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Notes on the New Theater

Most of the plays have gone, the evenings in little downtown theaters dim in the memory. The most interesting works are not interesting to write about: they are bits and pieces of scene and action. Criticism lives on plot, character, and theme. In any case, the drama of real life, the far reaches of tragedy and farce, of noise and silence, seriously compete with the theater, particularly with the avant-grade theater that wants so much to be a interesting and unpredictable as life itself. There is a new style and it has just this minute become old and thus ready for a larger audience. In look and general tone, the new theater is rooted in Hippydom—innocent nudity, ingratiating obscenity, charming poverty…love and tolerance. Tom O’Horgan’s successful Broadway production of Hair is an anthology of the acting and staging ideas developed downtown by groups and persons during the last few years. It is a series of quotations and deeply engrossing in this and every other way….

A foreign journalist recently in conversation: “Yes, yes. I know de names. Amorica Horrah, Som Shopard, de Beard, de LaMama…but describe the work please, tell me what it is about!”

Well, Futz would rather lie with his pig than with Majorie Satz and we must not kill a man for that.

A new style will always be a critique of an old one. The theater of alienation is too austere and intellectual for Hippydom. The aim of the new theater is to diminish the distance between stage and audience. In the demonstrations of The Open Theatre, the actors go up and down the aisles, giving out flower petals, smiling and waving. In the end they applaud the audience, as the audience is (hopefully) applauding them. Reciprocal, unifying gestures, suitable to a peace-loving, radicalized mood. These same ideas are used in Hair, and also in Tom O’Horgan’s brilliant production of Tom Paine, by Paul Foster.

The devices of audience participation at least as we have them now in America, create a great resistance in me. In general I think one might say of The Open Theatre that it always seems to be having too good a time. False relaxation, genial improvisation, a belief in good intentions, youthfulness, verve—a new sentimentality threatens the revolution at its birth:

And participation, this evangelical urging of everyone to somehow take his own part in the theatrical event, is a substitution for a loss we are all trying to forget. An audience will not, perhaps cannot, stay in its seat without some kind of participation in the action on the stage. Since there is often neither character nor plot, in the usual sense, to which we can give the necessary inner attention and sympathy, we are invited to be one with the very vitality, noise and movement before us, to drown ourselves in the episodic. In Jacques Levy’s new staging of Sam Shepard’s Red Cross, he prepares the audience by meanly tormenting it with an excruciatingly loud and unvaried bit of recorded sound. There is no possible separation between you and the sound. No relief until the play begins. And perhaps you are to feel, by a subliminal suggestion, that there is no escape from the play, that you must surrender yourself, as to an engulfment.

It is also interesting that the actors in the La Mama Troupe and The Open Theatre do not look like theater people. They have their pimples and fat, their veins and bruises on display. It is almost a shock to see them assume their roles because we are used to the distance created by the extraordinary beauty of the men and women of the conventional theater. Except for character parts, it was—and literally—unbearable for a heroine to have bad legs; in star roles, defects of skin and skeleton prevented belief. But if audience and actors are together creating theater, then the stage, like the public, must be open to everyone. It is astonishing, when one considers the exhausting athletics of the new stage, that the actors keep their fat, the same peanut-butter fat of the hippies and yippies. In any case, dieting is bourgeois and only for the most benighted flagellants of the jet set. The athleticism of the La Mama Troupe is muscle and sinew, not sleekness. It is the old, hefty, plebeian modern dance, somehow Scandinavian, as far as can be from the spidery thinness and mystery of the Balanchine ideal.

AND YET why is it that the radical friendliness of the new theater, the concentration on the external, does not seem as promising this year as last year? Perhaps it has already been reduced to a group of gestures, and gestures quickly become stale. After the applause and the greetings in the aisle and the not very shining efforts of the cast to break the text with improvised conversation (Tom Paine), that is all. Participation, like alienation, must come from within. It cannot be imposed, demanded. It is a quality of style and of content.

Texts: 1. Tom O’Horgan’s staging for La Mama of Sam Shepard’s Melodrama Play was the most beautiful and interesting event of the New York season. The white vinyl set, daringly simple and inspired, matched the ruthlessness of the text. As a playwright, Shepard is a sadist in a garden of masochists. (How often in off-off Broadway productions one finds, there in the shadow of the obscene and daring, the sweetest little Tennessee Williams, mad at Mom, and on the brink of tears.)

Shepard’s texts are images and arias, a harsh kind of pop art, cruel in their unrelieved dazzle and arrogance. The bleakness of his mood liberates the author from the need, felt by so many of the young playwrights, to prod an essentially harmless talent into scenes of violence and ugliness. Shepard’s plays are hard to understand—not in the manner of Borges or of literature—but in the manner of Godard movies.

