Remembering Harry

ROBERT BRUSTEIN

Harry entered the Yale School of Drama in 1978, the last year I was there as Dean, and he immediately established himself one of the wittiest and most audacious playwrights ever to endure the rigors and miseries of New Haven. I missed his last two years as a student and always regretted it. I would have loved to have been a close observer of his stunning development, because he struck me as one of those precious discoveries — part satirist, part surrealist, part cabaret artist — that come along so seldom in our theatre to keep us happy while reordering our sense of priorities and moral postures. His aesthetic was influenced by what I had come to think of as the Yale style, collectively patented and copyrighted by Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, Wendy Wasserstein, Keith Reddin, and others: totally irreverent, mischievous, and howlingly funny, but issuing from a deep core of personal pain.

That pain, I should add, was always brilliantly disguised because most of us thought of Harry primarily as a merry man. We had a lively correspondence, which grew especially active towards the end of his life, and nowhere in his letters do I find anything but a buoyant and exuberant tone, even when he knew he was dying. He loved writing, and being produced. Most of his letters are accounts of plays being composed or staged, awards and compensations being tendered quite properly to this gifted man, writing residencies in attractive places like Be1lagio, MacDowell,. and Yaddo, and finally the pleasure he was taking in the publication of his new novel, Diary of a Lost Boy. “Come to the book party. Big,” he wrote. “I’m blowing my own horn. I’ll close before you vomit or I have another seizure.”

The awfulness of the disease he had contracted was never, except in those last ghastly, dreadful months, the cause of recrimination or despair. It was even less the source of self-pity. Rather, he knew how to turn his own suffering into an increasingly original form of dramatic art, beginning with Zero Positive, which may very well be his masterpiece, but also permeating his novels and his splendid late play, The Houseguests, where disease and debility become the occasion for the most outrageous scenes of farce.

He was suffering from a plague that had taken away a large number of his predecessors and contemporaries at Yale in what Tennessee Williams called in another context that “endless parade to the graveyard”: Peter Evans, Harold de Felice, Bobby Drivas, Tony Holland, Peter Schifter, countless others — a plague that continues to eat its way through the body of the creative community. He knew he was doomed, but he faced his death with extraordinary bravery, incredible dignity, and unparalleled wit. He kept the dogs of death at bay by continuing to write, and what he wrote was enough to put a smile on the face of the Grim Reaper. Harry literally said “Fuck you” to death, and in that way managed not only to endure through works that will undoubtedly continue to live in American dramatic literature, but he made it easier for his friends to witness his suffering. Harry’s sense of life as fun and his ebullient cheerfulness were reflected on his face and is best suggested not in photographs but in the impish self-portrait he painted as cover art for Diary of a Lost Boy — arched eyebrows, huge almond eyes decorated with large black strokes representing eyelashes, and a full mouth tilted in the suggestion of a smile. He went to his grave smiling, leaving us bereft, but still proud to have had such a person among us. He is still among us, and always will be, bringing us through literature and memories a little touch of Harry in the night.