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The Queen's Cell: Fortune and Men's Eyes and the New Prison Drama

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 April 2014


The December 1970 issue of the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's features an article by movie critic John Hofsess designed to promote the new film Fortune and Men's Eyes and to alert readers to that drama's importance to Canada as a nation. The piece is subtitled “A Report from the Set in a Quebec City Prison” and announces John Herbert's play Fortune and Men's Eyes as “the most famous Canadian drama of the last decade—it's been translated into eight languages and performed in 14 countries.” Hofsess's first paragraph, however, does not contain Fortune's list of accolades; instead, the author begins his piece with the following extraordinary narrative:

Two years ago the CBS television program Sixty Minutes reported “a routine incident” in a Philadelphia jail. A white youth, arrested for possession of marijuana and jailed overnight, was gang-raped the next morning by six black convicts in the back of a paddy wagon en route to a courthouse. Police found the boy bleeding and in shock. Such incidents [are] commonly and mistakenly referred to as “the problem of homosexuality in our prisons” [. . .] Yet, statistics indicate that more than 80% of sexual assaults in American prisons are committed by blacks against whites and are motivated by a different lust, a hateful rage that knows no containment.

Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2014 

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1. Williams, Tennessee, Not about Nightingales, in Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937–1955, ed. Gussow, Mel and Holditch, Kenneth (New York: Library of America, 2000), 97188Google Scholar, at 129.

2. Hofsess, John, “Fortune and Men's Eyes—a Report from the Set in a Quebec City Prison,” Maclean's, 83.12 (1970): 81Google Scholar, 83, at 81.

3. The film version of Fortune and Men's Eyes, directed by Harvey Hart, is available only on VHS (1971; Culver City, CA: MGM/UA Home Video, 1992).

4. Kunzel, Regina, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 150Google Scholar. See also Davis, Alan J., “Sexual Assaults in the Philadelphia Prison System and Sheriff's Vans,” Trans-Action 6.2 (1968): 816Google Scholar, at 9. Fishman's, Joseph F.Sex in Prison: Revealing Sex Conditions in American Prisons (New York: National Library Press, 1934)Google Scholar speaks of activity in prisons as made possible through “courting systems” and not as acts of violence.

5. Kunzel, 150–1.

6. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized homosexual sex between men in England and Wales only (homosexual sex between women was not illegal). Scotland decriminalized homosexual sex in 1980, and Northern Ireland followed suit in 1982. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada as a part of sweeping changes to the criminal code passed with the Criminal Law Amendment Act on 14 May 1969. Homosexuality in the United States was decriminalized not by the legislature but by a finding of the Supreme Court in the Lawrence v. Texas case in June 2003. Though there were no changes to U.S. law because of the Stonewall Riots, as an event signaling upheaval in the United States vis-à-vis its gay population, it is difficult to overestimate.

7. Herbert, John, Fortune and Men's Eyes (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 9Google Scholar. Subsequent page citations are given parenthetically in the text.

8. I will consistently use female pronouns when describing Queenie in this play but have opted for male pronouns when describing Mona. My reasoning is that Queenie uses female pronouns to describe herself, but although Queenie and Rocky both use female pronouns to describe Mona, he uses male pronouns when he refers to himself. This is purely a personal preference.

9. Paterson, Alexander, introduction to William Douglas Home, “Now Barabbas . . .” (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1947)Google Scholar, viii.

10. Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994)Google Scholar, 286, 290; Chauncey's italics.

11. Halperin, David M., How to Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 207.

12. The film differs from the play here. In the film, Mona is also the victim of rape at the hands of the men on the outside. In the play, rape appears to be restricted to the world of the prison.

13. Michael D. Minichiello, “West Village Originals: David Rothenberg,” West Village News, 1 February 2010,, accessed 23 October 2011.

14. Robert Christian would notably go on to play the trans character Ralph Agee in Norman Jewison's . . . And Justice for All (1979); he also performed for a year (1982) on the television soap opera Another World. He died of complications related to AIDS in 1983, during the early years of the epidemic. John Herbert wrote the role of Mona to be an autobiographical reflection. Hofsess quotes him as saying in reference to Mona: “C'est moi”; Hofsess, 81.

