photo of the day 12/10/2011. photo © Mark I Chester
photo of Ethyl Eichelberger, drag performance artist as Lucreztia Borgia at 544 Natoma Performance Gallery, San Francisco 6/1983
One of Peter Hartman's great skills was bringing new performers into San Francisco. Ethyl was a NY drag performance artist whose shows focused on mad, dangerous and powerful women of history including Lucretzia Borgia, Medea, Clytemnestra, Nefertiti among others. On one level it was cheap spectacle; a kind of thrown together theater with incidental props and backdrop, but that was all just window dressing to the accordion playing and singing Ethyl. Tall and even taller in spiked heels, slender, imposing, intense and tattooed, Ethyl had stage presence in spades. You just couldn't take your eyes off of her. At one point Lucretzia bitterly complains that she really wasn't a bad person, she was just misunderstood. ;)
The first shows had decent audiences, but after Ron Blustein wrote a full page non-stop rave review of Ethyl in the BAR (Bay Area Reporter), every remaining performance was sold out. And it was scorchingly funny. Between Ethyl's writing, singing and performance, you almost couldn't hear some of the dialogue thru the laughter. This was clearly not a personality to be fucked with. Remember it was 1983 and while gay men were dying of AIDS, it had not yet reached a critical mass where it consumed us and everything in sight. As Medea, Ethyl was a woman who was left with nothing but anger and sorrow. Her hero husband Jason had deserted her and her children for a young princess. I still remember the bitterness and rage as Medea spit out one of her most famous lines, "A stiff dick has no conscience." The gay men who filled the theater roared with laughter and approval. It was the kind of response you only got at the Castro Theater watching a Bette Davis film revival. The San Francisco gay community had discovered Ethyl and they couldn't get enough of her. Over a 2 week period I took 9 rolls of black and white film of Ethyl performing, documenting every character that she played. Well, every character, except for one.
Towards the end of her run, Ethyl offered to do a private show for Peter Hartman, the staff of 544 and a few close friends like myself and Robert Chesley. It was strange because instead of a theater bursting at the seams, here were maybe 8-10 gay men, all of us friends. None of us knew what to expect. The only thing we knew is that the character was Phaedra. In myth, Phaedra had fallen in love with her step son and when he rejected her, in revenge, Phaedra told her husband that his son had raped her. In a rage, the father killed his son and Phaedra, in shame, committed suicide. Some love story! But this time there was no accordion, no singing and no humor. This was acting and one of the most powerful performances that I have ever experienced. It was raw and primal and in your face. Just Ethyl in one costume, using a light on the ground that he clicked on and off with his foot and just standing there, using his voice, he embodied Phaedra, her step son and her husband.
The last time I saw Ethyl was at the Geary Theater in SF. After years of doing performances in odd spaces in NY, Ethyl had been "discovered" and was gaining respect in the NY theater scene as an actor. While I was thrilled to see Ethyl in a formal venue, getting the respect he deserved, while this was still a solo play that he had written, this time he was playing King Leer. I found it sad that Ethyl, who had spent his entire career playing women, was forced to play a male role in order to be more widely accepted.
Some time later, I heard that Ethyl had AIDS and some time later that he had committed suicide. I honestly don't know the details so I can't even tell you if what I am going to tell you is the truth or just my fantasy of the truth. The story goes that Ethyl committed suicide in a bathtub, having filled it with warm water and then slit his wrists. No one can know what Ethyl did at that moment, but I do, because theater was Ethyl's life. I believe that he gave one last performance, a performance so intimate that the only audience was time itself as he slipped away and became history and memory.