John Herbert, Toronto Playwright Who Wrote of Gay Prison Life, Dead at 74

News   John Herbert, Toronto Playwright Who Wrote of Gay Prison Life, Dead at 74 John Herbert, the Canadian playwright whose Fortune and Men's Eyes was an Off-Broadway sensation that became known around the world, died in his sleep June 22 at his Toronto home. He was 74.
A scene from a production of Fortune and Men's Eyes.
A scene from a production of Fortune and Men's Eyes. (Photo by Photo by Adam Newman)

John Herbert, the Canadian playwright whose Fortune and Men's Eyes was an Off-Broadway sensation that became known around the world, died in his sleep June 22 at his Toronto home. He was 74.

John Herbert Brundage (his full name) was arrested in Toronto when he was a teenager and his six-month experience being raped and beaten in a Guelph, Ontario, reformatory was the subject matter of Fortune and Men's Eyes, written 20 years after his release from jail. He was jailed after he was mugged; his attackers accused him of soliciting sex. An effeminate young man, Mr. Herbert's demeanor offended a judge, he claimed, who sent him to the reformatory.

A Canadian reading of the play at the Stratford Festival caught the eye of the theatre critic Nathan Cohen at the Toronto Star, who sent the script to New York City publicist David Rothenberg, who produced the Off-Broadway staging in 1966-67. The play, about four gay inmates in prison, was considered too hot to stage in Canada, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. It ran more than year in New York beginning in February 1967. Rothenberg told Playbill On-Line a U.S. immigration official appeared at a New York performance shortly after the opening and told Mr. Herbert he had to leave the country because he was an "ex-offender." He never returned to the states, Rothenberg said. The play was later staged in Mr. Herbert's home town, Toronto, where it would become his major playwriting success.

Fortune and Men's Eyes — about prisoners confronting and acting on their homosexuality in jail — would go on to play in over 60 countries, including a production in Turkey, directed by James Baldwin. Sal Mineo staged a revival of the play in New York City. A film version was made in 1971. In 1975, the play won the Chalmers Award for new Canadian plays.

Bill Glassco, who directed Fortune and Men's Eyes in Kingston, Ontario, in 1969, called John Herbert "the single most important figure of the decade" in the creation of Toronto's alternative theatre of the 1960s, according to The Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia, an online reference. After being released from the reformatory, Mr. Herbert apparently drifted and did odd jobs before being inspired by the people who worked with his sister in a theatre company. Mr. Herbert studied at the New Play Society (1956-59) and founded three theatre companies. He was also an actor, a writer, a teacher-lecturer, a drag queen and a flamboyant personality on par with the gay icon Quentin Crisp.

His other plays include Born of Medusa's Blood (1972), Omphale and The Hero (Forest Hill Chamber Theatre, Toronto, 1974) and Some Angry Summer Songs (four short works in 1976).

Rothenberg said comparisons to Crisp are misleading."John was a socially passionate person" who wrote "a passionate social document" as "a man who had been victimized by the criminal justice system," Rothenberg said.

The Globe and Mail reported Mr. Herbert was educated at York Memorial Collegiate and art schools including the National Ballet School. Among his many jobs over the years, Mr. Herbert was a waiter, and his experiences prompted his play, The Elephant's Graveyard, which Rothenberg called "an angry play about privileged people being imperious to a young waiter."

According to Rothenberg, Fortune and Men's Eyes became the catalyst for an ex-offender self help program, The Fortune Society, which began on the stage of the Off-Broadway Actor's Playhouse, where the play was being presented. Discussions with the audience, after the performances, mobilized a constituency for social awareness and change concerning the prison system.

Mr. Herbert served on The Fortune Society's Advisory Council.  He was also a lifetime member of the Actors' Studio in New York and a Honorable Member of Societe of Comositeurs et Dramatiques (France).

Mr. Herbert was the founder and artistic director of Toronto's Maverick Theatre, one of several companies he was involved with over the years.

He is survived by his sisters Nana Brundage, Mary Gordius, Grance Gannett, Phyllis Stratton and Faye Forrell and a brother Claude Brundage.

— By Kenneth Jones