Rosalyn Drexler has been referred to as a “remarkable Renaissance woman,” referring to her long career in many fields: She’s been a journalist, a professional wrestler, a Pop artist, a novelist, and a playwright. Born Rosalyn Bronznick in the Bronx, Drexler, 94, may be best known as a playwright for Home Movies (1964), The Writer’s Opera (1979), and Delicate Feelings (1984). I sat down and talked with the Obie-winning playwright about her days writing for the theatre, before and in the midst of all her other interests and activities. She started the conversation.
ROSALYN DREXLER: I just remembered one thing when you said the focus would be theatre. The only theatre I saw as a child is when we went from Harlem to the Bronx on the Third Avenue El; I was sitting near the window, always sleepy and always looking into what was happening in the buildings we were passing. Every window was like a screen. I would say: “Something’s going on in there. What is it? Who are these people?” I had the feeling of really wanting to get in there. I wanted to be invisible and to see what they were doing in there. It was so mysterious. The light was sometimes rosy and sometimes gray behind the windows, and the colors would change, or the shade was half drawn down. To me that was theatre. That was the first theatre I saw, through the train windows.
NATHANIEL G. NESMITH: You said that when you were 9 or 10, Erwin Piscator gave you an acting scholarship. Did you have any idea what that meant?
How could I have known that this was such an important man in the theatre? His connection to Brecht, to all that political theatre, and also his experimentation, that somehow the actor does not move but is progressing across the stage, the little tricks that were kind of nice that he did in theatre that nobody was doing at that time. I just didn’t know.
How did it come about?
My mother took me around all the time and tried to get me started in different places. It seemed like an audition. I don’t know if the children auditioning had written the stuff they were reading from or rather they were given something already written. All I know is, it was about my mother and I got very emotional. I decided I didn’t want to act.
Do you remember your audition for him?
No, but I am sure that something about him was influencing me. Because like The Good Soldier Svejk, somehow I think one of my plays was very much influenced by that. The soulful-but-something-missing hero who is always rejected is kind of interesting to me.
In Home Movies, your first produced play and the one you won your first Obie for, you have a wide array of characters: a loony daughter, a stuttering author, a lippy maid, two repressed members of a religious order, a very aggressive truck driver, a lecherous husband. They sing, dance, and act out the absurdity of life. How did you come up with all of this zaniness?
I don’t know. I don’t think they were zany. Don’t use that word. I guess it was stuff that I felt—people around me or people from my family, or whatever. People like Freddy Herko, who later threw himself out the window of a friend in the Village. These were characters. I mean, at that time it was not safe for homosexuals to wear all that stuff. In my play, he did a strip and everybody went crazy. It was a beautiful, shiny red dress, and he sang a song to the mother of a guy he met in a gymnasium. These were characters that didn’t live in my real life. It was my imagination at work.
Orson Bean was the producer of Home Movies when it moved to the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street. What’s the history of him wanting you to take the word “friggin’” out of the text?
He thought it was a dirty word and he thought that the tourists would not come to see the play if they heard the word friggin’. And I will tell you how crazy it was: One of those so-called leftist-leaning organizations, the word came down from up top just before we were supposed to go on that we couldn’t use the word pluck. One of the singer’s songs goes: “No one wants to pluck my daisies.” They said you cannot have the word pluck. I said, “Why?” They said you know what it rhymes with. That was stupid.
You also knew Barbara Ann Teer, who went on to found the National Black Theatre; she was in Home Movies. What was it like working with her?
She was very sure of herself. And when she let loose, she was funny as hell. At first she was uncomfortable with the role because, here we go again, another Black maid. But it was the opposite; it was satire to show up this whole thing that is going on. So she decided that she would stay with it, and she did great. There were so many funny songs in that that she sang.
Do you know if they have a tape of it at Lincoln Center?
I don’t know. They have put everything of mine in storage. I have a tape of it. You can’t hear it so good, but I was going to have it repaired. I hope they did not lose it. I also have all the handwritten music that Al Carmines did.
You punched the play’s director, Lawrence Kornfield, in the nose—
I don’t know where I punched him, but I did punch him.
Why did you punch him?
We were sitting in the same row and he was in the way. Everybody was going crazy applauding and everything, and I said, “I got to get out. I want to be there so when the cast comes down I can congratulate them.” And he said, “No, you are not going.” He decided he wanted to go and be first to congratulate them. So I had to use some kind of physical force to get him out of the way so I could go and congratulate the cast.
As a playwright, you were sometimes associated with the Theatre of the Ridiculous, especially with the director John Vaccaro, who directed several of your plays: The Writer’s Opera (1979), Vulgar Lives (1979), Graven Image (1980), Starburn (1983), Transients Welcome (1984-1985), The Heart That Eats Itself (1987), and Cara Pina (1992). He was the co-founder of the theatre troupe Playhouse of the Ridiculous, and he died in 2016. What was your experience with him?
