In Search of H. M. Koutoukas
Prosaic recitation of the wit, the antics and inanity of the world of H. M. Koutoukas is easy– it is a tough task to look beyond and find his soul. In the process, I may speak of myself as much as my subject, but this is intended as I write about not just an individual, but my relationship with that individual. So, with trepidation, I sift through a lost sea of fifty years of memorabilia for H. M. Koutoukas -- Harry as we knew him –The initials of “H. M.” always seemed to portend the mysterious, or perhaps His Majesty, at the least, nothing as disturbing as Haralambos Monroe. One on one, he was “Harry” and in our little underground world of theater, “Koutoukas.” Searching through files for scripts and photographs, I find it difficult to capture his essence, elusive of all that is tactile and existing only in memory – H. M. Koutoukas is gone and has taken with him, H. M. Koutoukas, that brilliant creation I loved for half a century.
A poet first and then a dramatist in the mode of Federico García Lorca, Koutoukas was an irresistible figure whether through his actors on stage, the written page, the spoken word or the silence that often cloaked a gold mine of prose waiting for the right explosive to dislodge an etymological effusion of glittering treasure. He was the wordsmith wonder of the underground in the days of the Caffé Cino, and along with so many other and varied artists traded madness and magic for a few nights of glory in an illegal bistro in the then-forgotten Greenwich Village of New York City. Make no mistake about it, this was an underground in every sense of the word notwithstanding how tame it may now seem compared to the present-day riot of rot and excess of ego.
Working cross-town at the Café LaMama, where Ellen Stewart and I sat in an empty loft closed the previous night for code violations, I found that sometimes the task of directing a play included giving a pep talk to the theater owner, rebuilding the doors and exits, securing pails of sand and fire extinguishers, not to mention escorting actors from the subway to the theater as they feared for their safety on the streets of the Lower East Side. LaMama and the Caffé Cino were heterogeneous -- the Cino had a more daring reputation, and it had H.M. Koutoukas. To make a long story et cetera, a fire destroyed the interior of the Cino and Ellen Stewart crowded the Cino’s scheduled productions into LaMama, whereupon two worlds become one for a few months of indiscriminate mingling.
I had seen Koutoukas productions of "Only A Countess May Dance When She’s Crazy," " With Creatures Make My Way," " Pope Jean" and "Pomegranada" – I requested that we meet and it was arranged at LaMama. A handsome young man in his middle-twenties, a few years older than me, appeared with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder, draped in a cape and surrounded by an entourage. The entourage was waved away as H. M. Koutoukas swept me off to 87 Christopher Street and a night of dreams I can’t remember. Disappointed at being a mere curiosity of the flesh, uninterested in cocaine, overwhelmed by the disarray of the apartment’s amassed material which included three non-working refrigerators in the space of a small studio overrun with things that crawled, I gathered myself and my disappointment, greeting the bright light of morning alone with my fascination, nonetheless, intact. I was not the stone for sculpting a gargoyle to adorn the world of H.M. Koutoukas.
In the fall before Joe Cino’s death, I returned from summer stock to find all my belongings discarded as garbage at the hands of LaMama’s Paul Foster and ‘Ntoni Bastiano. Everything. I was devastated. I was angry, expressed myself in pure heat of hatred, and subsequently feared and unwelcome at the theater I had built and nourished. I wandered. Having appeared in a benefit program for the reconstruction of the Caffé Cino at the Sullivan Street Theatre (Bob Heide’s “The Bed”) before I left for summer stock, I dropped in to take a look at the rebuilt space. Joe took me under his wing and put me to work doing lights, acting, repairs. I was to set and run lights that evening and had been waiting for the actors of a John Guare play to arrive. Harry was hanging out with Joe at the counter, eventually heading to the exit. In a misunderstanding, John Guare did not appear with his play and cast for a performance. I was in the light booth having just purchased and reading a Wonder Woman comic book (“The Secret of Tabu Mt.”). Upon hearing Joe Cino say "what are we going to do, we have to have something", I showed him the comic book and said "Let's do this!" Joe immediately brightened saying yes, and sent Robert Patrick out for more copies at Lamston's five-and-dime two blocks away. I suggested that H. M. Koutoukas (who had just left the building) play Wonder Woman -- he was chased down the street by Charles Stanley, brought back, given a headband and a show went up on time – changing the lights every time a comic frame occurred. By the end of the week, no one needed the script (comic book) but carried it anyway. It was the first comic book play at the Cino and the best. Others in the cast that night were Joe Cino, the suddenly present Johnny Dodd, Charles Stanley and Deborah Lee. There was a great deal of satisfaction with that simple little 15-minute playlet, as I felt I had finally shared the muse with H. M. Koutoukas.
