George Birimisa (born 21 February 1924 - died 10 May 2012) was an American playwright, actor, and director who contributed to the explosion of gay theater in the mid-1960s during the early years of Off-Off-Broadway. His works feature sexually explicit, emotionally charged depictions of working-class homosexual men, often closeted, in the years before the Stonewall riots (1969) triggered a national and international gay rights movement. Contemporary Authors stated that "Birmisa's plays feature themes of human isolation, frustrated idealism, and rage against needless suffering, usually centered around homosexual characters.“ According to critic and playwright Michael Smith, Birimisa's writing “links the pain of human isolation to economic and social roots.” Birimisa remained an active playwright, author, editor, and teacher until the end of his life.
Early Life and Career
George Birimisa was born in Santa Cruz, California, one of five children of Croatian Americans, Charles and Anna (Gjurovich) Birimisa. While George was still a child, his father died as the result of injuries and imprisonment while under arrest after speaking on behalf of the Communist Party at a labor rally. Birimisa’s mother remarried but his stepfather rejected him and his two older brothers.
George spent most of his childhood in a Catholic orphanage (St. Francis Catholic School for Boys) then in a series of foster homes. His education ended with the ninth grade. He was briefly married to Nancy Linden, 1952 (divorced, 1961).
After serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, Birimisa supported himself with a series of jobs, including factory worker, bartender, disc jockey, health studio manager, television network page, prostitute, and Howard Johnson's counterman. In the latter position, he once refused service to Walter Winchell, who arrived after closing time. In retaliation, the powerful columnist ran an item alluding to the restaurant, on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, as a hangout for "vag-lewd" (i.e., homosexual) types. Winchell's punishment backfired: the publicity turned that branch of Howard Johnson's into a magnet for gays.
The incident convinced Birimisa, who had begun writing fictional accounts of his life, to start writing honestly about his sexuality. He became determined to write plays at age 41, while studying acting with Uta Hagen at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City.
Birimisa’s first produced play, Degrees (February 1966), a portrait of a gay relationship, premiered at Theater Genesis in the East Village, Manhattan. At the time, gay plays usually received no serious artistic or critical attention. “For years,” the playwright recalls, “even gay people would ask me, ‘When are you going to write your first real play?’” Degrees included autobiographical elements, which became stronger and more explicit in Birimisa's later works. Above all, he writes out of a need to tell the truth about his own life. "I don't agree that there are ‘shades of truth,’” he says. “We all know the truth, deep inside ourselves. As artists, we have a responsibility to reveal who we truly are, not to work in shades of gray. This truth includes our sexual beings.”
Birimisa directed and acted in his best-known Off-Off-Broadway play, Daddy Violet (1967), a semi-improvised indictment of the Vietnam War. Daddy Violet opened at the Troupe Theatre Club, premièred in June 1967 at the Caffe Cino, Joe Cino's famous coffeehouse in Greenwich Village that is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway. The play subsequently toured colleges in the United States and Canada and appeared at the 1968 International Theater Festival in Vancouver. Today, the playwright acknowledges that he wrote Daddy Violet as a parody of the abstract, improvisational theater then in vogue Off-Off-Broadway, an attempt to “out avant-garde everyone else.” For a revival at the Boston Conservatory in 2006, Birimisa revised the script to refer to the war in Iraq.
In 1969, Birimisa became the first openly gay playwright to receive a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. This enabled him to attend rehearsals for the London production of his first two-act play, Mr. Jello (April 1968), an arrangement of realistic vignettes that intersect to form a surrealistic social statement, with characters that include a female impersonator, a gay married man, and a hustler.
