Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Beebo Brinker Chronicles
Ann Bannon, dubbed the “Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction,” began writing her first novel at twenty-two, a newlywed suburban homemaker fresh out of college. Two years later the book, Odd Girl Out, was published by Gold Medal Press. It became the second best selling paperback of 1957, a fact unknown to the author until thirty years later. At a time when what was considered respectable fiction would only appear in hardcover, Gold Medal mass produced mainstream romances, westerns, detective stories, westerns, sci-fi and lesbian fiction. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, an adaptation of three books by Ann Bannon, premieres September 27th at the 4th Street Theatre in Manhattan. I began the interview by asking co-writers Linda S. Chapman and Kate Moira Ryan where they met (and hereafter I will disappear).
Linda S. Chapman: Kate was still a grad student at Columbia.
Kate Moira Ryan: Twenty-two, twenty-three.
Chapman: Yeah, what year would that have been?
Ryan: ’89? ’90?
Chapman: Kate was the baby literary manager for a burgeoning new gay and lesbian theatre company called the Three Dollar Bill. And I was asked by the artistic director Nick Deutch to direct the lesbian play for their first season. They wanted to do a gay male play and a lesbian play. And originally it was supposed to be Holly Hughes’ Well of Horniness, a revival of her WOW play. And Holly pulled it for whatever reason. And looking for the lesbian play, Kate had this wonderful play called Rescuing Marilyn. We ended up not getting a full production. Of course the boys got their full production. We had a staged reading and we were in the space the Atlantic Theater uses now. So we did our staged reading of Rescuing Marilyn and that was the beginning of a long, beautiful relationship between the two of us.
Ryan: This project came about ’cause, I think we were seventeen years into our relationship, and I said, “Why don’t we go out and celebrate our friendship?” We were at Dartmouth—[New York Theatre Workshop summer retreat]
Chapman: Yeah, it was about four years ago, so it was about thirteen years at that point, I think.
Ryan: And I said, “Why don’t we go out and have a couple of martinis?” We’d finished Cavedweller or it was about to be done or something, and I said, “Let’s find something we can work on together.” And I mentioned something about these Ann Bannon books –
Chapman: We were already thinking about lesbian classics. We looked at a couple of things; we looked at Rubyfruit Jungle. But the Beebo thing seemed to be where we should start.
Ryan: We came up with a couple vignettes, and then I think I had the contact with Ann Bannon, right?
Chapman: You did, through…
Ryan: My good friend Jaye Zimet. She was an expert on lesbian pulp novels. She did a great book called Strange Sisters about all the cover designs. She was a cover designer at Penguin Putnam. She died a couple of years ago and I keep thinking about how much she would have loved this play.
Chapman: And then Beth made the contact with Cleis Press. Beth Blickers, our beloved agent.
Ryan: We did a lot with dinner. I would make dinner, Linda would come over. And we started including Leigh Silverman [as director].
Chapman: Yeah, after the first draft or so we brought Leigh in. We did about four readings here at New York Theatre Workshop.
Ryan: We cut the stuff that was a little too convoluted to work dramatically.
Chapman: Yeah, it’s a serial. There are too many plot lines. The three books that we used are the three middle books that take place in New York City, in Greenwich Village. What we did was winnow it down to the primary relationships. There are four main characters that traverse through the three books: Laura, Beth, Beebo of course, and Jack. We tried more characters originally but it was too unwieldy.
Ryan: They’re almost Dickensian in the way that they’ve been churned out. We had to shave it down and clarify things. But they’re fantastic reads. We were looking for producers, and we had some commercial interest but that dropped out, and then last year I said to Linda, “We can do this ourselves.”
Chapman: And I sighed a deep sigh: “Oh, all right.”
Ryan: And the wonderful thing is we got Elyse Singer [Hourglass Group producer] involved.
Chapman: The financial resources have come from Kate’s friends and mine. And of course New York Theatre Workshop contributed the 4th Street Theatre.
