Art

Laugh And You Are Free: The Ridiculous Theater Of Jackie Curtis And Ethyl Eichelberger

Installation view of Jackie Curtis ephemera (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Installation view of Jackie Curtis ephemera (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Finishing his manifesto with a rallying battle cry for the absurd or, as he describes, “instructions for use,” Theatre of the Ridiculous auteur Charles Ludlam writes, “This is farce not Sunday school. Illustrate hedonistic calculus. Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one’s whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical matter without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a little bit along the way” (158).

As shown in the current exhibition When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening, two East Village performance legends took Ludlam’s directions to heart. Likely with copies of Ludlam’s manifesto as well worn as mine, Ethyl Eichelberger and Jackie Curtis both reinvented and revitalized theater for their own satirical, subversive and yes, ridiculous aims. Whether putting on a manic one-queen show of Shakespeare’s King Lear, reinterpreting the iconic tragedy into a comedic–but no less tragic–farce, or writing and starring in the Sunset Boulevard-esque tale of a rise to fame and inevitable downfall Glamour, Glory and Gold: The Life and Legend of Nola Noonan, Goddess and Star, the duo took their gender fluid theatrical mastery outside the conventional stage to alternative East Village performance venues like La MaMa and PS122 and nightclubs such as Pyramid Club and 8BC.

Installation view of When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Installation view of When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Curated by Dan Cameron in his much-anticipated return to New York, When Jackie Met Ethyl at first appeared to me like a curious combination since the duo seemed to run in different social circles despite their overlapping performative philosophies. True to my assumption, the press release mentions that Curtis and Eichelberger likely did not know each other personally according to their friends and fellow performers of that era.

Installation view of Peter Hujar photographs in When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (photo by author)

Installation view of Peter Hujar photographs in When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (photo by author)

Tracing their sadly all-too-short careers, as well as their lasting legacies, the exhibition presents a combination of ephemeral materials including Eichelberger’s fake boobs from Klytemnestra and Curtis’ makeup brushes, captivating and little-screened video documentation of their plays and performances and photographs from renowned artists like Peter Hujar, depicting Curtis and Eichelberger’s continued influence. Both Curtis and Eichelberger emerge through the exhibition as two visionaries with a combined deep sense of camp, appreciation for theatrical history and an irreverent impulse to destabilize the rigors and tenants of orthodox theater.

Of course, the most obvious link between Eichelberger and Curtis’ creative output is their unexpected and unconventional employment of drag. As Cameron explains in his curatorial catalogue essay, “Each invented a full-time artistic female identity that was always acknowledged as a construct–in Jackie’s case because there were entire days, weeks and months when he simply preferred to live as a boy, and in Ethyl’s case because ‘Ethyl’ was a woman-identified stage persona onto which he could build his dramatic parts, both female and male, while he remained Ethyl, a man, offstage. Each was an ardent feminist and an articulate champion for total freedom of gender identity.”

Peter Hujar, Jackie Curtis, 1970, vintage silver gelatin print, Courtesy of the Peter Hujar Estate and Pace MacGill and Jack Mitchell, Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis, 1970, vintage silver gelatin print, Courtesy of the Jack Mitchell archive (photo by author)

Peter Hujar, Jackie Curtis, 1970, vintage silver gelatin print, Courtesy of the Peter Hujar Estate and Pace MacGill and Jack Mitchell, Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis, 1970, vintage silver gelatin print, Courtesy of the Jack Mitchell archive (photo by author)

However, at least for me, Curtis and Eichelberger transcend mere drag to harness their unique gender performances as a tool–one of many–in their reconfiguration of theater. With almost guerilla-like tactics, transforming well-known plays and theatrical tropes into their own hysterical creations, Curtis and Eichelberger reconstructed theater into a space for both artistic and personal experimentation. The duo’s conception of theater reflected Ludlam’s assertion in his Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly that “Theatre has to be an unruly thing–doing the forbidden, the naughty, attacking sacred cows and contradicting every principle” (100).

With a timeline emblazoned on the brightly painted walls of Howl! Happening, When Jackie Met Ethyl portrays the intersection of the two performers’ theatrical ideals. Not only unveiling the creative heights of the twosome’s careers, the exhibition also acts as a celebration of the–at least in the art world–under-recognized, under-appreciated and under-examined alternative performance scene of the late 1960s to the 1980s.

Installation view of When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Installation view of When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Born on the Lower East Side as John Curtis Holder Jr., Jackie Curtis is likely best known as one of the holy trinity of the pioneering gender-fucking superstars surrounding Andy Warhol. With Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, Curtis starred in several of the Paul Morrissey-directed and Andy Warhol-produced films such as Flesh and Women in Revolt. Yet like both Darling and Woodlawn, Curtis was much more than just a pretty, lacquered face appearing on Warhol’s silver screen in their eponymous housedress.

