Interview: Playwright Robert Patrick on Caffe Cino, "Negative Narcissism," and How to Make Money Reviewing Porn

Photo (c) Terry Talley

Back in the glorious early days of Off-Off-Broadway theatre, Robert Patrick was one of the movement's biggest and most reliably entertaining playwrights. After his breakout The Haunted Host at Joe Cino's seminal Caffe Cino, Patrick dished out several short and long plays including the reverse-order romance Still/Love, the Marlo Thomas commission My Cup Ranneth Over, and the Broadway hit and actor's monologue goldmine Kennedy's Children.

Patrick currently lives in Los Angeles and is trying to pull together as much Caffe Cino memorabilia as he can for his Cino archives, honoring Joe Cino's achievements and the artists he inspired. If you have anything that he can scan -- he'll happily return the originals promptly -- he invites you to write to him at with "Cino" in the subject line.

We've loved his work since we first read Robert Patrick's Cheap Theatricks years ago, and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions while we had him on the line.

Most students of New York theatre history know Caffe Cino was a place where some plays and playwrights got famous on the cheap. If that's all they know, what are they missing?

The Caffe Cino was the first Off-Off Broadway theatre. Theatre had been slow to enter the modern era; literature and painting had entered it a hundred years before. Artists had decided that they must paint or write as they wished, whether their work sold or not. But theatre lingered behind, because it takes a great many people to do theatre, and a space to do it in... 

At the Caffe Cino, no admission was charged, no one was paid, critics seldom came, and the cops were paid off. We were free to do plays as the Impressionists had painted: experimentally, individually, and responsibly.

You're frequently mentioned (including at Wikipedia) as a "gay playwright." Does that make you feel proud, pigeon-holed, misunderstood, well-understood, or what?

Writing gay plays was just one of many freedoms Joe Cino allowed us. In fact, the novelty of the gay subject matter was never really mentioned among us. Our first gay plays weren't about being gay. Lanford Wilson's The Madness of Lady Bright is about aging and idealism. The Haunted Host is about self-respect and co-dependence. William M. Hoffman's Goodnight, I Love You is about adjustment to hopeless love...

We used gay characters because that's what we were and what was in front of us, just as the Impressionist painters painted the metropolitan and rural life they saw around them... When audiences reacted to our "gay plays," we learned that the subject matter was important to them, and became ourselves politicized about our world and our work.

Do you think there's anyone in the theatre today doing anything as daring as what was done at the Cino?

I retired from theatre in 1990, and know nothing of what's happening. But just doing a play today at all (outside of international Broadway-scale adaptations of old movies!) is in itself daring, not to say foolhardy, in this era when all opinions and insights are instantly categorized and neutralized by the media-mess in people's mangled minds...

Today's Americans, battered into self-hatred by commercials and self-protectedness by news, are unable, like all threatened and sick people, to focus on anything but themselves. They can't really see or hear plays. That's why they prefer to see what they've seen before... I call the condition "negative Narcissism," and I am afraid it is pandemic.

Your Still/Love, with its reverse-order structure, preceded Pinter's Betrayal by several years. Ever wonder if he got the idea from you?

Once Off-Off had spread the idea of experimental theatre, and playwrights began exploring the form, playwrights in various places were very likely to make similar experiments. The same thing happens in science.

Ever come out here to visit? What do you think of the old town now?

On my very few and very brief visits to New York -- limited to the Village -- I find myself in a  Disneyland simulacrum of the world I knew, not at all unpleasant.

Are you writing anything now?

I make my living by writing reviews of gay male adult movies.

(!) How does one get such a gig?

Study a publication's format and send in a sample review

Do you do any other writing?

I write a great deal of what is called "occasional verse" which circulates among my friends. Here's a sample which sums up my current life:

I wouldn't mind to marry,
But don't mind solitary.
It's rather one with me.
I like to give enjoyment,
So stick to my employment
While Time has fun with me.

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