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Taking a Closer Look at “Fortune and Men’s Eyes”

Fortune and Men's Eyes 1971 Movie Poster
A poster advertisement for the 1971 film adaptation of Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Image Courtesy of IMDb.

Telling the stories of incarcerated young men in the 1960s, Fortune and Men’s Eyes was a drama written by John Herbert in 1967 to process and analyze his own experience in Canada’s prison system. It was produced by Greenwich Villager and LGBTQIA+ rights activist David Rothenberg at the Actor’s Playhouse at 100 Seventh Avenue So., and adapted to comment on the prison system in America as well as the experiences which LGBTQ+ individuals faced while imprisioned. The play received broad critical acclaim, and motivated Rothenberg to found the Fortune Society, an organization whose mission is to foster a world where all who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated will thrive as positive, contributing members of society.

Playwright John Herbert
Playwright John Herbert. Image Provided by the Toronto Public Library.

While a still a teenager, Herbert served a six-month sentence in an Ontario reformatory after he was accused of soliciting sex. Herbert regularly dressed and performed as a drag queen in Toronto, and, one night while walking home, he was brutally attacked and robbed by local gang members. The police intervened and stopped the assault; however, his attackers pressed charges against him to avoid punishment, leading to his conviction. After his release, Herbert found it difficult to re-enter life in Toronto, and he moved to Montreal where he founded the Garret Theater in collaboration with his sister Nana Brundage. It was here that he wrote Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

The play largely internalizes Herbert’s lived-experiences. The plot focuses on the story of Smitty, a 17-year-old accused of an unknown crime, and his interactions with Rocky (an older teen incarcerated for stealing a car from his male lover), Mona (who was falsely accused of making a homosexual pass at a group of young boys), and Queenie (a drag queen imprisioned for stealing from an older women). As Smitty navigates the dynamics in prison, he encounters stories depicting sexual slavery, assault, and harassment that LGBTQ+ individuals frequently experienced in the prison system in the 1960s.

According to an oral history David Rothenberg gave with our organization in 2016, Herbert found it incredibly difficult to find a theater willing to produce the play, and Rothenberg happened upon it through his connections with the O’Keefe Center in Toronto. One day while having lunch at the Plaza Hotel, he sat down with Canadian drama critic Nathan Cohen, who gave him a copy of Fortune’s script. Cohen was helping Herbert to workshop and promote the play; however, in Cohen’s words, he explained “this play will never be done in Canada. It’s too powerful, too political, too startling.” So Rothenberg took a look at the script, and immediately became infatuated with its story. He remarked, “I read it in one sitting and was devastated. I wrote to Herbert right away and told him the play gave me the feeling of being trapped in a pit full of cobras.” He flew to Canada to meet with Herbert and offered to fundraise and produce the play at the Actors Playhouse in Greenwich Village on Seventh Avenue South. The show opened on a Thursday night, on February 23, 1967, playing there for almost a year until January 21, 1968.

1967 Ad for "Fortune and Men's Eyes" in the Village Voice
1967 Ad for Fortune and Men’s Eyes in the Village Voice.

The play received mixed reviews initially, but it struck a chord with audience members, especially those that had experienced incarceration. Through word-of-mouth, formerly incarcerated individuals started traveling to Greenwich Village to see the show, introducing themselves to Rothenberg afterwards and sharing their personal stories. At one point, his Broadway office had a line of 200 formerly incarcerated people asking to see the show. Having worked within civil rights and social justice movements in the past, Rothenberg invited parole officers, elected officials, and other community stakeholders to view the play and meet its audience members. He facilitated cultural conversations about imprisonment in America, and founded The Fortune Society to advocate for prison reform and provide resources for currently and formerly incarcerated populations. In speaking with us, Rothenberg explained, “There was no great vision, I just thought, ‘Your voice has not been heard. You’ll put a face on an issue that has all these—’ I always thought of tough, mean guys in prison, and I was meeting people who were funny and charming and had wives and children, and wanted something, and it just seemed so clear. So one night at the theater, I said, ‘We’re starting an organization.” Still strong, the Fortune Society serves about 7,000 people annually with a mission to “support successful reentry from incarceration and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities.”

Although John Herbert was never able to see the American production of his play (even today, foreign nationals with various types of criminal convictions are not allowed to legally enter the United States), his influence lived on through the actions of David Rothenberg and many others. If you would like to learn more about David Rothenberg and other individuals and organizations that fought for transformative social change, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map. And if you want to explore David Rothenberg’s life and work more extensively, listen to or read our Oral History with David.

Sources Cited and Further Reading:

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