Georgie Porgie (November 20, 1968), another play of vignettes, illustrates the destructive force of self-hatred in gay men. The Village Voice wrote: “Birimisa’s dialogue is graceful and pointed, his characterization swift and penetrating, and astonishingly, his most agonizing scenes are often his most hilarious, as if he’s able to reach greater heights of pain and laughter by having the two lean on each other. … Birimisa’s considerable talent [is] as fluid as it is raw, as passionate as it is brutal.” The Best Plays of 1968–1969 listed Georgie Porgie as a highlight of the Off-Off-Broadway season. Contemporary Authors quotes a review in Variety calling Georgie Porgie “‘an advance in its field, and unlike many of its stage predecessors (Boys in the Band and Foreplay, to pick two), Birimisa's play minces few images or words in describing the plight of its characters. The coarse language and nudity are used for psychological effect as the characters face melodramatic situations,’ continued Variety, ‘while Birimisa permits the action to develop to logically and sometimes surprising conclusions.’” However, the play's male nudity and simulated sex killed a planned transfer to Off-Broadway, although a 1971 Off-Broadway revival of Georgie Porgie ran 107 performances.
At the same time, the revival highlighted mainstream critics' continued resistance to gay-themed subject matter, even after the Off-Broadway success of playwright Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968). One radio review stated, “Georgie Porgie at Greenwich Village’s Fortune Theatre is a play written by a homosexual, about a homosexual, with a special interest for homosexuals. This is not to say that it isn’t a serious effort. Indeed, it’s a well performed attempt to accurately portray the totality of the homosexual experience. … [C]hildhood ridicule, repulsion by parental heterosexual relations, brutality and beatings directed against homosexuals, falsified testimony by police vice squads, male prostitution, black and white homosexual attraction, biceps worship, marriage between homosexuals and women are all touched upon. … Georgie Porgie, then, is a limited appeal show since so many find the entire subject unpopular and distasteful.”
In 1976, Birimisa moved to Los Angeles, California. He dismisses the three plays he wrote there, A Dress Made of Diamonds (1976), Pogey Bait (1976), and A Rainbow in the Night (1978) as inferior to his earlier works. However, A Rainbow in the Night, an autobiographical portrait of two gay men living in New York City’s Bowery in 1953, won a 1978 Drama-Logue Award, and Pogey Bait, a comedy based on Birimisa’s wartime experiences as a gay Apprentice seaman, received subsequent productions in Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
Birimisa moved to San Francisco in 1980 and did not write another play for almost 10 years. Then he began a revised version of A Rainbow in the Night titled The Man With Straight Hair (1994), which premiered at the Studio at Theatre Rhinoceros.
A one-man play, Looking for Mr. America (1995), debuted at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint and subsequently played in New York at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Birimisa himself performed the show at age 71, in the role of a man recounting his lifelong sexual addiction. Dean Goodman's review noted that the play offers “an eloquent and touching portrait of a particular gay man’s journey through the last half of the 20th century.”
Viagra Falls (2005) received a concert performance at La MaMa E.T.C. on September 17, 2007, under the direction of Daniel Haben Clark. The play chronicles a young gay man's long-term sadomasochistic relationship with a closeted ophthalmologist.
With Steve Susoyev, Birimisa edited Return to Caffe Cino (2007), an anthology of essays and plays by writers associated with the Cino. The book won a 2007 Lambda Literary Award for theatre and drama.
Birimisa: Portraits, Plays, Perversions (2009), an anthology of collected works and essays about Birimisa's personal life and career, includes an unproduced screenplay, The Kewpie-Doll Kiss, which chronicles Birimisa's childhood loss of his father, abandonment by his mother, and discovery of his sexuality, subjects explored earlier onstage in A Dress Made of Diamonds.
George Birmisa taught Creative Writing beginning in 1983, sponsored by New Leaf Services. He received the 2004 Harry Hay Award in recognition of his writing and community service. He is currently writing an autobiography titled Wildflowers. His unpublished manuscripts are in the Joe Cino Memorial Library at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in New York.
- Smith, Michael Townsend, ed. (1972). More plays from Off-Off Broadway. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co. p. 35. "GEORGE BIRIMISA was born in Santa Cruz, California, on February 21, 1924. His first play, Degrees, was produced at Theatre Genesis in New York in February 1966. Daddy Violet opened at the Troupe Theatre Club, moved to the Caffe Cino, and then toured the United States and Canada. Mister Jello opened at the Playbox in April 1968, and was subsequently produced in London; (...)"
