Playwright Kenneth H. Brown (1936-2022) passed away a month ago, but as with my recent Howard Hesseman post, I thought I’d save an obit for his impending D.O.B, which is today. And another theme recurs. Brown’s last years echo those of Leonard Melfi, whom we wrote about just a few days ago.
Like Melfi, Brown was an important founder of the indie theatre movement. He was best known for his 1963 play The Brig, one might even say, exclusively known for it, hence one of the multiple meanings of the title of this post. The Brig was inspired by Brown’s time as a U.S. Marine. It was less an anti-war play (Vietnam hadn’t yet heated up) than an anti-military play, a protest against regimentation and institutional cruelty…and then, by implication, anti-war. (Stanley Kubrick would later put those two pieces together beautifully in Full Metal Jacket). Judith Malina and and Julian Beck of The Living Theatre got it, absolutely. Their premiere production of the play won multiple Obie awards and was considered one of the founding works of the Off-Off Broadway movement. It was nominated for a Pulitzer and is mentioned in every American theatre history textbook. Jonas Mekas made a film out of it the following year. I saw the Living’s 2007 revival around the same time I interviewed Malina for the Village Voice. (It was like sitting at the feet of a guru, and I’m sure she was used to that feeling.)
But Brown? He wrote many plays and much fiction over the ensuing decades, and continued to be published and produced, but never again made the same kind of splash. By 2019 he was living alone, ill (recovering from cancer), 83 years old, and getting by on a fixed income. That year, he was robbed of a $1,500 check and had to resort to a GoFundMe campaign to make ends meet. He arbitrarily set a goal of $5,000, and was only able to raise $3,000. One of the donors was Jean-Claude Van Italie, who also passed away last year.
I’d like to think a civilized country would know how to take care of a cultural figure so significant that he is written about in textbooks, so that he wouldn’t have to, um, ya know, beg? In what way is a fate like that different from a punishment?