Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Somehow I seem to be producing a series of posts about gay men, partly because of friendships and partly because they can be a powerful metaphor, embodying nonconforming lives based on intimate relationships.  I’ve compared them to tribally enrolled men, who often have highly productive but sociologically ambiguous lives that raise religious questions.

“Tom Meeker is a handsome rookie priest stranded in a dying rural parish. Vidal Stump is a proud, gay half-breed with a criminal record and unlawful desires. Father Meeker must choose between his sacred vows and his secret attraction to this Fancy Dancer who lures him into forbidden love.
First published two decades ago, this provocative, hard-hitting novel was the first bestseller to portray a gay priest and to explore gay life in a small town.”  (

Marshall W. Mason says in the Afterword of “The Circle Repertory Company: the First Fifteen Years” that at one point he was interested in making a film from another of Patricia Nell Warren’s books, “The Front Runner” but it didn’t work out, as most movie projects do not.  I would like to raise a vision of a film of “The Fancy Dancer” shot on video with all the special effects that Tim Barrus and Cinematheque have developed over the past decade.  

Full disclosure: I only wrote with Tim rather than making video, but I’ve seen most of them, often repeatedly.  One of the early vids juxtaposes two dancers: one Asian man dancing in a bare cement space and one white dancing in a standard mirrored studio.  The two overlap contrapuntally, seeming to dance as partners, then merging into one dancer, then separating and contrasting.  Another vid in the same mode melds skateboarding with surfing.  Physical movement is one of the hallmarks of Cinematheque and is key to the lives of boys.

In the years Marshall and I were in the community around Alvina Krause at NU and Eaglesmere (1957-1961), we were not close but both of us walked and thought in multiple levels, overlapping or informing each other, slowly unfolding as we came to grasp more and more about what it is to be human.  It was so intense that ever after I’ve had a little trouble finding a world as idealistic and piercing.  The rez in some aspects, the world of sculpture before it was seized by the cowboy commodifiers, sometimes ministry, and mostly writing have been far more to me than they seem to be for other people.  These things are full of bright shadows, in that paradoxical way informing the work of some artists.  My skill level only pursues them, but Tim, in the years he had strength and health, captured.  His poetry still does.

Marshall and some other NU people were fortunate — oh, fortune had nothing to do with it and not money either — because they created The Circle Repertory Company, which was as much workshop as theatre, in the same way that Cinematheque is a school, in the sense that a school is a place to grow, a kindergarten.  For me my school was seminary, a seedbed, a place of insemination.  But then I had to return to the land.  Like Sam Shepard, who was peripheral to Circle Rep, I am a Westerner.  (Actually, Marshall is, too, but I don’t think he identifies that way.)

Living in the world as an artist, particularly as a solitary, is not easy because the visions can come with overwhelming kaleidoscopic impact, but might also contract into darkness.  Unless one has built habit and discipline, there will be no container that can hold and shape the patterns.  If there are others who interfere with that, it dies.  If there are others who can be dance partners, it is elaborated.

Alvina Krause was not self-promoting, nor was she a star-maker, but she had learned in her own life how to be a effectively contained “dancer” and could pass that on to others.  We knew her in old age when even the tribal old warriors dance with slow steps, enormous dignity, wrapped in a blanket but wearing a headdress.  (In her case, a silver comb.)  Deceptively simple her life seemed, and yet it was layers and layers deep, non-conforming in private ways because she was always in danger of exploitation or exclusion.  Inside this small Edwardian-style woman was Marlon Brando on a motorcycle, a leather-lady. 

Paula Ragusa Prentiss and Rob Thirkield
Caesar and Cleopatra  at NU

Marshall is something like that as well and so was his collaborator, Rob Thirkield, who was finally “washed out to sea”.  That’s a metaphor for suicide.  The other suicide that deeply affected the company was that of Joe Cino, who danced his self-slashing death while Maria Callas sang “Norma” on the record player.  It’s much easier to understand Cino in a time when young people practice “cutting” to relieve psychic pain.  I think about Montgomery Clift and James Dean as twilight dwellers, while today’s youngsters go directly to werewolves and vampires, but always keep the intense bonding of pairs.

One of the powerful patterns today, coming from biology as well as philosophy, is that of the rhizome network: nodes connected by long filaments.  This is the pattern of the connectome in the brain, which plays the neurons as though they were the keys of a piano.  The visionary aspect of the artist, priest or dancer is not imaginary — it is the symphonic expression of an electrochemical instrument.  Not just in the brain.  Muscles and bodily fluids play their part as surely as brass and strings.  But the pattern is also expressed in lives of lovers and nomads — fusion and flight.

Still alive in my memory is sitting in the back of the auditorium of Annie May Swift Hall during acting classes watching moments when meaning came alive.  I’ve been more the observer than the performer all along, except for the years in ministry when I led services and preached.  I’ve avoided most intimate relationships for fear of being trapped and prevented, used by people who don’t have the vision.  

That may just be a rationalization, but even just sitting safely in this old house with kittens grappling my ankles, I can feel the danger in great effort and risk.  The world itself flames and gutters, not just with human life but also with the hurtling cosmic rays and ringing of the universe.  Gay men in the arts seem to understand.  So do Native Americans and the best priests.

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