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Unleashing O’Casey: Julian Barry, Lenny Bruce & American tragedy


“My favorite playwright was not Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, it was Sean O’Casey who wrote about simple people in the streets.”

Julian Barry is an acerbic, whimsical man who lives in a quiet corner of Connecticut that is not even a town; his house is on a road that ends in a path surrounded by New England woodlands. At 75, he is fit, in perfect health, engulfed in a collection of saxophones and accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay Lenny, which he keeps in the bathroom. “It’s where Lenny died,” he says. “With his head near the toilet.” Lenny is of course, Lenny Bruce, the man who took on the entire American justice system, and with Henry Miller, Barney Rossett and James Joyce, rewrote the laws on obscenity in the US in the 1960’s.

“I’m no Thoreau,” Barry said, staring out at the foliage around him. “I’m just a Jewish kid from the Bronx who likes his privacy.”

That said with all that funny stuff going on, Julian Barry is the greatest writer of classic tragedy living and working in America. No one else comes close. You’ve never heard of him? That doesn’t bother him at all. “I’ve been very lucky with my life,” he says. “I think I’m one of the luckiest writers who ever lived. I never had to write anything I wouldn’t want to see myself and I’ve had the good fortune of working with some of the finest actors, directors and producers in the world.”

Tom O’Horgan, director of Hair, first did Lenny at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway of May of 1971. Clive Barnes of the New York Times called it “the best original drama on Broadway for some years!” In 1974, Bob Fosse directed the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine to rave reviews and Academy Award nominations for Fosse, Hoffman, Perrine and screenwriter Julian Barry. As his first film project, working with Tom O’Horgan in 1973, for fun, cash and experience, Barry whittled away at [Eugène] Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros hoping to transform it from stage to screen. Barry had an amazing cast to work with, including stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. Mostel did the play on Broadway and was fresh from his critical success in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Karen Black, Barry’s chorus pal from Highland Park Music Theatre in Chicago, played the female lead. With the genius and energy of O’Horgan behind him, Julian Barry was ready to make the successful play about autocracy and fascism, a delicious and funny dance of death on film; but there were problems.

“Tom directed it for the American Film Theatre. He had just done Lenny with me on Broadway. The AFT did a whole series of plays that nobody could ever figure how to make a movie out of. They did [Eugene] O’Neill’s Iceman Cometh and Long Days Journey and then they did Rhinoceros. When they asked Tom to direct it, he wanted me to do the screen adaptation. We liked each other and we knew why we worked well together. I got along better with Tom than with any of my wives. The problem with the guys at AFT was their purity. They couldn’t decide whether it was to be a film or the filming of a play on the stage. I asked myself the question “Am I writing a movie or shooting a play on film?’ Fuck. For that all you need is a fucking cameraman. I wanted to do a lot of stuff. To take Rhinoceros from the theatre out into the street. That was fine with Tom, but Zero, who had done the play on Broadway, refused to do new stuff. Jesus, we even drove out to a place where we had a chance to look at a real rhino.” Comic tears form in Barry’s eyes. He chokes back a laugh. “We’re looking at a real rhino and the cameraman is thinking “I’m gonna die doing this fucking movie! Sorry, I use fuck a lot,” he says to my female assistant. “I wrote a whole lot of stuff. I think it was solid for a film, but Zero…” He does a perfect imitation of Mostel’s deep basso: “Zero told me ‘Barry, I hate what you wrote yesterday.’ You know, these guys will go after your dick if you don’t have it locked up. Zero and Dustin. Don’t get me started. What can you do.”

I asked about Gene Wilder. He laughed. “Gene was sweet. Zero was treating Gene Wilder like the guy in The Producers. A guy you can yell at. A guy you can shit on. Gene hates the movie so much, to this day he won’t even admit he was in it. Too bad. He’s a comic genius. It’s just that Zero was old and frail and did and didn’t want to do anything new. But I learned something about the difference between films and plays. The problem with an absurdist play is the minute you have a camera on it, the absurdity goes out the window. A chair is a chair. On the stage a chair can be a live thing in the hands of a great actor. That’s why we did Lenny the film in black and white. The play had fantasy, but you can’t do fantasy in front of the camera. Maybe Fellini can.”

Though Julian Barry’s screen adaptation, and the team of O’Horgan and Barry were denied a chance to transform Ionesco’s stage play into an over-the-top comic film, they did get to work with major talents and learn about actors on the stage and actors on film.

“What we got was just the stage play with some crazy exteriors, but Tom and I worked with two comic geniuses. It could have been a wonderful film.”

I asked if he felt sorry about the project.

“Shit no! I was so committed to the piece, I later turned it into an opera.

“It was produced once in the UK under the name Born Again, but Ionesco was so bothered by the opera, he refused to renew our option on the play. This is very technical, but had the opera been done in a first class house, the rights could have merged and the opera could have been done again and again. But I learned something important. I learned about the opera form. The opera form is wonderful for funny stuff and wonderful for tragedy. There, I said the word. Tragedy. I love music and I got a chance to do an opera. I got to work in Britain where they have a completely different view of how you produce a work. I love working in the UK. Getting a play on the London stage is completely different from Broadway. I’ve had both. They’re both great, but with British it’s more about ideas than it is about money.”

Through his opera on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros now languishes in limbo, Barry’s dedication to the project gave him satisfaction. Did he think the work could ever be done again. “Not without a law suit, “ he says. “But I learned opera!”

I asked what he thought of film writing.

Lenny began as a film. I was hired by Columbia Pictures to write a movie about Lenny Bruce. They hired Tom O’Horgan, who’d just directed Hair as director. Tom and I worked together on the screen play. The project was sold to Columbia as this hip youth movie on the strength of Easy Rider. Peter Guber gave the go ahead. Bad timing. They turned it down originally for language. ‘Why does he have condoms by the bed?’ It was the season of Love Story. Romance was in. Get the hip kid pictures off the lot. Cut velvet this week. Tom and I were out there on the street.”

But Julian Barry loved Lenny Bruce, his passions, his obsessions, his life and death battle against American puritans. He refused to give up: “I told O’Horgan, ‘Look we have this great fucking screenplay. Why don’t we make a play out of it? You’ve been on Broadway. I’ve been on Broadway. Fuck Hollywood!’ He agreed. I rewrote it as a play backed it and with the support of Marvin Worth from Columbia, it went to Broadway. The critics who liked it, thought it was a very modern play. It was a fucking screenplay sitting on the stage.

“It moves bing, bang, boom. It moves like a screenplay because that’s how Lenny’s head moved. I did it to honor him because I loved what he was and I loved what he did! If you want to say I wrote a fucking Greek tragedy, then OK. Thanks. Maybe I did. I know how to write clear stuff. My favorite playwright was not Arthur Miller, who was one of our greatest playwrights, but also too much of a rabbi for me; or Tennessee Williams, who was a poet. No it was Sean O’Casey who wrote about simple people in the streets. I never even had a class on O’Casey, but my roommate at Emerson College in Boston, Chuck Price, was studying O’Casey and read all his plays and read his autobiography and I did too. Chuck wrote letters to O’Casey and he got answers back. So in a way…” He stops.

“From Sean O’Casey to Lenny Bruce,” I say.

“OK. Let’s talk about Lenny Bruce. Lenny the man and Lenny the play and…”

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2009.