Ryan: And that’s such a wonderful thing ’cause I feel like the Workshop is kind of my family, so I feel like this a family production.
Chapman: Absolutely. Made it home.
Ryan: It’s good that we can pass these down to the younger women. “Look, you think this whole boyish transgender thing is something you guys created, well there’s Beebo Brinker.” This is the original L Word.
Chapman: Beebo is the quintessential butch-dyke. She’s a bull-dyke. She’s a brave person who tried to pass as a guy at a time when most lesbians were totally under cover. Those women of that era who lived openly like that were heroic. They didn’t live in regular society, they really lived on the edge, they lived on some fringe. They worked in factories. Like Beebo works as an elevator operator, a place where she can wear pants. There were dress codes in the gay bars in those days. You had to have at least three pieces of women’s clothing on.
Ryan: And you couldn’t be a man to do that.
Chapman: We also feel like the contemporary generation of young lesbians doesn’t realize how recent their ability to have an open lifestyle is. Just fifty years ago it was all underground in the Village. The behavior, the dress was coded in a way that mainstream society mostly didn’t pick up on.
Ryan: But another thing to think about is that homosexuality was a psychiatric illness ’til what—’70s?
Chapman: There’s a lot of self-loathing because these people were looked on as psychological defectives. I think the play is dark overall. I think there is a darkness to it because it is all underground, all under cover. So much of it takes place in the Cellar, this bar. That’s what I’m saying about the self-loathing, it fits into it.
Ryan: Don’t make it too dark ’cause I’ve been selling it as fun.
Chapman: Well, it’s gonna be funny any way you look at it, but there is a little bit of a noire.
Ryan: The noire thing balances the camp tone that seems to work really nicely. It’s almost like dark chocolate. But don’t you think, Linda, that the irony is self-loathing is endemic of the time? Before the theme of gay pride came along, there was tremendous self-loathing, there was tremendous alcohol, drugs, and even suicides associated with homosexuality, because it was so hated.
Chapman: Right. And Jack and Laura’s relationship is a really interesting solution to the problem. The fact that Laura marries Jack, to have this sort of below the radar, or above the radar [relationship]—Their making a life together with each other is a kind or protection, a defense, where they are gay in their private life, but then they have this exterior. And a lot of gay people lived that way. Even back in the ’30s, I know when we were doing the Gertrude Stein work, all of Virgil Thomson’s friends, Carl Van Vechten, these men were gay basically but they had straight marriages. And they passed. When they had this respectable marriage they could go about their private lives. And did so. Stonewall’s 1969, when the drag queens and a couple of butch dykes stood up for themselves and said “You cannot do this to us anymore!” So we are heading toward this but our play takes place about 1951 to about 1960. So even at the end of the whole journey we’re still about nine years away from Stonewall.
Ryan: There’s an element of self-loathing in it, but it is nowhere near Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen character in Well of Loneliness. That’s just unbearable. Not until we get to Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown do we have a character who actually revels in her gayness. So there is that element of self-loathing but they don’t commit suicide, they don’t turn straight. They do survive as gay people.
Chapman: It’s also a place for people who call themselves “bisexuals” to inhabit. There are a lot of people who don’t want to make the choice. I think [Bannon]’s still influential. That’s why we chose her. These books are being published for the third and fourth time by Cleis Press. So that means there is enough of a commercial audience. And lesbians keep coming back to these books year after year after year.
Ryan: It’s really a tribute to Ann Bannon. What a great storyteller she is.
Chapman: I think she rises above the pulp. She wasn’t trying to write trash. There wasn’t any place for a woman to be writing this kind of material. So it had to be under the guise of this soft porn or whatever you want to call it. But I just think the writing’s transcended its time and its era and its market.
Ryan: She was twenty-two years old so some of the books aren’t edited so brilliantly, but she’s a very good writer for being so young. What’s interesting is that some of the youthfulness comes off as almost campy. I write very high comic stuff too. Well I’ve injected [text] with Linda, a lot of tweaking several lines.
