As a benefit for itself, the Theatre for Ideas, a private group which arranges symposiums on a variety of subjects, organized last month a symposium called Theatre or Therapy. In the expectation of a large turnout, the group hired a former Friends’ Meeting House near Gramercy Park, now preserved as a New York landmark. The white auditorium, in which both participants and audience were arranged in pews, provided what seemed a good atmosphere for rational discussion. The director of the Theatre for Ideas, Shirley Broughton, had invited Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, Paul Goodman, and myself to participate in the symposium, and I had accepted, in spite of an instinctive distaste for symposiums and a deep sense of foreboding.
I had recently published an article on the Living Theatre in these pages in which I criticized the company, along with some elements of the radical young, for mindlessness, humorlessness, and romantic revolutionary rhetoric. The meeting looked to me like a good opportunity for more extended debate on the subject, as well as for exploring the differences between those who practiced the “new theatre” and those more skeptical about its aims and aspirations. On the other hand, I had been hearing rumors that attempts would be made to disrupt this symposium. Since I don’t function well under disruptive conditions, I thought it wise to make some notes, rather than run the risk of trying to extemporize during a heckling session.
Because of difficulty with the sound system—a difficulty never adequately repaired—the symposium began a half hour late. I passed the time chatting with Nat Hentoff, the moderator, Goodman, and with the Becks, whom I had not seen since their visit to Yale last fall. The Becks seemed amiable, though a little breathless, and talked about their American tour, then in its final week. Non-violence was in trouble, they said. The “revolution” was going beyond pacifism on the assumption that only violent overthrow of the Establishment could cure its insanity and corruption. I wondered if the Becks, too, had rejected the non-violence which they always declared to be the basis for their anarchistic program.
Hentoff worried about the proper order of speakers, Goodman about the meaning of the topic. We decided to limit our statements to ten minutes apiece, then to debate each other, and then to throw the debate open to the audience. We also decided to make some effort to interpret the vague topic title in the course of our statements. I was to speak first, Goodman second, and the Becks last.
We entered the hall past an audience that was growing restive. I caught sight of a number of friends in the house, as well as several members of The Living Theatre company stationed in the balcony and the orchestra. Hentoff started to introduce the discussion—into a dead mike; when it finally seemed in comparatively good working order, we were able to begin. Hentoff reflected on the confusing nature of the subject we were discussing, and asked me to attempt a definition. I did so, speaking from my notes, after mumbling some apology for the insecurity that had prompted them:
”Theatre or Therapy is a rather loaded topic title,” I said, “but it does begin to indicate the kind of controversy that is occupying the theatre today where the central question seems to be: To what extent should a production be oriented toward the audience, to what extent toward the actors, and to what extent toward the playwright. One’s answer to this is affected by one’s attitude toward some important issues of our time: Freedom versus responsibility, activist theatre versus non-activist theatre, free improvisation versus disciplined skill, process versus presentation, and so forth.”
A voice from the balcony: “What the hell is disciplined skill?”
A voice from the orchestra: “Shut up, you twerp.”
From the balcony: “Fuck you, I’m asking him a question.”
From the orchestra: “We’ll listen to you later. He’s doing the talking now.”
“My own position quite simply stated is this,” I continued. “I believe the theatre to be served best when it is served by supremely gifted individuals possessed of superior vision and the capacity to express this in enduring form. In short, I believe in the theatre as a place for high art.”
The heckler: “We’re all supremely gifted individuals.”
Brustein: “I doubt that very much.”
The heckler: “Up against the wall.”
I decided to skip the repartee and get through the statement. “I do not believe the theatre changes anybody, politically or psychologically, and I don’t believe it should try to change anybody. While necessarily concerned with social-political as well as psychological-metaphysical issues, the theatre cannot be expected to resolve these issues…. Chekhov, one of those supremely gifted individuals I spoke of, has said…”
“…that the correct presentation of problems, and not the solution of problems, is what is obligatory for the artist.” I elaborated on this notion, describing how democratic America—and now “revolutionary” America—had always been uncomfortable with the concept of high art because of its elitist and aristocratic implications. Now the practitioners of the “new theatre” have joined the old Philistines in the scandalous American contempt for art.
