About Jane Chambers

Afterword to Lesbian & Queer Plays from the Jane Chambers Prize, edited by Maya Roth and Jennifer-Scott Mobley (NoPassport Press, 2019).

By Dr. Sara Warner, Cornell University

Jane Chambers was in rehearsals for Kudzu at Playwrights Horizons in 1981 when she became ill with what would be diagnosed as a brain tumor. The cancer proved to be as malignant as the invasive vine for which the play is named. Chambers lost the ability to write and couldn’t complete the revisions for Kudzu, which had been optioned for a Broadway run. The producer backed out, and Chambers never made it to the Great White Way. She would have been the first lesbian to stage a play about lesbians – happy, well-adjusted lesbians – on Broadway. Audiences would have to wait decades for alternatives to those “god-damned sick and dirty” women whose love for other women resulted in their condemnation (The God of Vengeance), suicide (The Children’s Hour), or homicidal urges (The Killing of Sister George).[1] Nuanced and complex lesbian characters began to appear on Broadway (often as minor players, typically in musicals) in the late 1990s (e.g., Falsettos, Rent, The Color Purple), but it wasn’t until 2006 that a lesbian-themed work by a lesbian creator, Lisa Kron’s Well, achieved what Chambers was poised to do in the 1980s.

The degree to which lesbians have been pathologized, criminalized, and marginalized in American drama cannot be overstated. The history of lesbians in mainstream theater is sparse and inconsistent, at best. It took Paula Vogel, the first out lesbian dramatist to garner the Pulitzer Prize, until 2016 to make her Broadway debut, which she did with Indecent, a play that addresses, among other topics, the history of lesbian censorship in the theater. Indecent premiered during the regional run of Fun Home, Kron’s groundbreaking adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. These Tony Award-winning shows are remarkable for their audacious and unapologetic exploration of lesbian desire. While stylistically distinct, Fun Home and Kudzu share similar elements. They are both set in rural America, involve patriarchal figures with destructive secrets, and feature middle-age lesbians. These paradigm-shifting productions don’t plead for acceptance or inclusion. They take lesbian sexuality as a given and assume that audiences will have no trouble seeing the world from their perspective.

One of the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, Chambers’ reputation rests largely on “the lesbian plays” she wrote during the 1970s, though these constitute only a fraction of her astonishing creative output. In her brief life – she died one month shy of her forty-sixth birthday – Chambers wrote at least thirty-five plays, seventeen novels (two of which were published), thirty-two screenplays and television scripts, thirteen short stories, one poetry collection, and dozens of articles. The lesbian plays feature characters and plots inspired by the antics and amorous escapades of Chambers’ friends and lovers. A Late Snow (1970), the first in this series, is set in rural Maine, where she lived with the figure on whom Pat, a charismatic butch with a drinking problem, is based. Five women, all current or former love interests of the protagonist Ellie, a college professor, find themselves trapped in a remote cabin during a blizzard. Ellie is worried that her tribe will out themselves to Margo, a famous author she has invited to campus. Margo reveals that she too is a lesbian, one who chooses, like Tally in The Eye of the Gull (1971), to remain in the closet to protect her reputation. The plot proved prophetic when A Late Snow debuted in 1974 at The Clark Center (later Playwrights Horizons). Chambers lost her job at CBS and was blacklisted from the television industry, despite having garnered a Writers Guild Award for her work on “Search for Tomorrow.”

Apprehensive about the commercial viability of A Late Snow, no producer would risk an Off-Broadway run. The next six years were lean ones for Chambers, and the only writing jobs she could secure were with porn presses, where she penned pulp novels and articles for straight and gay men’s magazines under different pseudonyms. Chambers’ luck changed radically in 1980 when John Glines invited her to stage A Late Snow as part of the First Gay American Arts Festival in New York. The play was still under option, so Chambers proposed Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1974). A resounding success, the festival run at the West Side Mainstage Theatre was extended, followed by a transfer to the Actors Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Starring a young Jean Smart as Lil, a rakish dyke who finds the love of her life just months before she dies of cancer, Bluefish Cove resonated with audiences and critics alike. Chambers dedicated the play to a friend who had recently died, not knowing that she would soon succumb to the same fate. Nicknamed The Girls in the Sand – a reference to Mart Crowley’s trailblazing 1968 gay drama The Boys in the BandBluefish Cove received a Villager Downtown Theatre Award, and a California production garnered the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award (1983). Venezuelan film director Fina Torres adapted the play in 2014 as Liz in September, though her plot centers on Lil’s lover, Eva, interjecting both a husband and a deceased son into the lesbian enclave.

