Born James Roy Eichelberger in Pekin, Illinois, he attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1967. For seven years he was the lead character actor at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, then returned to New York, changed his name to Ethyl, and became a member of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, acting and designing wigs.
He became an influential figure in experimental theater, writing and performing nearly forty plays, often solo works in free verse based on the lives of the grand dames of history including Lucrezia Borgia, Jocasta, Medea, Lola Montez, Nefertiti, Clytemnestra, and Carlotta, Empress of Mexico. "I wanted to play the great roles but who would cast me as Medea?" he mused late in life in Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo Performance Texts from the Twentiety Century. His 1984 play Leer distilled Shakespears's King Lear into 3 characters, all played by Eichelberger and premiered at 8 BC