Fortune And Men’s Eyes —a report from the set in a Quebec City prison

JOHN HOFSESS December 1 1970

Fortune And Men’s Eyes —a report from the set in a Quebec City prison

JOHN HOFSESS December 1 1970

Fortune And Men’s Eyes —a report from the set in a Quebec City prison




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, commonly and mistakenly referred to as “the problem of homosexuality in our prisons,” are often used as arguments for conjugal visits for inmates. 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.

The fact that sexual acts can occur for nonsexual reasons, that sex can be used to express contempt instead of affection, is the central psychological insight of John Herbert’s play Fortune And Men’s Eyes, and it is even more discernible in his screenplay for the film version currently in production in Quebec City.

Fortune And Men’s Eyes is the most famous Canadian drama of the last decade — it’s been translated into eight languages and performed in 14 countries — but unfortunately it became famous for the wrong reasons. It is not a prurient peepshow of prison sex lives, as it emerged in Sal Mineo’s off - Broadway production this year, nor, as other pedestrian productions have made it appear, is it merely the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of penal reform. It is rather a searing indictment of the dehumanizing process of our prisons, the J’Accuse! of a man who was there and suffered.

In 1947 John Herbert, then 19, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Guelph reformatory. He claimed that he had been robbed by a Toronto neighborhood gang, but the police didn’t believe him and refused to lay charges against the youths. Instead they prosecuted Herbert on the basis of countercharges by the boys that he had sexually propositioned them. “The boys were older than me,” says Herbert, “and I had a sissified appearance that was easy to exploit. Ten years before the hippies and unisex fashions any male like myself was automatically put in a straitjacket of prejudice.”

In 1963, when Herbert began writing Fortune And Men’s Eyes, it was to liberate himself from the weight of painful, obsessive memories: while in jail he had been severely beaten twice and on one occasion sexually assaulted by five inmates who afterward kicked him in the ribs, held a knife to his groin and threatened to castrate him if he ever told the truth. It would be hypocritical to

say that this wasn’t part of his legal sentence; it’s the unspoken part of many a young person’s sentence in a Canadian penal institution. Having been put on trial by society, Herbert now tipped the scales of justice and put society on trial in his writing.

“It was jail that ‘radicalized’ me,” he says. “I had always had a naïve trust in society, its laws and institutions. It took years to assimilate the shock of discovering how monstrous human nature could be beneath the mask of conventional society. Even when I was released I lost three jobs in succession when it was revealed I had a criminal record.”

Film director Jules Schwerin acquired the screen rights to Fortune And Men’s Eyes immediately upon seeing it produced in New York in 1967. Most Hollywood studios thought the play too controversial or, paradoxically, too uncommercial, and Schwerin too unknown to support. However, he managed to interest Lewis Allen of C i n e m e x International (Canada). Allen had previously produced Peter Brooks’ Lord Of The Flies and François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (difficult productions intrigued him) and, together with his partner Lester Persky, he made a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Canadian Film Development Corporation to

share the $700,000 production costs of Fortune And Men’s Eyes. They got permission to shoot the film in the 130-year-old Quebec City men’s prison, recently abandoned as a penal institution.

The cast that Persky and Schwerin recruited for Fortune seem at first to be odd choices, until one sees them working together. Wendell Burton, who made his film debut in The Sterile Cuckoo, plays Smitty, a raw, gentle, chameleonic youth who takes on the coloration of any environment in order to survive and discovers that survival in prison requires unmitigated degradation. Michael Greer, who saved The Gay Deceivers and The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart from unremitting banality, plays Queenie, a man who vents his splenetic disdain for women by caricaturing them. Zooey Hall, who had a feature role in the ABC-TV series The New People, plays Rocky, a lower - class thug doomed to a life of criminal recidivism. And Danny Freedman, a Toronto actor from Theatre Passe Muraille, portrays Mona, the most psychologically complex character in the film, of whom Herbert says — as Flaubert did with Madame Bovary — “C’est moi.”

Something special is happening on this set. Though none of 'the actors had previously known one another, they have developed an esprit de corps that no producer can buy and no director can order into existence. Their conversation, for instance, isn’t the usual bitchy backstabbing or superficial gossip of actors. They’re like participants in a psychoanalytic session, exchanging intimate details of their lives, as if Herbert’s play has inspired them to a rare degree of candor.

In the hotel room where they regularly dine Bob Dylan is singing “. . . to live outside the law you must be honest,” and Burton is telling the group: “When I was 19 a guy made a pass at me. I was completely revulsed and

got rid of him, even though he was a good friend. I was so naïve I didn’t even know what he was talking about.” Burton at 23 is the youngest of the four. Greer at 27 is the oldest. Arriving by plane from San Francisco, he tells them, “Wow, Air Canada is sure on an alcohol trip. Free drinks every hour. I think it’s how they tell time!”

In an unpublished preface to Fortune And Men’s Eyes, when it was still called Christmas Concert, Herbert wrote: “To help a man to help himself, someone must begin by trying to understand him, caring about what he is and why. Society’s ‘revenge’ routine is useless and damaging. Most men, struck, will strike back sooner or later. It’s an interminable process, slap after slap, blow for blow, a downward spiral for both individual men and society as a whole.”

Fortune And Men’s Eyes, which will likely open simultaneously in Toronto and New York next spring, is intended to stir the consciences of audiences; it has already drawn a conscientious response from those making it. The producers are working for one third of their usual fees, all the actors have accepted considerably less than their regular salaries. “The co-operation of Quebec prison authorities seems to be their way of compensation for the past evils of the system,”

says director Schwerin, who has been working on the project for three years and who regards Herbert’s work as being of the stature of Emile Zola’s and Henrik Ibsen’s.

“It’s only in the last year that I’ve become a respectable playwright,” says Herbert, pronouncing “respectable” with a full quotient of irony. “I’ve received offers from England and the United States for production of my new plays, but in Canada no major theatre group has approached me, not once in three years.” He pauses, his weary eyes brighten, and he dismisses Canada’s stuffy theatrical groups with a laugh. “I guess as far as they’re concerned I’m still in the jailhouse.” □


Entertaining Mr.

Sloane. In 1967 English playwright Joe Orton was murdered, the victim of a scenario grimly prophesied in his second play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, now brought to the screen as one of the year’s most chilling entertainments. Sloane (Peter McEnery) is a psychopathic youth who mercenarily grants his favors to Kath (Beryl Reid) and her brother Ed (Harry Andrews) while they grovel at his feet. Though Douglas H i c k o x, making his debut as director, and screenplay writer Clive Exton have taken considerable liberties with the play and end the film with a mock wedding ceremony in which Sloane marries his two paramours, Orton’s menacing suggestion that eventually Sloane will kill one or both of them is still retained. Orton created out of homosexual self-hatred a misanthropic vision of the world that in Entertaining Mr. Sloane gives one the sensation of being lured into a venus flytrap; beneath the play’s clever malevolence, peppered with black wit, the shadow of Orton’s death lurks like Edgar Allan Poe’s omnipresent raven and, as Poe wrote, “from out that shadow . . . (his) soul shall be lifted — nevermore.” □