Even before Warhol got his silver-stained claws into Curtis’ career, Curtis was a playwright, songwriter and actor, debuting on the stage at age 17. Speaking of debuts, Curtis also gave a young, unknown actor his first chance at the stage in Glamour, Glory and Gold. That actor? Oh, just Robert De Niro.

Jack Mitchell, Jackie Curtis as "Blue Denim" and Candy Darling as "Donna Bella Beads" in Vain Victory, 1971, archival pigment ink color print, Courtesy of the Jack Mitchell Archive (photo by author)

Jack Mitchell, Jackie Curtis as “Blue Denim” and Candy Darling as “Donna Bella Beads” in Vain Victory, 1971, archival pigment ink color print, Courtesy of the Jack Mitchell Archive (photo by author)

With a segment of Howl! Happening devoted to Curtis’ plays, my personal favorite was the Curtis-penned Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. As the wall text described, the bizarre and raucous play “was set alternately at a high school graduation, at a circus, in Hollywood and on board the good ship ‘Vain Victory.’”

Mirroring their mainstream claim-to-fame in Lou Reed’s weirdo anthem “Walk On The Wild Side” as the Jackie “who thought she was James Dean for a day” when she was “just speeding away,” Curtis plays Blue Denim, a glitter-haired James Dean figure. Playing the 1950’s bad boy hunk as Candy Darling caterwauls on a swing, Curtis essentially performs as a drag queen playing a drag king–a hilarious and bizarre twist on gender performance.

Installation view of When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

Installation view of When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl! Happening (Photo by Jason Wyche; Courtesy Howl! Happening)

On the opposing side of Howl!’s exhibition space, video footage of Ethyl Eichelberger’s plays–shot mostly by Downtown’s documentarian Nelson Sullivan–creates a rich dialogue and contrast to Curtis’ performances. A wigmaker and member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Eichelgerger’s accordion-wielding characters became an unmistakable addition to the Downtown nightlife scene. Even though Curtis mainly wrote their own plays, drawing on pop culture and faded Hollywood glamour, Eichelberger delved into the seemingly untouchable, typically female, characters of theatrical history from Clytemnestra to Medea, making these pillars of classical theater their own.

Other than Eichelberger’s Leer, which holds a special place in my heart since we featured Sullivan’s video in Party Out Of Bounds, my favorite Eichelberger performance at Howl! is Hamlette. With several pages from the initial script in a nearby vitrine, the performance featured fellow Pyramid drag performers Tabboo! and Hapi Phace, as well as avant-garde theatrical personalities Agosto Machado and Black-Eyed Susan.

Screenshot of Nelson Sullivan's video documentation of Ethyl Eichelberger in Hamlette, September 9, 1985, Courtesy the Nelson Sullivan Video Collection and Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU (photo by author)

Screenshot of Nelson Sullivan’s video documentation of Ethyl Eichelberger in Hamlette, September 9, 1985, Courtesy the Nelson Sullivan Video Collection and Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU (photo by author)

As for plot, well, I’ll let the wall text do the talking: “A down and out bus and truck tour of Hamlet seems to be at the end of its road in Ethyl’s Hamlette. The producers have left town with the cash and most of the actors with them. With only the stage manager, played by Ethyl, the star’s dresser and the third spear carrier remaining, plus the lead, who has no clue as to what is happening, the stage manager decides to perform the great Shakespearean work for the waiting audience with those on hand.” A hair-brained performance within a performance, Hamlette’s campy excess reveals its direct lineage from Ludlam’s notions of the ridiculous.

Although both Eichelberger and Curtis passed away in 1990 and 1985 respectively, their artistic and theatrical legacies, as seen in When Jackie Met Ethyl, continue to motivate artists across generations. A large knit sculptural installation entitled Big Round Flat by artist Oliver Herring–part of his A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger series–sits at the center of the gallery space like an enormous deflated discoball. Made after both the deaths of Curtis and Eichelberger, Herring’s sculpture acts as a testament to the duo’s enduring significance, as well as a reflection of their individual glamour, shimmering aesthetics and multidisciplinary prowess.

Vitrine of various Ethyl Eichelberger ephemera (photo by author)

Vitrine of various Ethyl Eichelberger ephemera (photo by author)

Two losses at a time of enumerable losses in the 1980s and 1990s, Eichelberger and Curtis, like so many other artists and performers, remain alive through their videos, recordings, ephemera and photographs. In his Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly, Ludlam writes, “…in a way, I change the culture by the way I force people to think their way through something. They went through the experience and they can’t go back” (97-98). Like Ludlam’s statement, Curtis and Eichelberger’s surviving materials in When Jackie Met Ethyl continue to enact this same irrevocable and irreversible change.

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