- Cynthia Laird (17 May 2012). "Gay playwright George Birimisa dies". San Francisco: Bay Area Reporter. Retrieved 28 May 2012.
- B.J. Harbin, K. Marta, R.A. Schanke, eds., The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005, pp. 63–66
- Contemporary Authors, Volume 89-92, Detroit, Gale Research Company, 1980, p. 62
- D. L. Kirkpatrick, ed., Contemporary Dramatists, 4th ed., Chicago, 1988, p. 54
- "Going to Watsonville with George". The Blue Elephant. 29 April 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
- Gareffa, Peter M., ed. (2003). Contemporary Authors New Revision Series: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide to Current Writers in Fiction, General Non-Fiction, Poetry, Journalism, Drama, Motion Pictures, Television, & Other Fields. Farmington Hills: Gale / Cengage Learning. pp. 49–50. ISBN 978-0-7876-6714-6.
- Birimisa, George (1982). "Sissy!". In Leyland, Winston (ed.). Anthology of Fiction/Poetry/Prose. Gay Sunshine Journal, no. 47. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press. p. 75. ISBN 0-917342-00-3. "This is an excerpt from an autobiographical novel in progress. The time is the autumn of 1933. The place is the outskirts of Watsonville, California. Mr. Dardona, the social worker, is taking the three Birimisa boys to St. Francis Catholic School for Boys."
- G. Birimisa, "Harriet Johnsons," in L. Baugniet, P. Sagan, eds., Birimisa: Portraits, Plays, Perversions, San Francisco, Sweetheart Press, 2009, pp. 295–297
- G. Birimisa, Degrees, in L. Baugniet, P. Sagan, eds., Birimisa: Portraits, Plays, Perversions, San Francisco, Sweetheart Press, 2009, pp. 27–41
- Harbin, Marta, Schanke, p. 63
- Baugniet & Sagan, front matter
- G. Birimisa, Daddy Violet (original version, 1967), Prism International (Vancouver), 7(3):1968; also in S. Susoyev, G. Birimisa, Return to the Caffe Cino, San Francisco, Moving Finger Press, 2007, pp. 195–210
- Susoyev & Birimisa, p. 195
- Baugniet & Sagan, p. 5
- G. Birimisa, Daddy Violet (revised 2006), in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 50–64
- G. Birimisa, Mr. Jello, in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 66–99
- G. Birimisa, Georgie Porgie, in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 101–135
- R. Wetzsteon, “Theatre Journal,” Village Voice, November 28, 1968, p. 46
- R.J. Schroeder, “The 1968–69 Off-Off Broadway Season,” in O.L. Guernsey, Jr., ed., The Best Plays of 1968–1969, New York, 1969, pp. 39–41
- Contemporary Authors, p. 62
- M.T. Smith, ed., More Plays from Off-Off Broadway, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1972, pp. 36–125
- R.J. Scholem, “Greater New York Radio Theatre Review,” WGSM Radio, August 11, 1971
- G. Birimisa, Pogey Bait, in Drummer 1977, 12:13 & 19; also in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 137–174
- G. Birimisa, The Man With Straight Hair, in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 176–216
- G. Birimisa, Looking for Mr. America, in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 221–237
- D. Goodman, “San Francisco Scene,” Drama-Logue, September 28, 1995, p. 24
- G. Birimisa, Viagra Falls, in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 239–280
- Susoyev & Birimisa
- G. Birimisa, The Kewpie-Doll Kiss, in Baugniet & Sagan, pp. 315–357
- George Birimisa's blog & photo archives
- Photo of Birimisa's play Daddy Violet at Caffe Cino, 1967
- Another photo from "Daddy Violet" at the Caffe Cino, 1967
- Photo from Birimisa's "George Porgie" at the Village Arena, 1960s.
- Photo of Birimisa in his play, "George Porgie" at the Cooper Square Theatre, 1968