I concluded: “We are at the tail end of Romanticism when the spectators are on the stage, and actors are refusing to play roles that are not sufficiently close to their own personalities. The rationale behind this reluctance is a refusal of external limitations—limitations which are now called ‘authoritarian.’ This direction was already anticipated in the work of the Actors Studio, whose members were encouraged to examine not the lives of the characters they played but rather their own psychic eccentricities with the result that the actors invariably played themselves rather than their roles. Under such conditions, why use actors at all? This is an extension of America’s love of amateurism, and looks forward to a time when there will be no more spectators, only performers—arrogant, liberated amateurs, each tied up in his own tight bag.” I aimed these last phrases at the heckler in the balcony, though he had been relatively silent during the last part of my statement.
Paul Goodman spoke next—without notes. He reminisced affectionately about the past work of the Living Theatre company, particularly its productions of The Connection, of Brecht, and of his own plays. He had enjoyed my article, he said, but he couldn’t understand what I was so “hot and bothered” about—he confessed that he had seen none of the work of the Living Theatre on its recent tour. Goodman then proceeded to create an analogy between contemporary unrest and the Protestant Reformation.
“Don’t think you’re like the Christians in the catacombs,” he said. “You’re not going to destroy the institutions, you’re going to reform them. You talk like there’s a cataclysm coming, but there isn’t…. The institutions will survive….”
“No, they won’t,” shouted Rufus Collins, a black member of the company who had suddenly materialized on the floor of the hall. “Because we’re going to destroy them.”
“You’re not going to destroy them,” replied Goodman, goodhumoredly. “You can’t destroy them. And you won’t even reform them unless you can think up some ideas. I’ve lived through movements like this before, and I’m always struck by the poverty of ideas. In two thousand years, there hasn’t been a single new revolutionary idea.”
“We’ll destroy them,” Collins screamed. “We’ll create a cataclysm.”
“You’re not powerful enough. You’re just an idiosyncratic fringe group like the Anabaptists. You don’t have the capacity even to close down the universities.”
“Close them down, close them down,” Collins shouted. “Fuck the universities!”
“If you start to do that,” Goodman said, still maintaining his sweet reasonableness, “they’ll just put you on a reservation somewhere and keep you quiet.”
“They’re going to put us on reservations and kill us,” Collins said, his voice now cracking with fury. “They’re going to exterminate us, just like the Indians—the racists, the genocides. They’re going to kill all of us.”
“No, they won’t,” Goodman answered. “They’ll just feed you some LSD and keep you pacified.”
Norman Mailer chose to make his entrance at this point, lumbering down the aisle to his seat just as Goodman was replying to one of Rufus Collins’s assaults on America’s machine culture.
“Don’t blame everything on technology,” Goodman said. “It’s too easy. Just the other day, I listened to a young fellow sing a very passionate song about how technology is killing us and all that…. But before he started, he bent down and plugged his electric guitar into the wall socket.”
Collins began jumping up and down in fury. “That boy has thrown away his guitar. He’s taken off his clothes. He’s going up to the mountains where he’s using only his voice and his feet. Fuck technology!”
“Why are you wearing glasses then?” asked a man sitting nearby.
“BECAUSE I CAN’T SEE,” Collins screamed. “FUCK TECHNOLOGY. FUCK TECHNOLOGY.”
Mailer applauded loudly and conspicuously. Goodman shrugged and sat down on the floor in front of his seat with his back to the audience. He lit his pipe, and seemed to be listening attentively to Judith Malina, who spoke next.
But the mike went dead. “Turn her microphone on,” urged Hentoff to the sound man. “Yes,” said Miss Malina, “turn me on.” Pleased with her witticism, she repeated it several times. “Am I turned on? Okay….”
“Bob Brustein said something about freedom and responsibility, like they were different things. This is all tied up with questions I don’t want to get into tonight, like are we good or bad at heart. I do want to say that when people act freely, with complete freedom, they act creatively, beautifully. Everybody has it in him to be an artist—there’s no such thing as special individuals who are supremely gifted. When the audience does its thing in Paradise Now, it does some wild, beautiful, creative scenes. Not always, of course, but I’ve seen people do things as beautiful as I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Better than us…better than Shakespeare or Euripides….”
“Fuck Shakespeare, fuck Euripides,” yelled the balcony voice.
“I dig Shakespeare sometimes,” Miss Malina replied. “But I also want to speak in my own voice, in my own person. I mean there’s Hedda Gabler and there’s Judith Malina, and I want to be Judith Malina.”
“Let’s have five minutes of Hedda Gabler,” shouted one of the spectators in the orchestra pews. “We’ve already had five minutes of Judith Malina.”
