Famous Playwright under Our Noses

Hello, my name is Paulina! This fall term, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of working with Special Collections & Archives for my MLIS co-op. As the term ends, I would like to share one of the amazing finds that I’ve come across during these past few months. One of which is the John Herbert fonds, which spans almost 2 meters of boxes! Now you might be wondering who John Herbert is, much like I did.

John Herbert was the pen name of John Herbert Brundage, who was a Canadian playwright known for breaking ground in his depictions of gay and queer characters in plays. In his 75 years, John Herbert wrote over twenty-five plays, along with stories and novels. He was also a respected mentor in the Toronto theatre scene. Herbert, however, is most known for his play Fortune and Men’s Eyes. The play went on to be adapted into a film and see more than one hundred productions worldwide [1]. As a gay man himself, John Herbert knew first-hand the experiences and abuses that the community faces, as seen in the autobiographical accounts in the play. Incorporating his real-life experiences, the play broke stereotypical depictions of gay men and introduced audiences to the harsh realities of prison life.

A shocking story at the time, the play was considered “too radical” for York University. Even the Stratford Festival refused to permit a public showing of the play [2].

A black ink and pencil comic.

A comic by Herbert about his feelings of being in the limelight after years of being rejected by Canadian media.

Along with his plays and prowess in the arts, John Herbert was also a vocal activist for the Toronto gay and drag communities. His famous play recounts his experiences after being arrested and jailed for dressing in drag in the 1940s [2]. John Herbert wrote the play 2 years before the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City, which is considered an important event that helped spark the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights in the United States.

A clipping from a newspaper.

A newspaper clipping detailing Herbert's outspoken defence of lesbian women.

Other interesting finds in the John Herbert fonds are materials that reflect his writing process. Below are a few sketches showcasing the intense detail he brought to his costume, prop, and set designs.

Watercolour sketch of stage costumes and props.

Watercolour sketch of stage costumes and props.

Watercolour sketch of stage costumes and props.

A watercolour sketch of costume and stage props.

John Herbert was not only a talented playwright but was also in centre stage himself.

John Herbert during his acting performance wearing a dress, wig, and heels.

John Herbert as Lorelie Leech, the Gold-digger, in a satirical revision of the play, The Wonderful Whores.

He also dabbled in works outside of theatre. The John Herbert fonds contains many of his poems, short stories, autobiographies, and comics!

A series of comics about a sideshow group.

Whether of interest or as a source for research, please come in and check out the John Herbert fonds in person!


[1] Dickinson, Peter. "CRITICALLY QUEENIE: THE LESSONS OF FORTUNE AND MEN'S EYES." Canadian Journal of Film Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall, 2002): 19-43.

[2] Taylor, Kate. Playwright wrote landmark drama. The Globe and Mail, (June 26, 2001).

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