H. M. Koutoukas writes and directs plays. Although there’s been no full scale public production in about four years, he’s had 150 equity approved extravangas and 40 one-act pieces produced. Years ago, he had a workshop called “The School for Gargoyles” where such people as Harvey Fierstein, Gerome Ragny, James Rado, and Tom O’Horgan, among others, were the gargoyles who since have graduated into statues.
“I’m everybody’s cheerleader,” he says.
I went to his home late one afternoon for this interview; the candles in the overhead chandelier were burning and the place had that Gothic antediluvian look. I found Koutoukas and George Afamis, the handsome Cyprian, brewing coffee and reading. We laughed a lot throughout this interview. Koutoukas is very quick.
Cookie Mueller Shall I ask you questions?
H. M. Koutoukas Whatever you want.
CM I do have a couple of questions. Is the white in your hair real?
HK Bleached. I decided to look the way I feel. Everyone thought I was dying my roots black. Some people get their blond hair by squeezing cats over their heads.
CM I was thinking the last time I saw you you looked like Auntie Mame in mourning. You know, the sophisticated widow look. But I see now part of it is magenta.
HK This is my Christian hairdo. Santa’s helper falls into the color Xerox machine, I’m working my way toward the Bride of Frankenstein look. Was that a question? Yes, my hair is real.
CM This issue of BOMB …
HK Oh, I was the first dramatist to bomb a theatre where my play was showing.
CM Yeah, oh yeah. What about that?
HK Well it was a play where the audience had a chance to leave with the cast or stay and hear the last monologue. The backers wanted it cut. They just came up to me, me, the writer, director, and maniac in charge and said that this scene wouldn’t be done. I said, “It’s my play and I’m directing it and you’re telling me l can’t bomb the theatre?” And they said, “Well, it’s rather expensive, Mr. Koutoukas. You need a new theatre each night.” They had some sort of fear of the people in the audience with heart conditions. Why do people with heart conditions go to my plays instead of to the hospital? I just felt it was an important scene. It was gorgeous. Exquisite. Yellow smoke. New York audiences are the best. They stayed.
CM When did you first start writing?
HK I always wrote. Suicide notes from the earliest age. They’re my great specialty. I still couldn’t get my parents’ attention so I got a radio program … I was nine … national radio with a thing called Talking Leaves. It started as a little local thing.
HK A little town called Endicott. It’s upstate. 6000 people. A little shoe town.
CM So when did you start writing plays?
HK I wrote my first play because it was either that or jump out a window. Ondine and Martin Proctor who owns Unicorn City both told me to send it to this contest and I did it as a joke, It was the National Arts Club Competition and there were all these heavy duty writers. In a few months I was the recipient of the National Arts Award so I thought I had hold of a new thing here. It was better than writing bad checks. Although bad checks are the purest form of poetry.
CM So you followed through on that talent?
HK Yes. People who don’t do that are the people you can’t help.
CM That’s the biggest sin, I feel, too.
HK Yes, that and talking about art all night. When I started writing plays I couldn’t stop. I wrote a play a day because I learned that one thing … you have to sit down and finish projects. It’s the hardest thing to learn.
CM Didn’t you tell me you were writing a five pound play?
HK Oh yeah. I’m also writing a thing called the Afamis Notes and The Brown Book. I try to find five things each day to write about. It’s a bitch but I think it will teach me to write prose. I’m not aiming at a great work of fiction … I’m aiming to get one simple sentence after another.
CM You never wrote prose?
HK No, the theatre is wonderful. Someone walks out on stage and puts the vase on the table. But when you write prose you have to write the vase, the enameling on the vase, the period of cloisonne. You have to write the shepherd and the shepherdess, and what they’re wearing. Then you have to adjust each flower. It’s brutal.
CM I write prose. I find it difficult to write plays.
HK One doesn’t write plays—they’re written. You find the characters, then you get different hats and the characters pace from room to room in different hats. It’s much simpler.
You have to learn to listen to write plays. But since they fixed my radiator, I’m not hearing so many voices lately.
CM Did you see Eraserhead?
CM It’s all about people in radiators.
HK Would you like another light on you? Because I read in Ruth Draper that a yellow light cures anything.
CM I wonder if that’s true. Isn’t yellow for paranoia?
HK I think they discovered that there’s no such thing as paranoia. Now it’s called heightened awareness.
CM Do you know that thing about pink?
HK It’s the navy blue of India.
CM Putting people in pink rooms weakens their muscles.
HK Weakens their muscles? That explains it. I’m still trying to figure out what is fact. Because science gives us facts which are really like what old ladies told our mothers in laundromats.
CM In all religions every color has a symbolic significance.
HK I stick to black. Black and blue. I’m getting to like the terrorist colors though.
CM Once in a play you wrote, did you drop amphetamines from the balcony on the audience?
HK No, no … that was a play in which God gives up his personal stash of amphetamines because the Cobra Cult can’t sleep … they die without cobra food. I had nothing, of course, to do with it. (laughter) But some dandies took the glitter and replaced it with amphetamines. We had several novels written about that play. The audience couldn’t stop writing when they got home. Of course, in those days it was legal.
CM When was this?
HK I’m not sure of the date. It was originally done at Carnegie Hall and there were several sleepless nights for the Carnegie Hall people who went to concerts because every time there was a high note some would come off the gilding. Are you in Peter Hujar’s new book?
