Douglas, Jerry. “Tubstrip”, with a foreword by Jordan Schildcrout,
Chelsea Station Editions, 2019.
Jerry Douglas’s “Tubstrip” is a risqué comedy set in a gay bathhouse was a produced onstage in 1973-1974 and was very popular. It was a time of gay liberation and sexual revolution. The gay press saw it as “funny, sexy, and important” by the gay press and it ran for 140 performances off-Broadway, then toured to eight cities over nine months, and returned to Broadway starring legendary adult film star Casey Donovan in the lead role. Despite its unprecedented success and acclaim. This is the only published edition of the play.
In the foreword Jordan Schildcrout kooks at the importance of the play as one of a wave of erotic gay plays (of which most are either forgotten or lost) that were produced between 1969 and 1974. We also have rarely seen publicity photos, posters, and advertisements from the original production of the play.
I know Jerry Douglas as a writer and director of “all male” films, including the classic “The Back Row” yet he is a graduate of Yale Drama School. He went on to have a major career in gay male pornography between 1989 and 2007.
“Tubstrip” is set in the central lounge of a popular New York City bathhouse on the Tuesday evening that the Academy Awards are being televised, a night when most self-respecting gay man in New York is watching the telecast. The play opens with silence as we see the young attendant Brian, the play’s main character, sits alone in a suspended bamboo cage chair “in a fetal position.” This is a hint on what is to come, with Brian “leaving the nest of his egg-shaped chair and metaphorically taking flight”; destination unknown. At just the same time, we see Darryl, a client of the bathhouse coming out of the pool completely naked. We immediately sense a juxtaposition between above and below, air and water, the mind and the body, the romantic and the erotic. Darryl wants Bryan and tries to catch his eye with sexually provocative poses.
There are nine characters in the play and each comes to this bathhouse with his individual sexual and romantic desires giving us an idea as to different kinds of relationships and how they come into being. We have Richie, a romantic and naïve young man who is searching for his lover Darryl, who has surreptitiously come to the baths in search of sexual variety. Andy is a witty black queen infatuated with Brian. We have Tony, a sadist, and his lover Kevin, a masochist; Dusty, a hustler; Wally, a 59-year-old skin-flick mogul looking for new talent; and Bob, a Viet Nam veteran who knew Brian in high school. The stage is filled with young and attractive actors, almost all of whom, at one point or another, will be naked. We get a fantasy version of a bathhouse; yet, even as it celebrates sexual liberation, it dramatizes many of the tensions that were evident in the emerging gay sexual culture, between sex and romance, promiscuity and monogamy, sadomasochism and consent, competition and community.
As Kevin Winkler has noted, the bathhouse was a theatrical space, not just for professional entertainers like Bette Midler, who famously got her start performing at the Continental Baths, but for the men cruising and engaging in sex.
At the baths, it seems there was always a show going on and everyone is a performer of some kind. Much of the comedy of “Tubstrip” is from how one seems himself at the bathhouse which is really a kind of playhouse for the kids. It is a breeding ground of sexual fantasy, comes from an awareness of the theatricality involved both in the presentation of self and the pursuit of sexual fantasy in which people might wear masks and play roles, but it is also actually a place where truths are revealed, and by the end of the play, many of the characters see each other—and themselves with honesty and clarity.
We learn that Brian, was a gawky high school freshman who had a crush on the macho heterosexual athlete Bob. While he was at war, Bob received letters from Brian, which piqued his sexual interest in a kid he barely remembered. Now Bob, entering the bathhouse in full Green Beret uniform, has come searching for Brian, and he is impressed to find that the “short, skinny, uncoordinated” freshman he knew has grown into a good looking and desirable young man.
The bathhouse is a place where erotic desire is unleashed and lovers, liberated from social restraints, can meet their proper match. But in order to maintain that romance, the lovers must then leave the forest behind and return to the “civilized” world. (as we see Wally do.) The central plot of Brian and Richie focuses on traditional notions of romantic fidelity. They, too, can have their desires fulfilled at the bathhouse.
The character most pulled by the tension between sexual exuberance and romantic longing is Andy, “a chatty flirt” and “a black queen” who has some of the best comic lines. We see that Andy and Wally moving toward deeper friendship and mutual support. Andy is very much part of the sexual action of the bathhouse. His romantic pursuit of Brian and his flirtations with other patrons are often played for comedy, but they are also rooted in his genuine need for affirmation in a community that too often leaves gay black men out of its world. Andy feels he is not getting enough attention, he emerges wearing an enormous Afro wig.
people confuse S&M with bad relationships in which one Many person dominates another or treats another badly. S&M is a sexual act in which both partners treat each other well. Many of the play’s characters do not understand this distinction and show concern over the abuse Tony heaps on Kevin, including handcuffing him naked and face down on the pool table.
“Tubstrips” creates a fantasy in which characters connect—as sexual partners, as romantic lovers, as friends, and as a community. It does not deal with issues of the closet or the traumas that often came with coming out and no one is in agony over how they became gay, we have no alcoholism or drug addiction. We have gay love, sex, and affection as exciting, fulfilling, and achievable. While this was once considered fantasy, time have changed greatly.
On the stage, there was speculation as to wondered whether mainstream critics could “tolerate anything gay that is so open and healthy” with “nine naked men, eight of them quite attractive, and lots of hilarious lines. The play would be of no interest to anyone not a homosexual but it is actually very well crafted, the several plots skillfully managed, the laughs beautifully built up to, the characters nicely differentiated, and everything highly professional.”
Vito Russo disagreed and said that plays like this are staged and pretend to be a product of our liberated culture” but actually just “exploit the situation to make a buck” from members of the gay community who will “pay any price” to see nudity on stage. “The nudity is one element of the larger theatrical fantasy, which also includes the pleasure of seeing one’s world represented, of being an insider who understands the meaning of that world, and of seeing gay romance and eroticism validated in a manner still rare in mainstream culture.”
Reading this I really do not see conflict between the erotic and the legitimate theatre. Rather, it is interesting and fun to read about the erotic within the legitimate. “Tubstrip” is significant for helping to open the theatre as a venue for the expression of gay romantic and sexual desire. Gay sexuality in the 21st century is quite different than it was in the era of sexual liberation. The AIDS crisis, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the use of apps like Grindr as a tool for meeting sexual partners have radically changed the ways that queer men experience their sexuality. It’s more difficult for “vintage” plays to maintain a place in the culture, particularly when critical disdain caused them to go unpublished until now. Yet revisiting erotic plays of the gay liberation era can do much more than offer the pleasures of nostalgia. We see how our experiences and fantasies of sex and romance are constructed by our changing social realities and we can thing more clearly about how we experience desire today and imagine ways in which we might experience it in the future.