After Joe Cino’s death, many of the artists never returned to the subsequently short-lived theater/coffee house managed by Charles Stanley and others. Harry was reportedly in poor condition having entered some sort of rehabilitation program at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I recall that the major adjustment achieved in rehabilitation for Harry was the realization that he did not have to constantly entertain those around him – he became much more solemn and, of course, silent.
I had a successful play called “Xircus, the Private Life of Jesus Christ” completing a six-month run with a month or so still remaining on the lease of the Performing Garage in SoHo. The producer, Dick Briggs, was agreeable to a short run of whatever play I would like to mount. I contacted Harry and he gave me fragments of a piece called “Christopher at Sheridan Squared”. It was basically an uncollated pile of poetry. Many of the actors from "Xircus" would be in the production; however, I sent out word to Christopher Street that casting was being held. A good many actors in the production were not actors until they were cast in the play. Harry would send bits and pieces of writing from time to time during rehearsals and I fashioned them all into a narrative – it became a small epic of city apartment and street life. Harvey Fierstein, who had played Our Lady of 42nd Street in "Xircus" played what could be termed as the Koutoukas role. Music was on a harpsichord, composed by A. M. Fine, a heterophobic and paranoid musical genius. A chorus of sorts chanted the lines and danced to choreography by James Waring. A full two-story set was constructed with a tapestry from the Metropolitan Opera as the act curtain. It was a wonderful piece with a full house opening night and no audience thereafter. Harry was fond of one-night-only theater stands – most of his plays could be seen but once. The second night, Harry positioned himself on the top tier of the wooden structure at the Performing Garage and threatened to hurl himself to the floor. I advised him that if suicide were intended that he might not succeed, merely crippling himself for life, paralyzed and unable to ever again attempt to terminate his existence.
Somewhere in my files is a script of our collaboration and an audio tape of a performance – the negatives for the photographs were maintained by Harvey Fierstein, leaving only a contact sheet of same. Fierstein was a demanding diva buttressed only by his being aware of his lack of experience. I recognized his wit and originality in his everyday conversations as being far more interesting than most of the plays that I was given to consider directing. I told him that if he would write a play, I’d produce it. This was twofold in purpose, it would shut him up for a while and maybe produce a lively theater piece. He returned much too soon with a short play called “The Very Last Camp” – with Ellen and myself as characters. No. I was not going to do a play with a second-hand account of my relationship with forces I wanted to forget, and had no desire to provoke – Harvey had in mind another “Superfreak”, a play about the Caffé Cino that upset too many individuals in the Off-Off-Broadway scene. I sent him back to the proverbial drawing board with an assignment. Clean H. M. Koutoukas’ apartment!
Harry’s apartment had become unlivable. It is reported that he dabbed glow-in-the-dark paint on the back of cockroaches that one might turn out the lights and watch the spectacle! He needed to get it straightened so that he could at least find a comfortable corner for sleeping. I sent Fierstein and Russell Krum to do the chore, advising Harvey that if he searched deep enough into the experience, that a real play would be there, one that he could write honestly about. Well, he did. What was his and what was Harry’s one will never know – the play was called “In Search of the Cobra Jewels”.
I approached Harry by chance on Christopher Street, a half-block from his apartment at 87, advised him that Harvey had written a play about him, but that I could not do it unless Harry would play himself – he responded, ”get me a script and a nurse for all the rehearsals and performances.” I set a street actor, Flash Storm to the task. He made sure that Harry was at the required rehearsals and saw to many of Harry’s other needs during the time. Fierstein and I recruited Harvey and Ronald Tavel, Agosto Machado and Mario Montez, for an all-male cast including drag queens Alexis De Lago and Wilhelmina Ross, the stain-glass artist Gilly Glass, who played a window, and many of the street actors from "Christopher at Sheridan Squared."
Opening night, near the conclusion of the first act during a chorale, Harry produced a razor blade and began marking his wrists producing blood. Michael Smith, the Village Voice critic and a friend of Harry was in attendance and noted in a review – “During the first-act finale of “In Search of the Cobra Jewels” last Wednesday, H. M. Koutoukas, who plays the central role, cut himself delicately and deliberately with a razor blade, just deeply enough so blood oozed out on his arms and face. Harvey Fierstein’s play is transparently about Koutoukas himself in the form of Noel Swann, poet and playwright in flirtation with Death. And it is, further, a direct rip-off of Koutoukas’s distinctive style as a dramatist – aphoristic, euphuistic, picturesque, tormentedly romantic, sentimentally nostalgic. But the opening night blood-letting introduced too much reality onto the stage for my taste. I was sickened and horrified. Koutoukas’s gesture, though reviving an ancient sacrificial mode of theatre, by its very truthfulness seemed to go beyond art and call art worthless, and it had the effect of nearly destroying the play… Once again Donald L. Brooks has done a production that gets to me so personally that I can hardly talk about it coherently. Once again he has concocted an indecipherable mixture of brilliance, ineptitude, and nearly pathological acting out… Brooks certainly has a flair for raw theatricality, and he persistently confronts in his work subjects, styles, and personal equations which to others appear in bad taste and simply too dangerous. First I was entertained, then I was frightened, then I didn’t know where I was and my mind was left burning with contradictions. What kind of theatre is that?” Well, it wasn’t the kind I had intended, but Harry took care of that!
