Ethyl Eichelberger

Ethyl as Nefertiti
As hyperbolic and effusive as I do get here and in my column in my praise of certain contemporary theatre artists, the truth is, as a general proposition I am holding something negative back. Critics are type A, nitpicky. Just as I have often remarked in these pages how contemporary circus fails to measure up to my ideal, the same is true of most theatre. Not too long ago I was raving to an out-of-town friend about how vital and flourishing contemporary off-off Broadway theatre is. Yet in answer to her question “Which companies or artists would you particularly recommend?”, I drew a blank. (I was undoubtedly putting too much pressure on myself. You know. When people ask me a question like that, I often attach an unwarranted life-and-death importance to the accuracy of the answer. Critics attach THAT much importance to their own opinions. A glorious, Napoleonic and quite delusional Narcissism — one on which all of Western culture rests, I might add.) At any rate, no one rated, mostly because the operative word I heard in the question was “you”. And in my case the answer is complicated because I am not only a critic but an artist. And I hear the question as, not only “Whom do you like to watch as an audience member?” but also “Who influences you, whom do you wish to emulate, who do you want to BE?”

I’m envious of people who can answer that question easily. A lot of my fellow artists, in professional mode, when asked that question, seem able to rattle off a bunch of older contempories they admire with great facileness. Writing grant applications must help; it puts your own work in some kind of context. At any rate (with a respectful and admiring nod to to the great Everett Quinton, heir to Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous legacy), there has been only one artist whose career here in New York has overlapped mine whose life’s work is an affirmative answer to that question. At least his is the only name I can get behind whole-heartedly. I guess you know who it is since his name is the title of this post.

Today is the late Ethyl’s birthday. When he was untimely ripped from us in 1990, I was devastated. He’d slashed his wrists to escape a long, painful death from the AIDS he’d been diagnosed with. The method was gruesome and melodramatic, which was not out of character, although this time, if the theatrical gesture had an element of camp, no one was laughing. Because Ethyl’s art was the very definition of liveliness, of life, to picture him now inert — worm food like everybody else — was a gobsmack.

I felt further cheated because I was only just beginning to discover and follow him. I’d lived in NYC the summer of ’87 and moved here permanently the summer of ’88. Over that couple of years I’d gotten to see him at most a half dozen times, at venues like P.S. 122, Dixon Place (in its original incarnation in Ellie Covan’s tiny Alphabet City flat), Westbeth, and the now defunct Cucaracha.

And what did I love so much about him? Where to start? His work was the perfect mix of high and low, with both aspects rooted in tradition and the romance of the theatre. On the one hand, he was a new vaudevillian: he juggled, ate fire, played the accordion, clowned, and performed almost exclusively in drag. On the other hand, most of his works lampooned the classics: Medea, Clytemnestra, King Lear, etc etc. (He wrote in verse libre, with liberal doses of improvisation). His resume is almost calculated to appeal to me. After seven formative years with the Trinity Rep Company in Providence (my own alma mater), he then moved to New York and played several years with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Even his prestige gigs — like when he was part of the cast of The Flying Karamazov Brothers’ Comedy of Errors at Lincoln Center — were just my cup of tea.

Like all the great drag artists, he was master of costume, make-up and wigs, and made part of his living from that. In the early 80s, a little before my time, he was popular in the club scene. In my Surf Reality days, when I finally got to go back into Rob Prichard’s sanctum sanctorum behind the theatre, I was delighted to see a HUGE life-sized portrait of Ethyl on the wall. Rob had met him when they both worked together at the Pyramid Club.

At any rate, these are facts and words and details – all of which I grant you add up to part of his personal appeal to me. But they cannot compare with his presence. Six feet two in his stocking feet, he invariably added to his stature by wearing platform heels and Marie Antoinette style wigs that turned him into a literal grotesque giant. Neither was he small in his behavior. I think of him wheezing, declaiming, beating his chest, crying to the heavens. He honored the fact that he was working in the theatre by being theatrical. It is that theatricality I’ve always wanted to emulate. (I’m interested in drag, but not on me).

Here’s a nice clip. If you’ll patiently ride out the first 20 seconds of piano nonsense, you’ll get a clear sense of what I cherished about him/ her:

I’ve long wished someone would publish his plays so that I can read them, but the difficulty is, in Ethyl’s case, his plays really were blueprints for performance—much of the experience depended on star power and improvisation. But I’ve also wanted them published so he could be better remembered. I fear he is being too quickly forgotten. At any rate, PS 122 has done their part by naming an award after him. They’ve further honored Ethyl by only giving that award to the very coolest people: Taylor Mac, Vaginal Davis, Julie Atlaz Muz, Justin Bond and Jennifer Miller.

Incidentally, Jim Moore has been telling me very good things about Jennifer Miller’s recent plays. To date I’ve only known her circus work. But if her plays are anything like I imagine them to be, she may have to be my new hero. Sorry, Ethyl! But I’ve been true to you for over twenty years!

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