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Farewell to Fosse

Fosse was dead and after the urgent calls and the logistics of death, there seemed nothing really to do about it except go for a walk along Broadway in the midnight rain.

This was the square mile of the earth Bob Fosse cared for more than any other. Up there on the second floor at 56th Street was the rehearsal hall where I’d met him years ago. Around the corner was the Carnegie Deli, where he’d have lunch with Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner, trading lines, drinking coffee, smoking all those goddamned cigarettes. On the 11th floor of 850 Seventh Avenue, he and Chayefsky and Gardner had their separate offices, and from Paddy’s they would often gaze in wonder across the back courtyard of the Hotel Woodward, at the man in underwear who was always shaving, no matter what the hour. A few blocks away was the building where Fosse lived the last decade of his life.

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And down the rain-drowned avenue was the sleazy hamlet I always thought of as Fosseville: all glitter and neon and dangerous shadows. This wasn’t Runyon’s fairy-tale Broadway; it was harder, meaner, as reliable in its ruthlessness as a switchblade. Yet even in his most cynical years, Fosse insisted on seeing its citizens as human, observing their felonies and betrayals not as a journalist or a sociologist but as the fine artist he was. “I see a hooker on a corner,” he said to me once, “and I can only think: there’s some kinda story there. I mean, she was once six years old … ” On this late night, I could see Fosse in black shirt and trousers, standing in some grimy doorway, looking out at his lurid parish; he had been young here and almost died here and sometimes fled from the place and always came back. In Fosseville the gaudiest dreams existed side by side with the most vicious betrayals; everything was real but nothing was true. And, of course, he believed in some dark way that all could be redeemed by love.

Nobody loved harder. He loved his wives: Mary Ann Niles, who danced with him in the last years of the nightclub era (and who died a year after Fosse), Joan McCracken, who died on him when they were both young, and Gwen Verdon, who was with him when he lay down for the final time on the grass of a small park in Washington. But Fosse wasn’t one of those men who can be married; the emotional core of his masterpiece, All That Jazz, is not so much the romantic attraction of death, but the impossibility of fidelity. There were simply too many beautiful women in this world, with their grace and style and intelligence and mystery; the demand of monogamy was like ordering a man to love only one Vermeer.

And so he loved many women; most were dancers and actresses, because in the world where he worked they were the women he met. He treated all of them with the same grace. I saw him most often when he was between women; he was then usually engulfed by a bleakly romantic sense of loss (although the only remorse he ever expressed was about Gwen). When be met a new woman, when he was swept away, he would vanish from his usual precincts; no male friends were as important as a woman or the possibility of love.

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It was no accident that he always celebrated women in his work, although he was hardly an illustrator of feminist dogma. In the ’50s and ’60s, half the men I knew were in love with Gwen Verdon, who on stage combined humor, vulnerability, toughness, and sensuality in shows designed, choreographed, directed by Fosse. She always moved the tough guys most of all. “Every time I see her,” the sports-writer Jimmy Cannon said of Gwen, “I want to run away with her.” When Damn Yankees was in its long run, Paul Sann, the greatest newspaperman I ever knew, said of Gwen one night: “You better go see her now, kid, ’cause you ain’t gonna see anything like her again on Broadway for the rest of your fucking life.” About Gwen Verdon, as about so many things, Sann was absolutely right.

But if it’s forever impossible to separate Fosse from Gwen, he was also a fine director of other women. Liza Minnelli, Valerie Perrine, and Anne Reinking did their best work with Fosse. He was one of the few directors to see King Kong and recognize that Jessica Lange could be a superb actress; later they would become lovers, and he would cast her as the Angel of Death in All That Jazz. It was entirely appropriate, of course, that Fosse would imagine death as a woman, thus merging his two most passionate obsessions.

But he loved other things too: almost all forms of music; nightclub comics; cheap vaudeville jokes (Q. “Do you file your nails?” A. “No, I throw them away …”); the New York Mets; good food (he spent hours cooking in the huge kitchen of the house in Quogue, bringing his perfectionism to the details of the simplest meal); Fred Astaire (there were no pictures of himself in the Quogue house and two of Astaire); air hockey; children; New York Post headlines; boxing and football; his daughter Nicole; good wine, margaritas, and brandy; his cat, Macho, a stray discovered beaten-up and bloodied in the Quogue grasslands and nursed to plump domesticity; and, of course, those goddamned cigarettes.

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After family and lovers, he admired writers more than anyone else. Among his friends were Gardner and Chayefsky, E. L. Doctorow, Peter Maas, and Budd Schulberg. Although he liked to affect the I’m-only-a-song-and-dance-man pose, Fosse was a careful, intelligent reader. His writer friends knew how high Fosse’s own standards were (whether he failed or succeeded, he never set out to manufacture crap) and they often responded to his subtle urgings that they do better. Some writers who worked with him were angry at the end, as he demanded from them what he could more easily demand from a dancer; those who didn’t work with him had easier friendships.

Yes, Fosse was competitive, and cared (perhaps too much) about the way he stood in relation to other directors. In 1974, after he had his first ferocious heart attack, Gardner and Chayefsky were summoned to Fosse’s hospital room to serve as witnesses to his will. There were two lawyers waiting. Fosse was in critical condition in his bed, silent and trapped in a ganglia of tubes and wires. The lawyers asked the two writers to sign the will; Gardner did so immediately. But Chayefsky insisted on reading the text. He discovered that Fosse hadn’t left him anything, so he turned to the silent Fosse and said: “Fuck you, live!” Fosse started to laugh; all measuring devices began to go wild; the lawyers blanched; a platoon of nurses arrived to save Fosse’s life. Finally, all was calmed down again. Chayefsky resumed reading the will while Fosse lay silent. Then Paddy came to a provision that reserved $20,000 for a party for Fosse’s friends. Hey, that’s great, Chayefsky said, it’s just what Josh Logan did. For the first time, Fosse spoke.

“How much did Logan leave for the party?” he said, in a thin weak voice.

“Twenty thousand,” said Chayefsky.

“Make mine twenty-five,” said Fosse, falling back, as Chayefsky and Gardner dissolved into laughter. That visit probably saved his life.

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Quite simply, Fosse wanted to be the best at what he did. In that impossibly romantic quest, he drove dancers hard (although never harder than he drove himself) and kept demanding more from his stars. He worked hard at understanding actors, studying with Sanford Meisner, reading the basic texts from Stanislavski to Harold Clurman. And he developed his own ways to get his actors to do their best work.

“He could act incredibly humble when he wanted something from you,” said Roy Scheider, who believes his own best work was in All That Jazz. “When he met someone he wanted for the first time, he knew everything about you. He’d done research, he’d seen your movies or plays. He’d say, ‘You know, you were very good in that part, hey, wait, you got a nomination, didn’t you? You won.’ And there’d be a pause, after he did all this praising. And then he’d say how that was nothing compared to what lies ahead in your work with me. And he made you believe it. And then he did it … After three, four meetings you’d be thoroughly convinced that you were not capable of giving him what he wanted. And then he would begin to build your confidence, making you feel that your reflowering would take place in his show.” Scheider laughed. “You see, for him, it was always being done for posterity. Every time out of the chute, it was for history.”

Because he worked so hard, and because he knew how much pain was involved in the making of a show or a movie, Fosse generally despised critics. He thought they saw too much and, as a result, their sensibilities were blunted, making them unable to respond to amazing theatrical moments in the way an audience might. They were all too glib, dismissing (or praising) two years of another’s work in a review dashed off in an hour. He thought critics were primarily responsible for the failure of Star 80 (based on Teresa Carpenter’s brilliant article for the Voice); when Big Deal opened to lukewarm reviews last year and then closed after 100-odd performances, he was disheartened.

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“Maybe all they want are Eddie Murphy movies or sets that sing,” he said. “Maybe all they want is shit. Maybe it’s over for people like me.”

But he was still working at the end; trying to choose between a movie about Walter Winchell, a movie version of Chicago, probably with Madonna, or something completely new. During the summer, we talked a few times about his experiences during the Second World War, when he was a 17-year-old sailor working in an entertainment unit in the South Pacific; he was with the first Americans to enter Japan at the end of the war and was still horrified at the scale of the destruction in Tokyo and the stupidly brutal way so many American soldiers treated the Japanese, particularly the women. “It still makes me sick,” he said. “That was the first time I was really ashamed to be an American.” The contrast between the idealism of fighting the war and the morally corrosive realities of victory was a splendid setup for a Fosse movie, but Fosse was uneasy about it. “That world is gone, that music, the way people were … Most of the country wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

Now we’ll never know. The night after we all got the news, there was a small gathering at Gardner’s apartment, a kind of secular wake. Some wept; others told the old stories, with examples of Fosse’s dark humor; all were in shock, because Fosse had been looking better than at any time in years. Later, wandering through Broadway in the rain, I thought that for Fosse, who so perfectly expressed a certain vision of New York, the worst thing about dying in Washington might have been that he closed out of town. ♦

1987 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about director and choreographer Bob Fosse


Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism

Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism 

It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.

Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respect­ful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.

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Proper Meter 

Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mai­ler’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which need­ed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.

For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by in­vocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have will­fully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: pros­titutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fra­ternals in “the Blacks.”

Among the Negro artists and in­tellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of dif­fering aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “in­surance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)

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Romantic Shadows

But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical com­mentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.

After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most ex­plosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged him­self mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.

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About Themselves

For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than any­thing else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculat­ed, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man be­cause the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most des­pise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”

This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most pro­found of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seem­ed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.

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Their Anticipations

It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more at­tention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.

With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most in­side of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”

It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an ex­panded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assump­tions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)

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Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning cer­tain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some frac­tion of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”

The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improv­erished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Ne­groes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, in­nocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin tempera­ment.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Sey­mour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engag­ed in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.

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Dies Hard

Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the Ameri­can black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.

Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.

No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working­-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who be­lieves in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.

That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascenden­cy of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or any­thing else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.

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Prison of the Premise

Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-conscious­ness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is im­possible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, al­most without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.

It points up the incredible eager­ness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; be­cause of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.

Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.

Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They pre­ferred a display of public dishon­esty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swing­ing thing to do.”

I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.

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Less Sophisticated

As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)

Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly be­lieves that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He re­iterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which re­mains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”

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LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, some­how, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consum­ing outrage because of the spec­tacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly saluta­tion.

It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.

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Above All

And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for tel­ling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confi­dence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.

Norman, write not of the great­ness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Norman Mailer on Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 1
May 11, 1961

No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thundering productions in the mind only. We know they might be done (“King Lear,” for example, should be played by Ernest Hemingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, madness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is cancer gulch. Any­one who has worked in it felt the livid hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerless yaws of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponderous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

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Fever for All

By way of preface to some re­marks on “The Blacks.” If one is tempted to say it is a great play (with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery), one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions off imagination’s alley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of “The Blacks” ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug­-house with anxiety to some, nerv­ous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good produc­tion, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play. It is a hot hothouse tense livid off-fag deep-purple voodoo mon Doo production, thick, jungle bush, not unjazzy, never cool, but at its worst, and Gene Frankel’s touch is not always di­rected to the fine, the gloomy ac­colade one must offer is that “The Blacks” is three times as good a production as that finking of the pieces and parts one saw last year in “The Balcony.” Frankel does an honest job, he clarifies the play ­— at a cost, but he does make it easier to see the play than to read it — he enriches the production upon occasions. The rich farty arts, that only grace our theatre can claim, are used with good force. The savory in Genet (that outer-Wil­liams, the ta-ta Tennessee, cry not that the French write it better than thee) is laid on rich and that is probably right. What but a funky style could handle a murder by fornication of a white woman who is really a black vicar in a wig, dig, who turns around and comes out not to be killed at all, because Genet likes vastly to put Pirandello in a pretzel. This metamorphosis of forms, this fall into death by re­verses brings an arbitrary climax to the play (since it comes just before the producer’a questionable if artistic decision to have an inter­mission) and it is, if one is to talk like a theatre bore, one of the best 10 minutes spent in the pit since … So forth. It’s very good. Frankel surprised me for 10 min­utes. The actors too. As recom­mendations go, this play is Highly Recommended. Take your family, take the kids, take the hoodlums on the corner. Take your gun.

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Fact of the matter, I am gracious to Mr. Frankel because I think he did a not unbrave thing in direct­ing this piece. “The Blacks” is a Mother F. Kerr. It is a challenge, as some of the adenoidals may still be saying. Consider this speech as a clue to the heat of the evening. Delivered with considerable ele­gance and cold fire by Mr. Roscoe Lee Browne:

“ARCHIBALD (gravely): I order you to be black to your very veins. Pump black blood through them. Let Africa circulate in them. Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they’re condemned to be, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes. Let them not be content with eating Whites, but let them cook each other as well. Let them invent recipes for shin-bones, knee-caps, calves, thick lips, everything. Let them invent unknown sauces. Let them invent hiccoughs, belches and farts that’ll give out a deleterious jazz. Let them invent a criminal painting and dancing. Negroes, if they change toward us, let it not be out of indulgence, but terror.”

Now contemplate the problem of a director. He is to deal with 13 actors, all Negro, in the truest and most explosive play anyone has yet written at all about the turn in the tide, and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart as he turns to face his judge. For after all where do nightmares go when they are gone? Who is to say the gates of heaven are not manned by cannibals mumbling: Lumumba!

Rehearsals inevitably must com­mence in a state. For the actors are not Africans. They are Amer­ican Negroes, they belong some of them to the Black Bourgeoisie which any proud Negro is quick to tell you is a parody of the white bourgeoisie — the party’s-getting-­out-of-line kind of cramp on the jazz. They belong to the Center, to the Left Minority Center, the New York Post, Max Lerner, Rose Franzblau, Jackie Robinson (bruis­es the heart to list his name), Mus­cular Dystrophy, Communities-of­-Cancer, synagogue-on-Sunday, put up those housing projects, welfare the works, flatten the tits, mash the best, beef the worst, and marry the slack and mediocre Negro to the slack and mediocre Jew. Whew!

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The Real Horror

But organized religion is the death of the essay. Let us leave the mediocre at this: the real horror worked on the Jews and the Ne­groes since the Second War is the mass-communication of nothing­ness into their personality. They were two of the greatest peoples in America, and half of their popula­tions sold themselves to the sub­urb, the center, the secure; that diarrhea of the spirit which is embodied in the fleshless query: ”Is this good for the Jews?” So went the Jew. So went the Negro. The mediocre among them rushed for the disease.

Well, the Negro at least has his boast. They are part, this black bourgeoisie, of a militant people moving toward inevitable and much-deserved victory. They can­not know because they have not seen themselves from outside (as we have seen them), that there is a genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land of earth. The genius of that land is a cruel one, it may be even an unrelenting genius, void of for­giveness, but it is impossible that the survival, emergence, and even­tual triumph of the Negro during his three centuries in America will not be considered by history as an epic equal to the twenty centuries the Jew has wandered outside. It will be judged as superior if the Negro keeps his salt.

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The Bends

But for now, they are going through the bends. They suffer from that same slavery of ascent the geist imposes on all of us. It is Liberal Totalitarianism. Curiosity of the age! The concentration camps exist in the jargon of our souls, one’s first whiff of the gas chamber is the nausea of cancer’s hour, the storm troopers wear tor­toise-shell glasses, and carry at­tache cases to the cubicles in which they work on the Avenue of the Mad. The liberal tenets of the Center are central; all people are alike if we suppress the ugliness in each of us, all sadism is evil, all masochism is sick, all spontaneity is suspect, all individuality is in­fantile, and the salvation of the world must come from social manipulation of human material. That is why all people must tend to be­come the same — a bulldozer does not work at its best in rocks or forest. Small accident that many of the Negro leaders are as color­less as our white leaders, and all too many of the Negroes one knows have a dull militancy com­pared to the curve and art of per­sonality their counterparts had even 10 years ago. The misapprehension on which they march is that time is on the side of the Negro. If his hatred is contained, and his individuality reduced, the logic of the age must advance him first to equality and then to power (goes the argument), because the Center makes its dull shifts through guilt and through need. Since the Negro has finally succeed­ed in penetrating the conscience of the best Whites, and since the worst Whites are muzzled by our need to grant the Negro his equa­lity or sink a little faster into the icy bogs of the Cold War, the Negro knows he need merely ape the hypocrisies of the white bour­geoisie, and he will win. It is a partial misapprehension. In the act of concealing himself, the Negro does not hasten his victory so much as he deadens the taste of it.

A fine sermon. Its application to the theatre is not arcane. The Negro tends to be superior to the White as an entertainer, and in­ferior as an actor. No need to dis­cuss the social background; it is obvious the Negro has had virtual­ly no opportunity to develop as an actor until the last few years, and the comparison is to that large ex­tent most unfair, but it is made nonetheless because the Negro does not generally lack professional competence as an actor, he lacks relaxation. The bad Negro actor reminds one of nothing so much as a very bad White actor: he orates, declaims, stomps, screams, prates, bellows, and binds, his emotions remain private to him­self, his taste is uncertain or directly offensive to the meaning of the play, he is in short a bully.

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Sense of Self

Now this is curious. Because the greatest entertainers in America have been Negro, and the best of the Whites, Sinatra, etc., etc. — I refuse to make a list here — exhibit their obvious and enormous debt every time they make a sound. The Negro entertainer brought mood and tempo, a sense of self, an ear for audience. The cadence in the shift of the moment became as sensuous as the turning of flesh in oneself or within another. Extraordinary was the richness of intimate meaning they could bring to a pop tune. It was their fruit, the fruit of Aesopian language. Used to employing the words ex­pected of them by the White, the Negro communicated more by voice than by his word. A simple sen­tence promised the richest opportunities to his sense of nuance that is it did if the simple sen­tence did not speak too clearly in its language. To the extent that meaning was imprecise, the voice could prosper. For meaning was ferocious in its dangers. Back of the throat, in the clear salts of language, was the sentence graven on the palate: White man, I want to kill you. Ofay, you die.

So the style of the American Negro took on its abstract manner. Where the sentence said little, the man said much; where the words were clear, the person was blank. The entertainer thrived, the actor was stunted. The Negro, steeped in the danger of his past, would obviously be in dread of en­tering the cage of formal meaning; he could hardly do it with the deep relaxation of a great actor. It is one thing for Olivier to be magni­ficent but for a Negro it is simply too dangerous. The emotions bank­ed to suffocation in his heart are never far from erupting. So he speaks stiff, he declaims, he denies his person. Now, you or me can point to Sidney Poitier, to Canada Lee, to the good cast of “Raisin in the Sun,” to moments in “The Cool World,” to this, to that — I know. One speaks precisely of a tendency. Nothing other. (Who has not felt a tendency constrict his chest or cramp his feet?) Only the minds of the Center will say tomorrow that I said all Negro actors are bad. But this I do in­sist — they tend not to be good. And in “The Blacks” this tendency is exacerbated.

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Consider the emotions of the cast when they must utter lines like the following to a white audience:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

”You forget that I’m already knocked out from the crime I had to finish off before you arrived, since you need a fresh corpse for every performance.”

“And you, pale and odorless race, race without animal odors, without the pestilence of out swamps.”

“Invent, not love, but hatred, and thereby make poetry, since that’s the only domain in which we’re allowed to operate.”

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites and all other colors … ” ♦

Continued below…

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 2
May 18, 1961

Last week I left you — those of you who navigated the perils of my pompous prose — with a situation as be-jazzed as the end of one of those 12-installment serials we used to sit through on Saturday afternoons in neighborhood houses. Thirteen Negro actors at the edge of a cliff, obliged to utter such sweetmeats as:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”


“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites … “

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It’s a great deal to ask of a young Negro actor that he have the sociological sophistication to understand one can get away with this in New York, that our puri­tanical, bully-ridden, smog-headed, dull, humorless, deadly, violence­-steeped and all but totally corrupt city, famous for its housing pro­jects which are renowned as the ugliest architecture in the history of man, famous for its Mayor, Walkie-Talkie Bob, famous for its Commissioner of Parks, Newbold “Stringless” Morris, famous for its Fuehrer, R. Moses, the King of Concrete, famous for its Police and its Mafia (the happiest mar­riage of uglies in a century), fa­mous for its fix, famous tor the heroic efforts of the authority to stamp out The Menace, that ring of coffee-house dens where the Beats learn to plot, and triply famous for its newspapers, totali­tarian to the lashings — they will print any speech which is void of good prose — yes this famous city is so snob-ridden and so petrified of making a martyr that one can get away with near-murder. No­body will close “The Blacks,” or there’ll be demonstrations in Paris. No one will rise up from the audi­ence to strike the actors for sacri­lege. No hoodlums will paint swas­tikas on the marquee. The St. Marks’ Playhouse is a 200 seater or less, but if necessary 500 police would patrol the avenue to keep “The Blacks” going. Our democ­racy is a soporific hulk, a deadened old beast’s carcass with two or three nerves alive, no more. Like a dying patient, democracy holds on to the pain of its nerves, de­fends them. So the actors who play the parts are not taking their lives in their hands each night they go on, and the anxiety which lay heavy the night I saw the play, an anxiety which took the long jump from phenomenon to false conclusion (That cat in the front row has eyes for me. If I talk of killing one more White, I’ll be dead myself) will begin to dissolve before the reality: “The Blacks” is secure. The play is close to greatness, it will survive. It gives life to the city. There is so little real life in the dead haunt­ed canyons of this cancer-ridden city that a writer as surgical in his cruelties as Saint Genet gives Being back to the citizens. For in 20 years the doctors may discover that it is not only the removal of the tumor which saves the pa­tient but the entry of the knife. Cancer thrives on indecision and is arrested by any spirit of lightning present in an act. Cancer is also arrested by answers, which is why perhaps the cancerous al­ways seek for faith and cannot bear questions. The authoritarian wave of the twentieth century may be seen a century from now, if we still exist, as the reflection of man’s anxiety before the oncoming rush of this disease, a disease which is not a disease, but a loss of self, for unlike death by other causes, cancer is a rebellion of the cells. They refuse to accept the will, the dignity, the desire, in short the project of the person who contains them. They betray the body because they have lost faith in it. So in desperation the man who contains such illness ceases to be existential, ceases to care about a personal choice, about making a personal history and prefers instead to deliver his will to an institution or faith outside him in the hope that it will absorb the rebellious hatreds of his Being. Man turns to society to save him only when he is sick within. So long as he is alive, he looks for love. But those dying of inanition, boredom, frustration, monotony, or debilitating defeat turn to the Church, to the FBI, to the Law, to the New York Times, to authoritarian leaders, to movies  about the Marine Corps, or to the race for Space. For centuries it has been society’s boast that if it could not save a man’s soul, it could at least insure him from los­ing it. Ever since the orgy failed in Rome and the last decadence of the Empire welcomed the barbarian, the Western World has been relatively simple, a community of souls ruled by society. First the Church, then the Reformation, then Capitalism, Communism, Facism, and at last Medicine-Sci­ence-and-Management. But as it evolved, so Society used up its faith in itself. Today the Managers do not understand what they manage nor what is their proper goal, the Scientists are gored by Heisen­berg’s principle of Uncertainty, which in rough would state that ultimates by their nature are not measurable, and Medicine is beginning to flounder at the inability to comprehend its striking impotence before cancer. The modern faiths appeal to mediocrities whose minds are too dull to perceive that they are offered not answers but the suppression of questions; the more sensitive turn to the older faiths and shrink as they swallow emotional inconsistency: “I can’t bear Cardinal Spell but I adore Dorothy Day.” The cancerous who are inclined to the Fascist look to the police, the secret police, the krieg against crime, corruption, and Communists.

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Like Razors

“The Blacks” gives life because it is a work of perceptions which slice like razors; it cuts at one through the cancerous smog of partial visions and dim faith. It is a scourge to liberal ideology, vomitorium for the complacent. Eleanor Roosevelt would be ill, James Wechsler might sweat, Gov­ernor Lehman would leave. The play entertains the forbidden nightmare of the liberal: what, dear Lord, if the reactionary is correct, and people are horrible. Yet, with the same breath, it is revolutionary. Genet’s unconcealed glee at the turn of power from the White to the Negro would so charge the paranoia of the reac­tionary that he might suffer a heart attack.

Yet, as one insists, it is se­cure. It will thrive in the inter­stices of our totalitarian liberty, prosper out of the very contradic­tions which strangle our freedom. It will be a nerve which manages to supply the intellectual life of the city and ao keep it alive. One may hope the actors begin to settle into their parts, and start to offer the enrichments they can bring to almost every line by sensing their cues rather than picking them up, by savoring their lines instead of racing over them, and by com­mencing that work which is the real enterprise of the actor, that private effort of the imagination to create a real life for the char­acter they are playing, a life which begins before the play, will endure after it, and is drenched in the changeable mood of the present as they act the piece. The night I saw “The Blacks” the actors were fine every time they became en­tertainers. When they chanted in unison, when they danced, when they leaped from platform to platform, moved in choreographic starts and streamings, smoked cigarettes over the catafalque of the corpse to remove the stench of her murdered flesh, they were first-rate, the play came to life, the production was rich, colors were added to the script. But in their dialogue, particularly in the long quiet stretches of the first half-hour, they were tense and without individuality. No personal charm, no sly destruction of one another by the turn of a voice or slow laugh, no psychic wit to slice the presumption of another’s speech, no bodily contempt, no air was sufficient to be breathed. The Negro like the Zen master is, of necessity, the artist of the put-down. But it was this art, craft, this virtue — to dare to be sadistic in order to keep one’s authenticity — which was most missing. The play, as was suggested last week, rode lividly, gracelessly, nervously, over the best of Genet’s dialogue, his stops and starts, flowers and whips.

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Rich in Possibilities

But that may be recovered. The play is rich in poasibilities for an actor, so rich it can only improve provided the actors are serious about their work. On the months ahead, if they find themselves, the production could become a major piece.

As a drama critic, one is here obliged to take a bow. Over the past two weeks, 4000 words have been written. One has climbed his way over small essays on the Negro as actor and entertainer, the loss of spirit in minority groups, the vices of our city, the logic of cancer; one has even sermonized over the future of “The Blacks.” But not a word to summarize the story of the play. Not a specific line of criticism about Genet’s masteries and lacks.

It would take a larger bag of words than this to give account of the twists and turns, the frames within circles in the line of story of “The Blacks.” Even then one could not be certain. Since the attempt must still be made to con­tend with the vices of Jean Genet, I will quote here, however, from a description in The New York Her­ald Tribune:

“a group of colored players enacts before a jury of white-masked Negroes — representing in caricature a missionary bishop, an island Governor General, a haughty queen and her dwarf lackey — the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. When they have played out their weird and gruesome crime they turn on their judges and condemn them to death. Then — with polite adieux to the spectators — they dance with 18th-century elegance a Mozart minuet, with which the play began … “

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It is a fair job for a short para­graph. And it points the way to the worst contradiction in Genet. He is on the one hand a brave and great writer with an unrelenting sense of where the bodies are bur­ied. He is also an unconscionable faggot, drenched in chi-chi, ador­ing any perfume which conceals the smell of the dead, equally as much as he admires the murder. His first love is not art but magic. He provokes and then mystifies, points to the flower and smuggles the root. A boxer who wins every round on points and never sets himself long enough to throw three good punches in combination, Genet’s best perceptions are fol­lowed by his worst. A line which is a universal blow is followed by a speech too private for his latest lover to comprehend. Like Allen Ginsberg, he is maddening. In the middle of real power, a fart; in the depth of a mood comes a sneeze. The tortures and twists of his nervous system are offered as proudly as his creations; he looks not only for art but for therapy. With the best will in the world and the finest actors, no one in an audience could ever understand every single line in any one of his works, not even if one returned a dozen of times. He is willful, perverse. He has the mind of a master, and the manners of a vi­cious and over-petted child. So the clear sure statements of his work can never be found, and one senses with the whole of one’s critical faculty that they are not there to be found. Each delicate truth is carefully paralyzed by a lie he winds about it, each assertion of force is dropped to its knees on a surrealist wrench of the mean­ing.

Archibald: By stretching language we’ll distort it sufficiently to wrap ourselves in it and hide, whereas the masters contract it.

As Genet gives, he takes away; as he offers, his style chokes with spite. He cannot finally make the offer, the one who receives would not deserve it. So he builds the mansion of his art and buries it, encourages the stampede of a herd of elephants, rouses our nerves for an apocalyptic moment, and leaves us with an entrechat. To be satisfying, a fag’s art must be determinedly minor, one stone properly polished, deliciously set. Genet throws open a Spanish chest; as we prepare to gorge, we discover the coins are heated, the settings to the jewels have poison on their points.

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One does not spend one’s youth as a petty thief, one’s manhood as a convict in one prison after another without absorbing the vi­ciousness of a dying world. Genet’s biography is his character, never was it more so. Small surprise that Sartre could write a book of 600 pages in tribute. Genet is our first existential saint. But his de­testation of the world strangles the full organ of possibilities. He could become the greatest writer alive if only he dared, if only he contracted language to the point instead of stretching it.

In “The Blacks,” all the actors are Negro. Five are supposed to be White, but are White only as pretexts, as masks. In the murderous dialogues between Black and White which flicker like runs of summer lightning through the play, one never has the experience as it could be had: that moment of terror when Black and White confront one another with the clear acids of their unconscious. Witness the dialogue between the White Queen and the Negro wo­man Felicity:

“THE QUEEN (inspired): All the same, my proud beauty, I was more beautiful than you! Anyone who knows me can tell you that. No one has been more lauded than I. Or more courted, or more toasted. Or adorned. Clouds of heroes, young and old, have died for me. My retinues were famous. At the Emperor’s Ball, an African slave bore my train. And the Southern Cross was one of my baubles. You were still in darkness …

FELICITY: Beyond that shattered darkness, which was splintered into millions of Blacks who dropped to the jungle, we were Darkness in person. Not the darkness which is absence of light, but the kindly and terrible Mother who contains light and deeds.”

and a little later, The Queen:

“Show these barbarians that we are great because of our respect for discipline, and show the Whites who are watching that we are worthy of their tears.”

It could have the grandeur of Greek tragedy. In the context of the play it does not. One watches in one of those states of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Two principles do not oppose one another; instead a dance of three, a play of shimmers. White contends against Black but is really Black-in-White-mask against Black, and so becomes Black against Black. Much complexity is gained; much force is lost. These masks are not the enrichments and exaggerations of Greek tragedy, they are reversals of form. The emotion aroused in the audience never comes to focus, but swirls into traps.

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So with the action. One has a group of Negroes who are revolutionaries. They commit a ritual murder each night. But they are also players who entertain a world of White hierarchies, mounted literally above them on the stage. They are in subservience to them, yet they are not. For the audience never can quite forget that the Whites are really Blacks-in-White-masks. One is asked to consider a theme which may be the central moment of the twentieth century: the passage of power from the White to those he oppressed. But this theme is presented in a web of formal contradictions and formal turns sufficiently complex to be a play in itself.

Pirandello never made this mistake. His dance of mirrors was always built on pretexts which were flimsy, purposively minor. If one’s obsession is with the contra­dictory nature of reality, the audience must be allowed to dispense with the superficial reality in order to explore its depths. The foreground in “The Blacks” is too oppressive. One cannot ignore it. White and Black in mortal confrontation are far more interesting than the play of shadows Genet brings to it. If he insists with avant-garde pride that he will not be bullied by the major topicalities of his theme, and instead will search out the murmurs, the shivers, the nuances, one does not necessarily have to applaud. Certain themes, simple on their face, complex in their depths, insist on returning to the surface and remaining simple. The murder of Lumumba is thus simple. It is simple and it is overbearing. It is inescapable. One cannot treat it as a pantomime for ballet without making an aesthetic misjudgment of the first rank. It would be a strategic disaster of conception. So with Genet’s choice to add the minuet to Africa. One is left not with admiration for his daring, but with a dull sense of evasion. How much real emotion and complexity we could have been given if literal White had looked across the stage at literal Black. His rhodomontades and escapades leave us finally with the suspicion that Genet has not escaped the deepest vice of the French mind, its determination, no matter how, to say something new, even if it is absurd. And it is this vice which characterizes the schism in Genet as an artist, for he is on the one hand, major, moving with a bold long reach in to those unexplored territories at the edge of our awareness, and with the other, he is minor, a Surrealist, destroying the possibility of awareness even as he creates it.

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Destruction of Communication 

Surrealist art, stripped its merits, ignoring the exquisite talents of its painters and poets, depends in its abstract essence on a destruction of communication. To look at a painting and murmur “I see God in the yellow,” is surrealist; to say “I see God in the­ yellow because the color reminds me of the sun,” is not. The thought is no longer a montage of two unrelated semantic objects — it has become a progression. The logic leads to a cosmogony whose center is the life-giving sun. Of course the first sentence, the montage, is more arresting, a poetic tension is left if one says no more than “I see God in the yellow.” For some, the tension is attractive, for others it is not. Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

In Surrealism, the leap in communication is enormous. Purple apples, we write at random, salic­ious horses and cockroaches who crow like transistors. The charge comes more from sound than from meaning. Opposites and irrecon­cilables are connected to one an­other like pepper sprinkled on ice cream. Only a palate close to death could extract pleasure from the taste; it is absurd in our mouth, pepper and ice cream, but at least it is new.

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Mute Rage

As cultures die, they are strick­en with the mute implacable rage of that humanity strangled within them. So long as it grows, a civilization depends upon the elaboration of meaning, its health is maintained by an awareness of its state; as it dies, a civilization opens itself to the fury of those betrayed by its meaning, precisely because that meaning was finally not sufficiently true to offer a life adequately large. The aesthetic act shifts from the creation of mean­ing to the destruction of it.

The West may not be dying, but no one would deny it is profoundly ill. We inhabit a giant whose body is powerful and whose mind is divided. Like a schizophrenic, re­ality is no longer continuous, but broken into pieces which do not communicate with one another. Cockroaches who crow like trans­istors. Said aloud by an actor in a theatre, 80 people would sit in silence, 20 might laugh, each in different ways. The meaning is like an icepick used in a trans-­orbital lobotomy. The surgeon does not know what he is doing. He inserts his instrument, slashes the brain, severs the psychic structure, and makes arbitrary new connec­tions. The patient leaves, reduced in violence, and severed from his soul. Meaning has been destroyed for him, but by meaning a little less, he is able to live a little more calmly — at a level reduced from his best.

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So, one could argue, functions the therapy of the surrealist artist, of Dada, of Beat. Jaded, deadened, severed from our roots, dulled in leaden rage, inhabiting the center of the illness of the age, it becomes more excruciating each year for us to perform the civilized act of contributing to a collective mean­ing. The impulse to destroy moves like new air into a vacuum, and the art of the best hovers, stilled, all but paralyzed between the ten­sion to create and that urge which is its opposite. How well Genet personifies the dilemma. Out of the tension of his flesh, he makes the pirouette of his art, offering meaning in order to adulterate it, until at the end we are in danger of being left with not much more than the Narcissism of his style. How great a writer, how hideous a cage. As a civilization dies, it loses its biology. The homosexual, alienated from the biological chain, becomes its center. The core of the city is inhabited by a ghost who senses in the unwinding of his nerves that the only road back to biology is to destroy Being in others. What a cruel fate for Genet that he still burns with a creative heat equal to his detesta­tion of the world. The appropriate Hell he inhabits is to be a major artist and not a minor one, the body in which he sits has the chest of a giant, and the toes, unhappily, of a dancing master. ♦

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Václav Havel: The New King of Absurdistan

The New King of Absurdistan: Happy New Year with Dissident President Václav Havel
January 16, 1990

I LEFT CZECHOSLOVAKIA for Italy in 1978, on a two-week visa, presumably to confer with the writer Primo Levi on my translation of his book, Il Sistema Periodico. I extended the visa for 10 years.

When I returned to Prague for the first time in 1988 — well before the recent wave of change swept the country — despite the protec­tion of my U.S. passport and a plentiful supply of Bordeaux on the plane, my palms were sweat­ing. Not a lot had changed. None of my friends were optimistic about the future except for Michal Kocáb, a rock star and composer who had always been banned, balancing between being a conventionally harassed/unconventional artist and a nonperson dissident. Just a week before, he had given an interview to a German TV station in which he brazenly pro­claimed that the “old farts will have to go.”

He was right. Last September I found myself in Prague again, with a bit less sweat on my hands, in an atmosphere that strikingly resembled the Prague Spring or 1968. The leviathan was deliv­ering its last kicks, while dissidents were participating in discussions at the universities and factories. The Central Committee members were leaking classified party information like sieves. So many people predicted changes — usually an economic depression, perhaps a change of political leadership within two years — that I stopped asking whether and started ask­ing how.

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At his favorite pub, Na Rybárne, Václav Havel was drinking beer with a dozen friends, toasting Martina, a fragile woman who had just become a political widow (that morning her husband, Char­ter 77 dissident Sasa Vondra, had reported to prison for a two-month sentence).

“Communist officials,” Havel mouthed into his beer stein, “are worried about two things: one, they think I am compil­ing a list of artists who will not be al­lowed to publish, direct, or act when things turn around and today’s dissidents are in power, and two, that the offspring of Communist parents will not be allowed to go to college.”

A woman with a generous décolletage and a mini-tape recorder sat on his right hand — a reporter from the increasingly independent Socialist Party official daily, Svobodné Slovo. Sitting on the outer edge of the table, I listened to Havel’s story about the holiday chain of visits to wom­en admirers, which ended with him being ferreted out by journalists and falling into a sewer.

“And, as I was down there groping for my life in the shit,” he deadpanned, “I thought about the headlines for [the offi­cial Communist daily] Rude Pravo: DISSIDENT SCUM DIES THE WAY HE LIVED.”

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AS THE ABSURDIST playwright surfaced as the likeliest candidate for King of Ab­surdistan last month, I landed there with my friend Bonnie Stein.

The Civic Forum offices have moved twice in the first three weeks of the revo­lution, and are now at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, manned mostly by stu­dents. The atmosphere is one of jubilant disorganization and bohemian messiness. Many of the protagonists, including Václav Havel, invoke the ’60s when they talk to us, but it is hard to tell whether they refer to the reform movement that led to the Prague Spring or the omni­present ghost of flower power. While they profess that words like socialism, cap­italism, right, and left have become empty shells, love, democracy, gentle­ness, trust, ecology are sacred invoca­tions …

The premises used to belong to the Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship Society, and our friends repeatedly stress the irony with a childish glint in their eyes.

Phone lists, messages, slogans, en­larged political cartoons, and three incongruous neckties are tacked to the walls. Much noise has been made about Havel’s crossover into the realm of ties and suit jackets, but many have shared in his new sartorial sophistication. (“When we start­ed the Havel na Hrad [presidential cas­tle] campaign,” says Havel’s speech watchdog, Petr Oslzly, “we polled some ‘normal’ people about what they would like [Vaclav] to change about himself, and many responded he should wear a tie. Then some workers from a garment factory brought us five ties, and since he had already found one of his own, we keep them in the office as an emergency tie pool. Whenever anybody needs one, he borrows it off the wall … “)

In the office: one copier, a peach-faced guy Friday pecking at a brand-new com­puter, and too few overloaded phone lines. Jan Urban, old friend and Forum spokesman, fills us in on all the madness while we help him and a bunch of stu­dents carry a half-ton safe five flights up.

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“This is what I have to do between Round Table meetings with the powers­-that-be,” he sighs. “Must be a punish­ment for not accepting all those lucrative job offers. Yesterday, it was the chief of a TV department, and today, an ambassador. Persecution forced me to become a dissident, now all I want to do is to finish this spring cleaning and be my own man again.”

Katherine, a medical student, climbs over the resting safe. “There is a man downstairs that absolutely has to speak with you or, he says, the Forum in his town is doomed.”

The antiorganization character of the Civic Forum, with its policy of nonparty nonpolitics, intensifies the natural revo­lutionary sloppiness to create a sense of being too busy to breathe. Guests and Civic Forum leaders alike often stop to wonder aloud, “How could we have possi­bly won? We are just lucky that the Com­munist Party turned out to be in a much bigger mess than we expected.”

Visitors are loosely frisked in the post­er-covered entrance hall. Two baby-faced policemen and a mug-faced plainclothes detective have taken positions by the doorway. They are armed, refuse to di­vulge their names, but they are here at Forum request after some threatening let­ters and phone calls. At best, their screening helps to check the stream of well-wishers and gawkers. Any half-seri­ous terrorist carrying an expired East Pe­oria sanitation department union card could dance all the way to Havel’s door.

ON THE FRIDAY BEFORE Christmas, we watch Havel spar with journalists at a press conference in Laterna Magica Theatre. On periodic pilgrimages to the chief dissident during the last 20 years, the media have had (but did not always pub­lish) a rambling statement. Now, he dodges their questions in public, and the aura of persecuted innocence is fading.

“The reason I am doing this press conference is because many journalists have asked me for interviews,” Havel says. “And I am sorry to say that if I did this for everyone who wanted me to I would only have time to comment on the revo­lution, not participate in it.”

When a two-party political system is mentioned, Mr. H. seizes the opportunity to outline his ideal of non-politics politics:

“Personalities should play an increasingly important role in the future, and political parties should have a lesser role. According to me, political parties should be reduced to mere clubs, in which political personalities are born and find their platform. But I think political parties should not directly wield power, because that is one of the methods by which the powers-that-be become anonymous. In my opinion the only way of saving this civilization is to liberate the human being from manipulation by all megastructures which modern man has created, and which now are in the process of destroy­ing him.”

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“What was the last artistic work you were able to complete,” I ask, “and when do you see the next one coming?”

“My last play is called Slum Clearance. It is supposed to be produced in New York sometime soon. I wrote it two years ago. Last year I started another play, but I have never been able to finish it be­cause, as you see, history has overtaken me. But I do believe the moment will come when I will be able to complete it.

“I’ll be happy when my popularity dis­sipates because it is slightly complicating my work.”

While our noncandidate offers nonanswers and one-liners to journalists ­and speaks convincingly of new, “legible” parties to machine workers in Presov and ironworkers in Kladno — his aides are learning the art of making nonstatements and strategic leaks. On December 23, one tells us about an old Czech tradition of eating snails on the day before Christ­mas. “This is very confidential,” we are told, “but Klasterni Vinarna (Cloister Wine Cellar) at lunchtime is the best place to observe such a tradition.”

We take the hint and wait in ambush for our playwright on the day before Christmas Eve. Havel strides in with an enormous bouquet of red roses. By some fluke we manage to get past John Bok, Havel’s private iron curtain. Mr. H. smiles, and begs for pity — this is the first personal moment he has had in six weeks. He is visibly exhausted, but glad to make an exception from the no-inter­view policy for us. Any other time but now. How about after Christmas?

We enjoy our expensive lunch, fried breadcrumbs laced with snail slivers, crowned with a chambered nautilus.

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FOUR DAYS LATER, on December 27, we enter the crowded waiting room of Ha­vel’s office in the Civic Forum building with a flower for the playwright. Havel expects to be named president in two days, after which he will leave for a tour of the two Germanies — instead of Moscow, the traditional destination of inaugural state visits.

“Mr. President” — John Bok’s tongue slips, as many have since Havel’s adversaries in the Federal Assembly, only one week earlier, beslobbered one another in unanimous praise of their archenemy — ­”Mr. President will see you in a few minutes.”

The office is filled with the familiar faces of Havel’s entourage, all busily writ­ing, listening to tapes, editing, whispering. In an adjacent nook, Havel confers with Eda Kriseova, his spokeswoman.

Havel greets us with a warm handshake and attentive, blue eyes. The walls of the office are covered with posters and photos. There are two intriguing recent gifts: a plaque of the Bill of Rights from a U.S. senator (no one can remember who), and a watercolor with a calligraphic inscription from Samuel Beckett’s play, Catastrophe, dedicated to Václav Havel.

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VÍT HOREJS: Mr. Havel, we have followed your work in New York and enjoyed your plays at the Public Theatre. First of all l want to know something about you. What is the driving force behind Václav Havel

VÁCLAV HAVEL: That is easy, I can even answer you in English. I don’t know. [Laughter] But for your purposes, I must say something. I do not consider myself a very strong or courageous man. Others may judge my courage. I did not invent the complications in my life, neither pris­on nor presidency. Fate, in its weird, tortuous way, has placed me in these predicaments.

HOREJS: What will be your priority as president of Czechoslovakia?

HAVEL: If I am president, I must lead this country toward free elections and insure that the road be peaceful and fair. The same ideals of love which carried through our merry revolution should guarantee that the elections will not be sullied by intrigue and ambition. And I will also contribute to strengthening the authority and credibility of Czechoslovakia in the world.

HOREJS: You said that you would agree to be president temporarily until the free election period. How do you expect to make the difficult adjustment back from politics to art?

HAVEL: If all goes the way I wish it to, I will be a temporary, one-task president. And then, I would like to work some­where in the theater and devote myself to my literary work. That doesn’t mean that I will resign from my civic-minded duties. If the motherland wants or needs me again, I will be at her disposition until the end of my days.

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HOREJS: What are the similarities between your political work and your work as a playwright? How does one influence the other?

HAVEL: I, myself, don’t have any con­scious intention to transpose theater into politics or to carry politics into theater. Nevertheless, I have observed that our revolution, thanks to its heavenly direc­tor and not to me, has several elements of classical drama and theater of the absurd. It is, in fact, actually quite closely related to a theater experience.

HOREJS: You mentioned a new play that you have been, or rather have not been, writing for a while about an aging dicta­tor who loses his power and becomes ri­diculous. Do you intend to finish this play, and if so, do you think it will change now?

HAVEL: I started to write this play a year ago, in the fall. I didn’t finish it, then I went to prison, and then this [revolution] started. There was so much other work to do that I didn’t get back to it at all. Nevertheless, I returned to it for 10-days just before the revolution, and I found out that suddenly the material had some­how become very distant, and I was up with it. And that next, I need to start, as we say in Czech, “in a green meadow.” With completely different material, and I intend to throw this one out.

HOREJS: When you were in prison did you spend most of your time thinking about politics or about artistic work? Or how bad the food was? or what?

HAVEL: I had a great deal of time to think about many things. [Havel has spent a total of five and a half years in prison through four prison terms. The longest sentence was for four and a half years.]

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HOREJS: Are you familiar with the work of the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who is running for president of Peru? Should artists be, in general, more involved in politics?

HAVEL: As far as I know he is the only writer running for presidential office to­day — if we don’t count the presidents who write to celebrate their own glory. I feel even from some of his interviews that I read some parallels between his situa­tion and mine. Should I be president, it may be hard to find time to visit him in Peru. But perhaps he will find time to visit me here. And if he doesn’t find the time, at least we can exchange letters of condolence.

HOREJS: What do you think of Shirley Temple Black? Do you know her old films? What about her as a choice for U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia?

HAVEL: I know her, and I think she is certainly congenial enough for an ambas­sador. My wife knows her films more than I because she is kind of a film buff. Mrs. Black even gave me a book of her memoirs, and I have a videocassette of her old movies. When l have a free week­end, which I cannot expect to happen too soon, I would love to watch one of her old movies.

HOREJS: I am sure that you are busy and have many travel plans and invitations. Do you plan to visit the U.S. soon?

HAVEL: If Mr. Bush invites me, I would be glad to oblige. But at the most for two days. I don’t have time for any long visits.

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HOREJS: Yes, it would be nice if he does invite you. In the U.S. during the presi­dent’s last two months of his term, he is usually considered a lame duck. Since you will probably only serve a few months, do you think [Czech politicians] will try to stall decision-making, or prevent you from achieving your goals?

HAVEL: I am well aware that although I am a shy and polite person, if I am elect­ed, I will be a strong president. And I will not allow anyone to drag their feet on my programs.

HOREJS: In your essay “Words on Words” [Slovo o Slovu, an acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Booksell­ers association], you mention how words like “socialism” and “peace” may become billyclubs that a government uses to beat the population into apathy. You say that even a ward like “perestroika” could be­come a billyclub. We have noticed that in many of your political speeches you have had to simplify your thoughts. Do you think there is a danger now or in the future that your words could run away from you, be subject to corruption, and no longer under your control?

HAVEL: Of course there is such a danger, and I must be constantly on guard against that kind of thing. Mainly, I expect that there will be a free society with an opposition that keeps tabs on me, to notify me of such a danger should I not notice it myself. Right now this danger exists from a purely technical viewpoint because I have to repeat myself in steel foundries and the public squares, etc. Not everybody can follow everything, and I must get the message across somehow. The TV speeches are not enough for this, because not all people have the time to watch them. I try to vary some ideas, and don’t think that these words are becom­ing so stiff that they lose meaning by repetition.

HOREJS: Who are the writers and play­wrights in the U.S. that you admire?

HAVEL: Since I was young, I have highly valued American literature and have read all you can imagine, from Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg to Norman Mailer. At the moment, I can’t say that there is one writer that has had a direct influence on me. Of course there have been tons of indirect influences.

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But perhaps more than American liter­ature, it is the American atmosphere that has affected me since 1968, when I trav­eled there. Now I realize that there are numerous parallels between the ’60s in America and Czechoslovakia in the ’80s. I could illustrate with hundreds of cases, and I feel that the soul of the ’60s is being revived by us here today. In our country, in a different form, more articulately. And in that way I am influenced by America. I was in the U.S. for six months in ’68, and experienced such things as the very impressive student strikes.

Our revolution had a number of steps that were in some way preparatory states. One of these was, for example, the Joan Baez concert in Bratislava. She invited us there and spoke from the stage about Charter 77, and we agreed with many friends that the spirit of the ’60s was somehow revived there with Baez, a sym­bol for the non-violent ’60s peace move­ment. [In fact, that concert was stopped by the authorities and resulted in many arrests.]

HOREJS: We see that your staff is getting you ready for the TV interview. Have you anything else for us?

HAVEL: Yes, I would like to send greetings to all the Village Voice readers. And espe­cially please give my regards to my good friends, Joe Papp and Susan Sontag. Tell them to visit soon.

RITA KLIMOVA, THE NEW Czech ambas­sador-designate to the U.S., can’t make it to Havel’s presidential inauguration. We accept her invitation to watch it on TV in her home not far from the parade ground where the largest democracy demonstra­tions occurred in November. A round­-faced, vivacious mother figure, she was expelled from the party in 1970, then fired from her job as an economics pro­fessor. “They almost didn’t expel me,” she says, “but I convinced them that I did not agree with the [1968] invasion, and I had been going to [dissident] meetings.” In the Forum’s early days, she han­dled foreign journalists and interpreted for Havel, for no pay. Her English has a slight New York ring to it, leftover from childhood days when she and her family were refugees from Hitler living on Riverside Drive and 149th Street.

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Seeing Havel on TV in a beautifully tailored suit, tie, and dapper overcoat sends her rolling with laughter.

“Poor man! He hates this kind of thing. He must be so uncomfortable!”

Then, before you could say “dissident,” all the president’s enemies elect him by a suspiciously unanimous show of hands. Havel gives the shortest acceptance speech in history from the Prague castle balcony, then marches in front of the army, inspecting the uniforms of the pal­ace guard who parade in his honor. The irony of the situation sends us all into gales of hysterical laughter. But the bot­tom line is crystal clear: He is President! The only president in living history who, in one breath, can quote John Lennon, Samuel Beckett, and Immanuel Kant.

The next day, the Forum receives 200 calls about Havel’s too-short inaugura­tion trousers. The public is keeping an eye on him, supporting his claim that they scrutinize his mistakes.

We are invited to spend New Year’s Eve with Havel … and about 500 of his clos­est friends. Held in the tacky 1880’s Iron­workers’ Palace of Culture, a ballroom vaguely reminiscent of the Ritz, the party is sponsored by the “Society for a Merri­er Present.” Guests at this New Year’s bash include all Prague’s beautiful people, artists, Charter 77 signatories, and a handful of flashy foreigners: filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci; writer/professor Arnost Lustig from Washington University; and Metropolitan Museum chairman William Luers, a former ambassador to Czechoslovakia from the U.S., and his wife Wendy.

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Havel is guarded by six guys whose born-again smiles do not betray their black belts in karate. It is a party, definitely not a press conference, and Václav is The Good King: relaxed, smothered in kisses and well-wishes. Amid bubbly galore (the Czech and Russian Romanian champagne ran out before midnight) and waves of laughter, Bonnie sneaks in a couple of questions:

BONNIE STEIN: Happy New Year! So, How does it feel to be president? 

VÁCLAV HAVEL: [Smile, kiss.] Feel? Did you say feel? I have no idea. I have had no time for feelings.

STEIN: How was your meeting with Mario Soares, the Portuguese president?

HAVEL: He is the first president to visit me here, and to support me openly since last month. He and the students sent us 5000 roses. Mr. Soares has also been in prison, so we had an interesting exchange about our mutual experiences. And he gave me an automobile.

A 1989 RENAULT 21.

Havel is jovial and more like his old self, although he does wear a suit and has to slip away for an hour at midnight to Wensceslas Square, where 100,000 of his subjects wait to cheer in the year with him. The resemblance to the monarchy is uncanny.

By 4 a.m., we are wishing for even a fiberglass East German Trabant to putt-putt us home. With no taxis or public transportation available, we walk for a chilly mile, then thumb a ride from a moonlighting BMW with a well-pickled driver.

Everything is anticlimactic after the presidential New Year’s speech, which be­gan: “You didn’t elect me to tell you more lies.” Austerity is in the air. Even Rude Pravo, the communist daily, is downs­caled to half its size at double the price. The joke going around Prague: “Rude Pravo has gotten so small that those who read it can’t even hide behind it any­more.”

Still, at last the old saying has a new twist: “Now the dissidents can fart without getting arrested.” ■


CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Joe Papp Crowns Himself 

At the top of a Central Park hill, sweating in the cruel afternoon sun, some 50 young men are fran­tically waving banners, thwacking at each other with sticks, and hauling a huge wooden tower around. Furiously concentrated, seemingly oblivious to the heat, they respond to shouted commands from a man in a white shirt. Joe Papp, rehearsing Henry V, is once more leading his troupe.

Though he directs his followers with the single-minded intensity that young Henry brought to the fields of Agincourt, Papp carries 54 years. And despite his relentless omnipresence in the American theatre scene, his energies are not limitless. Three or four hours into rehearsal, the heat begins to get to him, and he removes his shirt. Suddenly, King Henry vanishes. Revealing, in an old-fashioned sleeveless undershirt, Shmuel Papirofsky’s aging boy.

Joseph Papp is both: the leader operating with what one critic called Henry’s “brilliance of inspired efficiency,” and the street-smart survivor of an impoverished Williamsburg childhood. There, as shoe-shine boy, chicken-plucker and — with his father — as a push­cart peanut vendor, life was work. It still is. The GI Bill and the Actors Studio may have provided a path to affluence, but the habit of struggle is ingrained. Henry’s leadership, in a mystery obscured by the centuries, was a function of his noble birth; Papp’s, perhaps no less mysteriously, is a triumph of the will.

“This play is really a study of leadership,” he said during a din­ner break, “of the leader of a major organization — a president, maybe — anybody that is in charge of men. It’s the third time I’ve done this play, and I’m doing it again now because I’ve learned a great deal about leadership since the last time. Now Paul Rudd, who’s playing Henry, doesn’t know any of that yet. He’s still really beginning; I gave him his first job, in the ensemble, only a few years ago. So I have to teach him about leadership. My authority has to be gradually transferred to him. For instance, I have to let him talk directly to the ensemble — direct them, almost — until he begins to feel like a king. A king, right. This isn’t some fucking Ei­senhower. He’s got to feel about his men the way I feel about the people in this show. Their souls are their own, but their duty is to me.”

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For Papp, leadership is not sim­ply a matter of hortatory rhetoric, but an all-consuming attention to detail. During a brief break in rehearsing Henry, three men in suits suddenly appear at his side. Carrying proposed illustrations from the adventurous ad agency of Case & McGrath (“I picked ’em myself,” says Papp. “Everyone said I was crazy to take a firm that hadn’t done theatre before, but they’ve been great.”), they retreat with Papp to the upper reaches of the Delacorte Theatre where he critically examines their work. Pleased with the illustration for Henry V, he nonetheless insists that a new model be brought in to pose for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, then dis­misses them. “And don’t,” he adds as they turn to make their way down the aisles, “Say ‘The Public Theatre.’ Say ‘The New York Shakespeare Festival.’ The theatre’s only a place; the festival is the organization.”

The New York Shakespeare Fes­tival is a somewhat anachronistic misnomer for an $8.5 million com­bine that, like Papp, came up from poverty. From its exceedingly unprepossessing origins in a black Presbyterian church located between Avenues C and D on the Lower East Side, the Shakespeare Festival is at once the hottest ticket on Broadway (A Chorus Line), the establishment (Papp’s operation at Lincoln Center), six theatres and workshops at the Public Theatre on Lafayette Street, and, of course, free Shake­speare in the park. In addition to the plays and playwrights he de­velops himself, his tentacles reach out to regional theatres as far away as Minnesota and snake through the city’s ethnic and avant garde companies. At his command, a play may begin in a workshop at the Public Theatre, be staged by an independent company as an Equity showcase, move back to the Public for a full-dress run, and then leap to the high-risk, high-profit commercial center of Broadway. And when he scores, Papp scores big. Including film rights and touring companies, A Chorus Line alone should pump more than $6 million annually back into the festival. And because the parent organization must by law be nonprofit, that money can only be used for still more expansion. As a result, The New York Shakespeare Festival, already the single most important force in contemporary theatre, will inevitably grow more powerful. With Joe Papp as its undisputed leader.

He is the organization’s engine; money is its fuel. Over the years, the festival has run up a sizable deficit (“We have about a million dollars in unpaid bills,” he says calmly), and the profits from A Chorus Line could put it firmly into the black for the first time in its history. “But that,” he points out, “Is what you call a very uncreative use of money. So I said let’s not pay the bills. Let’s take it and bang it into something that’s important for us. And that’s writers.”

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Thus a sizable chunk of the Chorus Line profits will go to a new festival enterprise: a play­wrights-on-payroll project. “Lis­ten,” he edges forward in his chair, “we’re going to have maybe 20 people who’ll be able to write plays for a living. Not a big living, but a real one, maybe as much as $10,000 a year. Plus — and this is the advantage of the payroll arrange­ment — unemployment, hospitalization… The kind of stuff that writers never get.”

It all sounds marvelous, but the stratagem behind it is classically expansionist: Never get out of debt, always use any new money to grow, always have a reason to ask people for even more. Become indispensable, then force people to keep you going. This sequence is part of the Papp armamentarium.

Years ago, he hustled some money to buy the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street and turn it into a collection of theatres. (“We kept a landmark from being torn down: people were glad to help us do that.”) He made it a genuinely exciting space with theatres of different shapes and sizes, poured every available dollar into renovating it, and created a place where a playwright’s dreams at least had a shot at coming true. Then he cried poor. Using the press — and the romance surrounding the free Shakespeare in the park — which, of course, could have gone on without the Public Theatre — he pressed the city for help. He got his financial backers — the Upper East Side cul­tural establishment, who were also John Lindsay’s constituency — to lean on the mayor. Finally he sold the buildings back to the city for $2.6 million, then leased it from them for a dollar a year. With all that capital — and six theatres for only a dollar a year — he expanded again, this time by underwriting productions at other companies.

If that all sounds more like Sammy Glick than like Henry V, it should, for there is at least a side of Papp that is as success-obsessed as Schulberg’s slum kid who made it big in Hollywood. That Papp surfaced in his aborted attempt to organize a Broadway season for his playwrights last year, essentially reducing the Public Theatre to a mere workshop. His increas­ing use of the Public Theatre as a prestige-conferring showcase for companies which developed their styles apart from him — this year’s Beckett performances by Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines troupe was only the most notable example — shows that side as well. Like David Merrick scouring London theatres for Broadway vehicles, Papp patrols the avant-garde. As a result, though the Public Theatre may be full of treasures, many theatre people see Papp more as a claim jumper than a pioneer.

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But it isn’t that simple. He isn’t that simple. Just when it seems that he has overreached himself and allowed the entrepreneur to overwhelm the experimenter, he suddenly relocates his original obsession and pursues it with the same relentless drive that pro­pelled him out of the jungle of Williamsburg. And through the only slightly more polite jungle of Manhattan theatre.

In those moments, though Papp is no less driven, “making it big” has less to do with Broadway marquees than with an almost abstract search for quality. The search is still single-minded, but it contains an element of detachment that makes it almost noble.

This Papp emerges as he directs Henry V. Not so much in the collision of the French and English forces as in the victorious king’s romantic byplay with Katherine of France. Their romance, which dominates the play’s final act, has been a perpetual problem for Shakespeareans, causing centuries of critics to echo Dr. Johnson’s strictures: “The truth is that the poet’s matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endeavour for the most skill­ful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity.”

And yet, as Papp develops the scene, its tenderness becomes unpredictably affecting. At first, he works with Rudd, setting the tone of Henry’s speeches, seeing their flatness as part of a deliberate effort not to overwhelm Katherine with his newly proven magnificence. “No, no, Paul,” he counsels, “what you’re trying to do here is comfort her, make her a little more at ease.” As Rudd gradually finds his way inside the lines, Meryl Streep’s Katherine begins to respond in kind. Sud­denly, the electricity between them is palpable, and Henry is at once king and lover.

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“I’d wanted to play Henry for a long time,” says Rudd, “so I had my own ideas pretty well established, but there’s no other director in the theatre who could give me what Joe has. He identifies so strongly with the character that what I’m learning is Joe’s own understanding of himself. He’s deepened, not changed, the Henry that I’ve thought about. Now, those human moments — when he’s alone, with his brothers, or with Kate — those are more mature than I could have imagined.

“The strength that’s in Henry normally doesn’t come across in those scenes, so you don’t understand why his soldiers followed him the way they did. In this play, you will. Henry — and Joe — find a specialness in people and use it to make them rise to their capacity. We’ve done the battle scenes hundreds of times now, but the ensemble will still do everything he asks them. There are guys flinging themselves around in ways you wouldn’t believe, all for him. And by opening night, they’ll be doing it for me — for Henry.”

Papp has always been among the most physical of directors, and bodies were hurtling across his stage and bashing into one another when O’Horgan was a harpist. Actors do what he demands —­ and perhaps more than they ima­gined themselves capable of — because he expects it. And because — like Henry in the play Papp has returned to more than any of Shakespeare’s other histo­ries — he is quick to reward loyalty. And to punish any flagging: “There are 60 guys in the ensem­ble — and they’re all damn lucky to be there — so if I see someone sitting on his ass behind me smok­ing a cigarette when other people are out there moving the tower, he’s through. That’s all.

“But there are, every year, one or two who emerge, who become leaders themselves. They’re a lit­tle hungrier than the others, maybe, but whatever it is, they must be supported. Right now, I guess I believe in individuality more than anything else, and I’m gonna respond to anyone who shows that kind of individual drive.

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“It’s a critical time now — a per­fect time to be working with Henry V — because right now we’re going through a time of no leadership. I’m not a political director in any simplistic sense; ideology per se I find boring in life and boring in the theatre. Like with Jimmy Carter, there’s an unknown there, and it’s the unknown that interests me. The predictable is the worst thing on stage or in life. So I don’t find his smile negative; I find it,” he pauses, “interesting. I want to know what’s behind it, of course, but I already know that he’s a man who’s certain what he wants — and is prepared to go out and get it.”

He could, of course, be talking about himself. Eating dinner in a small Italian restaurant near the park, seeming to forget his striped bass while he gestures with a focused intensity, he is charming. He is also, I suspect, fully as calculating as the masquerading Henry V walking among his troops. One can never forget that Joe Papp is one of the two people to face down Robert Moses and get away with it. And that the other — Nelson Rockefeller — has a lot more going for him than any kid from Wil­liamsburg ever did. If ever a man was prepared to go out and get exactly what he wanted, it is Joe Papp. And so one wonders, as one does with Jimmy Carter, about the vision behind the smile.

So does Papp. On Henry, again: “For the six months before we started rehearsal this time, I immersed myself in history. I was trying to find the reasons why a small group of men could overwhelm a host 10 times their size. I know about the shape of the harbors, I know about the geogra­phy at Harfleur, I know how many people it took to maintain a siege, I know the accuracy of a long bow. I knew all about medieval arms, everything like that. But I still find the roots psychological. I know why Henry won and the French lost: A leaderless group can al­ways be defeated by a small number of men supported by their own self-assurance and faith in their leader.

“But the leader has to have faith in himself. And that’s why the most important scene in the play is when Michael Williams — and this is the first time in non-comic English theatre where you have common men with two names — questions the authenticity of the war. It’s a turning point because Henry­ — whose father stole the crown­ — needs to feel that his cause is pure. And there he is, on the eve of the most important battle in his life, and he thinks he’s doing pretty well, and there’s this one son of a bitch questioning everything. All of a sudden, he’s got to ask himself, ‘Must you be pure? Do you have to be impeccable?’ ”

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That question is one that Papp is struggling to answer for himself. Sometimes, as when he defends his Broadway adventure by arguing that it was the only way for his playwrights to make real money, the attempt seems a contrived rationalization for his own ambi­tion. At others, he seems genuinely striving for a kind of purity rare in the theatre. Or anywhere.

Certainly Papp’s energies and fiscal razzle-dazzle are a key ele­ment in New York’s fantastic explosion of minority theatre. Woodie King, whose New Federal Theatre has consistently developed new black and Puerto Rican playwrights and actors, is only one beneficiary of the Papp largess: “When we did Colored Girls at the Federal, it cost us about $8,000; Joe put up half of that. Right now, it’s at the Public, making a little money for the first time, and we’re getting half of those profits to put back into other new productions. And when it goes to Broadway in the fall, we’ll still have a piece of it. But it’s not just that he’s abso­lutely fair as far as money goes —­ though that’s rare enough, right — ­it’s that he had the guts to go with that play from the beginning. He’s a leader, not a follower. Even if Colored Girls hadn’t been a success, it would always be a bench mark for any play that really was built on poetry. And he was eager to be out there with it.”

That sort of putting one’s money where one’s ideals are has long been a mark of Papp’s operation, but it paradoxically grows more difficult as there is more money to spread around. It’s a long way from the basement of the ghetto church to the marble excesses of Lincoln Center, and the sheer size of the operation becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, there is just too much to keep track of, and bureaucracy perforce replaces personality. With the routinization of charisma, the obsessive search for quality quietly ends. “Inspired brilliance of efficiency” becomes, as it did for Henry V, meaningless.

Papp knows that — he is tormented by it. “I need,” he said, “a course of action to believe in.” But as he left the restaurant, he began to walk faster. “It will take me,” he said as he crossed the street against the light, “exactly seven minutes to get back to the theatre from here. And rehearsal is set to start up again in five.” By the time he reached the edge of the park, he was running. Still.


Chinatown ’89: Outside Looking In

THE AUDIENCE LEAPS TO ITS feet, moved to wild applause. The reviews are ecstatic, and the public reveals itself to be as keenly appreciative and discern­ing as it is culturally mixed. Not once, in a society expansive enough to encourage heterogeneity, are the labels exotic and ethnic mentioned.

This is the dream, shared by all artists of color.

And this is the nightmare: The recep­tion reeks with politeness, even noblesse oblige. But what the crowd sees/hears/reads isn’t you, only a pale apparition. The crowd addresses itself to this appari­tion even as you gesture frantically. You scream. No one hears. They’ve buried you alive and they don’t even know it.

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PING CHONG, A CHINESE-AMERICAN theater and performance artist who grew up and still lives in Manhattan’s China­town, recognizes both the dream and the nightmare. Chong, who won an Obie in 1977 for his work Humboldt’s Current, realizes the dangers with which cultural hyphenation in an immigrant society is fraught, where an Outsider — or someone perceived to be an Outsider — becomes the harbinger of a new and unsettling order. He acknowledges “the problematic nature of being not just an Asian-American artist but an artist of color, knowing the biases of this culture.”

Chong deals with this problematic con­cern by employing material that is osten­sibly not Asian, at least not in the tradi­tional sense. His works are highly eclectic, drawing from sources as varied as film noir, vampire legends, Archie comics, cartoons, Indonesian shadow plays, and Alice in Wonderland. Yet his elliptical pieces suggest an Asian sensibil­ity, with their yin-yang interplay of light and shadow, cartoon humor, and totali­tarian menace. They suggest, above all, a continuity — darker than we would ordi­narily care to admit — between the per­ception of wake time and the time of the buried self.

Chong’s characters rarely have conver­sations; instead, they speak in codes and at cross-purposes. Their few exchanges are marked either by cheery banality or by melancholy and despair: earmarks of an impotent, and ultimately fragmented, society. There’s a loss of awe, of spirituality — a big concern of Chong’s — and the only thing that makes sense is non-sense. Chong’s latest work, Noiresque, which had an all Asian-American cast, is a per­fect example: Its main character, Alice, gets stuck in Terminal City, an Orwellian nightmare that might be New York. Or Hong Kong.

However you want to read the dilemma of the hyphenated artist, one of its essen­tial aspects is the fashioning of a sensibil­ity secure from the demands of both sides of the hyphen (whom do I write for when I write for “myself”?). Then there’s the fact that all art, as David Henry Hwang once said, is ethnic. The dominant (read white, male, upper-class) ethnicity has the power and the privilege of disassoci­ating itself from the term “ethnic,” cate­gorizing itself as “universal,” with self­-anointed guardians holding up lily-white standards for all to emulate. And so the peculiar logic of the crossover, of cultural hyphenation — where the hyphen sways like a frayed rope bridge over a roaring chasm — dictates a one-way movement, from the “particular” to the “universal.” Or, as Chong puts it, “How white do I have to be?”

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BORN IN CANADA and brought to New York’s Chinatown at the age of one, Chong grew up on Bayard Street, where his parents opened a restaurant. “China­town was more of a village then,” Chong, who is in his forties, recalls. His first experience of the staged arts was the Chi­nese opera, his father having been a producer/director of Chinese opera and his mother a performer. This influence is evi­dent in the ritualistic and imagistic as­pects of his work. Indeed, Nosferatu opens with two angels in stylized combat reminiscent of martial arts, and the musi­cal punctuation includes cymbals, used much as they are in Chinese opera.

Chong believes it’s extremely difficult to expand in a ghetto. “The Chinese there don’t support the arts. They’re very pragmatic, they’re into making money. They’ll watch soap operas. Don’t forget, when we talk of the art of China, we’re talking about the aristocracy.” Eleanor Yung, codirector of the Chinatown-based Asian American Arts Center, agrees: “Most of the immigrants recognize physi­cal survival and are so busy with this they forget cultural survival.”

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A similarly pollinated sensibility in­forms the works of Ming Fay, a sculptor who’s lived in New York for 16 years. Fay is known for his modernistic giant sculp­tures of fruits and vegetables such as coconuts, pears, and peppers. Because they’re such familiar items, they can be easily appreciated — or just as easily disparaged — as Claes Oldenburg spin-offs. But Fay works in a very different con­text, choosing certain items because of their iconic value in Chinese tradition. Thus, a pear represents prosperity, a peach, longevity, and an orange tree, good fortune.

Like Chong, Fay is pragmatic enough to know that recognition of the Asian-­American artist is as much a political as an aesthetic act. “As we grow in number, politics will come into play. Critics will be forced to pay attention. It will be the younger artists” — and here he names Martin Wong, David Diao, Mel Chin, Ti Shan Hsu — “who will reap the fruit — no pun intended.”

There is, of course, always a gap be­tween artists and their audiences — nar­rower when a cultural history is shared, wider when it’s not. Asian-American ref­erence points puzzle; we know WASP and JAP, but what about sansei, ABC, and Flip? Inevitably, the audience turns to familiar imagery, determined largely by totemized stereotypes, e.g., the opium den, the Filipino houseboy, the submis­sive Asian woman. The audience itself becomes a problem. As Filipino-Ameri­can novelist, poet, and performance artist Jessica Hagedorn points out, “I’m not going to give up my ‘inside jokes’ to ac­commodate them, but I do hope there’s enough there that a discriminating reader can understand and appreciate.”

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The insularity of New York audiences is a familiar beast to all artists operating outside the mainstream. Laments Ki­miko Hahn, poet and director of the mul­ticultural arts organization Word of Mouth, “We have trouble getting people outside the community to attend our readings even though they’re held in Manhattan’s Chinatown, easy to get to. There’s a refusal to expand beyond the familiar names of small circles.” In addi­tion, she points out, the phenomenon of crossing over often results in what she terms “one writer per season,” that is, the Chosen One Stands In for All.

Yet the success of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly on Broadway, of Ping Chong’s works in the downtown art scene, and of Maxine Hong Kings­ton’s and Amy Tan’s books continues to tantalize, keeping alive the dream, how­ever peripherally. But just as there exist guardians of the “universal,” so too are there guardians of the “particular,” quick to portray each step across the gap as a betrayal. Hwang and Kingston, for instance, have been attacked within the Asian-American community for revision­ism; for writing for a white audience; for, in short, “selling out.” Clearly, in the minds of both sets of guardians, “culture” and “ethnicity” are irrevocably defined. It is this dogmatic, ultimately sentimen­tal attachment to an old order that con­stitutes the most difficult obstacle for the artist intent on crossing over. ■


The New Chinese Exodus: The Party’s Over but Still in Power — Get Out Now
By Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong

Riding the Dragon: Chinatown’s Politics — Many Votes, No Chinese Candidates
By Yuen Ying Chan

Surviving in America: The Trials of a Chinese Immigrant Woman
By Joann Lum & Peter Kwong

Growing by Leaps
By Lauren Esserman


Candy Darling, Where Were You the Night Jean Harlow Died?

We were seen around New York, Candy Darling and me, for a week or two we had a little whirl, a movie star and reporter in Alan Ladd trenchcoats sipping Singapore Slings at Daly’s Dandelion, watching home movies at Taylor Mead’s apartment — Candy all milkskin white curled up in a bed, bored until her face appeared on the sheetscreen, last summer at Fire Island, the arrival of the legend in black dress and pieplate sun­glasses, “stop the camera, Tayl­or, can you run it in slow motion” — at Holly’s opening, Max’s Kansas City, the Pink Teacup, Francesco Scavullo’s Ash Wednesday party, the Cine Malibu with Candy’s cinema voice honeypouring from the screen, “I’m only a woman. What have I to offer? A glittering facade?” A glittering facade.

When the milkskin darling was a little darling, he had other names, a male first name and a surname that was Irish. He was very close to his mother and he loved going to the movies.

At the age of nine, his life took on a direction. He saw “The Prod­igal.” Lana Turner, the high priestess, blonde and pure, clad in scarlet, stockinged in gold, gilded, glittering, beautiful beyond belief. Men kissed Lana’s hand and died for her, and Lana, in true Metro tradition, leapt to her death from a 1000-foot pedestal into a ring of fire. Then handmaidens gasped and the pagan drums boomed. This is how life should be. The young boy from Forest Hills had to have it for himself. He became Candy Darling.

Alone in the house, Candy would conjure up a Lana scene. She’d run a lukewarm bath and drop blue food coloring into the water. She’d move the potted palm from the family living room to a spot next to the hamper, perfume the room and drag her mother’s ocelot coat out of the closet, a royal bath carpet for ruby toenails to tread on. She’d play Yma Sumac music and recite Lana lines. “When they see me, they will stop this madness.” Then she’d drape herself in a towel, held together by mama’s rhine­stone broach, and slink through the house, a regal empress, her French poodle a movie tiger by her side.

Candy Darling, CANDY DARLING, she wrote in her diary. The name is magic.

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Sixteen, and already ensconced in a cloak of sexual ambiguity, she left home to live with her uncle in Greenwich Village, spending little time at the apart­ment, freewheeling it on Chris­topher Street where sex is nei­ther one thing or another but a collage. Candy’s collage was an unorthodox mixture accepted by lesbians, scorned by the middle­-ground “unsure of status” male homosexual, lusted after by straight men and macho gay, envied and feared by the plain­-jane male transvestites with illusions of personal grandeur. Candy didn’t give a damn about her rivals. She stood aloof, a glacier in a sea of open-mouthed whales, stunning, a genuine un-genuine woman.

One sunny summer day, her uncle, in a jealous rage, told her never to darken his doorstep again. Candy then began what was to be a series of affairs with men who abused her, humiliated her, raped her, made love to her, but seldom loved her. Love became internalized. With the help of Photoplay and Silver Screen and the mirror on the wall, Candy began a romance with her­self, a love affair with an image that was a reality — and also a commodity. Candy Darling, the supreme package, blonde, glit­tering, gilded, beautiful beyond belief, high priestess, eternal virgin on the brink of rape, queen of films, queen of the universe, the last laugh at them all.

The commodity was picked up by Andy Warhol about five years ago. Candy was playing an actress in Tom Eyen’s “Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway.” Andy saw the show and put Candy in “Flesh.” The impression was POW. She became a Warhol darling, floating around Andy’s New York, the galleries, the right parties, the wrong parties, ruby lips and platinum hair at society bashes. Candy, shy and demure, with Marisa Berenson and the Brenda Fraziers and Cobina Wright, Jrs., of the ’70s, at movie premieres exchanging lipstick and boyfriend information in powder rooms with best friend Sylvia Miles, then hitting Chris­topher Street and the dives with sycophants, often dragging her­self home to mama Teresa “Darling’s” modest home in Mas­sapequa Park for an hour or two of sleep — and the dreams.

The dreams. Candy remembers them and writes them down in her notebook. One night, around New York, we talked dreams, Candy and me. Here’s one she dreamt after attending a George Plimpton party with Gerard Malanga, whom she was in love with at the time.

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“I was going to the opening of a night club,” said Candy from a divan in an empty room, a flash­back look seeping from widow’s peak to jaw, as though a camera were panning in for a close-up. “It was the biggest club in the whole world. It had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, surrounded by trees and tables covered in white. I was with Andy Warhol and Gerard. Andy hated the gown I wore, a gray-blue see-through with rhinestone sequins and feathers at the bottom. I wore my trenchcoat over it. Andy thought I looked cheap. Yet he introduced me to everybody at the night club. I was to be paid $500 for being there. After a while, several wealthy men talked to me. I told them, ‘I’m so happy you asked me here,’ but was anxious to get away from them. I looked over my shoulder and saw Andy walk out, like he always does, leaving me frantic and alone. Finally, I got rid of the two men I was talking to and saw someone with a black leather coat who I thought was Gerard. I walked over to him quickly and it wasn’t Gerard at all. ‘Did you see Gerard?’ I asked. The man in the coat turned his back on me. All of the other men were standing in little groups, closed in among themselves. I went running from one group to another” (Candy got up from the divan and acted out the dream vi­gnette: she ran to different corners of the room, breathlessly, hysterically). ” ‘Is Gerard here? Is Gerard here?’ The men all turned their backs, they wouldn’t look at me. Finally someone said, ‘Oh, Gerard left 10 minutes ago.’ And I was left there completely alone. But I still had the $500 in my trenchcoat pocket and I felt it and held it and took it out and when I looked at the money it was velvet on one side and it wasn’t real money. That’s when I woke up. I was terrified.”

A couple of nights before St. Pa­trick’s Day, Candy and I were caught in the rain. We ducked into a spot for a drink. Never straight bourbon or scotch, always some­thing fancy with a swizzle stick. The music from the machine was playing sentimental, an oldie, “a telephone that rings but who’s to answer.” In the corner of the cafe, caught in the mood, Candy played true confessions, a touch of Kim in “Lylah Clare,” a dab of Ava in “Pandora.” I remember how she looked at me, those hazel eyes shifting from my hazel eyes to linger on my lower lip, and I remember exactly how she looked and what she said. She looked like every blonde product who has ever made it from the earring counter at Woolworth’s to be molded into a director’s Dada, total myth outside, myth fighting to win control over reality inside. And she said to me, “I’ve been here before. My spirit was once that of a movie star’s. I believe it was once Jean Harlow’s. I was captivated by her death as far back as I can remember. I read all of her obituaries on special microfilm. She died during the shooting of ‘Saratoga’ and they photographed much of the film with a double showing back shots. Long before the Harlow revival, I had my hair dyed platinum and my eyebows plucked and pen­ciled. When I was young, I drew a lot, mostly animals and women. The women all had white hair. Jean Harlow or Kim, before I knew them, or looked like them.”

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Death, the glamor of early death, often runs through Candy’s mind. Kim Novak dying young in “The Eddy Duchin Story,” Kim Stanley dying young in “The Goddess,” Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe dying young on Page One. Make it big when you’re blonde and beautiful, pound out that imprint for eter­nity, leave the worshiping masses a glorious platinum memory.

The second night of our town-tripping, Candy had given instructions to a friend, what to do on the death of Candy Darling. Nothing morbid, just movie star security. I couldn’t worm it from her. Cremation? Forest Lawn? A red rose on a white casket? Call AP, UP, mama, and Rona Barrett? “All I can tell you is that I’d will my money to a Candy Darling Me­morial Theatre Fund to help struggling actors. Let’s talk about the future.”

The future, Candy would like to do a Broadway show. A revival of “Little Me” would be nice. She’d adore the Eve Harrington role in “Applause” with Sylvia Miles as Margo Channing. There’s a possibility of playing a Marlene Die­trich “Destry” slut in Paul Mor­rissey’s soon-to-start Italian west­ern. A couple of films shot in Germany are on their way — Candy’s big in Germany. “Women in Revolt,” after a short run at the Cine Malibu, is soon to play the boondocks, and “Some of My Best Friends … ” shows up intermittently on 42nd Street. Videotape, too, is on Candy’s mind. She does a bad take-off of a drug-crazed junkie — Needle Park would laugh rather than panic — but Candy wants the world to know she’s an actress as well as a star and will shortly dance the heroin blues for a hand-held camera. She’s also talking of needling Tennessee Williams into pulling out a masterpiece or two from his trunk: Candy as Blanche in “Streetcar” or Alma in “Summer and Smoke” or Ariadne in “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

She’s happiest when she’s work­ing. “I’m like Jeanne Eagels. I don’t care if it’s a big Hollywood part or a small role, as long as I have something to say about it. So often I have to do exactly what directors say and so often I know more than the directors. ‘Some of My Best Friends … ‘ is one movie where the director should have listened to me. He treated me like a child, as if I were a very touchy delicate thing. It was hard for me. I consider myself an ar­tist. Of course I want admiration and I want them to like me, but I can take criticism.”

She can also give criticism. She told Holly Woodlawn “you’ll never be a star because you can’t boil an egg” which led Holly to crack “it’s just like Candy, so im­practical, when I become a star I’ll have my cook boil my eggs.”

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Candy admits her impracti­cality, her ambivalence toward men, toward stardom, toward life. She admits “I’m filled with guilt and instability. I tremble when I go places and hear people calling Candy Darling, CANDY DARLING, yet I love it.” She describes herself as soft and vulnerable and strong as an ox, a barometer — “I am what I am now, in a few minutes I’ll change and be something else.” She says in one breath that she wants to be an actress, and in the next she’ll tell you she’s a star. She’ll tell Jackie Curtis, “Your thoughts are so strong, I’ve got to be alone with my own thoughts,” then question her own thoughts out loud — “Should I be cooperative, tell them everything they want to know, how much I eat, what I weigh, what color underwear I wear, how many times a day I go to the bathroom, or should I be mysterious so that they’ll always come back for more.” She’ll say that men are kings and that women were meant to be slaves, then confide that she’s all for women’s liberation. She’ll coyly demur that “most men are really afraid of me, they think I’m a delicacy or something, too rich for their blood,” then, under Taylor Mead’s nose, vamp away his boy friend of the evening and whisper to me, “I’d hate to have this be the highpoint of my life.”



‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’

‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’
March 27, 1969

If you want to laugh at an actor named Rip Torn, that’s your problem. Born Elmore Torn 37 years ago in Temple, Texas, he was nicknamed Rip around the house as a kid. Grown up, he sees no reason to change it just because it reminds some people of Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson. He knows how good he is.

Rip is also the most paranoid man I’ve ever met, so paranoid that after receiving his second “Obie” in a row for directing Michael McClure’s The Beard — the first was for the role of Marion Faye in Norman Mailer’s Deer Park — he suspected it was all because the CIA was setting him up for some sinister purpose.

“ ‘Have you seen Hud?’ Paul Newman asked me after it was released. ‘I hope you like it,’ Newman said, ‘because Hud is you.’

“I didn’t think that was too funny. I was broke as usual at the time and I thought Paul might at least have laid a percentage on me. Also, if I ever wanted to make a western, everybody would say I was doing a Newman number. But when I saw it, it wasn’t me at all. I told Paul, ‘I’m a very complicated guy — I can only get about 10 per cent of me, how come you think you can get it all?’ ”

We are in a room which, if it were together, would be his study. Books, records, beer cans, overflowing ash trays, sporting equipment, and excess furniture clutter everywhere. It is dark and needs a painting. Looking out through battered and crooked black rimmed glasses, Rip reminds me of a shy, vulnerable little boy with insensitive parents, looking for empathy.

The sign over the bell says “TORN PAGE.” He and Geraldine occupy three floors of a brownstone which they just purchased (with her money the rumor goes) in the West 20s. They have three children: Angelica, five, and four-year-old twins, Jonathan and Anthony. The house is a swept, lived-in mess geared for kids. There are crayon scrawls all over the walls, toys in every corner and underfoot.

As a young boy, Rip loved to go fishing. One day he had no bits and, when his line tangled on a rock, he pretended it was a fish — gritting his teeth, bracing himself, fighting it acting it out. A group of people across the stream started shouting encouragement: “You can get him, boy… hold on now… you can bring him in…”

“Not catching any fish isn’t so bad if you enjoy fishing,” Rip says.

At 16, he and a bunch of Texas buddies went through a season of playing the “coon game” across the tracks, hitting black cats on the head with socks full of bars of soap.

The expression “red-ass” started in Texas A and M, military college. “It gives me the red-ass,” they say in the army. Rip remembers his backside looking “like oozing plasma” from being hazed with shaved down baseball bats. Texas A and M teaches a man how to make pain. Manhood through brutality. Can you take it, boy? “End as a Man.” Rip learned fast. After two years he dropped out.

Believing firmly in Louella Parson’s vision of Hollywood, he hitched there. He had grown up with weapons and thought nothing of the unlicensed pistol in his pocket. Arriving in L..A., and mistaking it for civilization, he went to the police station to turn it in, asking them to certify that it was his so he could ship it back to Texas for safekeeping.

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Instead he was booked and charged with eight unsolved robberies committed with the same type weapon. He in no way resembled the suspects, but it took two days in jail to clear the matter up, and then they confiscated his pistol. That was Rip Torn’s welcome to Hollywood. It’s enough to make a guy paranoid.

The first Hollywood party goes like this. Scott Brady was starring in Light Up the Sky at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. A little man was trying to change a tire on a big car in front. Rip helped him. The guy was the set designer at the theatre and invited him backstage. There he met Scott Brady and went to his party. He got completely bombed like everybody else and passed out with an unconscious girl on top of him. It might have become a real orgy if everybody hadn’t started retching, groaning, and puking all over the place. The hors d’oeuvres, it turned out, were tainted.

He sold magazines on the road. “I was good at it. I’d knock on the door and say, ‘Hi.’ Then I’d just stand there — no pitch or anything — and there would be this silence. The woman might say something like, ‘Oh, I know, you’re Louie’s boy aren’t you?’ I’d say, ‘No ma’am, I’m one of the boys from the district high school.’ I’d tell her that I had only 20 minutes to win this watch. I talked faster and faster and of course she bought something. Then I’d ask if she had a friend who could help and… It was terrible.

“I got fed up. I was selling this family in Salt Lake City. They were interested in me on a truly human level — nice people. I finally said, ‘Look, you don’t want these magazines. What do you need $35 worth of magazines for?’ I walked out of their house and tried to get involved again. The next customer was a little old lady who reminded me of my grandmother. I always like to talk to old people anyway — see what’s on their minds. She made me a lemonade and I sat on her rocking chair and we talked. I decided to quit right then.

“I hitched some more; down to Mexico, I was a chauffeur in L.A. for a while, a counterman. I was a plumber and really had my hands in shit… By the time I got back home, I was in such bad shape my own mother didn’t recognize me. I hadn’t eaten in three days. ‘Lady, do you have any yard work?’ I said as a joke. She didn’t even know who I was.”

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“Hey Ripper! Good to see ya, boy. How the hell are ya?” Coming out of McGinnis’s Broadway restaurant, Rip is greeted by Pat Hingle’s Texas twang. They embrace.

Hingle was Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and is a frequent guest star on television about whom people say, “He’s a good actor… what’s his name again?” Rip and Pat Hingle have a lot in common.

They are both from Texas, and studied at the University of Texas drama school, where people in the department thought Rip had no technique. “I wasn’t phony enough. But sometimes I’d have a moment on stage that was so real it made them forget the fact that I was terrible.”

A few years later, Hingle was rehearsing in Cat and called Rip, still in Texas, to tell him they were casting the understudy to Ben Gazzara. He came right up. New on Broadway, he got a lot of funny takes: “Your name is what? Rip Torn??!! Do you know Buck Naked… Brick Wall… Chan Delier…?”

“No I don’t,” he said pleasantly. “But maybe you’ve heard of my cousin.”

“Who is that?”

“Fuck You.”

After a lot of static and perseverance, he finally read. Years later, Molly Kazan told him that his reading that day was one of the most electric moments she had ever seen on stage. That was before Rip broke his personal management contract with her husband, Elia Kazan, by saying; “I can no longer live suspended by the web of your whim.” He hasn’t had a manager since.

Hingle is on his way to read a voice-over for a television commercial. “Damn, I wish I could get me some of those,” Rip says. “You’re good at it — you do what they tell you. My trouble is I always want to read my own wav.”

“Sorry about your play,” Hingle says.

The Cuban Thing had closed the night before. Rip had the lead, although his name was listed alphabetically on the marquee. (He doesn’t believe in solo bows; “they destroy the unity of the company.”)

Two years ago, he promised Jack Gelber, who wrote and directed the play, that he would do it. He kept the promise, even though it meant turning down two film offers — which is one reason he isn’t a celebrity.

The reviews were universally rotten; “I had a premonition, but everybody is always saying I’m paranoid, so this time I asked a friend — a psychiatrist — to come opening night and protect my sanity. Afterward he told me how much he liked the play and the performances. Then I said, ‘Okay… what do you think of… these?’ I shoved the reviews at him.

“He was stunned: ‘This isn’t what I saw,’ he said. ‘These reviews have nothing to do with the play. I don’t understand.’ I said, ‘Now you know what I’ve been talking about.’ ”

“My friend was really at a loss. He said, ‘If your talent was more conventional, or if you were more conventional as a person, maybe they could take it. But the combination of the two is too much for most people.’ ”


The health officer at the Mexican border suddenly pulled his gun and badge on Rip. “Secret Service,” he said.

Rip flipped, he shouted, “Okay… go ahead, bust it down. Let’s go the whole route here — hub caps, engine, whatever you want. Let’s get it over with… I don’t give a shit. You ‘re not going to find anything.”

“Then why are you screaming. I’m trying to be nice and you yell at me.”

“Nice? If you’re trying to be nice, why did you pull your gun? And what the hell is this all about anyway. Every time I come across the same thing happens.” It was the third time.

“I really don’t know,” the agent said. “Maybe it’s those roles you play… all those perverts, subversives, and criminal types. You’re very convincing, you know. Anyway, somebody put you on our list.”

Paranoid? Maybe. It is a little hard to believe that all the persecution Rip feels has occurred. But there are certain men who attract bullies, whose stance puts people up-tight. He’s like a gunfighter; people feel obligated, somehow, to challenge him to a draw. Then there are the roles.

He was Tom Junior, a sadistic Southern bigot, in Sweet Bird of Youth, eventually replacing Paul Newman in the lead as Chance Wayne, an aging, desperate gigolo on the make. His Marion Faye was a true freaky, pot-smoking pimp with faggot tendencies and rumors that he was really all those things flew around the Village during the run. In series guest spots, he is typed as a hood, outlaw, and general bad guy. His Roberto, in The Cuban Thing, was considered pro-Castro.


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Pat Hingle inspects Rip’s right ear on Broadway. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he says.

“No, there’s not even a scar… Look.”

Rip’s role-playing got him into the hospital last summer. The New York Times reported it as follows: “Norman Mailer and Rip Torn, the actor and longtime friend of the author’s engaged in a perhaps overly realistic struggle before the cameras… Mr. Torn was acting out one of the several cinematic assassination attempts against Mr. Mailer, who played Norman T. Kingsley, a famous movie director contemplating a race for President.

“According to eyewitnesses, he crept up behind. Mr. Mailer and shouted, ‘Norman T. Kingsley, I have something for you.’ Then he hit him three times on the head with a child’s toy hammer. Mr. Mailer turned and grappled with his assailant as the cameras continued to grind. In the struggle, Mr. Mailer bit Mr. Torn on the ear.”

“I told Norman we shouldn’t’ contribute to the bullshit number that’s going down in the press,” Rip said. “It’s just a dumb misunderstanding. It wasn’t the bite itself that bugged me, it was the fact that anytime the human tooth gets into you, you are going to have an infection. It’s the most virulent bite of all… I told Norman that.

“ ‘Are you trying to say my bite is the most poisonous bite?’ Norman said. You know how he is; he’s always got to be number one.

“ ‘I just said the human bite is the most poisonous — but I won’t take away from you the honor of being the most virulent of all.’ Anyway, he’s still mad at me. I think he wanted it to be unexpected, but not all that unexpected, you dig?

Nobody’s role was clear. I just assumed I was to be the one to finally make an attempt on his life. I was functioning completely as an actor and I assumed he would just topple and act it out. He didn’t do that at all — he went right into reality… How about a blast?”

“No thanks, Ripper, I’m late.” Hingle flags a cab. “Give my love to Gerry.”


“I said to Gerry the other night…” Rip is just back from California where Gerry is making a film, passing through on his way to direct The Beard in London “…I said ‘I’ve done everything possible to root out my love for you, and it’s beaten me, I can’t kill it.’ ”

Rip loves to lay some out-of-sight statement on you and then stare (I always lose) until you feel paranoid yourself questioning it. “Why do you want to root it out? Is love a weakness or something?”

“Yeah… I think it is. Look baby…” I can understand why a director I called yesterday refused to say anything about him except “he’s a hostile, paranoid bastard,” and hung up. Rip looks like he wants to hit me. “…Love in this society has only been some kind of creep sentimental punkdom. You know that. We’ve all been brainwashed.”

“Don’t get involved with that dreadful man!” Gerry’s friends said when she started seeing Rip. They were in Sweet Bird at the time and, in another of those role extensions, people took him for Chance Wayne using an aging actress — Gerry is now 44 — as a ticket to stardom. They have been together nine years.

She is intensely loyal, much more disturbed about the ear incident than Rip. The first chance she had, she said to Mailer, “Hello Norman, how’s your appetite?” He didn’t answer. She continued, “Well like the movie says, you are what you eat.”


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Another rumor — Rip “ran off” with Mike McClure after The Cuban Thing closed. Rip may or may not be a hostile, belligerent, paranoid bastard, and he may or may not be one of the best actors in America, but one thing he isn’t is a faggot. I tell him about it.

“You know what that is?” I pour some wine. “Wishful thinking.” He stares me down again. “Here’s where it’s at — Eitel, the director in Deer Park, has a tough line after Marion makes a pass at him. He considers it for a while and he’s tempted but he finally says no, because that’s what the machinery wants us to be — faggots. If you’re a faggot then they’ve got you nailed. They can put you away, dismiss you. You’re a faggot. I’d like to meet the guy who told you that. Mike’s my brother, and I guess the idea of two strong cats making it together turned him on. Here’s another story that came back to me. Some big English director — I won’t mention his name — was asked, ‘Do you know Rip Torn?’ He said, ‘My dear, I’ve had him.’ And I’ve never even met the cat.”

Rip looks disgusted. His bag holding important personal papers fell off the rack of his big bike on the way over. He discovered it in front of my place. Instead of retracing his route right away, he’s lounging comfortably in my easy chair drinking wine and rapping. Julie, a small girl who has been sitting silent, listening somewhat in awe, offers to go out and look for it. He says fine, draws her a map of the route, and, although she has no driver’s license and has only driven a bike once — a small Honda at that — offers her his key. Fortunately, she has enough sense to refuse it.

The loss of the bag has put him extremely up-tight. He drinks and talks fast.

On politics: “Nixon is a motherfucker triumphant. Yeah. But you know, when he makes that victory salute — he’s got his arms up and his shoulders are around his ears — there must be some part of him that’s embarrassed about the spectacle he’s making. It’s not really a full take like ‘come on, give it to me and I’ll die for you.’ It looks more like they coached him but he really can’t make it. He’s a bad actor.”

“Then there’s Humpty Dumpty. I said to Mailer that George Wallace would chew Humpty Dumpty and Icky Dicky right up if they ever got together. He said, ‘No, they would work out a deal with him and then slowly poison him…” Rip starts to choke from laughing.

On acting: “A guy talked to me about doing a TV series when I was in L.A. last month. I told him I had already served my years soldiering for my country. Why should I sign up for five more years of bondage? Of course for that bondage you’re made a millionaire so it’s not bad bondage. There’s nothing wrong with it except that I don’t dig it. For a lot of people, though, it’s the prize.

“Some people say about me, ‘Why isn’t Rip bothered by not being a star?’ I know I can be a star, I just don’t choose to be. But I could dig it in a way; there’s a motherfucker triumphant residing in all of us. I could go for the total number.

“Once I was driving down Sunset Strip to Malibu. There are packs of cars, you know, with the lights. I decided to lead the pack. There were all these hand-tooled jobs and me — I was driving this Mickey Mouse car… That’s why Paul Newman said I’d never be a star in Hollywood. I came rolling up to his house driving a Rambler. He was appalled. He said, ‘Man, a Rambler!? Don’t you know you can’t drive that kind of car and be a star?’ I hate to say anything bad about Paul… He was so beautiful with McCarthy…”

“Writers are usually interested in me. They hope, because they dig me as an actor, that they will be the one to make me a star — give me the vehicle to ride — Like James Earl Jones and The Great White Hope. Jimmy and I are close. We’re about the same age and… he’s beautiful. I can talk about this now, because he’s mentioned it already. Years ago, I tried to have about eight or ten actors admitted into the Actors Studio. At the time there was only Sidney Poitier and Diana Sands and I said that the Studio was just a microcosm, a reflection, of the whole corrupt Broadway scene.

“They only let in one or two — its the same old shit. I wanted to break the whole color thing in the theatre. Jimmy was finally brought in as an observer. I remember talking, arguing with the powers at the Studio about him. I said, ‘This guy is a boss actor.’ They said, ‘He’ll never be a star.’ ”

Rip is by now flat-out — his intelligence, intensity, pride, paranoia, his deep bitterness. “The formation of the Actors Studio Theatre was made possible by the inclusion of Gerry and myself on the Board of Directors. Kazan went to Lincoln Center, and I knew that wasn’t the place to go. Tennessee Williams said, ‘Baby, what do you want to go to that model prison for?’ And Jimmy Baldwin said, ‘I’m not going to go there and be the nigger in the window.’ They didn’t have to tell me that, I was already on my own course of action…

“Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie came out of the Actors Studio Theatre. I played Lyle, a Southern white cracker, and I didn’t pull back on it, didn’t come on and wink at the audience and say, ‘This isn’t really me, you know.’ There were nights when I thought some cats were going to come up on stage and lay me out.

“People freak out at the truth. That’s why they kill. They’d rather kill than admit they’ve been caught up in a stale game and instead of being toughs, they are punks. They want to kill the person who brought that pain to their consciousness.

“LeRoi Jones was talking to me about my Lyle. He started laughing. He realized he was talking about me to me, but I wasn’t there you see. And all of a sudden he saw that I was there and it kind of embarrassed him. ‘You punky cracker,’ he said to me. LeRoi is hip enough to know that I wouldn’t have been able to do that if that was where I’m really at. I’m not saying it didn’t cause me tremendous pain — it did…”

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About Norman Mailer: (They have made up.) “He’s beautiful; he’s such a beautiful cat… I really love him. One time we got blasted at Casey’s bar after a performance of Deer Park, and he asked me — he caught me completely off guard. ‘You have an older brother?’ I said, ‘You, you are!’ ”

About himself: “In the American sexual/political ethic, they nail cats that speak the truth as fags, or some other sexual aberration. Then they can dismiss the truth on that level. I’m willing to lay the book of my life out to any of those bullshit artists… Let’s face it; the words I say can sign my death warrant. But I’ve done it so many times, why shouldn’t I do it now? The Confederacy has won. The United States is the South. The South has risen again and they control the military, the Congress… they control the country. And their aim is to control the world. Their axis is our South, South Africa, Rhodesia, Spain, Germany — and an awful lot of people in between… are you going to print all of this? I mean these are tough things to say…

“At least people will know I’m still alive. Terry Southern told me a funny story. He worked on the screenplay for a movie called The Cincinnati Kid. The producers were sitting around trying to cast one of the roles, a bad-ass type. Somebody said, ‘What we need is a Rip Torn type.’ Terry said, ‘Well, don’t think I’m trying to be weird or anything, but why don’t we get Rip Torn?’ They looked at him like he was some kind of nut. I guess they figured I was in jail or dead or something.”


Julie comes back without the bag. “This sort of thing happens to me every time I’m about to leave the country,” Rip says, draining the last of the half gallon of wine which was full when we started.

I realize I’ve crossed from role to reality myself; by now I consider Rip a friend rather than a subject. He is as large as life and my life is larger since meeting him.

Maybe it’s the wine, but I feel close enough to tell him this: “Look, man, if you’re a loser it’s your own fault. Your bag with all your identification and papers falls off your bike and instead of going back to look for it, you sit here drinking wine complaining for an hour. Then you send Julie out for it; you should have gone yourself. You even offer to let her use your bike. That chick can’t drive a bike. She doesn’t even have a driver’s license. She’d have cracked it up and then you would have been more paranoid than ever.”

Rip stretched out on the couch, listening to my little lecture. He starts to raise the left corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile and then laughs out loud. “I don’t give a fuck,” he says.


Taking the Stage with Alfred E. Neuman

Before she won six Tony awards, between 1970 and 2012, and prior to her 1979 Emmy for her lead role in the TV show Alice, Linda Lavin appeared on stage in The Mad Show, singing Stephen Sondheim’s (uncredited) “The Boy From …,” a breathy parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” which includes such lines as “When I tell him I think he’s the end / He giggles a lot with his friend.” In this case, girl does not get boy.

And before she became a household name on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Jo Anne Worley trod the boards alongside Lavin to bring the satirical magazine’s gags to life in a 1966 production at the New Theatre on East 54th Street.