15. Sylvan Fox, “2 Ex-Convicts, Onstage, Tell of ‘Living Hell,’” New York Times, 13 July 1967, 29.

16. Gertrude Samuels, “A New Lobby—Ex-Cons,” New York Times, 19 October 1969, SM36.

17. McAvinchey, Caoimhe, Theatre & Prison (Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 50.

18. Carson, Neil, “Sexuality and Identity in Fortune and Men's Eyes,” Twentieth Century Literature 18.3 (1972): 207–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 207–8.

19. See also Linda Charlton, “The Terrifying Homosexual World of the Jail System,” New York Times 25 April 1971, 40; and David Rothenberg, “As If Imprisonment Itself Is Not Horrendous Enough,” New York Times, 29 January 1977, 19.

20. Dan Sullivan, “A Distressing Fortune and Men's Eyes,” New York Times, 24 February 1967, 29. Mario Montez was born René Rivera and was one of Andy Warhol's stars. He also worked with Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith in the 1960s and 1970s. See Senelick, Laurence, The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 423.

21. Edith Oliver, “Off Broadway” (reviews of People Is the Thing That the World Is Fullest Of, The Rimers of Eldritch, and Fortune and Men's Eyes), New Yorker, 4 March 1967, 132–4, at 134. The Village Voice reviewer also saw the play as sentimental but found it more effective than Oliver and Sullivan did. See Michael Smith, “Theatre Journal” (reviews of Fortune and Men's Eyes, MacBIRD!, People Is the Thing That the World Is Fullest Of, and June Bug Graduates Tonight, Village Voice), 2 March 1967, 21–4.

22. Rosalyn Regelson, “Up the Camp Staircase,” New York Times, 3 March 1968, D14.

23. Ronald Forsythe, “Why Can't ‘We’ Live Happily Ever After, Too?” New York Times, 23 February 1969, D1, D17. Ronald Forsythe is a pseudonym.

24. Margaret Harford, “Mineo's Star on Rise Again as Stage Director,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1969, F1–F2. Note that Harford is not talking about Mineo's production here but about the play itself. Mineo's production had yet to open.

25. Addison Verrill, review of Fortune and Men's Eyes, Variety, 19 June 1971, 17. Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968) is widely considered the first gay hit. It ran Off-Broadway for more than a thousand performances. It was made into a film, directed by William Friedkin, in 1970.

26. Marowitz, Charles, Burnt Bridges: A Souvenir of the Swinging Sixties and Beyond (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990)Google Scholar, 116.

27. Rich., review of Fortune and Men's Eyes, Variety, 13 November 1968, 153. (Reviewers in Variety were, for years, designated by four-letter appellations only.)

28. Michaud, Michael Gregg, Sal Mineo: A Biography (New York: Crown Archetype, 2010)Google Scholar, 259.

29. Dan Sullivan, “Three Plays Examine Dark Side of the Gay Life,” Los Angeles Times, 30 March 1969, T32.

30. Bill Edwards, review of Fortune and Men's Eyes, Daily Variety, 13 January 1969, 10.

31. See Harford, F9; Michaud, 255–78; and Jeffers, H. Paul, Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder, and Mystery (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000), 131–43Google Scholar.

32. Fredric L. Milstein, “Fortune Opens at Coronet,” Los Angeles Times, 11 January 1969, B7.

33. Sal Mineo quoted in Michaud, 261.

34. Ibid., 262.

35. Jeffers, 137.

36. Sullivan, “Three Plays Examine Dark Side,” T32.

37. Joe Bonelli quoted in Jeffers, 140.

38. Clive Barnes, “Question Marks at Stage 73,” New York Times, 23 October 1969, 55.

39. David De Porte, review of Fortune and Men's Eyes, Village Voice, 6 November 1969, 45. The reference to 42nd Street may be obscure in the twenty-first century. In 1969 the term had pornographic implications.

