Sissies’ Scrapbook, my first play, began life as a screenplay. I’d just come back to America after ten years in London and was hibernating in the cold winter, in a Bridgehampton house, nervous, for some reason, about making re-entry into the big city. I’d made Women in Love. It hadn’t made me famous or rich (Ken Russell, the director, got all the attention and the three-picture deal from United Artists); even worse, it hadn’t satisfied me. I had seen this coming for a while. I simply had not enjoyed making the film, and I found writing screenplays creatively unsatisfying. I thought for a while it was because I was not writing anything that meant anything to me— that is, that I had something invested in, like being gay. But adapting Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colors, a novel very much about homosexuality, had been only a little bit better. And no studio wanted to finance it when I submitted it. No, Women in Love had brought me no comfort, no sense of direction, of what to do with my life. And Ken Russell got to make his wretched movie about Tchaikovsky. (When this movie was screened for the UA executives, the lights came up and the chairman said: “Well, I guess Larry Kramer had more to do with Women in Love than we thought.”)
This realization—that making movies was not the creative outlet I’d hoped it would be—came as a surprise. Throughout the 1960s I had been very much in love with films. New York and London both had exciting film festivals that I attended vigorously. I came to love foreign films particularly. The movie that meant most to me was Jules et Jim. Its sheer narrative virtuosity still impresses me. Truffaut uses a Narrator, an unnamed Narrator, to tell the intensely personal story. For whatever reason, this device is rarely used in films and plays. In writing both the screenplay and later the play of Sissies’ Scrapbook, I wanted to use an unnamed Narrator. Why not? In writing it I also threw in everything that was “meaningful” to me: young men, friends, Yale, homosexuality, fathers, and, of course, love. It certainly was based on the “real.”
I finished a draft of the screenplay, only to be confronted by the same problem I’d had with the Mishima: How was I ever going to get it financed? My new American New York agent was not hopeful. A friend read it and said it should be a play. I didn’t want to write a play. I was nominated for an Academy Award for my screenplay of Women in Love, threw Sissies into a box, called a guy I thought I was in love with, and bought a new Mustang for us to drive across country to Los Angeles for the awards. Falling madly in love along the way, of course. I didn’t win the Oscar; my coast agent told me I was “hot” and should cash in on it because it wouldn’t last long; the guy wasn’t in love with me and wanted to go home to Rome, I wanted him beside me even more; I accepted a screenwriting assignment I shouldn’t have to somehow keep him with me in our little Loretta Young cottage in Beverly Hills; he left anyway; and I wrote the fucking screenplay—the only thing I have ever written that I am truly ashamed of—and made more money from it than I’d ever made in my life, which I gave to my brother to invest. I returned to New York to turn Sissies into a play.
It wasn’t all that hard to do. Or so I thought. I had that unnamed Narrator walking around like a master puppeteer, and a set that no designer could ever embody unless we had the budget of My Fair Lady, and a cast of characters that, while not as large as A Chorus Line, still required a few more actors than any prospective producer would be happy to pay. My new New York agent didn’t like the play any more than my old New York agent had liked the screenplay version of it, but she had heard of a new place called Playwrights Horizons that tried out workshop-type things and got you a director, actors, a couple of weeks of rehearsal, and a two-week run before an audience. It was located in a dance studio in the old YWCA on Eighth Avenue, and you got one big gymlike room that you rehearsed in and built your set in and set up bleachers for your audience in. No critics had ever come because no critics had ever been invited. This was a workshop. You were supposed to learn from it. A young director was found for me by the managing director, Robert Moss, and since I knew plenty of agents and casting directors, a great cast was somehow assembled.
The experience was wonderful. The actors responded to my words; my director, Alfred Gingold, was not the monster Ken Russell had been; and there were no studio executives breathing down my back, pushing and pressuring and questioning every cent and comma. Everybody actually got along with one another. Maria Tucci even made us her special spaghetti. We passed out fliers everywhere we could, and one day the audience came. In fact, they came every performance and filled all those bleachers. They clapped a lot at the end. Most important, though, was that they cried. I had made people cry. I had actually written something that touched people enough to cry. That is a very heady experience for a writer (this writer, anyway), then and now. If this was theater, then I never wanted to make another movie again.
Ever mindful of “what comes next?” I tried to get The New York Times to send a critic before we closed. No one answered my calls or hand-delivered letters. In two weeks (all Actors Equity would allow) it was over. Maria made us some more of her special spaghetti and we all said goodbye. Oh, there had been a few people who said they had friends who were looking for plays to produce, but no one actually came forth. One of those who saw the play was the actress Sylvia Miles. One of her friends did call. His name was Michael Harvey. He was rich. He read my play and said he would produce it off Broadway.