Chambers headlined the second Gay American Theatre Festival with My Blue Heaven, her most idealized portrait of a lesbian relationship, and one of the earliest examples of a same-sex wedding in American drama. Glines paid a posthumous tribute to Chambers by staging a one act about her life titled In Her Own Words at Town Hall on a double bill with The Quintessential Image. The latter (Chambers wanted to title it The Quintessential Dyke) takes place at a television studio where host Margaret Foy interviews her idol, the elusive photographer Lacey Lanier, who reveals that her success stems from a series of failed attempts to capture Bettina Adams, the object of her unconsummated obsession. The play’s experimental form and use of multi-media to comment on the misogyny and homophobia of representational regimes excited feminist theorists who bristled at Chambers’ use of realism, which they denounced as a pernicious genre incapable of reflecting the truth of lesbian lives.

If the lesbian plays seem formulaic, this is because Chambers was working in the early 1970s as a television and screenwriter in Hollywood, during which time she was mastering the art of melodrama and churning out scenarios for a soap opera at a furious pace. None of her film or television projects made it into production, though several were optioned, including Here Comes the Iceman, one of the first situation comedies to feature an African American family, and Batt’lin Bertha: The Senator from Waterloo, an homage to Shirley Chisholm. Chambers’ screen- and teleplays reflect a deep and abiding commitment to racial justice, a position catalyzed by her upbringing in the Jim Crow South and her family’s slave holding legacy. Rosie Love-Apple, about a middle-class Puerto Rican family who moves to Spanish Harlem, is one of several pilots based on Chambers’ transformative experience with the Job Corps for Women, a cornerstone of President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Chambers’ screenplays and lesbian-themed dramas stand in marked contrast to the art she produced during the 1950s and 60s, when she studied with Erwin Piscator, performed with the Actor’s Mobile Theatre, and created work with the Poet’s Theatre. These plays are experimental in form and many are daring in their political content. Take for example, Tales of the Revolution and Other American Fables (1969), a bracing exploration of the sexism, homophobia, and racism of contemporary society. Set in a mixed-bar in Greenwich Village on Halloween night at closing time, this play opens with a stage full of mannequins, some of which come to life to engage in sexual banter and crude jokes. While not a lesbian-themed play, the patrons do include characters named Dyke and Faggot. If Tales of the Revolution is “ever produced,” Chambers told her thesis advisor at Goddard College, “I’ll be cell-mates with Angela [Davis]!”[2] The play earned her a fellowship to the O’Neill Playwriting Center in 1972, where it received a staged reading, its only production to-date.

That same year, Chambers was elected Chairperson of the New Jersey Women's Political Caucus (agitating alongside Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem) and co-founded Women’s Interart Theatre with Margot Lewitin, who directed four of Chambers’ early, experimental plays. The first was Random Violence, a ninety-minute performance piece staged in the round about Eve McIntyre, “a disenfranchised woman in our electronic-sexist society, guilt-ridden about the violence which surrounds us but rendered powerless to change or stop it.”[3] The following year, Lewitin staged two of Chambers’ one act plays, Mine and The Wife, which examine the socio-economic conditions that keep women oppressed, a theme shared by The Common Garden Variety, produced at Interart and The Mark Taper Forum. Like the protagonist of this play, Sari, Chambers was raised by her grandmother after her parents’ divorce, an event catalyzed by her father’s alcoholism and mental illness. Both he and his brother sexually abused Chambers, and incest is one of the topics she explored in her essays.

In 1982, Chambers made her last public appearance when she received the Fund for Human Dignity Award, a fitting tribute for a lesbian feminist dramatist, who, denied the right to study playwriting at Rollins College and the Pasadena Playhouse, dropped out of school in 1956 and taught herself the craft of dramaturgy. Driven by a desire for fame and recognition, and determined to affect social change, Chambers demanded – and received – success on her own terms, without compromising her ambition, integrity, or political commitments. Filmmaker Alison McMahan is producing a documentary about Chambers, and her legacy lives on in the Women and Theatre Program’s annual Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, founded in 1983. A second prize in her name, given by the Gay Theatre Alliance, ended when the organization disbanded.

[1] Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour, New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1953, 67. [2] Jane Chambers, Letters to Paul, Goddard College Thesis 1971, 41.[3] Jane Chambers, Random Violence, unpublished manuscript, 1970, 1.