Gary Comenas (2016)
The Village Voice review of Vain Victory appeared in the August 19, 1971 issue of the Village Voice:
Review of Vain Victory in the Village Voice, August 19, 1971
The full article reads:
... shall not have dyed in vain
by Julius Novick
What might be called the theatre of hard-core camp - a genre that devotes itself to transvestitism and other forms of homosexuality-oriented high-fantastical grotesquerie - has lately been receiving a considerable amount of respectful attention outside its own coterie.
A number of critics have acclaimed the metaphysical and social significance of the works of Ronald Tavel, John Vacarro, and Charles Ludlam. It will be interesting to see whether "VAIN VICTORY," an ineffable new musical by Jackie Curtis (at the WPA) will be greeted by similar encomia.
Mr. Curtis (for so we must call him now) was formerly a well-known transvestite, but in "Vain Victory" he appears with short hair, wearing a costume that makes him look like a rather glitzy leprechaun, playing a rock singer name Blue Denim.
The show remains very much in the transvestite tradition, however; leading female roles are played by Candy Darling, Mario Montez, and others of similar persuasion.
"Vain Victory," subtitled "The Vicissitudes of the Damned (c. 1971)," is an elaborate extravaganza, containing some 20-odd musical numbers accompanied by piano, violin, and drums. Vestiges of a plot appear in it from time to time: something about a mermaid who graduates from Taylor Mead High School, and feels very bad about having a tail instead of legs; she is in love with Blue Denim, and she eventually gets legs and becomes some kind of star herself. There are many references to old movies, and endless speciality-numbers in various old-fashioned modes.
The show seems in no hurry to get where it's going, or perhaps it simply isn't going anywhere. Consider, for example, the high school graduation scene. Three grotesque cheerleaders come out and do a horrible dance. Then Mario Montez, as Magdelaina Del Moppo, the valedictorian, appears in a vaguely Cleopatrical costume, and reads, in Spanish, from a pamphlet on what you can do to discourage rats. Then Mr. Montez does a parody of fancy singing, while the people around him make wry faces, and two performers in leather jackets, facing upstage, pantomime a sort of cooperative masturbation. A stout librarian appears, and does an abortive strip. Blue Denim does a '50s rock number; "Instant Replay!" cries the chorus when he finishes, and he sings it again.
And so "Vain Victory" sprawls and dawdles and does it again for two and a half mortal hours; it looks as if everyone who wanted to do a number, or several, was encouraged to go right ahead.
Sample joke: "Now you know how Cinderella felt when she was wearing those glass slippers." "Did she get bunions too?" And as it is lacking in wit, so is "Vain Victory" lacking also in grace, charm, intelligence, narrative value, precision, pacing, and theatrical flair.
Some of the performers show glints of promise from time to time, and the tunes (by several hands) are competent enough in their pastichey way, but by ordinary standards "Vain Victory" is awful, abominable, execrable, beyond description and beyond belief.
It will at once be pointed out that "ordinary standards" are beside the point, and to some extent that is obviously true. For the performers and their immediate community, this production and others like it do seem to be performing some kind of function that has nothing much to do with their merit, or lack of it, as "merit" is usually understood in the theatre.
But I am not qualified to evaluate "Vain Victory" from within its coterie context. I can only report, as an outsider that it seemed to be very bad. Even when grossness and grotesqueness are at the basis of your aesthetic, surely you still need some imagination, some sense of structure, some something.
But the real malaise of "Vain Victory" lies, I think deeper. The ugliness and grotesqueness that are so flaunted, emphasized, insisted upon, seem not a reflection of the outside world, but the expression of the performers' view of themselves. The grotesquerie only occasionally erupts into satire; most of the time the performers - the transvestites especially seem to be saying "Look at me! Aren't I awful, aren't I hideous, aren't I grotesque?"
Under the cheap gaiety is what looked to me like a poisonous gulf of self-loathing. It all may have a usefully cathartic effect on those involved; but this sense of self-loathing, I think, is what I found so deeply ugly about the whole experience.
T.S. Eliot speaks of "the struggle - which alone constitutes life for a poet - to transmute his personal and private agonies into something universal and impersonal." By this criterion, however, indulgently applied, there is very little poetry in "Vain Victory."
A shorter review of the play at the WPA was also published in the New York Times. It was less scathing but did refer to the production as "unabashed trash" and notes that unlike the productions of Charles Ludlam, Vain Victory "does not even try to raise the level of the material, to turn it, as Ludlam does, into myth - and art."