He did produce it off Broadway. Everything that had been so right about the workshop production at Playwrights Horizon was awful or went wrong with the off Broadway production at the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street. Most of the original cast was not available, and I was not comfortable with many of their replacements. The set was awful. Alfred decided he was directing Harold Pinter, and we cut out not only the Narrator and a few of the characters, but much of the dialogue as well. Everything I have ever written depends a great deal for its effectiveness on my use (some would say abundant use) of language. But I hadn’t learned that yet. I went along with it. It was a very skinny script we opened with. We even had a new title: Four Friends. Michael rebelled against producing any play with the word sissies in its title. Whatever it was called, it was a disaster. Clive Barnes, the powerful critic for The New York Times, arrived thirty minutes late (we waited, of course), and he arrived drunk. (I say it here.) His review the next day began, “With friends like these you don’t need enemies.” We closed on opening night. Stephen Sondheim, who saw both versions, told me, “You threw the baby out with the bathwater.” I am never certain what expressions like this mean, but I have always assumed there was some fundamental problem with the original version that needed fixing, and I could never identify it. Was it the unnamed Narrator? Was it . . . Well, I have never been able to figure it out. Something had gone terribly wrong. And no one had cried except me.
A word about the setting. It should be naturalistic, without being necessarily totally realistic. Ideally, the stage should be a long one, length being preferable to depth, though depth being helpful as well.
The overall feeling should be of one enormous apartment—but on closer scrutiny, and as the play progresses, we will realize that we are seeing, rather, four separate apartments or living areas, each belonging to one of our four young men. Each area, therefore, should reflect this man’s personality, income, private life. (RON’s is the most expensive, the most “decorated” but also the most impersonal; JOHN’s is the neatest and most spartan in terms of excess; DICK’s is the least neat, the most studious; and BARRY’s is the most bohemian and the cheapest. RON would probably be living on Madison or in the 60s off it; JOHN in the high East 70s about Second Avenue; DICK would live in the Village; and BARRY would be in a railroad apartment on First Avenue in the 90s.) But the areas must flow into one another, be extensions of one another, allowing, particularly at upstage center, where a big table sits, for group activity, a common ground, a meeting place, or just general comings and goings, especially in the downstage area. In each apartment, however, there should be a bed.
At rise, the only light is a central spot, into which the NARRATOR steps. His identity is solely as the NARRATOR, though he will occasionally assume other roles helpful to furthering the action. His appearance is like that of the four men he will be talking about: he is in his middle thirties, clean-cut, pleasant looking. He addresses the audience.
NARRATOR: Our major event this evening is that someone is going to die. I know we all die a little every day, but this will be the real thing, the grand finale. I hope you’ll find it sad and touching. And I hope that some cold, icy chill has already started inside of you.
(The lights come up on DICK’s area as the NARRATOR walks off the stage. DICK is wiry, intense, probably wears glasses, has dark hair, and wants very much to help people. He is with ANNIE, a pleasant looking, dark-haired girl, sort of elfin. Their scene is light, almost comedic; when it turns sour, we don’t remember when things started going wrong.)
ANNIE: How was your day, Dr. Dick?
DICK: Very pleasant and not particularly unusual, my Annie.
ANNIE: Lots more lovable patients on the couch.
DICK: I love my patients. The sick are not like you and me.
ANNIE: How do you know?
DICK: Well, let me tell you. Let me count the ways. Today I had a day full of misfits. First, a young girl. (He will mimic each of the people he describes.) “I hate my mommy. I hate my daddy. I hate myself. And I hate you.” Then a little old lady. “I have two very successful sons. They don’t love me. There’s no place for old people in this world. I want to die.” Then a good-looking gay boy. “I’ve been trying all these years to learn how to be fucked and really enjoy it. At first it hurt. But now it feels terrific.”
ANNIE: So that’s progress. Congratulations. Don’t you wish you had such perseverance?
DICK: To what? I don’t want to learn how to be fucked by you.
ANNIE: That’s a relief. (Pause.) What would you like me to do to you?
DICK: Love me.
ANNIE: Just like that?
DICK: Just like that.
ANNIE: Okay. I love you.
DICK: Terrific. I love you back, Annie.
ANNIE: Now what do we do?
DICK: Immediately? Or in the future tense?
ANNIE: Take your pick. It’s your day.
DICK: We walk hand in hand together down life’s path.
DICK: Isn’t that OK?
ANNIE: Suspiciously sentimental. Dick, do you really want to get married?
DICK: Absolutely. Don’t you?
