This month’s West Village Original is playwright and author Barbara Garson, born in Brooklyn in 1941. Her plays include “MacBird,” her notorious 1966 political parody of “Macbeth,” and “Dinosaur Door,” an Obie winner in 1977. Her latest book, “Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession,” will be published by Doubleday in April. She lives in Westbeth with her husband, Frank Leonardo.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Barbara Garson’s parents—one an accountant, the other a bookkeeper—had one thing on their minds. “They were middle-class people who were completely devoted to raising their children,” she says. “They weren’t artistic and they weren’t political, either. They were focused instead on our security.”
To illustrate this, Garson tells an amusing story. “One time my mother came to see a play that I wrote,” Garson reminisces. “Afterwards she said, ‘Gee, those seats were uncomfortable.’ My daughter, who was seven at the time, said, ‘Grandma, how come you tell everyone how nice Aunt Ina’s house is, but Mommy writes a play and all you can say is, ‘The seats are uncomfortable?!’ My mother replied, ‘I don’t like to encourage her in anything that doesn’t earn money.’” Garson laughs. “That was their attitude toward writing and left-wing politics. They weren’t necessarily against them. They just wanted me to be financially secure!”
It was while she was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 60’s that both Garson’s political awakening and writing career were born. “I had joined the Free Speech movement at Berkeley and we were at a big rally. I made a slip of the tongue and referred to Lady Bird Johnson as Lady MacBird instead of Lady Macbeth. Then the whole thing just clicked and when I had the time, I wrote “Macbird” as a parody of “Macbeth.” It was about the transfer of power after the Kennedy assassination and in the play it appears that Johnson killed him. That, I thought, was a laughable idea and I was quite amazed that people took it seriously. To me, it was a play about two dynasties where one seemed so beautiful (Kennedy) and the other gross (Johnson). All I was saying was, listen to them carefully because they’re both really saying the same things.”
How did “MacBird” make the leap to New York and Off-Broadway? “I came here with the manuscript and showed it to the only person I knew in theatre, a high school classmate,” Garson recalls. “His girlfriend decided to produce it but she had no experience either so she brought in a professional. They opened ‘MacBird’ at The Village Gate and filled the cast with people no one had ever heard of; Stacy Keach, Cleavon Little, Bill Devane, and Rue McClanahan. It turned out to be a big success and they all became famous except for me!”
In fact, at the height of her play’s success, Garson went as far away as she could. “I worked in an anti-war coffee house at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington,” she says. “Back then, my peers and I were against the cult of the personality and celebrity. We didn’t want personal publicity.” And how does she feel about that now? “Boy, was I wrong,” she says, laughing. “Now I’m speaking to you for the sake of publicity for a book!”
What brought Garson to the Village? “At one point I came back to visit my parents—who were still in Brooklyn—and saw how much nicer it was to live with them nearby,” she says. “So I managed to find an apartment in the Village and, eventually, I moved into Westbeth in 1974. Some people succeed and move to the Village but for me it was the opposite. I think I keep doing the not vastly economically successful things I’ve always done because Westbeth enables me to do that. As a single parent, I was able to continue to live in the Village and continue to write. Westbeth worked the way it was supposed to for this artist.”
As to the changes in the West Village over the years, Garson observes simply, “No one like me could afford to live here now.” But when asked if she still enjoys living here, the answer is affirmative. “Oh my God, yes!” she responds. “No matter what happens, the West Village always survives. That’s because it’s a real neighborhood; so cosmopolitan and intelligent, and yet a neighborhood! When my daughter went away to college, she was really surprised to discover that her classmates not only knew of the West Village, but thought it was so special. That’s because it is.”
Photo of Barbara Garson by Maggie Berkvist.