The Madness of Lady Bright is a short play by Lanford Wilson, among the earliest of the gay theatre movement. It was first performed at Joe Cino's Caffe Cino in May 1964 and went on to tour internationally, appearing in revivals to the present day. It has been cited as the first Off-Off-Broadway production to receive mainstream critical attention, and earned its original lead actor, Neil Flanagan, an Obie award. The play, substantially a monologue delivered by its aging drag queen protagonist, has been characterized as among the first to portray gay characters in an unsensational way, and as one of the last of Wilson's oeuvre to make substantial use of experimental devices before his adoption of a more realist approach.
The Madness of Lady Bright is among Wilson's earliest produced plays, following Home Free!, and So Long At The Fair. It was the first of his works to present explicitly gay themes, and has been called one of the earliest American plays by any author to focus predominantly on gay material. Critics have noted that the play contains one of Wilson's last uses of such experimental devices as the presence of "unreal" characters, before electing for a more realist style from the mid-1960s onwards. The "unreal" characters here are two figures, named only as Boy and Girl: they both give voice to the criticisms Leslie has encountered throughout his life, and represent a range of dramatis personae - old friends and lovers - whom he recalls.
Wilson wrote the play during slow shifts while working as a receptionist at the Americana Hotel (today the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers) in New York. Responsible for the low-traffic night-time reservations desk, he had ample time to produce his manuscript on the hotel's typewriter, an experience he likened to Tennessee Williams's practice of writing while working selling subway tokens from a booth. A desk-clerk colleague of his at the Americana was purportedly among the inspirations for protagonist Leslie Bright. Wilson cited his dislike of the play Funnyhouse of a Negro, by Adrienne Kennedy, as among his influences in writing the work:
[S]eeing this silly black girl flip out in her room was the most uninteresting idea. I'd just as soon see some screaming faggot go mad, and I said, 'wait a minute!'
The play constitutes a monologue delivered by the titular aging drag queen Leslie Bright, who reflects on the passions of his life - both his own attempts at self-invention, modelled on such iconic figures as Miss America, Judy Garland, and Venus, and the encounters and loves that have shaped him. As the play progresses, Bright - alone in his New York room on a hot summer's day - descends gradually into madness.
Journalist Anne Marie Welsh describes The Madness of Lady Bright as the first contemporary play in which "gay characters were portrayed as humans, not as villains, depressives or deviants", though a similar claim has been made for Doric Wilson's Now She Dances!, a reimagination of Oscar Wilde's Salome, produced three years earlier at the Caffe Cino. Scholars have cited it as among the works that formed the nucleus of the nascent gay theatre movement in 1960s New York, prefiguring such works as Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band. Other analysts have contended that, because it treats the characters' homosexuality unsensationally—as background and context, rather than as integral to the play's plot -- Madness should not be considered "a gay play". Critics have seen among its preoccupations both isolation and desperation, and report older, female audience members approaching Wilson to tell him that they construed the play's theme as "not homosexuality but loneliness."
The play opened in May 1964 at Caffe Cino in New York's Greenwich Village. The establishment's proprietor, Joe Cino, was himself openly gay, and was to become regarded as the father of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement. The director was Denis Deegan: Wilson had originally wanted his friend Neil Flanagan to direct the play, but when Flanagan expressed a preference for playing the lead part Wilson instead took on Deegan, who had also directed his earlier play So Long At The Fair. Wilson was quickly impressed by the director's interpretation of the text and by his suggestion for music, the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto Number 23, to accompany the work.
The show was a popular success, Caffe Cino's first significant hit and the first production it was to extend and then revive. It ran for 205 performances before the cafe's closure, following the suicide of proprietor Cino.
The American Theater Project toured the show in Europe during 1966, performing it at Notting Hill's Mercury Theatre. It has played also throughout the US, in Canada, and in Singapore.
In 2014 a 50th anniversary staging was held in Glasgow, Scotland as part of the Glasgay! Festival. The production featured Michael-Alan Read as Leslie Bright, Lynnette Holmes as Girl and Martin Mcbride as Boy. Co-produced by Glasgow's Cardboard Fox Theatre Company and Glasgay!, the show was praised by reviewers. It was directed by Phil Bartlett (and restaged by Helen Cuinn). The production was notable for its stripped back design, using only a mattress and sheets on which the names of Leslie's lovers were scrawled.
As one of the first plays to depict an explicitly gay protagonist, the work was characterized by some commentators as shocking even to the avant-garde (and predominantly gay) audiences at Caffe Cino. Other accounts, though, have stressed its role in moving gay plots and characters into the mainstream of theatre culture: the show was also the first Off-Off-Broadway production to receive mainstream critical coverage; it had a positive review in the New York Post and was later covered by the Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and others. The Voice called the play "poignant and funny", possessed of "more than routine interest". The Boy and Girl characters, it felt, where too "smoothly generalized" to succeed, but overall it deemed the writing strong. Later critics compare protagonist Leslie Bright to the fading belles found in the works of Tennessee Williams, suggesting an echo in Bright's final hallucination of doctors coming to inter him of the conclusion of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The original lead actor, Neil Flanagan, won an Obie award for his portrayal of protagonist Leslie Bright.