images from Outcasts
Ethyl Eichelberger as Lucreztia Borgia
Photography is a mystery to me. You probably wonít believe that, but it is. It is a strange but magical journey. You meet someone and the next thing you know they are revealing themselves to you. It is almost too intimate. When someone starts to pull down their walls and and put down their masks, you never know where you are going to end up. I like to think of it as a kind of invisible tattoo. Like being marked for all time. But itís a two way street. I end up just as changed as the people I photograph.
Ethyl Eichelberger was a New York drag performance artist, but that doesnít even being to describe the beauty, pathos, drag queen absurdity, humor and theatrical richness of this actor. When Peter Hartman of 544 Natoma brought Ethyl to San Francisco, no one here knew of him and the audiences were thin. Then Ron Bluestein wrote a long, lush and lyrical review in the BAR and from that point on the houses were sold out. Ethyl played mad, powerful and dangerous women of history, like Lucretzia Borgia, Medea and Carlotta of Mexico. He wrote the scripts and songs which were based on historical and theatrical texts, seen through the rose colored glasses of a Charles Ludlum: at once ridiculous, theatrical, hysterical and touching.
I photographed Ethyl during his performances at 544 Natoma. This particular photograph captured the rage, and passion of his Lucretzia Borgia, raving and ranting across the stage. How could one keep from nearly falling down on the ground when Lucretzia reached for her accordion or squeezebox and wailed about how cruel the world was to her.
Towards the end of the run, I was invited to a small gathering at 544 Natoma at which Ethyl was going to do a special performance of Phaedra. This was a private performance, done as a gift for Peter, to thank him for bringing Ethyl to San Francisco. With just one costume, a light on the ground (that he switched off and on with his foot) and his voice, Ethyl told the dark and tragic Greek tale of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, who killed herself after her advances towards her stepson were rejected, that ultimately resulted in the death of her stepson. Without music and songs, without the drag absurdity and switching seamlessly between the three characters, Ethyl showed himself to be an entrancing actor. Alone on stage, with no theatrical touches, this was a performance without a net; edgy and raw, passionate and breathtaking. Having photographed all of Ethylís performances at 544, I couldnít bear to photograph this unique performance. Sitting in the audience, this group of leather men and artists were spellbound. You could have heard a pin drop.
The last time I saw Ethyl was when he had hit the big time in New York, after the death of Charles Ludlum (you see, there is room for only one drag theater artist at a time...). He came to the Geary Theater of ACT and did his version of Lear. Without drag, without those dangerously high heels, without songs and the accordion, Ethyl long ignored and taken for granted in New Yorkís gay community, was finally accepted as a theater artist. And while he was good and the performance was enjoyable, it didnít have the passionate desperation of Ethylís dangerous women of history. I felt sorry for all these mainstream theater goers who never had the opportunity to see Ethyl in all his glory.
When I heard that Ethyl, dying from AIDS, took his own life, I had this image of him laying in a tub, having slit his wrists, and crying, laughing, ranting, raving in a small private performance with no audience, until he drifted off into myth. A personal performance with all the aching tragedy of a Leer or Phaedra in which Ethyl finally wrestled directly with the universe. He knew the universe would win this particular battle, but when it was over Ethyl also knew that the universe would never be the same.