Entering the Lightbulb with Robert Heide: 25 Playsby Ben Shields
My conversation with Robert Heide begins with a delay. Upon placing his drink order in the back room of the West Village’s Pasticceria Rocco, Heide insists his beverage be further downsized from what the restaurant deems “small.” A perplexed waitress relents to his request, and a moment later delivers a properly Italian-sized cappuccino. Thus both the waitress and I are witness to Heide’s delightful eccentricity, not possible to fully explain unless you have actually met the Christopher Street dramatist. One third each of playwright, philosopher, and far-out hippie, his collected works, available for the first time this fall in 25 Plays from Michael Smith’s Fast Books, capture his singular, existentialist ‘60s disposition. The plays often dramatize the (sometimes irreconcilable) struggle between individuality and the unbreakable continuity of time and existence.
Describing one of the countless Village parties he attended in the ‘60s, he remembers a seminal incident with actor Warren Finnerty. “He handed me a glass like this,” he says, raising the now half-drained cappuccino. “And he said, ‘Here, Bob, drink this! And I looked and there was some purple-green thing floating in it. It turns out it was pure mescaline. So, I did drink it. And—you see that light over there?” he says, pointing behind me. “It was like a chimney light, and there was a yellow lightbulb in it. And I entered the lightbulb, and I came back out again. It was a completely peaceful thing.”
Drug experimentation was only one component of a new sensibility. This was a time when American theater was beginning to break from the naturalism of William Inge and Arthur Miller, finding inspiration instead from the Theatre of the Absurd and more overtly controversial subject matters. Writers like Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett helped to liberate a new generation of playwrights, as did a changing theatrical scene at venues like LaMaMa and Caffe Cino at which Heide would become an important figure. At first entirely divorced from the parasites of critics and ticket sales, these unconventional performance spaces let playwrights like Heide permanently change the New York theatre scene, undisturbed. This was the birth of the movement that came to be known as Off-Off Broadway.
The mescaline trip did not end with the lightbulb. The drug led to Heide’s own break with traditional theater and gave birth to the author of 25 Plays.
“Then out on the street they were taking me home and I was going in and out, in and out. Then I stop, I look at the sky, at the stars, and I said, oh my god. There is no time. We’re just in this eternity,” he recalls. “Then I realized that all these plays were pushing time forward, distracting the audience—it isn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something existential.”
Heide was writing plays before he joined the Cino cohort, often receiving negative reviews from befuddled mainstream critics such as Judith Crist. His plays were some of the first ever to deal openly with homosexuality, especially West of the Moon, and it did not initially award him much fanfare.
“I didn’t know this, I was just naïve. You couldn’t mention the word gay or homosexual. It wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times,” Heide tells me. “Reviews I got said: ‘Robert Heide should go home and break his typewriter over his hands.’ ‘Robert Heide will never write another play again.’ And I was devastated.”
After the bad reviews, some of Heide’s close friends suggested he move to Paris. His own Left Bank, however, turned out to be waiting on Cornelia Street.
“Joe [Cino] had seen West of the Moon and he said, ‘I want you to write a play just like it for two blonde Nazi men.’ That’s the expression he used—he’s Italian, so we have to forgive him. But what he meant was he wanted two sexy men. So that’s what happened.”
Out of Cino’s request came Heide’s most performed play, The Bed, filmed by Andy Warhol, who heralded it as a work of genius. Two men, presumably lovers, never leave their bed, except to withdraw money deposited by a parent or purchase another burger or slice of pizza. One of them, Jim, starts itching to escape the lifestyle, while the other, Jack, scorns him for doing so. At the end, Jim leaves to buy a cup of coffee. Jack buries his head in his hands, and the curtain drops.
“I had been through such a relationship where I had been holed up with somebody, drinking and not getting out of the bed or the apartment,” Heide says, recalling the time of life in which he composed the play. “[The Bed] wasn’t waving a flag saying, ‘I’m gay.’ It was about the dissolution of a relationship. Not a happy gay sexy relationship.”
The Bed joined an increasing number of Off-Off-Broadway plays that were finally getting critical recognition. It received a positive review in The New York Times, which marked a turning point in mainstream journalism’s treatment of stage productions containing explicitly homosexual content. Productions to this day vary in interpretation and pace (the script itself is under fifteen pages). In the ‘60s, some furthered the subversive content by casting actors of different races. Many Downtown personalities attended the Caffe Cino premiere run, including Andy Warhol, whom Heide had befriended through photographer Edward Wallowitch.
