The Prison Playwright
By Skip Kaltenheuser

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999


Suspended from a long cord, the swinging light came so close to Rick Cluchey's head that with every swing it nearly singed his wild hair. The packed audience watching SCENA Theatre's Samuel Beckett Festival in Washington, D.C., sat stunned, wondering whether this was planned. Cluchey silently cursed the stagehand who had tied the knot in the cord, the knot that had slipped and dropped the light into orbit three feet lower than expected, turning one of Sam Beckett's masterstrokes into a moment of real danger.

But technical glitches in dramatic stagings have always haunted Rick Cluchey. In March of 1955, he flubbed his first and only Los Angeles performance in the real-life theater of armed robbery. It went like this: He was nervous, as for any performance. He emerged, as rehearsed, from hiding in his victim's car. He brandished his gun to drive home the message that he meant business. His audience was attentive, handing over eight hundred dollars and a diamond ring. But as Cluchey slipped the .44 Magnum, the key prop in this film noir-like moment, back into his pants, it discharged. Car windows up, the .44 Magnum was a cannon. The bullet went down and ricocheted off a spring in the car seat, grazing the victim in the arm. The plot rumbled downhill from there for the desperate twenty-one-year-old, fresh out of the Army, an eighth-grade dropout, jobless and desperate for cash, with a wife and two children.

"The gunshot shocked me," Cluchey says, "and I ruled out a life of crime before returning home to Chicago." Six months later, he fell out with a partner-in-crime after a drunken car party in a snowstorm. The partner had gotten rough with a couple of hookers, who sliced him up a bit before departing, leaving him bleeding and holding one of their wigs as a memento. He was pissed and didn't care for Cluchey's admonitions and attempts to calm him. A hard-knuckle brawl began. Shouting. Blood stains in the snow. The cops showed up within minutes. Both men were jailed for rowdy behavior. Cluchey maintained an alias of "Henry Davis" for several days, until his partner 'fessed up and turned him in for the robbery back in Los Angeles. He was shipped back to southern California. Then came court.

Cluchey was officially charged with "bodily harm while being moved under duress during an armed robbery." As the victim had driven on for several blocks, the crime was construed as kidnapping, kicking in California's "Little Lindbergh Law." Prosecutor J. Miller Levy was an ambitious and high-profile hardcase who had executed Barbara Graham and Carl Chessman. To Cluchey's amazement, Levy wanted to gas him, too.

For fifteen months, Cluchey waited it out between brawls in county jail. The victim, who was out of the hospital in a day and whose diamond ring had been returned, maintained that the shooting was an accident and actually tried to help Cluchey. But the hotel chain on whose property the crime took place wanted a lesson taught. The judge rankled the prosecutor by refusing to execute Cluchey, who had no criminal record. Instead, Cluchey got life without chance of parole in San Quentin Prison. That's about as bleak as it gets.

"My life should have been over," says Cluchey.

San Quentin wasn't famed for its cultural offerings. In the 1890s, Sarah Bernhardt did a one-act play in San Quentin's lower yard. That was it for showbiz until Waiting for Godot arrived in 1957, via the San Francisco Actors Workshop. The captive audience of twelve hundred included Cluchey, who'd "never been in a theater, not even to rob one," he says. "I saw myself on that stage, amid the two tramps commenting, and the baronial character hauling another guy with a rope around his neck." And, of course, waiting for something to happen. For Martin Esslin, author of The Theatre of the Absurd (1973), the reaction to the first performance of Waiting for Godot and the perceptive reviews of it in the prisoners' newspaper, The San Quentin News, was proof that "Beckett was not a writer for highbrows."

Cluchey was a prison boxer, which kept the bullies and rapists at bay. Trained in prison as a dental technician, he became popular in a land of bad teeth. Still, those pursuits fell short of making a life sentence interesting. Godot still on his mind a year after, Cluchey asked the warden for permission to start a prison theatrical troupe. The warden gave the go-ahead, providing there were no female impersonations—female roles being considered too dicey an illusion for an easily provoked audience.

