Robert Chesley Foundation

ROBERT CHESLEY (1943-1990)
Playwright and Composer

ROBERT CHESLEY was born March 22, 1943 in Jersey City, New Jersey and was raised in Pasadena, California. After receiving his B.A. in Music from Reed College in Portland, Oregon in 1965, he spent ten years teaching private school in upstate New York. During this period, he also composed prolifically.  From 1965 to 1975 Chesley composed the music to over five dozen songs and choral works, chiefly to texts by poets such as Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, James Agee, Walter de la Mare, Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman.  His instrumental works include the score to a 1972 film by Erich Kollmar.

In 1976, he came out as a gay teacher and moved to New York City. During the next few years his essays and theater criticism appeared in Gay Community News, The Advocate, Gaysweek, The San Francisco Review of Books, The Bay Guardian and The New York Native.

Chesley began writing for gay theater in 1980. In that year his first play, a one-act titled Hell, I Love You was produced by Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco. Productions of his subsequent plays followed in San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles, as well as in cities throughout the United States and in Toronto and London. Night Sweat became the first produced full-length play to deal with the AIDS crisis, when staged by Meridian Gay Theatre, New York City in 1984. Jerker or the Helping Hand had its premiere at the Celebration Theatre, Los Angeles in 1986. A subsequent radio broadcast by KPFK-Los Angeles of excerpts from the play prompted the Federal Communications Commission to attempt broadcast censorship for the first time since 1975. Jerker has since become Chesley’s most performed play.

Chesley moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s. He resided there for most of the remainder of his life and there, on December 5, 1990 he succumbed to AIDS-related illness after a battle of almost three years. Dog Plays (a trilogy of one-acts) and Private Theatricals: Morning, Noon and Night, written during these final years, have both been performed posthumously.

Robert Chesley leaves a literary legacy of 10 full-length plays and 21 one-acts, as well as short stories, novels, an opera libretto, and the text for a dance-theater piece. The catalogue of his music lists more than 60 works composed between 1964 and 1976, and includes songs for solo voice, choral pieces and instrumental works. Major plays produced during his lifetime have all been published: Stray Dog Story by JH Press, Jerker in both the Grove Press anthology Out Front and in the Alamo Square Press collection Hard Plays/Stiff Parts: The Homoerotic Plays of Robert Chesley (with Night Sweat and Dog Plays).  In 2005 Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. published a collection of his plays which includes Stray Dog Story, Jerker, and Dog Plays.

Robert Chesley was a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Society of Gay and Lesbian Composers.