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Herbert, John

CTE photo
John Herbert

Playwright, born John Herbert Brundage in Toronto, Ontario, October 13, 1926; died June 22, 2001, in Toronto. Bill Glassco, who directed Herbert's best-known play, Fortune and Men's Eyes in 1969, has called John Herbert "the single most important figure of the decade" in the creation of Toronto's alternate theatre of the 1960s. His mother was a high school teacher, who studied painting with Arthur Lismer, and encouraged John to paint, sculpt, and costume design. As a youth in Toronto, Herbert saw touring stars like Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and was inspired by American films and actresses like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Joan Crawford.

While working in Eaton's advertising office in 1944, at the age of 18 he "passed" as a woman at an international fashion show in Toronto. By this time he was "madly in love with drag" and wore women's clothing in public. As he writes in his unpublished autobiography, Writing in the Sand, he and his roommate Dene "spent our money, earned at ordinary daytime jobs, on black dresses, smoky nylon stockings, sling-back suede shoes with open toes and sometimes ankle-straps, halfway-to-the-elbow gloves (yes, gloves were de rigeur for women then), large-brimmed or pillbox hats, usually black but trimmed with veils or huge silk tea-roses, swing back shorty coats (yes, in black), large purses and assorted costume jewelry from Woolworths, usually long strands of fake pearls or rhinestone chokers, glass and brass rings and chiffon scarves." At the age of twenty, Herbert and Dene were physically incarnating the fantasy life of the film stars they admired on screen. "Our faces were pure 'Hollywood' and our long finger nails brilliant as flawless rubies."

In the 1940s it was illegal for a male to be dressed as a woman in public, a violation called "Disguised by Night." Herbert's feminine physical appearance made him look like a high-class fashion model when dressed as a woman. As a man, he was easily spotted as a homosexual and was frequently taunted and even physically attacked by straight men and the police. In the fall of 1947, Herbert was attacked by a group of young thugs who tried to rob him. When the police intervened, his attackers falsely claimed that Herbert had solicited them for sex and testified to this effect in court. He was sentenced to four months imprisonment in the Guelph Reformatory, spending his 21st birthday in prison in October of 1947. Following his release in February of 1948, he was again arrested in drag and imprisoned at the Mimico Reformatory for "Gross Indecency." Corporal punishment was still practiced in Canadian prisons. Herbert's experiences in jail (he was beaten and raped in a gym storeroom at the Guelph Reformatory, and locked into an iron whipping machine with hip and ankle clamps and beaten on the buttocks by a guard wielding a piece of cowhide strap until he fainted at Mimico) provided him with the raw material for his drama Fortune and Men's Eyes.

But Herbert persisted in cross-dressing in prison, living the character of the rebellious "Queenie" inmate he would create 16 years later in Fortune and Men's Eyes. For the Guelph Reformatory's annual Christmas show in 1947, he secretly prepared a dramatic black evening dress with a piece of black satin twisted around his head like a Parisian headdress to cover his shaven head, and sang a Dietrich-like parody about love.

After his release he did a series of odd jobs across the continent before settling in Toronto in 1955. He studied at the New Play Society (1956-9) before founding and operating three separate alternative houses in Toronto.

John Herbert has also danced professionally, and lectured at Ryerson, Glendon College, York University, and the University of Toronto. He has also given writing and acting workshops.

Other plays include: Born of Medusa's Blood (1972), Omphale and The Hero (Forest Hill Chamber Theatre, Toronto, 1974), and Some Angry Summer Songs (1976-four short works).

Anton Wagner

John Herbert web site: http://npconsultants.com/johnherbert/

Last updated 2009-04-06