ANNIE: It would depend.
DICK: On what? Besides me.
ANNIE: It’s the awful power of having exactly what you want. I’m sure it’s not the freeing, liberating thing you expect it to be. I’m sure it’s just another prison. And a far more awful one, because it’s one you’ve chosen.
DICK: My goodness. This sounds like the sudden inability to have a relationship. Wouldn’t you at least like the experience of having been married?
ANNIE: But it might be an undesirable experience. Or the end of experience.
DICK: You wouldn’t consider a good offer?
ANNIE: I think I’ve rejected several.
DICK: Really? But nothing worthwhile.
ANNIE: Twenty-five thousand dollars a year and an awfully nice man.
DICK: My goodness, weren’t you tempted?
ANNIE: I was only tempted not to.
DICK: I’ve been hoping for a woman to come along.
ANNIE: Have you?
DICK: Mind you, I wouldn’t go out of my way to look for her. But if there did come along a highly attractive individual . . .
ANNIE: So the physical is more important than the intellectual? Men are so disappointing.
DICK: Oh, no. We just want to walk hand in hand together down life’s path . . .
ANNIE: My goodness. That sounds suspiciously like the inability to have a relationship.
DICK: . . . with the right and perfect someone.
ANNIE: I had hoped that my psychiatrist would be free from sentimental taint.
DICK: Only for their patients.
ANNIE: Then I must become a patient.
DICK: Not if you’re my lover.
ANNIE: Then I will not be your lover anymore.
DICK: And why not?
ANNIE: Because you’re next going to say we have to go out to dinner with your father.
DICK: We do.
ANNIE: Your father is a turgid turd.
DICK: I went out with your mother.
ANNIE: She’s sweet. My mother is sweet.
DICK: My father is St. Teresa of Avila compared to your mother, who is a head-lopping witch.
ANNIE: My mother is neither sorceress nor saint, but your father casts evil spells on little children. I refuse.
DICK: You have no choice in the matter.
ANNIE: What a fine thing for a psychiatrist to say. Anyway, a single, attractive girl in New York always has a choice.
DICK: Which means . . . ?
ANNIE: Exactly what it says, Mr. . . . what did you say your name was. You think I love you, don’t you? Well, your love to me is as the love of the son of the father who casts evil spells on little children. I could not love such a son.
DICK: Why not? I could love the daughter of a witch. He’s waiting. We’ll be late.
ANNIE: Oh, get the hell out of here. I don’t want to go. Can’t you see that?
DICK: (Walking towards a closet.) Which dress do you want to wear?
ANNIE: Get out, leave my clothes alone!
DICK: They’re your clothes, but it’s my closet.
ANNIE: They’re my clothes.
DICK: Annie, we’re going.
ANNIE: You’re going.
DICK: You’re going, too.
ANNIE: No, I’m not, I’m not.
DICK: Why not? Please tell me why not.
ANNIE: (Pause, then very softly.) I am very ugly.
DICK: Oh, shit.
ANNIE: Yes. I am. I am very ugly. I am too ugly for your father and therefore too ugly for you. The only person I am not too ugly for is my mother, and I am going home to her.
DICK: You are sick in the head. (He starts to leave.)
ANNIE: No, I’m not. I am dick in the head.
(The lights go down on them and come up on the NARRATOR.)
NARRATOR: That was Dick. And now for Ron. Perhaps I should say here that we have four men to introduce. Now Ron.
(The lights go down on the Narrator and come up on RON’s area. RON is tall, quite handsome, slightly going to fat, slightly losing his hair. He gives the appearance of being quite open, but in fact, he hides behind a facade of a good nature, a good sense of humor, and a good sense that his ambition will take him places. He is wearing a bathrobe and goes to open the door, which is buzzing. He admits a blond young man, Terry, very handsome, to whom he will be quite cool and ostensibly pay little attention.)
RON: (Turning his back on Terry, thus forcing him to close the door and follow him in.) Come on in. Make yourself a drink.
TERRY: (Crosses to the bar and starts to make himself a drink.) You want one?
RON: (Off-stage.) No thanks.
(Terry looks around, observing. Ron comes back, now clad only in shorts.)
RON: Let’s go, shall we?
(The lights go down on them and up on the NARRATOR; but halfway through his speech, they will come up dimly on RON and Terry in bed, RON smoking silently and exhaling upward.)
NARRATOR: Ron had read too much Fitzgerald. He believed in the value of self. Of his own importance, and ability, and eventual
Sissies’ Scrapbook © 1973 by Larry Kramer; reprinted in Women in Love and Other Dramatic Writings, collection copyright © 2002 by Larry Kramer; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.