CM No, but you are.
HK Here it is.
CM I always feel uncomfortable in front of a still camera.
HK Well, cameras steal your soul. You get a feeling you’re being hunted. It’s like being analyzed. That’s why Rilke would never get analyzed. He thought if they got rid of the demons the angels would go, too.
CM Do you have any dates for your new play?
HK At the Theater for the New City, maybe. Valentine dayish. But I have no dates. You don’t begin dating until you’re forty.
CM You know the only play that I’m really familiar with of yours is the Butterfly Encounter. And it was really Greek to me. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean literally. The whole structure was like ancient Greek drama. For instance the chorus that talked to the actors and the audience.
HK In the beginning of my career I tried to write a play in each of the great styles of theater. I tried a restoration play in Turtles Don’t Dream. I did a Medea which took place in a laundromat. The old Greek plays are like telegrams. You know … STOP! Jocasta’s hung herself! STOP! My new play is called Disarming Attachments. I was going to write a little one-act nuclear freeze play but then I realized how the nuclear thing affected the family and what we are attached to. The things that would be broken. The things that are threatened that can’t protect themselves. I realized it’s not one act.
CM You’re really doing a lot of work.
HK I’m writing about “simple exchanges” and “terminal sex.” People who want to die while having sex. This is quite a plague. Howard Smith promised me he’d do some research on it. But you know the Village Voice. They haven’t been able to cut the mustard since …
CM The ’60s.
HK I don’t know what’s going on now. Do you? Life-wise?
HK The way we artists go, the rest of the world will go. The artist is always going 20 years before. We’re not helpless, we’re hopeless. Since the Second World War. All those people went to concentration camps looking for new jobs and showers. Is life more important than death? I’m Greek. I’ll die for the publicity.
CM I sort of believe that everyday you live past twenty is punishment. One should die young for painting or a cause or in a terrible trapeze accident. But now they’ve extended our life spans. But I’ll never die. I’ll just go on talking. (Koutoukas admitted to me earlier that he didn’t reach true babblehood until he was 25.) They’ll put the artist’s brains in tubes.
HK But, please bury me on a spit so every time there’s a bad theater production I’ll turn automatically.
CM The artists are now the technologists.
HK Yes, they go to their machines. One Con Edison black out or an SS invasion and that art is gone. There is one reason why theatre goes on … you can even have theatre in concentration camps. Sartre talks about how when he was in a concentration camp … he was in a unit that did entertainment. There has always been theatre.
Did you know that the government in Ancient Greece destroyed many of the plays that upset them; if the audience was made to weep for the enemy, for instance or the play was slightly subversive. There’s only the compromising ones left. Sophocles talks about many plays we’ve never seen.
CM Who? Socrates?
HK No. Socrates was the child molester. Sophocles.
CM I read somewhere that just in 1958 a play by Menander was dug up. I forget how to pronounce his name. Men … Mem …
HK Mamet? David Mamet was dug up? They should put him back in the jar.
CM Tell me about your new play.
HK The play opens with this ruined Greek philosopher. Whenever he smiles his teeth are so bad that you see the Acropolis. He lives in a Greek take out paper cup with the Acropolis on it. And then there’s Malvina Falkland who has buck teeth: she throws them into the ocean so the Penguins can escape to the Antarctic. She is in love with this Ghetto type character; he’s a vineyard owner and then Attila the Hun comes in wearing carrier-ship battle shoes and she dances with the five headed general who always talks you to death. Then there’s the boy who’s just seen the abyss and can’t get over it.
CM What would you say about your style?
HK None of my plays are stylistically the same.
CM You wrote plays for the Cino Cafe.
HK Everybody went through the Cino Cafe. They went through there because once this lawyer who wanted to do one of my plays on Broadway, told me that life was a compromise so I pretended to go to the bathroom and left. I did the play at the Cino. Cino would come to photograph playwrights and say, “Do you have a play for me this week?” There was a need for a different play each week, so you’d have a play ready.
CM Would you compromise now?
HK I don’t think I could.
CM Well then you have to be your own backer.
HK You can become one of those maniacs that feel they have to do everything. I’ve always wanted to do a play like that; the audience comes in, you’re selling the tickets, then you become the usher and when the curtain goes up you’re all the characters. During intermission you’re selling popcorn.
CM People always say you’re self-destructive. Do you feel you are?
HK It’s part of the show. My plays have always opened the day they’re supposed to, always run their runs. But now, if mediocrity gets in the way … You remember in Butterfly Encounterthey wanted to cut it. Well what the hell am I in experimental theatre for? One of the reasons I’ve always stayed with experimental theatre is that you can write five hour plays. You can write about centipedes that live in sneakers and turn out to be madmen. I’ve lasted a long time to be considered a self-destructive person. But I don’t know whether I’m destructive or not … I’m willing to listen to criticism.
CM It’s almost a proverb … great artists are self-destructive.
HK I’m worried about the young playwrights.
HK Because there used to be a place where plays could be given a chance.
CM Do you think there’s a new style of writing?
HK I’m working on it. The great writers invented new ways of putting things down on paper. Emily Dickinson invented inner rhymes. I just hope that our new writers can give us beautiful questions. While dying, Gertrude Stein was asked, What’s the answer to it all? … she just looked up and said, What’s the question? We’re all going to end up swinging on that question mark.
Jan. 5th, 1983