Between 1965-75 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 moved to San Francisco and became theater critic at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, during its golden period when composer-actor Robert DiMatteo was also on the staff as film critic. In 1980 Theatre Rhinoceros produced Chesley's first one-act, Hell, I Love You; in 1984 his Night Sweat became one of the first produced full-length plays to deal with AIDS.
On August 31, 1986, his two-character play, Jerker, aired on the Pacifica Radio station KPFK's IMRU Program. Its frank sexual language immediately stirred controversy; later that year the FCC rewrote its rules governing the broadcast of "questionable" works, citing Jerker as the test case.
He was also co-founder of the Three-Dollar Bill Theater in New York City.
In total, Chesley wrote 10 full-length and 21 one-act plays. Several works were premiered posthumously and all of his major plays have been published.
Chesley died of AIDS in San Francisco at the age of 47. The Robert Chesley Award for Lesbian and Gay Playwriting, given annually by Publishing Triangle, is named in his honor.
At the beginning of the epidemic (AIDS), because no one knew for sure whether AIDS really was a sexually transmitted disease, anyone recommending reduced sexual activity as a sensible precaution ran the risk of being attacked for "internalized homophobia" or "sexual fascism". And because Kramer (Larry) had already attacked promiscuity for other reasons, he was particularly vulnerable to this criticism.
He went to his doctor three weeks after the Times article to ask him what he could do to avoid the new disease. "I'd stop having sex", his physician told him. One month after the appointment, his first warning about the epidemic appeared in the New York Native, a gay newspaper that pioneered coverage of the disease:"The men who have been stricken don't appear to have done anything that many New York gay men haven't done at one time or another. We're appalled that this is happening to them and terrified that it could happen to us. It's easy to become frightened that one of the many things we've done or taken over the past years may be all that it takes for a cancer to grow from a tiny something-or-other that got in there who knows when from doing who knows what... Money is desperately needed... This is our disease and we must take care of each other and ourselves. In the past we have often been a divided community; I hope we can all get together on this emergency, undivided, cohesively, and with all the numbers we in so many ways possess."The attacks he received for this sensible appeal set the tone for the debate within the gay community during the first years of the epidemic. On one side were those like Kramer who believed "something we are doing is ticking off the time bomb that is causing the breakdown of immunity in certain bodies", and therefore "wouldn't it be better to be cautious, rather than reckless?" On the other side were writers like Robert Chesley, who immediately skewered Kramer in the letters column of the Native:"I think the concealed meaning in Kramer's emotionalism is the triumph of guilt: the gay men deserve to die for their promiscuity. In his novel, Faggots, Kramer told us that sex is dirty and that we ought not be doing what we're doing... It's easy to become frightened that Kramer's real emotion is a sense of having been vindicated, though tragically... Read anything by Kramer closely. I think you'll find that the subtext is always: the wages of gay sin are death... I am not downplaying the seriousness of Kaposi's sarcoma. But something else is happening here, which is also serious: gay homophobia and anti-eroticism."Kramer later credited Chesley's attack with turning him into an activist. --The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser
Robert Chesley, 1989, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1123749)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/giard.html)
Hard Plays Stiff Parts: The Homoerotic Plays of Robert Chesley [Illustrated]
Paperback: 157 pages
Publisher: Alamo Square Press; illustrated edition edition (October 1, 1990)
Amazon: Hard Plays Stiff Parts: The Homoerotic Plays of Robert Chesley
'It is our lives that Chesley takes as his subject, our pain that he articulates, our pride that he makes palpable, our joy that he crystallizes, our guilt that he exorcises, our devestation that he makes us face all over again....' --David Stein, GMSMA Newslink