Twenty years after his release from San Quentin, Rick Cluchey is still in a cage. "The Cage,' which he wrote in 1965 and is being restaged at the Odyssey, is his grim drama about prison life--and even now, the experience remains very, very real.
"The further you get into the process of the work, the more you can draw from the past, see what has been," explained Cluchey, 54, who was given a life sentence without possibility of parole in 1954 for armed robbery, aggravated assault and kidnaping.
"If the past is so painful that you're disturbed by it, it's speaking to you; it's pulling you back. Then it's easier to refine and understand what you've gone through, that wall of fire. If you refuse to deal with it, carry that sickness, it's the burden of the past. I think that's the message of the play: that we need to have our past to explain our future. Historically, we die all the time--but in a mythical way, we go on. We live."
A recent interruption to that life has been the release of John Hancock's film "Weeds." In it, Nick Nolte plays Cluchey (renamed Lee Umstetter) and depicts his 1957 creation of the San Quentin Drama Workshop. In the film, however, the fruit of that workshop, Umstetter's play about life behind bars, is revealed as an act of plagiarism from Jean Genet's "Deathwatch."
" 'Weeds' has nothing to do with the 20th anniversary of this play," stated the writer during a recent interview at the Odyssey, "except that in its fictionalization, one finds the great threads of my life. The film company has the right to make you over in a new name, reshape you, take out and put in what they want. So what they've done has nothing to do with the work I'm doing here.
"But since all of it impinges on my life, it ends up that I'm called a plagiarist."
Although he's faced harsher labels, the plagiarism charge is especially stinging. Part of the pain is for himself ("I'm known for this work, it's my cri de coeur "), but mostly Cluchey is concerned about tarnishing the play, especially in the eyes of those who saw it--following the original production by the San Francisco Actors Workshop in 1967--at dozens of campus stagings Cluchey toured in across the country in the '60s and '70s.
"We wanted to reach the people who would be our future: the legal profession, medical profession, our statesmen, government people," he explained. "We wanted to show them that this system must be changed because it's a system that eats people and spits them out. You need something beyond punishment. That was my preachment, and this was the way I was going to get their attention." (Since "The Cage," there have been other raw "prison plays," most notably Miguel Pinero's "Short Eyes.")
Devoted though he is to "The Cage," Cluchey is not without other output: He's written four more plays. But most of his professional life has been devoted to touring the world in the plays of Samuel Beckett, whose work he first encountered as an inmate--and which sparked his interest in theater.
"The thing that everyone in San Quentin understood about Beckett while the rest of the world had trouble catching up, was what it meant to be in the face of it. So any institution is an acceptable matrix for a Beckett play.
"I mean, he's dealing with a lost people. His work only takes up about that much space on the shelf--but, wow, it's so out of the human consciousness. He speaks through the human condition."
As for comparisons of Beckett's plays to "The Cage": "We're both dealing with a closed system, man's incarceration in himself. Indeed, you would not mistake the two. But I draw from Beckett, from his images."
And he's charted his life by them. Following a 1966 prison release (after Gov. Pat Brown commuted his sentence, making him eligible for parole), Cluchey's tours with "The Cage" led him to Europe, where in 1976--after years of correspondence and much persistence--he became Beckett's assistant director for a Berlin staging of "Waiting for Godot."
A few years later, he persuaded the playwright to direct him in "Krapp's Last Tape"; in 1980 he did the same for "Endgame." As a result of those collaborations, Cluchey has remounted Beckett's stagings all over the world--including a 1984 stint in Australia, where after 23 performances in seven days he had open heart surgery, "but six weeks later, I was back on the road."
Indeed, it's been a life of almost constant activity. Example: Cluchey's second wife, actress Terry Cluchey, had to cut short her performance in "Endgame" in Scotland one night when labor pains forced a trip to the hospital. (Now 13, their son plays the boy in "Godot.") And proud though Cluchey is of this "Cage" revival--in which he also performs--he's already looking forward to what he hopes will be his next local project, repertory stagings of a Beckett trilogy: "Krapp's Last Tape," "Ohio Impromptu" and "Eh, Joe," in which he'll alternate roles with fellow Beckett disciple Alan Mandell.
"I don't have a home base," Cluchey said without self-pity. "I'm committed to what I do in the theater. And it is a constant struggle.
"But theater is an island, a beacon, a touchstone for our reality. 'The Cage' is not about Rick Cluchey. It's a part of me that's gone on to a wider humanity--and anybody in any seat of this theater can recognize it as the truth. There are no superficialities about it; we've stripped them away. It's all bone and marrow, flesh and blood."