Chesley, Robert 1943-1990

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CHESLEY, Robert 1943-1990


Born March 23, 1943, in Jersey City, NJ; died of AIDS December 5, 1990, in San Francisco, CA; son of D. Leon Chesley and Betty Rottger. Education: Reed College, B.A. (music).


Writer, director, producer. Victor & Grais Productions, Los Angeles, CA, founder.



Hell, I Love You, produced in San Francisco, CA at Theatre Rhinoceros, 1981.

City Pieces (three one-act plays), produced in New York, NY, 1981.

Stray Dog Story, JH Press (New York, NY), 1984.

Night Sweat, produced in San Francisco, CA, 1985.

Jerker, Or the Helping Hand, produced in New York, NY, 1987.

Hard Plays—Stiff Parts: The Homoerotic Plays of Robert Chesley, Alamo Square Press (San Francisco, CA), 1990.

Also composer of songs. Contributor of articles to Gay Community News, Gayweek, The Advocate, and Omega, 1976-1978.


Robert Chesley's career as a playwright spanned the 1980s—the decade of AIDS. His plays deal with the dynamics surrounding gay relationships, the shedding of stereotypes, and issues related to AIDS. After Stray Dog Story, People's David Lamble said, "Robert Chesley is emerging as one of the gay community's bicoastal playwrights, tapping collective dreams, fantasies, and sometimes nightmares and transforming this potent material into the stuff of dark romantic comedy."

Chesley's debut play, Hell, I Love You, is structured around the dialogue of a gay couple. The two protagonists are almost quintessentially mismated, one desiring a varied and active social life while his partner is contented with a good book and a quiet evening at home.

Stray Dog Story is a modern satiric fable whose central topic is the sense of alienation from self and shared community experience. Taking a basic plot motif from Cinderella, it tells the story of Buddy, a dog who is transformed into a gay man through his "fairy dog mother." It had back-to-back productions in New York and San Francisco. Chesley's next play Night Sweat,tells the story of Richard, a man who has just been diagnosed with AIDS and has decided to avail himself of the services of a new club called Coup de Grace, where for a fee, individual suicides can be staged complete with props and costumes. According to People's Lamble, Chesley "denied that one of the subjects of his play is that death is beautiful." The author told Lamble, "One of the things that the play is about is the eroticism of death in our culture; and not just the gay male division … Stray Dog Story is about the innocent abroad in the urban gay world."

On August 31, 1986, station KPFK-FM in Los Angeles broadcast, as part of its weekly program "IMRU (I Am, Are You?)," excerpts from Chesley's play Jerker, whose plot tells the unfolding story of two gay men who become acquainted purely telephonically and develop a relationship. The play consists of twenty lengthy conversations, some of which use sexually explicit language, in keeping with the plot and subject matter. On April 16, 1987, the radio was cited by the Federal Communications Commission as being in violation of the law under regulations prohibiting the description or depiction of sexual activities in an offensive manner. Upon review, the Justice Department declined further action, stating that KPFK had been within the legal guidelines promulgated by the FCC at air time. Regulations were modified shortly thereafter.

Jerker opens with a divided stage representing two bedrooms in different neighborhoods of San Francisco, gateways into the worlds of the two main characters, who over the course of the hour-long play gradually move from the empty connection of phone sex to an intimate linkage of mutual support and caring. The two never meet but there is a gradual withdrawal of one partner, his replacement of direct access with an answering machine and then a final disconnection due to death from AIDS. Mark Thompson, reviewing for the Advocate, said, "Jerker is one of the most inclusive works to emerge from gay theater in recent years … [the play] celebrates creation, not death, and seizes upon joy as the only real answer." Thomas M. Disch of the Nation noted, " Jerker is liable to alienate or repel those who don't care to be voyeurs in such circumstances … but as JR and Bert develop a telephonic friendship transcending dirty underwear, the playwright and the actors come into their own." The final scene closes with the surviving member of the conversation alone and silent, a foreshadowing of the writer's own demise, in 1990, of AIDS-related complications.



Advocate, May 29, 1984, interview with David Lamble, "Playwright Robert Chesley: Waking Up to the Dark Side of Romance in Night Sweat," pp. 48-49; December 23, 1986, Mark Thompson, review of Jerker, pp. 53-54.

Nation, May 16, 1987, Thomas M. Disch, review of The Jerker, p. 658.

People, May 29, 1984, David Lamble, pp. 48-49.


The Estate Project, (February 11, 2004).



Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1990, p. A26.

New York Times, December 8, 1990.*