that since HE was such a huge film fan, he was able to transcend his ineptitude by conjuring countless visions planted in the collective unconscious by the Hollywood dreamsmiths: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, flying saucers, mad scientists, noir era hoodlums and gangsters. They don’t have to be in any plausible story, what they say doesn’t have to make sense — they just have to be there, as though someone had thrown some comic books, Universal horror posters and 45 rpm records into a blender and made movie slaw. And that’s kind of how dreams are, isn’t it? And, probably most important of all, Wood went at it with heart, with an absolute, vulnerable assurance, a vision that every choice he was making was the right one. He believed in it. Belief — in this cynical world — is a rare and beautiful thing. And that virtue,  that “simplicity“ in Wood’s films is to me a superior quality to the impulse to ridicule somebody else for some obvious but harmless fault.

And so, too with Beebo Brinker. Bannon’s storylines (here adapted by Linda Chapman and Kate Moira Ryan) about Greenwich Village sexual awakenings, trysts and triangles could easily be the stuff of a rude guffaws. Good Lord! Hitler took a bunch of 20th century modernist masterpieces on a museum tour of Germany for the Nazis to laugh at. It is a boorish impulse.

These days the museum world has a firmly established category for folk art, or naive art. There, it is treated with respect, talked about, criticized. Often such painting will have a didactic aspect that is anathema to “above all that” high-brows. Some years ago, I was at a gallery opening for a show of paintings by the Rev. Howard Finster (best known perhaps for supplying the Talking Heads with an album cover. Rev. Finster’s paintings are religious and how the wine-drinkers chortled at his pronouncements of faith, right to his face. The man had a vision, and it ought to have been respected, no matter how uneven his hand in applying the paint. In the film world, the closest thing we have to a similar idea is the auteur theory, once controversial, but now so mainstream no one even thinks about it anymore. Essentially, it is the idea that some films previously considered “pulp”, say, Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, are worthy of serious appreciation by critics. In the theatre, some have extended a similar respect to actors, or, that is to say, non-actors. Many fine directors have realized many fine productions in forms we call community theater or pageantry, using untrained, but enthusiastic amateurs. So why not the text? Naive art for the theatre. I say it has a legitimate place, and requires no plain brown wrapper.

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, adapted from Ann Bannon’s novels by Linda Chapman and Kate Moira Ryan, directed by Leigh Silverman, produced by Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, Elyse Singer, et al, Featuring David Greenspan, Carolyn Baeumler,  Xanthe Elbrick, Autumn Dornfeld and Bill Dawes. Played at 37 Arts, March 4-April 28, 2008.

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