Alan Mandell, the former general manager for the Lincoln Center and consulting director at the Los Angeles Theater Center, had acted in the first performance of Godot in San Quentin. Cluchey and Mandell co-founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop (SQDW). Mandell began a long mentorship with Cluchey. For more than six years, he made weekly visits to San Quentin, teaching directing, acting and writing.

Says Mandell, who recently performed on Broadway with Holly Hunter in Impossible Marriage, "It was as though a light had gone on, and Rick suddenly found the key to open the door to his life." Fittingly, the first SQDW production was Godot—the invitees included the San Francisco Actors Workshop. Mandell and the troupe worked their craft against the wall of prison noise that never abates. Prison productions were not elaborate. The stage occupied the former site of the gallows. The initial annual budget was $25 for makeup. But San Francisco's colleges attracted a wealth of lecturers from around the world, and Mandell convinced many to lecture at San Quentin.

Mandell and Cluchey made amazing gains. But prison realities meant that after struggling with the creations of top playwrights, before returning home, Mandell would hear the heart-deadening sounds of his actors being locked up.

For Cluchey, separation from the world outside crushed him with helplessness. When his four-year-old boy was struck and killed by a car, he could do nothing. The guard showed up at night with an opened telegram, violating protocol—the chaplain was supposed to deliver such news in private—saying, "You got a telegram, Clucky." "Sorry to inform you Rusty was killed, letter to follow" were the written words. When Cluchey's father didn't show up for his regular Saturday visit—no phones in prison then—Cluchey could only wait in suspense for two days until a relative brought news of his death.

Several years passed before Cluchey could perform with his prison troupe. A man with nothing to lose by going over the wall—Cluchey admits that he "often thought of it"—was considered too big a risk to let out at night. Meanwhile, prison life exploded when mess halls and lines suddenly desegregated and racial hate became a deadly one-on-one affair. Cluchey navigated the minefield with a growing reputation as a middleweight boxer who dropped his opponents without regard to race, creed or color. He befriended prison classmate Eldridge Cleaver and doomed "Soledad Brother" George Jackson. Jackson used his position in the prison audio-visual office to show the drama films Cluchey requested. To make a buck and escape prison's "pressure cooker," Cluchey sold all the blood he could drain and volunteered for "totally irresponsible, mad-scientist chemical-behavioral experiments."

He found something in art, some hope among the bleakness, that helped him cope with prison. He began working with the chaplain, counseling inmates. Already in courtyard favor as a purveyor of theatrical escape, as the Catholic chaplain's secretary Cluchey drove up his survival stock by distributing one of prison's rare perks—Christmas cards for the inmates' mothers. "After that, I could've run for office," he says.

Little things count big in prison wastelands. For Cluchey, the little thing that proved invaluable was a small nook in the prison chapel where he could write in privacy. In 1965, Cluchey wrote a prison drama, The Cage, trying to convey "the disintegration of the human animal behind walls and the less tangible rigidity of prison." The warden said, "I don't want it about my prison," so Cluchey called it Le Cage and gave the characters French names. The play deals primarily with four prisoners, one of whom is driven mad and homicidal, a role Cluchey sometimes performed himself. When the warden saw it, his sole comment was "I didn't know things were so bad in France."

It consoles Cluchey that when an outside troupe performed his play in San Francisco, his father was front and center at every performance, daring again to hope something might go his son's way. The 1987 film Weeds was inspired by the SQDW, with Nick Nolte as the Cluchey character. However, it took such artistic license that Mandell kept a distance, and Cluchey's charitable description is, "very loosely based."

Cluchey acted and directed in thirty-five plays at San Quentin. Meanwhile, Mandell worked behind the scenes to spring him. The judge who had sentenced Cluchey also lobbied the governor. In a reversal of fortune, Governor Pat Brown, on his last day of office after defeat by Ronald Reagan, allowed the parole board the option to consider life parole.