I thought he was a genius, but he was nutty as a fruitcake. He was so tough on the actors. His troupe, they were all addicted to something. And he was Mr. Control, and controlled them with insults, yelling, threatening. There was this young lady who was late coming back to rehearsal; he was furious with her. He took a hot cup of tea and threw it in her face. He was dangerous. But he was also a terrific play editor. We saw eye to eye on many things, and he was very brave. He did things that were disgusting. He appreciated everything that was wild. But he was a genius and a good director; he was wonderful. Nobody would give him an award or anything because of his reputation. But he was marvelous and a joy to work with when getting things together.
This is what you said after a positive experience with Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano: “It made me want to write plays because it was so weird and I was too.” How were you weird?
I just meant that Ionesco takes ordinary language, but the way it is used means there is something really strange going on. Unexpected words have unexpected meanings.
In 1970, in your play The Line of Least Existence, Danny DeVito played a dog and Judd Hirsch played a psychiatrist. DeVito’s dog character is sleeping with the psychiatrist’s wife…
Yeah, and the psychiatrist is having an affair with a young rock star.
DeVito’s dog character sang: “I’m no mutt in a rut because I’ve seen a few things in my day. It’s not smut if some slut wants to throw some affection my way. I’m always at the ready for whatever comes into your head-y if you don’t mind dirt on your beddy. I can take the place of Tom or Eddie.” What more can you say about this play?
I am a different person now. I would rewrite some of it. Like the dog was just an ordinary dog; I wanted the dog to have more of a thoughtful life, as if a dog could (she begins to sing new lyrics to the song):
A doggy won’t have equal rights
until he feeds the hand he bites,
until he goes out into the night
to fuck a bitch or fight a fight.
A doggy got a human’s name
but that don’t make him just the same.
A dog is bought, a dog is sold,
he pisses on streets that’re paved in gold,
and when his bone is stiff and old
he drowns himself, or so I’m told.
Is that in the original script?
No, that is not in the script. I was playing with it and that is how I would rewrite it now.
There was a conference in 1988, the First International Women Playwrights Conference, in Buffalo, N.Y., sponsored by the State University at Buffalo. There were many established playwrights scheduled to attend and participate, including you, Gretchen Cryer, Alice Childress, Marsha Norman, Eve Merriam, Maria Irene Fornes, Wendy Wasserstein, Kathleen Betsko, among others, and there were women playwrights there from around the world. What can you share about that experience?
It was wonderful. Everybody had their own story to tell. There were some Aborigines from Australia who told a wonderful story about being hunted down by the authorities, who would find any written scripts and destroy them, but the women had managed to memorize the plays, so they could do the plays by memory and nobody would have any evidence against them. We all sat in a circle and had magic stones, and secret wishes, and all that nice stuff that goes on in all innocence—out of trouble’s way. It was very warm and people told their stories.
You have been involved in theatre for a long time and you have seen a great deal of theatre. What do you think about the state of live theatre now?
Sometimes it is more alive than at other times. What bothers me the most—I am distracted by the choreography, and the choreography seems to be a repeat of a million other choreographies. Suddenly when something is happening they can’t find the words for it, suddenly everybody is dancing. And usually kissing at the end of the dancing. And then there is silence again. And then you get back to words. Words are still not respected in the theatre. Words used to be what theatre was, but now they have to pep it up with visuals and sounds, in case there isn’t a thread of a story that will carry it through until the next incident.
Which of your plays represents you the best?
My work does not represent me. It would be so angry with me. It would say, “We are not here to represent anybody.” You mean: Which one seems to do what I wanted to do by the end of it?
Which one would people to say, “This is a Rosalyn Drexler play.”
Well, it would not be the best of my plays. It would be a play that I started with when I did not know what I was doing: the humor, the love of words, the strange attachments, the use of sexual proclivities—
If you had to pick one, which one would it be?
It would be Occupational Hazard.
If a professor was teaching Rosalyn Drexler in a drama class, what would be the main topic to be explored?
Fun. That young people would sit there and suddenly realize that something ridiculous was happening as they laugh. After they laughed, then they would start to think about what it was really about.
What was your defining theatre experience?
My greatest experience in the theatre was seeing Endgame. I couldn’t stop crying for that play, the ending. For me the whole thing was about: You are going to try to escape but there is no escape. So it was so sad at the end that one of the occupants in Endgame was still trapped, but through the window that he looked, when he climbed up the ladder, all he could see was empty vastness. He could not even see an escape route. Nothing growing, just vastness. That no-escape thing really made me cry.
Considering the long career you had in the arts, what wisdom would you share with future playwrights?
Well, I wouldn’t know I was giving them any wisdom. I would tell them all the things that happened to me as a human being. And to keep going, and make sure you are saying what you want to say, and that you are laughing at what you think is funny and feeling bad about other things that happen. To be a playwright you keep writing.
Why did you divorce playwriting?
Divorce? I never divorced it. I was never married to it. (She laughs loudly)
Okay, I won’t use divorce. Why did you let playwriting go?
I never let it go. I am still writing. I have an illustrious relationship that continues.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith (he/him) holds an MFA in playwriting and a Ph.D. in theatre from Columbia University.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!