Spotlight: ‘Tubstrip’ by Jerry Douglas


Tubstrip (1973) is a play that belongs to the erotic theatre of the gay liberation era, a time of struggle and triumph that is largely forgotten today. Douglas authored the drama under the pseudonym A. J. Kronengold, effectively preserving his reputation as a ‘serious’ playwright. He then went on to direct the stage production under the moniker Doug Richards, creating a sort of two-fold barrier for critics to glide over.

In 2019, Tubstrip was revived in print by Chelsea Stations Editions, a feat made possible — and enriched — by Jordan Schildcrout, a renowned author, professor, and dramaturg. His foreword offers a meaty dissection of both the times and the themes within the play, illuminating the contrast between its wild appeal and the social reality, into which it was released.

Anything stated in this article will inevitably be some form of regurgitation of Schildcrout’s thoughts. His study of the cultural space occupied by Tubstrip is a sweeping labor of love, and the care with which it’s presented eliminates any real need for further insight.

The purpose of this review is mainly to rekindle the memory of the play once again, with a special glance at its artistic splendor. And since the published text is no longer in circulation, it serves the dual purpose of preserving Schildcrout’s compelling observations.

The two-act play takes place in a gay bathhouse; a space that allows for the free expression and fulfillment of sexual desire. Its eroticism stems mainly from the nudity of the actors on-stage, as well as the mention of various sexual acts. Sadomasochism also makes an appearance, and it’s refreshingly presented not as a means of intimidation, but a loving act between consenting adults.

The transitions are smooth, the rhythm of the actors’ appearances, disappearances, and collisions — both verbal and physical — serves as the play’s pulse, the dialogue is witty and the tensions prove exhilarating. In short, Tubstrip delivers vigor, laughter, provocation, and hope. For that, it stands out from the throng.

The 1969 Stonewall Riots and changes in censorship laws made room for the emergence of erotic theatre, but it was still considered a branch less worthy of critical distinction. Hence the demand for Douglas’ alter egos. 

Because of the cheer with which it embodies gay exuberance and the growing liberation of the times, the play doesn’t fixate on the trauma that’s so often linked to the gay experience. On the contrary, it rejoices in the body and the relations it spurs. For this, Tubstrip was predictably scorned by critics, but applauded by its target audience.

The play presents a net of characters, making sure to regularly tug on the ropes twisting them together. This results in great doses of humor, sexual tension, antagonism, desire, and longing. At its core, though, lies a love story. To reach it, Douglas first has to unravel the complex nature of fulfillment.

On the one hand, we have those men who seek brief sexual heights, on the other those interested in deeper and more enduring connections. No party is favored over the other. Whatever desire drives a character is given the scope to flourish.

Schildcrout points out that the bathhouse is reminiscent of the Shakespearean forest, where erotic desire roams free. Social constraints are left outside its border, and individuals are free to meet each other on equal footing. Ultimately, though, society must be re-entered at the end of the night. 

The main pairing in Tubstrip is made up of Brian, the unattainable attendant working in the bathhouse, and Richie, the faithful lover who has followed his decidedly less faithful partner inside. Essentially, they crave the same thing; romantic fidelity. To achieve it, Brian must free himself of both his childhood crush, whom he confronts inside the bathhouse, and his position, which belongs to the ephemeral existence of the forest.

Despite the personal ups and down the characters face, no one is left morose by the end of the play. In crafting such a free, jubilant reality, Douglas created “a fantasy in which characters connect — as sexual partners, as romantic loves, as friends, and as a community,” taking a step back from the forlorn, almost punishing way in which homosexuals were depicted for too long.

Perhaps one of the most important points Schildcrout makes is that gay sexuality as we understand it today is radically different from the way it was experienced in the era of sexual liberation. In fact, the way we generally discuss sex has done an about-turn. 

Therefore, our interest in erotic plays does more than scratch the itch of curiosity. It’s important to maintain because they “illuminate how our experiences and fantasies of sex and romance are constructed by our changing realities, allowing us to reflect more clearly on how we experience desire in our current moment — and to imagine ways in which we might experience it in the future.”

A Chelsea Stations Editions copy of Tubstrip was very kindly provided by Jordan Schildcrout upon request.

Leave a Reply