"I often speculate on my chances under Reagan, if I hadn't been on Brown's mind that day—pretty grim, pretty grim." Still, two more years passed before the prison gates opened for Cluchey. After "eleven years, nine months and fourteen days in prison, and ten years of civil death parole—twenty-two years in a system designed to keep you," says Cluchey, another Governor Brown, Pat's son Jerry, gave a full pardon.

Cluchey never disputed that "you should do the time if you do the crime," but says "punishment should fit the crime. It didn't. Still doesn't. It was a time for revenge, not rehabilitation. The economy went down and the blinders went up." The actor has little use for politicians pushing "three strikes, you're out" and other measures that "straitjacket judges" and defy both logic and justice, helping quadruple the prison population since 1980.

Cluchey left prison on a foggy day, December 12, 1966, amid great fanfare from the convicts and the press and television cameras. Waiting to take him to new beginnings was a Silver Dawn Rolls Royce. The Rolls was a prize in a fundraising contest for Bill Sands' Seven Steps Foundation, a convict rehabilitation organization Cluchey worked with until the theater recaptured him. Sands helped him reform the SQDW by joining former warden Clinton Duffy in busting down the bureaucratic gates that prohibited ex-cons from getting together.

Cluchey fielded a troupe that could stay out of jail. In 1969 he performed The Cage on Broadway, after breaking box-office records at Washington's Arena Stage. He performed The Cage in nearly every state in the U.S. and throughout Europe, with changing casts, many of them ex-cons, often before prison audiences and colleges. Performances were followed with audience discussions, the public usually revealing a determined ignorance of the realities of prison life. Ultimately, Cluchey bent his rules, letting in actors who were not felons C particularly actresses, whom Cluchey was quite pleased to finally work with. One was an attractive Puerto Rican actress, Teresita Garcia-Suro. They married and had two children, and a long theatrical collaboration, before an amiable parting.

Performing before prisons, watching the damage magnified by "the current political fashions, as society abandons the incarcerated," takes its toll. Last year, after donating copies of the SQDW archives to the central juvenile lockup in Los Angeles, Cluchey appeared there to perform Beckett's Eh, Joe. He looked at the boys who came in, "all under seventeen, row after row of them, all chained together, committed for murder or attempted murder, or taking the rap for a gang," and broke into tears. He told them it was the emotion and spirituality of being with them. He didn't say that underlying it was the hopelessness of their broken youth. But Cluchey never completely caves in. Within him remains a never-say-die achiever who pulls himself off the edge at the critical moment. He's a guy who quit the ninth grade to join the army with a forged birth certificate, shooting for Korea. His mom ratted to his commanding officer, who pulled him off the boat shortly before his entire unit was overrun, but he joined again as soon as he was legal.

During his dozen years in prison, though visions of escape often danced through his head, resilient as bad tattoos, Cluchey never broke a single prison rule. "That's something," the warden told reporters, "when you think of all the rules we have here."

His personal life is equally tenacious. He is now happily wedded to his fourth wife, Nora Masterson, the Irish stepdancer and actress, and is thrilled with their young boy Jameson. He has three generations of children, all of whom he's close to, after occasionally rocky roads. And he was tenacious in his goal of reaching the man who put a mark on him, Samuel Beckett.

He'd corresponded with the playwright and had been given permission to do his plays royalty free. But he'd never been able to obtain an audience with a man who kept such a low profile he didn't show up to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Finally, in 1973, in Paris, he invited Beckett to a SQDW production of the playwright's Endgame. Instead, Beckett sent his niece to scout the play. Impressed with her account, he invited Cluchey for coffee. To identify himself, Cluchey wore a Godot trademark prop, a bowler hat. Asked Beckett, "Tell me something, do you always wear that hat?" The playwright took Cluchey to Berlin as his second directing assistant in a production of Godot, and Cluchey took Beckett to Tegel Prison, where Cluchey was teaching a class of German inmates. A strong bond developed, Cluchey becoming a surrogate son to Beckett, and they worked closely together from 1977 to 1984.