Chapman: We do make some fun in terms of the language. And a lot of it comes off as humorous. But our approach is not to make it campy. Leigh is working towards the sincerity and the truthfulness of the emotion. And we’ll let the fun come out of the language; it’s there. But we’re not pushing it. It doesn’t need to be pushed. If anything we’re going in the opposite direction. We’re trying to give it some gravitas. Because we feel that at heart there is something truthful about the way these women, and Jack, relate to each other. And I think it’s also nice that the gay men and the lesbians have—that there’s some kind of equality amongst them. ’Cause of course, the lesbian and gay movement, post-Stonewall, did go through a sort of separatist phase. And I think we still feel some separation. So I think what’s nice about this play is you have both looking to each other for solutions.
Ryan: The work, for me—it’s not a political comment on our current times. We have so many more rights than we ever did. Yes, Bush is trying to take them away but he’s not very successful ’cause we are so politically organized.
Chapman: I see it as a kind of measuring stick. As I say, I think there is a generation coming up that doesn’t realize what they came from —
Ryan:You’re absolutely right.
Chapman:—and what was done on their behalf. I mean what has turned out to be on their behalf. Everybody was doing what they were doing for themselves at the time but it’s now a legacy.
Ryan: [The books] also gave hope to so many women so they could live vicariously. They were in small towns. A lot of women said after they read the books they came to the Village.
Chapman: People realized “Oh, there are other people out there like me. I’m not alone.”
Ryan: We’re just so pleased and blessed to have it on the stage. [And Ann Bannon] has just been a wonderful supporter.
Chapman: We’ve had dinner and lunch with her a few times. She’s seen at least one of the readings. There’s a talkback evening with her in our first week.
Ryan: She’s just a delightful human being.
Chapman:What I would hope is that it makes people go back to the books, and read them all.
Ryan: We’re gonna sell the books too, don’t forget.
Chapman: We’ve got a fabulous cast. We have Marin Ireland as Laura; Autumn Dornfeld as Beth; Anna Wilson from Project 400, The Donkey Show is our Brinker; David Greenspan is playing Jack Mann; Carolyn Baemler plays a couple roles, she plays Marcie, the roommate in the beginning, and then she also plays Nina Spicer [a lesbian novelist], and she plays a former girlfriend of Beebo’s called Lili.
Ryan: We need Lili for comic relief ’cause she bares her breasts.
Chapman: She was an early liberated woman.
Ryan: Our design team is all women.
Chapman: It felt right for this.
Ryan: We’re gonna continue this. Next thing I’m gonna do is about Radclyffe Hall and the obscenity trial.
Chapman: We want to go on to do the rest of the lesbian classics. Kate and I are gonna work through them all.
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles runs Sept. 27–Oct. 20 at the 4th St. Theatre, 83 E. 4th Street. For more info: hourglassgroup.org. Tkts: $20 at theatermania.com or 212-352-3101.
Linda S. Chapman co-wrote and co-performed with Lola Pashalinski Gertrude and Alice:A Likeness to Loving. She has been the Associate Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop since 1995.
Kate Moira Ryan’s Cavedweller, a stage adaptation of the Dorothy Allison novel, was produced by New York Theatre Workshop. Most recently Ms. Ryan’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, written with and for performer Judy Gold, was the winner of the 2007 GLAAD Media Award for Best Play. A book based on the play has been recently published by Hyperion and nominated for a Quill Award.
Kia Corthron’s plays include Light Raise the Roof, produced by New York Theatre Workshop. Her Tap the Leopard will be workshopped at NYTW in December.
KIA CORTHRON's plays have been produced in New York at Playwrights Horizons, the Atlantic, New York Theatre Workshop, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the American Place Theatre, in regional theatres across the country, and in London at the Royal Court Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse.