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…

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