40. Richard Hummler, review of Fortune and Men's Eyes, Variety, 29 October 1969, 70.

41. Sandra Schmidt, “Author Disavows Fortune Version,” Los Angeles Times, 25 October 1969, B8.

42. John Herbert, “Men's Eyes Playwright Deplores Sex Emphasis in Sal Mineo Staging,” Variety, 8 October 1969, 66, 68.

43. Barnes, 55.

44. Hummler, 70.

45. Schmidt, B8.

46. Jeffers, 142.

47. De Porte, 45.

48. Cluchey's play was written as a part of the San Quentin Drama Workshop. It had its first reading in 1965 in the prison itself. The play premiered in December 1965 as part of the season of the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, which famously performed Beckett's Waiting for Godot for San Quentin's prisoners. It was directed by Kenneth Kitch. It was not widely known at the time and is still produced infrequently, but it also played at Arena Stage in 1969 in a production directed by Kitch. Short Eyes premiered in 1974 at the Theatre of the Riverside Church, moving to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York City as a part of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in May that year. It was directed by Marvin Felix Camillo. The 1977 film version of Short Eyes is available in several formats, including streaming online and on DVD (New York: Fox Lorber [Wellspring Media], 2003). It was released following a renewed interest in playwright Miguel Piñero, about whom a biographical film premiered in 2001 starring Benjamin Bratt. See also Piñero (New York: Miramax, 2002), DVD.

49. See Galsworthy, John, Justice: A Tragedy in Four Acts (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910)Google Scholar, esp. 81–4; and Bein, Albert, Little Ol' Boy: A Play in Three Acts (New York: Samuel French, 1935)Google Scholar.

50. This pattern also holds for prison dramas in the cinema. I am thinking particularly of Wallace Beery's doomed Butch in George W. Hill's The Big House (1930) and of the nineteen-year-old naïf-cum-criminal played by Eleanor Parker in John Cromwell's Caged (1950).

51. I am indebted to Mary Karen Dahl for this absolutely perfect phrase.

52. Human Rights Watch, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001)Google Scholar, 3. HRW's Joanne Mariner, the acknowledged author of that report (xiii), had used the identical passage in her Body and Soul: The Trauma of Prison Rape,” in Building Violence: How America's Rush to Incarcerate Creates More Violence, ed. May, John P. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000), 125–31Google Scholar, at 126.

53. Dickinson, Peter, Screening Gender, Framing Genre: Canadian Literature into Film (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 107. Dickinson further cites (234 n. 8) Wasserman's, Jerry introduction to his edited volume Modern Canadian Drama, rev. ed. (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1986)Google Scholar.

54. Sinfield, Alan, Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 125Google Scholar.

55. Why Sinfield includes Little Ol' Boy in his discussion is a bit of a mystery to me. The boys at the reformatory in Bein's play exhibit no queerness (or indeed any sexual desires at all) as far as I can tell, and the play is a prison-reform play like Justice and Not about Nightingales, not one that is primarily a document of prison life like Short Eyes or The Cage. What Little Ol' Boy is not is a play chiefly concerned with gender, as Sinfield implies.

56. Sinfield, 124. Williams's Not about Nightingales also includes a prison queen.

57. Anton Wagner's discussion of Canadian critics’ responses to the play is especially telling. See Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 38–9.Google Scholar

58. Martin Esslin, “Nudity: Barely the Beginning?” New York Times, 15 December 1968, D18.

59. Fox, 29.

60. Sullivan, “Three Plays Examine Dark Side,” T32.

61. Clinton T. Duffy quoted in Samuels, 46.

62. Kunzel, 153.

63. Piñero, Miguel, Short Eyes (New York: Hill & Wang, 1975), 65–9Google Scholar.

64. Cluchey, Rick, The Cage: A Play in One Act (San Francisco: Barbwire Press, 1970)Google Scholar, see esp. 18–22.

65. Pew Center on the States, “Prison Count 2010,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 1 April 2010, 5,, accessed 1 June 2013.

66. Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 28 February 2008, 6,, accessed 19 June 2013.

67. Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List (tenth edition),” International Centre for Prison Studies, 21 November 2013, accessed 30 January 2014.

68. Regelson, D14.