“I’ll give you Hedda Gabler,” yelled the heckler in the balcony, and, in a mincing voice, ” ‘The candle is on the table.’ That’s Hedda Gabler. Now I’ll give you me: Fuck Ibsen. Fuck all liberal intellectuals and their fucking discussions….”
“Another thing,” Judith Malina said. “The first night we did Paradise Now at Yale—the night we got busted—we all came out of the theatre on each other’s shoulders and into the streets. It was a very beautiful and joyous moment, everybody was feeling like something beautiful was happening. And Bob Brustein came up to me and said: ‘Judith, I hate this play. All this freedom, it could lead to fascism.’ But I say, freedom is beautiful. It can never lead to fascism, it can only lead to more freedom.”
This remark was the cue for pandemonium; the entire Living Theatre company proceeded to take over the Meeting House. A flamboyant actor named Olé, dressed in yards of brightly colored silk, appeared on the platform where he began doing fashion model poses while sucking on a long thin cigar. Rufus Collins was joined on the floor of the auditorium by Stephen Ben Israel (the heckler from the balcony) both shouting obscenities at the audience. The actress Jenny Hecht almost broke her neck climbing down from the balcony, her electrified hair shooting wildly in every direction. Other actors from the company began pounding on the railings and screaming at the top of their lungs. And now the audience began to scream back.
Shirley Broughton ran down the aisle in great agitation, to discuss with Hentoff the possibilities of moderating the tumult or at least returning everybody’s money. Hentoff leaned back to watch the spectacle. For a few minutes Goodman attempted to discuss issues with the actors, the audience, and the Becks. Shouted down, he walked calmly off the platform and out of the hall, puffing on his pipe.
Rufus Collins was screaming: “You people all came here to have one of your discussions. Ten dollars you paid to get in here. We’ll give you ten dollars worth.”
“How did you get in? What about your ten dollars?”
“I got in for nothing. I don’t pay for shit like this. Your money came out of my black skin and the skin of my black brothers. My own mother couldn’t come here tonight. She called up and was told she couldn’t attend your fucking meeting. That’s when I decided to come….”
After spitting into a spectator’s face, Stephen Ben Israel ran to the center of the hall, holding a purse high over his head. “That lady over there hit me with her pocketbook—so I took it away from her. And this is what I am going to do with that pocketbook.” He opened the purse, held it high over his head, turned it upside down, and emptied its contents on the floor.
A voice from the back, calm, sweet, and patient: “I just embraced eight members of the Living Theatre. I embraced them with love. And one of them took my wallet. You can keep the money, but would you kindly return the cards?”
“Credit cards? To buy things in this fucking money culture? Tear up the cards! Tear up the cards! Burn the money!”
Julian Beck’s voice, above the din: “Get used to this. It’s happening all over America, in every meeting house in America. Get used to this. This is what is going to happen from now on.”
Ben Israel was now on the platform, chanting verses from R. D. Laing: “I’d like to turn you on, I’d like to drive you out of your wretched mind….”
Collins was yelling into the microphone: “Do the Africans have theatre? When they beat their drums and do their dances? Do the Latin Americans have theatre? Do the Cubans have theatre? Do the Vietnamese have theatre? I want Brustein to answer yes or no.”
“Yes,” I shouted. By this time, I was off the platform and sitting with friends.
A woman in a fur wrap pushed her way to the platform toward Rufus Collins, shouting: “You’re rude, you’re stupid, and you’re vulgar. People paid money to come here and listen to a discussion and you….” A young man came up behind her and started pinning an obscene message on the back of her wrap. A spectator came up and started pulling the message off. She continued her conversation with Julian Beck, who asked her: “Why are you wearing that loathsome fur?”
“To keep me warm.”
“You mustn’t wear the skins of animals,” Beck answered. “It’s disgusting,” and he tore the fur from her shoulders.
“Tell your people not to wear sheepskins then,” the woman said, and picked the fur up again.
“I tell them all the time,” Beck replied, taking her hat off her head and throwing it on the floor. “What are you doing about Vietnam? What are you doing for the black people?”
“Today I marched in Newark,” the woman said, in a tight voice. “I am a poet, and I am as outraged as you over the treatment of the blacks in this country.”
“It’s not enough, it’s not enough,” said Beck. He was shouting now.
The woman said quietly, “Today I feel more hate than I have ever felt in my life. I’m going home now. I’m going to write a poem about the hate I feel for you.”