"Beckett was hit by a lot of labels, the victim of a lot of words. Avoiding interviews, he was greatly misunderstood," says Cluchey. "Everyone thought him an atheist, but he wasn't. Our common exchange, come and go, was 'God bless, Sam,' 'God bless, Rick.' He was a spiritual man with an Irish sense of humor who carried deep pain from his identification with the harsher events in the world. He was one of the originals, with Hemingway, against the loyalist movement in Spain, and a member of the French resistance—most of his group were killed. But Beckett was a stoic, not a cynic. He looked at the moment very closely. He was not a nihilist, but a minimalist, his poetic vision is distilled to the last drop." Indeed, Karl Ragnar Gierow, then secretary of the eighteen-member Swedish Academy that represents the literary establishment, fended off confusion over Alfred Nobel's mandate to honor uplifting literature. "The degradation of humanity is a recurrent theme in Beckett's writing," said Cluchey, "and to this extent his philosophy, simply accentuated by elements of the grotesque and of tragic farce, can be said to be a negativism that knows no heaven." Then, likening Beckett's work to a photograph, he says that printing a negative produces "a positive, a clarification, with the black proving to be the light of day, the parts in deepest shade, those which reflect the light sources. The perception of human degradation is not possible if human values are denied. This is the source of inner cleansing, the life force in spite of everything, in Beckett's pessimism. I look upon Beckett as a saintly man, who certainly made it easier for a lot of us who were trying to write for the theater," continues Cluchey. "He was a breakthrough dramatist, a form-smasher. The prose he was writing at the time had gone dry, and he turned to the theater for some relief from that process. But he was a man in his fifties before he ever saw his name on the theater marquee. He struggled all his life."

Cluchey says Beckett's affinity with SQDW came easily. "Beckett's apartment overlooked a French prison yard, he watched inmates signal him with mirrors. He was fascinated by prisons, mental hospitals, all the so-called bleeding meat of society. When he got the Nobel prize, it was for demonstrating to humanity its pain in a way it could be understood. We live on the edge of the void. A friend of mine has a series of photos of Picasso's face when he was told that they had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and how many people had been killed. In three frames you see the whole horror of that generation when they learned that this kind of destruction was possible. So the void became more accessible to everybody, particularly to one with those sensibilities and means of expression."

In its twentieth-anniversary performance in 1987, Cluchey updated The Cage to address AIDS. Taking note of the powerful public response to the play's three-month run in Los Angeles, the California Department of Corrections began screening incoming inmates for AIDS. "There are tough questions on privacy rights, but prison is an incubator for death sentences both in and outside," says Cluchey. "If anything good comes of this tragedy, it may be a hard look at practical penal objectives."

During this period in the late 1980s, Cluchey worked on the video project Beckett Directs Beckett, in which Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape and Endgame were performed under Beckett's direction. The plays are stunners and include Cluchey going full circle as Pozzo, the character who keeps a rope around Lucky (Alan Mandell). But the video distribution was by the Smithsonian Institution, which acted like a Hollywood accountant, offering neither money nor an accounting and selling the rights to another distribution company.

But an acting career without setbacks would not be a career. Certainly not an ex-con's career. Cluchey has seen the bottom, though, lived there, in fact, so he's quick to move on, to work harder, never wasting time. He became the first non-Italian actor to win the Italian Drama Critics' Award. He received a 1983 Obie for David Mamet's Edmond, was named an Exxon Distinguished Scholar, and was awarded two Los Angeles Dramalogue Critics' Awards, one in 1987 for writing, directing and acting in The Cage, and one in 1997 for directing the show Beckett's Women. He has just been invited to perform Krapp's Last Tape and Piece of Monologue in the Berlin 2000 Beckett Festival next September. And he hopes to soon finish a recording of Beckett's novel Murphy, which he will distribute free on compact disc to inmates in need of a little inspiration.