I went downstairs to the dressing room, where the actors were a bit confused to say the least. Harry had just fled the theater and I went in pursuit, catching up to him about two blocks away. I chided him for such cheap theatrics, citing selfishness to the other actors, commanding him to return to the theater to finish the performance, and further advised that he was going to do the entire schedule of performances and that if he decided to slit his wrists every night he’d be hamburger by the end of the run – also, to advise me beforehand of same so that I could make sure the audience noticed, as being that the lighting was in red, we were wasting the blood – a white light would show the deed more effectively. Well, he returned and there was no problem after that – he was perfect as himself in the guise of Noel Swann, speaking what surely were many of his own words plucked from the debris of his lair. Only Harry and his neophyte gargoyle could possibly know who wrote what and who played who.
Without a doubt, the best line to come out of off-off Broadway was Harry’s, utilizing an expletive that at the time was wont to make a censor swoon – at the end of the play, a lonely and ruined actress asks the audience, “Anybody want to fuck a star!” Broadway never called, but Times Square occasionally drew Harry to its dark recesses, for I vividly recollect that while I was stripping at a seedy male burlesque house, his incongruous presence surprised me, along with our producer Dick Briggs, in the front row of the audience – caught in the act, indeed! The three of us attended a performance of "Crowbar" at the Victory Theater on 42nd Street while it was still haunted from the ghosts of the early century. The Victory was the movie house that premiered “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS”, a film with Koutoukas’ participation toward the end of its use as a movie house – so, he did get uptown once in a while!
The relationship never changed, every meeting was as though the last were the day before. We religiously exchanged Christmas cards for a quarter century, and I always looked forward to seeing him on Halloween at Theater for the New City where he appeared as a celebrity judge for the costume parade at the Halloween Ball – his category was always the least conventional. When friends were dropping like flies from the plague, I told him that I had ceased going to anyone’s memorial that I had not known for at least twenty-five years – he wrote that down too! I last saw Harry at the Obies at a hall at New York University, where he, Robert Dahdah and I sat together in the lobby for a good half-hour while various individuals, including some of Harry’s gargoyles, stopped by to pay their respects to the old men of the underground.
Now, he’s left us behind. Let us hope it is just another avant-garde movement and his beautiful soul is merely leading the way to where artists need not struggle against the oppressive forces of our world, but simply wave a hand and the imagination becomes reality. As we sift through his life, let us remember that while he lived, we many times stood aside while he destroyed his own creations. If the art of his muse that now lies scattered among the ashes can rise as the Phoenix into the light of a deserved appreciation alongside the great poets and playwrights of our time, then and only then will we ever have satisfaction and peace in search of H. M. Koutoukas.
By H. M. Koutoukas (from Christopher at Sheridan Squared)
Soon the blossoming
Crescendos unto the Spring
Do not speak of it – the veil across our time among the flowers
Is non-negotiable – there’s always credit on the ledger
The bill falls due and the dunning’s done in another place
Listen to the pause the husky silent hue of it
Which breath will turn us unto the Autumn of our own concerto
Oh Chopin live – Love be quick betray me
Rush to a new waltz with a new love do not turn the corner
For autumn is the turnings time
And unto mine own colors I need match my soul
God save me from a life unplucked
Let just my sweet soul hang heavy on the bough
Death has embraced me more warmly
More formally on more occasion than most lovers
Bend the bough swiftly at autumn’s horizon dear September
For I have known that my freedom in life could only serve
The liberation of my tears or smiles at the cost of others weeping
Can you sense autumn – that brightness after bloom
Where the Muse might be accused of going middle class unconcerned
Yes with her Sisters they turn – knowing they may not look on
My new love, sweet death … save me, cure me from this servitude sublime
This poison insidious lust for beauty –
Divine Death – from Durkheim, from Vikings,
From Garbo’s fondest dream I waltz victorious
Free from even art – Death – Dark Angel
They will fear you not knowing only of my wrath
I meet you beyond Jung’s fear or Freud
And you shall duel God on some heavenly common –
Not knowing in what mood you might either win me