Now Richard Schechner, former editor of The Drama Review, was on the platform, fondling one of the mikes. He sat crosslegged, smiling. With his moustache, long hair, and striped tee shirt, he looked like an apache dancer. “You’ve all got to try to understand this,” he said to the angry audience. “You’ve got to learn to groove with it. Let’s all have five minutes of meditation to think about the beautiful thing that’s happening here.”
By this time the noise in the Meeting House was bouncing off the walls, like a bad mix in a recording studio. Everyone was wandering around the hall or shouting. I was beginning to enjoy myself. Two private cops, both of them black, came into the room, trying to look friendly and relaxed. They were mostly concerned with preventing any smoking in the hall.
Suddenly, the wave of bodies in the aisle parted. Norman Mailer had risen, and was strutting toward the platform, pitching and rolling like a freighter in a heavy sea. He was wearing a well-made dark blue suit with a vest, and his face was flushed. He grabbed one of the mikes.
“I was one of those that applauded when Mr. Black over there said ‘Fuck Technology’—so I’m not going to use this thing.” He laid the mike on the pew beside him. “I’m forty-six years old. I’ve got a strong voice, but I don’t want to waste it. So I want you all to listen, and listen hard.” Some of the tumult subsided.
“This is a tough town,” Mailer continued, “the toughest town in the world. Because if you think you’re tough, there’s always somebody who’s tougher. Remember that!” The tumult was beginning again. “Now I’ve got a message for Mr. Black over there. You’ve got no surprises, and you haven’t had any since the French Revolution. I’ve seen all this jacquerie before, many times before. Get it? J-a-c-q-u-e-r-i-e—it’s a pun in case you don’t know it.” This pun was lost on most of the audience, including me.
Ben Israel grabbed a mike: “You should have sent your suit up there Mailer, and stayed home yourself.” Collins started to scream at him, but Mailer remained on the platform for a short while, a faint hard smile on his face, trying to stare down his noisy antagonists. Then he said, “I guess I lost Round One,” and left the platform.
About a third of the spectators had drifted out by this time. Some wandered into the back room where drinks and sandwiches were being served. Paul Goodman had returned to the hall to be told by Rufus Collins: “I don’t take drugs to escape from reality. I take drugs to reach reality.” Hentoff remained on the platform, a weary witness. Saul Gottlieb, the producer of the Living Theatre’s American tour, was talking gently into a microphone.
“I want Bob Brustein to say why he thinks the Living Theatre is fascist.”
Saul is a portly, stooped man with a fuzzy beard, a veteran of many ideological wars. I went up to the platform and gave him a kiss.
Judith Malina, holding a microphone, was now walking back and forth in front of her husband, like a jaguar.
“I think what happened here tonight was beautiful and good,” she said. “You’ve had an experience—like you’ve never had before. This is what we should all be discussing now, how beautiful this evening was. How many people here think it was beautiful?”
“It’s boring, IT’S BORING,” came a voice from the hall. “You may think it’s beautiful, but it’s not what we came for. The subject was Theatre or Therapy, and all we got tonight was therapy—Living Theatre therapy. When do we get to listen to some discussion about theatre?”
“This is better than discussion, better than theatre,” replied Miss Malina. “It’s spontaneous, it’s authentic, it’s real, it’s beautiful.”
Stanley Kauffmann, the critic, was on his feet, and it was the only time in my life I have seen him angry. “You’re lying. The whole thing was phoney! You staged it. You and your stooges. You brought your stooges here tonight and staged the whole dismal affair.”
“No, no,” Judith Malina cried. “We allow our people to do just what they want to do. Everybody should be allowed to do what he wants. That’s what’s so beautiful about freedom.”
“You talk about freedom!” somebody else shouted. “What about our freedom? We weren’t allowed to have what we paid for. Your freedom is our repression!”
Julian Beck, who all this time had been sitting silent and withdrawn, suddenly stood up. “This is the future,” he said. “It’s happening all over the country. And it will happen again and again whenever you try to hold a meeting. This is the future.”
In one of the Marx Brothers movies, there is a scene in which Harpo picks up a book, looks it over very carefully, and then goes into a blind fury, tearing the book to bits and jumping up and down on the pages and the binding.
Groucho: “What’s the matter with him?”
Chico: “He gets angry because he can’t read.”
Playing It Straight May 22, 1969