2 min

John Herbert

Oct 13, 1926 - Jun 22, 2001

MEN'S EYES. John Herbert was made a lifetime member of New York's Actors Studio in1967. Credit: Xtra files

I met playwright John Herbert, who died in his home Jun 22 at age 74, when he performed at the first Fruit Cocktail benefit back in 1983.

By then the early success of his ground-breaking drama Fortune And Men’s Eyes (1967), had faded somewhat, though the play, which explored homosexuality and prison life, continued to have new productions world-wide and had been made into a successful Hollywood film in 1971.

There was a sense in ’83 that, despite his continued writing (26 plays) and mounting of shows and his steadfast involvement in theatre, he was something of a one-hit wonder. But Herbert was more than that.

The slim, tall man was then 57, and he had a spot just ahead of me on the Fruit Cocktail bill. He sang the old war ballad “Lily Marlene” dressed in something dark, with a few feathers, showing what Robertson Davies in Fifth Business calls “an agreeable amount of leg.”

An odd apparition, it wasn’t immediately clear why he had made the cut at auditions. But I was fascinated to see at last someone who had previously been made known to me as Jack Brundage (John Herbert’s original name) through a friend we had in common, though in different eras.

The friend, Terry Noble, met up with Jack in the early ’60s, and was privy to many tales and raucous moments.

One such was a televised opening night at Toronto’s then-new St Lawrence Centre, which Herbert attended in full drag.

Pissed off that a government-subsidized Canadian theatre was opening its season with a shallow American comedy (Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary), John responded to an interviewer’s innocent query on what he thought of the play.

With superb drag queen hauteur, Herbert hissed, “It’s dreadful!” to a cameraman too stunned to turn away.

Herbert had earned the right to his opinions and his style. Emerging as an artist and young gay man in a hostile post-war era, he had run afoul of the law when dressing like a woman. Police harassment had led to charges of soliciting in drag under an oddly titled infraction known as Disguised By Night.

Sentenced to a Guelph reformatory, he suffered whippings and rape – atrocities he spoke of movingly in an autobiographical piece he read in person at a Buddies In Bad Times Theatre a couple of years ago, and which informed Fortune.

I came to know Herbert as a gentle man who never forgot the lessons a harsh world had taught him. Decades before there was anything as tangible as gay rights to fight for, Herbert showed the same guts and steadfastness of our best gay lib activists. And to the end, the spirit of intransigence and righteous anger was still in him.