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Vol. 30 No. 1

Legitimate: Jerry Douglas’s Tubstrip and the Erotic Theatre of Gay Liberation

by Jordan Schildcrout
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 30, Number 1 (Fall 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

From 1969 to 1974, after the premiere of Mart Crowley’s landmark gay play The Boys in the Band (1968) and before the establishment of an organized gay theatre movement with companies such as Doric Wilson’s TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), there flourished a subgenre of plays that can best be described as gay erotic theatre. While stopping short of performing sex acts on stage, these plays featured copious nudity, erotic situations, and forthright depictions of gay desire. In the early years of gay liberation, such plays pushed at the boundaries between the “legitimate” theatre and pornography, and in the process created the most exuberant and affirming depictions of same-sex sexuality heretofore seen in the American theatre. Some of these works were extremely popular with gay audiences, but almost all were dismissed by mainstream critics, never published, and rarely revived. The most widely seen of these plays was Tubstrip (1973), written and directed by Jerry Douglas, whose career in the early 1970s was situated squarely at the intersection of legitimate theatre and pornography. An analysis of Tubstrip and its groundbreaking production history can illuminate an important but often overlooked chapter in the development of gay theatre in America.

Tubstrip (which can be read “tub strip” or “tubs trip”) is a risqué farce set in a gay bathhouse, written by “A. J. Kronengold” and directed by “Doug Richards,” both pseudonyms for a single person: Jerry Douglas, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama who later became a popular and award-winning director of pornographic films. Infused with a post-Stonewall sense of gay identity and sexuality, the play ran for 140 performances off-Broadway in 1973, then toured to eight cities over nine months, and opened on Broadway for a five-week run in 1974. By the producer’s own estimate, Tubstrip played approximately 500 performances to an audience of 50,000. This article argues that this remarkably successful play is emblematic of a significant moment in gay culture, when the fall of stage censorship and the rise of the sexual revolution and gay liberation created an unprecedented surge of gay erotic theatre, beginning with Gus Weill’s Geese (1969) and David Gaard’s And Puppy Dog Tails (1969), and reaching its pinnacle with Jerry Douglas’s bathhouse comedy.[1]

During the early years of gay liberation, other forms of queer theatre included elements of gay eroticism: Charles Ludlam’s Bluebeard (1970) and Andy Warhol’s Pork (1971) reveled in carnivalesque excess and carried the critical imprimatur of hip theatrical art, and British imports such as Butley (1972) and Find Your Way Home (1973) depicted gay relationships with the bleakness seemingly expected in “serious drama” of the era. In contrast, gay erotic theatre often appropriated light middlebrow genres, such as romantic comedy and farce, to create fantasies of same-sex romance and sexuality. To varying degrees, Tubstrip and its ilk imagined the possibility of a happy homosexual and a healthy sexuality based on mutual desire, liberated from the guilt and shame of the closet. Critics of these plays, however, often saw only lewdness and exploitative sensationalism, which, they argued, did not belong in the legitimate theatre.

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