Remembering Harry

DON SHEWEY

When I look back on it, my relationship with Harry Kondoleon was very theatrical. I first encountered this creature named Harry Kondoleon in the summer of 1980. I was the theater editor and critic for the Soho Weekly News, and I went to a storefront theater in Chelsea to cover a showcase production of two one-act plays, one of which was Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise. That was his first show in New York, and I gave it a rave review. In January of 1981, he dropped me a postcard inviting me up to Yale to see Rococo in the Winterfest, which I did. We didn’t actually meet until May of that year, when we briefly shook hands in the lobby of the Cubiculo Theater, where Lyn Austin was putting on The Brides. I remember we met, again briefly, later that year at one of the first performances of Torch Song Trilogy up on the West Side. And the following spring, when Leslie Urdang produced three of his one-acts at John Jay College, I finally sat down for a long interview with him and wrote a full-page feature about him for the Village Voice. After that came the first Obie Award and Christmas on Mars; after that, his delirious, wonderful plays became known to the world. And I had the pleasure of becoming friends with Harry.

I don’t think I’m spilling any family secrets when I say that Harry wasn’t exactly easy to love. He could be extremely demanding, particular, contrary, suspicious, dissatisfied, and critical — of himself most of all. The only people he treated with less compassion than himself were service people, like waiters and hotel clerks, to whom he could be shockingly rude as if they were intentionally conspiring to make his life miserable.

Despite or perhaps because of all that, an extraordinary number of people would do anything for Harry that he asked. 

What was it about him that made you want to devote your life to him? The main thing for me I think was that Harry was a true original. I’ve never known anyone else who lived so relentlessly in the world of the imagination. He would never have said, like Christopher Isherwood, “I am a camera.” If anything, it was “I am a psychedelic mushroom.” His eye transformed everything it looked at, filling it with bright colors and feverish emotions or draining it of everything but the elegant geometry of ennui. He could write with incredible sophistication about sex and love and deviousness and suffering, sparing none of the details of what he called “the incurable hunger, the rampant churning, the pitiful diet of small kisses, handshakes, and telephone calls.” He wrote in a trance, plugged into the gods, but never from an all-knowing Olympian attitude. He wrote out of insatiable curiosity and almost willful not-knowing, what Zen teachers call “beginner’s mind.” He viewed human behavior like an inquisitive child forever asking “Why, Mommy? Why are they doing that?” It’s like there were several layers of skin or protective covering most of us have that Harry didn’t have. So the freshness of his insights were a constant source of amusement, joy, and fascination.

I loved talking about movies with Harry; he always saw things I didn’t. He once told me he loved Ellen Burstyn as an actress. I asked him what performance of hers he liked best. He said, “The Exorcist — that scene in the playground where she’s wearing dark glasses to cover her black eye. And she takes off the dark glasses and says, ‘I need a witch doctor.'” He had the recording of the movie of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and had practically memorized the whole play. His favorite line was when Elizabeth Taylor says, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I couldn’t agree with you more.” We both loved Geraldine Page, for things like the scene in Sweet Bird of Youth when she says to Paul Newman, “When monster meets monster, one monster must give in, and it will never-be-me!”

Harry cherished good lines and I think drew them out of people. He loved quoting a line one of his high school teachers said to him: “Harry Kondoleon, are you only wicked? Have you no mother?” He could also be forgetful, or pretend to be forgetful, when he would refer to “that Terrence McNally play, ‘Legs Apart'” or “that Edward Albee play, ‘All Dead.'”

One of the functions I played in Harry’s life was to make tapes for him. I would get an S.O.S. postcard from Yaddo saying “Help, I need a tape,” and he would make special requests, everything from Billie Holiday to trashy disco. Or he would call me up and say, “I heard this song on the radio. i want you to put it on a tape for me.” “What’s it called?” “I don’t know.” “Who’s it by?” “I don’t know.” “How does it go?” “Well, you know me, I can’t sing…duh-duh-duhduh-duh…” “Do you remember any of the lyrics?” “No. Well, something like, ‘Johnny combed his hair…'” And somehow, given these clues, I would do anything to find this song and put it on a tape. It would give me great pride to please his discerning tastes.

One theatrical occasion with Harry I’ll never forget was when I took him to the Metropolitan Opera to see Cosi fan Tutte in January of 1990. In the middle of the first act, he wrote something on his program and passed it to me. It said, “I’m HIV+ and I’ve been taking AZT for two years.” Needless to say, this revelation really heightened my concentration on the opera for the rest of the act. Later I kept trying to figure out how long he had planned to spring that particular scene on me.

It makes me sad and angry to think that there will be no more startling scenes, no more mad sparkling lines from Harry. An original is an original. There’s no replacing it. But when you repeat to other people your favorite Harry lines, and I hope you will, perhaps some delicate morsel of his divine inspiration continues to feed us.

As for Harry — where is he? Where is he? I feel like, as Eve said, he’s here. I can just hear him saying, “What, I have to croak to get the Newman?” I was going through my fat file of Harry things, and this image jumped out at me. Something he said through the character in Rococo appropriately named Aphrodite, for the Greek goddess of beauty and love, “There — just beyond the wall of rocks and the abandoned pavilions — don’t you see it? — a canoe on fire is waiting for me!”

Harry, keep burning!

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