  1. In The Open Theatre demonstrations the best scene was based on a text by Brecht and the second best on a tiresome bit of Ionesco that compulsively repeated the word “pig-headed.” Still, this would seem to show the limits of improvisation and wordless style.

  2. The new theater seldom tries to go beyond Act One. This is prudent. Striking images and sharp scenes have their formal boundaries. If pushed too far they may appear merely facile, as though the ability to create them were endless.

Memories: The Beard, triumphant cunnilingus. Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid are trapped in eternal light and life; they are being and symbol at once, monosyllabic, chained in repetition, their minds in eternity fixed on F . . king. If you cannot speak of The Beard as good or bad, you also cannot speak of it as boring. The text uses few words, but those under the circumstances, fit. Unlike the dutifully fornicating pairs in Updike’s Couples, Harlow and Billy are, as they say over and over, “divine.” They suck their teeth, but needn’t go to the dentist; they scream and fight, but never bring to mind domesticity. They are copulating essences, coarse, hoarse, solely occupied by cock and cunt in their blue velvet Heaven—or Hell. The Meaning? In the spare, croaking ugliness of The Beard, there is a spare, rasping, grating art. Most of the new theater is farce, and indeed this play is also, but prisons are always sad and eternity is death. In the play’s prison of everlasting sex there is an appallingly genuine metaphysical conception. “If we don’t do what we want, we’re not divine,” Billy the Kid says.

Camp: When Queens Collide! Conquest of the Universe! On the stage, exquisite drag queens shriek: Prepare for ramming! Tamberlaine cracks his (her) whip and calls for Bajazeth, a slithering boy in veils. The staging, acting and costuming of these shows, while modest in expense, are also brilliantly imaginative. (Less is more in the theater, too, as anyone who has been to Lincoln Center understands.) In these camp shows, the scenes rush by, mad, more like early silent films than anything else, or perverse, lewd, vaudeville and burlesque. They are a sort of cataract of fantasies—an anarchic energy released by the acceptance of endless play-acting and impersonation. The people—actors, writers, directors—seem to be outside society and, thereby, free to act out a childish theatricality. The texts are fantastic parodies of politics, drama, history, sex, films and the entertainments have, in the end, the profoundest authenticity. This homosexual theater is ritualized, ordered in its reversals, and able, in this way, to liberate a disordered psyche to frenzied creativity. The jokes are special—but then, I suppose, so are those of Plaza Suite. Each knows its man.

Old Theater: no relief in sight. Summertree by Rod Cowan, performed in the Forum at Lincoln Center. This is a desolating Kraft Music Hall script, badly written, miserably acted, all of it oiled over with a dated, false “seriousness,” a hackneyed lyricism—its only excellence the reviews it received from our theater press. The author is a very young man, but his ideas and style are middle-aged. A great tacky tree dominates the stage; everyone, mother and father and son, naturally talks about roots. The play is antique in conception, echoing in every comma and cadence the commercial Broadway style of a few decades ago. It is Our Town, with death in Vietnam meretriciously added. To me this evening of shallow sentiments was more painful than any of the ugliness around.

Repertory: We went—up to Cincinnati I think it was—all those many years ago to see Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina. Her wrinkles and totters and quavers seemed the very heights of art. The little monarch was as strong, engaging, and enduring in her Power, as Mama in her apron…And Miss Cornell, her luscious vowels somewhat watery, round-faced, imposing and “classical.”

WHEN YOU GO to the APA you are thrown back to those days of road tours, slapped in the face with the dead fish of memory. The audience is extraordinary, like a dream, days of the New Deal: polite couples, friendly secretaries, out-of-town school teachers. They never appear to have had cocktails or to be impatient for the water fountain at intermission…or a little chagrined and insecure as they are amidst the inescapable boredom at Lincoln Center. Instead there is a violent, insistent consensus, a sharing, a conviction. And their star is so aptly, perfectly Helen Hayes: plain, small, determined, a victory of unvarnished Americanism. When she appears on the stage there is a stopping ovation, matinee and evening. When she throws out a little shrug, or offers a funny, upward lift to a word, the audience almost rises to its feet with joy. Indeed, everyone is in such a condition of distraught receptivity that the play can hardly proceed. George Kelly’s The Show-Off, a work of 1924—a sketch, roundly corny and squarely contrived, allows Helen Hayes to be one of those majorful, downright, practical American mothers of the respectable lower class. It is difficult to imagine this enterprise if you have not seen it…. No more classics!

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