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John Herbert; His Play Exposed Prison Life

June 28, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

John Herbert, a Canadian playwright whose groundbreaking "Fortune and Men's Eyes" provided a glimpse of brutal sexual struggles behind prison doors, died Friday at his home in Toronto after a short illness. He was 75.

First presented off-Broadway in 1967, "Fortune" went on to be produced in more than 60 countries and was turned into a 1971 film, for which Herbert wrote the screenplay. The play was based on Herbert's experiences as a teenager in Canadian detention centers, where he was sent after he was charged with soliciting sex from a group of men whom he had accused of robbing him.

Critical reaction to his work was mixed. Times film writer Kevin Thomas said the movie "exploits rather than explores its material." But "Fortune" inspired the creation of the Fortune Society, which provides support for former inmates.

Herbert was born John Herbert Brundage. When he entered the theatrical profession, he dropped his last name because his sister, Nana, was already using it as a stage name, and he didn't want it to sound as if they were a brother-sister act.

In 1960, the siblings founded a Toronto theater company, and Herbert continued to work in Toronto theater for most of his life. He wrote many other plays, but none ever approached the success of "Fortune," whose title was taken from Shakespeare's sonnet "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes."

In 1969, Sal Mineo staged a production of "Fortune" at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles. Times theater critic Dan Sullivan called the play "a disturbing social document" but said Mineo's staging was more graphic and overdone than Herbert's text. When Mineo's production moved to New York's Stage 73 later that year, Herbert disavowed it in the pages of the New York Times.

Herbert is survived by five sisters and a brother.

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