I have no idea why, but at the tender age of 7 years old, I staged and acted in my very first play. It was titled The Fall of the Roman Empire. The time was 1959.
I cast my two brothers as Roman centurions and I cast my cousin Jane as Attila the Hun. My other cousins made up the barbarian hordes. I, of course, was the Pope.
The only performance of the play occurred in my Aunt Edna's third-floor apartment on Bleeker and McDougal Streets in Greenwich Village on Easter Sunday.
I made the costumes, which consisted of plastic swords and paper hats, and I set up the chairs in my aunt's living room which faced the Purple Onion Cafe across the street where the Hell's Angels hung out. I then told my relatives to sit and watch as I directed my brothers and cousins to take their positions.
There was a short but brutal battle scene where the Huns overran the Roman soldiers and Attila sat poised to sack Rome.
That was when I made my entrance. Wearing a very tall white hat (I was the pontiff) and a long robe (a gold towel), I slowly yet proudly walked over the dead bodies covering the battlefield (whispering to my brothers not to move) as I carried the official decree (a very long white piece of paper). I then handed the pontifical decree to Attila (Cousin Jane) asking him (her) to spare Rome.
I must have read in school how a certain Pope saved Rome from being sacked by offering Attila an enormous amount of gold. That story provided the inspiration for staging my play.
I have no idea if the play was a success since no one in my family has ever spoken about it to me since. However, the greatest irony of it all was that a little less than 20 years later my first written play was produced and reviewed at the Provencetown Playhouse on McDougal Street—a short two blocks north of my Aunt Edna's apartment. That play was called Nero and was a part of a trilogy about the fall of Rome. The other two plays were called Hadrian's Hill and Night Over the Tiber. Oddly enough, Hadrian's Hill received a wonderful review in the Village Voice. However, the critic said I was a wonderful poet and needed more work as a dramatist.
The following summer I quickly got the writing and acting bug and announced in my Queens neighborhood that I would be writing, producing, directing and acting in a detective/gangster play.
I wrote up pamphlets and quickly cast my best friends Mike, Frankie and Czak and my two brothers as wicked gangsters out to kill the hero detective—played by me. Our costumes consisted of fedoras, sports jackets and play pistols with authentic-looking holsters.
I charged a nickel for a performance and set up folding chairs in my backyard in the alleyway facing a truck lot and Mount Zion cemetery. The backstage dressing room was a small space behind the one-story wooden shack my father and his frinds had built in our backyard.
As soon as the money was collected by my mother and the audience was ready, I stepped out into the backyard using the laundry hanging from my mother's clothesline as a backdrop. I then introduced myself as the hero, star, writer, and, all in all, producer of the coming event. The play consisted of everyone else in the cast (gangsters) trying to gun me down as I walked down the quiet streets of Everytown USA. In the end, I shot them all dead, collected their weapons and showed the audience my detective badge.
I don't remember having stage fright, I don't remember any applause, I don't remember any of the actors thanking me for their parts, nor do I remember anyone ever bringing the event up again.
I visit the backyard frequently since my mother still lives in the house I grew up in and I wonder why it took me nearly 20 years to write my first play.
I think it was because a couple of years later, thanks to a pretty girl in my grammar school class named June, I wrote my first poem. She was only 13 but her 18-year-old boyfriend was in a faraway place called Vietnam fighting a war and he had written her a poem and sent it to her in a letter. For some reason, I still don't know why, she showed me the poem.
When she did, something went off in my brain. I felt as if I had always known poetry though I don't ever remember seeing a poem ever, before that day. Once in my room that day I wrote my very first poem. It was called "D-Day" and it was about the Normandy invasion of World War II written from the prospective of a 40-year-old man. The opening lines were:
"Today I am forty years old
and my story has never been told"
I know the poem was about my friend Ralphie's father, Sam, who was hit by a mortar shell on Ohama Beach and lived with a brutal wound in his leg.
I started writing poetry nearly every day after that and I eventually went on to write and publish two volumes of poetry before I turned 30.
Looking back, it sems to me now that playwrighting had to take a back seat.