“The whole idea was that [The Bed] would be microscopic,” he continues. “You’re looking at these people, and it could also be outer space. They did it at [defunct Lower East Side theater] Speedy’s with a dirty mattress and dirty sheets. I don’t mind, people can do what they want. There was a production in New Orleans recently where the two men…had the mattresses tied to their backs. Go figure that.”
The Bed’s subtext is even more complex than it first appears. The books that Heide has read more than any other help to elucidate: Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Norman O. Brown’s psychoanalytic study of history, Life Against Death, which is currently undergoing a minor revival, also ranks with his favorites.
“Death is in the room every day. We’re living and dying every day, not just living. That was the idea of the whole hippie movement, really embracing life in its fullest,” he explains. “They were against working. They had free food stores in San Francisco. There’s so much to be learned by that, but then suddenly it was over.”
Just as clearly as its most valuable lessons, Heide remembers the more ominous aspects of the ‘60s. “There was a darker side to the whole thing,” he says, leaning in a bit closer. “I had a roommate once. He was somebody who would seem to be kind of ‘spiritual,’ or in search of something. He left the apartment one day to go to some job. And he turned on all the gas jets. I woke up, and I couldn’t believe it—he wanted to kill me. There definitely was a darker side. That was true of the whole hippy movement. People were jumping out of windows. There’s a darker side to man kind.”
Despite the following decade’s reputation as a period of “sexual revolution,” Heide sees a stark contrast between the cultures of the ‘60s and ‘70s, believing the latter was plagued with a nihilism that, despite its share of darker undertones, the former had avoided through renewed interest in spirituality and world religions. Behind the new supposed privileges of liberation, Heide prophetically felt a pall looming in the wings that would soon prove him correct.
“Guys would be on Christopher Street cruising, and their penises would be showing,” he says, still with a slightly incredulous tone. “The cops didn’t even care. It seemed to me, after Stonewall, nobody cared about anything. I had a feeling one night in the late ‘70s, something’s gotta give in all this, something’s going on here. I didn’t know what it was. But what it was was this medieval disease about to strike.”
After AIDS decimated Downtown bars and hangouts, Heide wrote for New York Native, an AIDS information newspaper. “I’d write an article about Charles Ludlam, or maybe a book about Lana Turner or James Dean. Just to bring back the gay sensibility,” he says.
But while his articles may have lightened the load a bit for HIV/AIDS afflicted readers, his creative work did not soften. Behind Heide’s good-natured smile is a lifelong fascination with death, addiction, and the bizarre. An unstaged early ‘80s play, Santa Claus in America, enters the nightmare world of an institutionalized man who repeatedly dreams of a demonic figure resembling Santa Claus. Another, set in the American suburbs, opens with the funeral of two teenage siblings. Working backwards chronologically, the script reveals the daughter’s involvement with a risky hitchhiker, the son’s drug problems, and a horrifying episode of spousal rape. In Heide’s world, mental institutions and the suburban household feel eerily alike.
The new book also contains a short section on “The Other Robert Heide.” Together with his partner and collaborator since the ‘60s, actor John Gilman, he has authored three books for Disney, including the official biography of Mickey Mouse. Their other nonfiction book credits include a study of Art Deco and Dime-store Dream Parade, a guide to 1950s and earlier American household items and furniture. Heide and Gilman spent years dealing antiques and collectibles in a Warholian vein, from Coca-Cola signs to wind-up Disney toys. It began as a hobby project based in preserving trinkets of a vanishing America, but eventually the two men made a living that way, even running a store on Christopher Street.
Though he has always shunned money and status in a typical ‘60s fashion (“I didn’t care. I didn’t want to go to Broadway.”), Heide nevertheless has worked with a list of names long enough to impress even the squarest of squares. Like his idol, Marlon Brando, he studied theater with Stella Adler, who, together with Joe Cino, he credits with saving his life. His other teachers include Uta Hagen and John Houseman. He was the mentee and former lover of Edward Albee, and he wrote and acted for Andy Warhol on numerous occasions (the script for Warhol’s Lupe, based on the life of Lupe Vélez, is included in the new collection). But the entire reason that Heide’s plays are worth reading is because he is the furthest thing from a hippie-era elegist. See a production of The Bed or Moon and you will not feel as if you’ve just traveled to bygone Bohemia. It’s something much more intelligent than that—leaving viewers with the uncanny sensation that they have just seen their own dreams and demons, with the additional disguise of makeup and costumes.
Robert Heide’s 25 Plays will be released in Fall 2017 by Fast Books. For more information, visit www.fastbookspress.com.
Ben Shields is a writer and journalist. He graduated from Macalester College in 2017, and has written about culture and literature for numerous publications. He lives in Brooklyn.