The first hint Village Voice readers had of this hybrid of the printed page and live theater was an ad in the December 23, 1965, issue announcing “A New Musical Revue Based on MAD Magazine,” to which Alfred E. Neuman declaims, “ECCH!”

Two weeks later the paper included a publicity photo of three mugging cast members.

At the bottom of that same page, the magazine’s mascot’s mug appears again, blasé about the show’s opening date, Sunday, January 9, 1966.

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The following week there is no word from Voice critics, but others have weighed in. In the ad, the clip art of Alfred remains stoic.

Come January 20 and the Voice passes judgement in the Theatre Journal column. This time, the production department took pains to keep the ad on page 19, separate from the editorial critique on page 20.

Critic Michael Smith liked the show, but lamented the omission of the magazine’s “threat of savagery in its satiric bite”:

“The Mad Show” is a speedy and consistently funny musical revue. Its five performers are likable and highly skilled, Steven Vinaver’s direction leaves barely a moment unoccupied, Mary Rodgers’s music is energetic and versatile, and the sum is thoroughly diverting. It’s difficult to break the show down into its parts, since it moves at an almost blurring velocity. Linda Lavin is absolutely bewitching in “The Boy From,” and Paul Sand’s “The Real Thing” is a flawlessly performed miniature. MacIntyre Dixon and Dick Libertini, previously familiar as the Stewed Prunes, are as unpredictably zany as ever, and Jo Anne Worley has comic expertise to spare. Together and separately, they look like the ideal revue cast.

“The Mad Show” is based on Mad magazine. It shares the comic book’s irreverence, sometimes mimics its mating of the far-fetched with the dead-pan, but omits its air of tenuous control, the threat of savagery in its satiric bite. Much of the time the source is not visible, and I would have preferred to see more risks taken, more point of view, more precision in choosing targets for satire. I prefer theatre to be less innocuous; despite its shambling exterior, “The Mad Show” would not be outré in a chic midtown boîte. (But when would you find time to drink your drink?)

In other words, if you like this sort of thing, this is an excellent example of it. Aesthetic commitments ablush, I report it readily recommendable.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Obies Theater Uncategorized

“Fuck the Curtain”: An Oral History of Off-Broadway

Celebrating 30 Years of Off-Broadway
May 21, 1985

On May 20, the Obies celebrate their 30th birthday. This special supplement, with selections from 30 years of the Voice and reminiscences by many of the major figures of the American theater, is dedicated to the artists of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway.

GENE FRANKEL: I was sitting at a café on the Champs Elysées on August 3, 1959. Opposite me was Stefan Brecht, the sole controller of the American rights to his father’s plays. “I am interested in mounting an Off­-Broadway production of Mother Courage,” I told him.

“Not available.”

“What about Chalk Circle or Good Woman?”

“Not available.”

“What about Puntila? Zero Mostel and Edward G. Robinson are both interested in playing the lead.” (I lied.)

“Okay.” I lit up like a Roman candle.

“I require $10,000 in advance royalties.” I deflated like a ruptured inner tube.

“Stefan, this is Off-Broadway, not Broadway.”

“You know, Eugene, my father is not the only play­wright in the world,” he replied. “Have you read Genet? I just happen to have the English translation of his new play Les Nègres with me. The translator is a friend of mine. Read it and tell me what you think.”

I read my consolation prize in one sitting that night, and was immediately, immensely aware of Genet’s the­atrical genius. From the first moment, the hypnotic effect of the dionysian revels evoked by Genet stole the breath, stilled the heart, and fevered the brain. What was written as an assault on French colonialism would have even stronger impact in New York, reverberating off the 300-year-old guilt consciousness of liberal white America.

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Incredibly, St. Mark’s Playhouse was the only Off­-Broadway theater at that time suitable for the produc­tion scheme I devised — it had the height for a two-level set, and the raked seating necessary to suggest the am­phitheater of a Greek arena. And most important of all: no proscenium, no curtain, no separation of audience and actor. Excited by my talented cast of “unknowns,” which included Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Godfrey Cambridge, Lou Gossett, and Charles Gordone, and also by the ingen­iously designed set and extraordinary costumes and masks by Patricia Zipprodt, I invited Genet to the final weeks of rehearsal. But the State Department refused to grant this genius playwright a visa, because of his cri­minal record and sexual proclivities.

So I asked Bernard Frechtman, his translator, to sub­stitute. Seeing our rehearsal Frechtman was entranced — he had nothing but praise for the actors and the confrontational, improvisational, razor’s edge approach I was taking. “Genet will be pleased, he will be pleased,” Frechtman kept saying.

Then, three days away from previews, in the midst of a run-through, nearing the close of the first act, at the height of a voodoo-frenzy, suddenly Frechtman let out a scream. “The curtain. You’ve forgotten the curtain.” “Bernie, relax. There is no curtain.” “But Genet asked for a curtain. In his text, plainly, in black and white.” “Bernie, the architecture of this theater, the working construct of this production, the lack of wings, the thrust stage, all speak against having a curtain. So be reasonable, sit down, and shut up.” “I must telephone Genet immediately.”

The next morning he handed me a telegram: Mon­sieur Frankel. S’il vous plait. Je souhaite que le rideau soit en conformité avec mon texte. Bernie happily translated: “As my text requires, please use a curtain.” I immediately composed a letter, outlining in detail all the reasons why a curtain was unnecessary, undesirable, and unwanted. The reply was quick enough: Je voudrais avoir le rideau. (I want the curtain.) This time I com­posed an even longer, even more philosophical in-depth analysis, explaining why a curtain in this particular theater, in this particular production, was unnecessary, undesirable, and unwanted. Again the reply was swift and terse: Je demande le rideau. Assured by Frechtman that if thwarted, Genet would go to any length to de­nounce me and the production, I gave in. I cabled to Genet that since he insisted, I would comply. But as we were already over budget, could we have the author’s permission to take the cost of the curtain out of his anticipated royalties? This time Genet’s reply was swif­test of all: Je me fous du rideau — or, “Fuck the curtain.”

ELLEN STEWART: We began in 1963 in the basement at 321 East 9th Street, which was owned by a Mr. Slywotsky from the Ukraine. The other tenants were enraged to be living above a “nigger,” so they tried to get Slywotsky to drive me out by vandalizing their own apartments and sending him the repair bills. I remember someone smashing their own bathtub with a hammer. One day a very distinguished looking gentle­man came with a summons for my arrest. The neighbors had reported me for prostitution, saying I had enter­tained 15 white men in six hours. The truth is that many of my friends happened to be white males, and they were dropping by to help me fix up the basement. We explained to the officer that we were building a theater. He was sympathetic because he had worked in vaude­ville, and told us all we had to do was serve coffee and say we were a restaurant and we would be legit. My nickname at the time was Mama; we were going to use that name, but someone thought it wasn’t fancy enough, so we became La Mama.

When we moved to 82 Second Avenue we were ha­rassed by the Building Department and others. One night I returned to find the entire back wall of the building had been torn down. I knew they’d give us a coffee house license if the building had been a restau­rant before us. It had been the Zen Tua House, but the city had no record of it because the tea house was a front for a communist printing press, and someone high up in city government had destroyed the records. I managed to get the tea house’s tax report, so we survived again, but had made some enemies.

Then in 1965 we got our first citation from the Voice, along with Giuseppe [Joe Cino]. Before that we had been like orphans; the Obie made us legitimate. It was especially a big thrill because our work wasn’t so hot in those days, compared to now at least.

I wouldn’t do it differently if I were starting out now. Since the beginning La Mama has been committed to doing as many plays as possible, and we still do about 40 each season. My biggest joy is to know people are work­ing. I don’t go to rehearsals. I’m not even really that keen on seeing performances. I just love the excitement of everyone running around putting plays together, the look on their faces when they leave a good rehearsal.

STEVEN BEN ISRAEL: I’d been working in the Village as a jazz drummer. Around 1958 I was hanging out and no­ticed these little theaters springing up everywhere. I went to a benefit for the General Strike for Peace, and met Julian Beck and Judith Malina. One day I was in a cab that stalled on 14th Street, noticed their theater, got out and went up to see them. They invited me to stay and see The Connection. I walked out saying that’s what I would do with my life. They were opening Brecht’s Man Is Man and hired me to play Sunday performances for Joe Chaikin. At that time we were the only rep theater in New York.

Then came The Brig. Newsweek called it “devastat­ing,” and The Times said if it was true there should be a congressional investigation. Then the IRS moved in to close the theater for back taxes. They sealed off the entrance, so we had the audience climb up ladders into the second-floor window. We were arrested after the performance; they locked us up in the cage we used as a set for the play.

JULIAN BECK and JUDITH MALINA: The Off-Broadway movement was born of the impulse to create a coun­ter-theater that would bring glow, wings, and artistic cohesion to an art which had become the prisoner and plaything of the middle class. The powers of the estab­lishment threaten to take possession of every tool and discovery of the movement, so there’s a need to start again, to reinvest the theater with risk and daring, to declare that a theater without moral consciousness is just crème caramel in a world of nuclear madness.

DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: It had always been obvious that Broadway was not the place to say anything serious about the experience of blacks. We had no choice but to carve out our own arena. Off-Broadway for us was not so much an alternative but the only real possibility.

The one production I would most like to live through again is the Negro Ensemble Company’s first, the Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, a play about Portuguese colo­nialism in Mozambique and Angola. It was created be­fore we had a name to live up to, so we could concen­trate on the work for its own sake. There is no production I particularly regret. Struggle in theater is the norm.

JERRY TALLMER: The Voice and the Off-Broadway movement started almost simultaneously, but it was Julie Bovasso’s performance in The Maids that really got my juices stirring. Some time during that first year, a bunch of us were sitting around the office and asked, why shouldn’t there be some sort of awards for Off­Broadway, to single it out from Broadway, to stick it in the establishment’s eye? The name actually came from Harvey Jacobs, a novelist who was working in the adver­tising department. We sent a notice to the Times, and Sam Zolotow, the eminent theater reporter, called to ask what the Voice was — as a matter of fact, he didn’t even know where Greenwich Village was.

The only big fight we ever had was over Beckett’s Happy Days in 1962. The judges that year were Walter Kerr, Edward Albee, and myself, and Kerr adamantly refused to vote for it. He was a nice guy, but very stubborn, and insisted on Frank Gilroy’s Who’ll Save the Plowboy? Finally we divided the prize. Kerr stipu­lated he’d only accept the compromise if we announced that he was abstaining. So the single abstention in the history of the Obies has been Walter Kerr on Samuel Beckett.

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SPALDING GRAY: When Liz LeCompte and I first saw Dionysus in ’69 at the Performing Garage, we sat on the highest platform. I was afraid one of those naked zombies would make me do something or everything I thought I didn’t want to do. Sometime after that, after I cooled down a bit, I sent Richard Schechner my picture and resume. It was a studio shot taken while I was working at the Alley Theatre. I had a beard and my hands were dramatically clasped in a sort of beatific biblical prayer position. There was special-effects smoke floating in the background and the whole thing looked like a publicity shot for King David.

When the performer who was playing Malcolm in the Group’s environmental production of Makbeth gave four days’ notice (the only healthy alternative to killing Richard), I was called in. Richard asked me if I thought I could do the role in four days. “Sure. No problem,” I said. After all, I’d done five years of summer stock and was gracefully unaware that the group had taken two years to develop Makbeth.

When I arrived at the Performing Garage for my first rehearsal, I was surprised to find only Joan MacIntosh and Richard Schechner. The rest of the group had re­fused to come in. The love affair had gone sour. So Joan played her role and Richard performed all the others. He was a very bad actor and particularly bad as the messenger that brings the news of the murder of all Macduff’s “pretty ones.” But bad as his acting was, looking back on it now, I feel that might have been the right concept for the production: Richard and Joan playing all the roles.

At the time, Richard was hot into his theory of ac­tuals. No mimesis and no props please. We were not to pretend we were doing anything, we were to actually do it. For me, the strangest and most far-out section was the banquet scene in which, instead of food, everyone ate the king. Duncan had to bare his upper torso while everyone else fell upon him and sucked. The play had been running for a long time and the guy who played Duncan looked like E.T. after shiatsu. His pulpy white body held a, wild profusion of flowering hickies that started at his navel and ran, like little purple foot print, all the way to his neck. I’d never seen anything like it.

When the time came to rehearse that scene, Richard stripped-down to his Jockey sports, flopped out on that huge platform, and grunted, “Eat,” and with no hesita­tion I dove in and began to gum him. “Harder! Harder! Suck harder!” he cried and I did. I went down on that hairy belly that was then like the combination of a Buddha belly and an orangutan’s: I sucked and sucked, only pulling back for air and to pick hairs from between my teeth, and as I was doing this.I thought, yes, it’s true, I’m like any actor. Even in this experimental, environ­mental theater production I’ll do anything for a part, even if it means going down on the director in front of his wife on a giant wood platform in a garage that used to be a silver press shop in a funky crazy warehouse district that the audience was afraid to set foot in and that would soon become surprising Soho, that most desired of desired spots in New York City.

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KEVIN O’CONNOR: I had graduated from the Neighbor­hood Playhouse expecting to go out to one of the re­gional theaters to hone my craft on the classics, but alas, I was rejected and rebuffed, so I got a job waiting tables at the Village Gate. My fellow waiters were all actors, directors, and painters and such — including playwright Leonard Melfi, director Ralph Cook, and a busboy named Sam Shepard. Well, like Mick and Judy; we all wanted to put on a show, so along with Ralph Cook, and the Reverend Michael Allen, we started Theater Genesis at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery Church. We had Monday night readings of new plays with such writers as Murray Mednick, John Guare, Sally Ordway, Tom Sankey, and many others. Like other Off-Off theaters we used things from our apartments for set pieces — I remember ripping the bathtub out of Shepard’s place on Avenue C for his play Chicago, and moving most of Melfi’s apartment to the church for Birdbath, including his desk and typewriter.

Through all this time Ellen Stewart was producing a new play every week. It seemed all you had to do was go to her and say you had a script you liked, and she’d hand you $100 and say, “Go ahead, honey.” Around 1965 she got the idea that if she sent some of us off to Europe we could come home famous the way opera stars do. She formed two troupes; one under the direction of Ross Alexander went first to Paris, the other under Tom O’Horgan went to Copenhagen. I was in O’Horgan’s troupe. We did nine one-acts in three weeks. There was a stage manager but no crew, so Tom ran around doing lights, and making sound and musical effects. We began with an audience of nine in a 100-seat theater, and by the third week they were lined up around the block.

Down to Paris. A big flop: American expatriates walking out left and right. We stayed for about a month, living in a seedy hotel on the Left Bank, playing “Like a Rolling Stone,” on the jukebox. Our next tour tours were more successful, and culminated in 1968 with Tom Paine and Futz being produced Off-Broadway. Between these tours I continued to wait tables at the Village Gate. At that time the Obie presentations were held there. I was able to find someone else to work for me the night I won for Chicago.

ROBERT PATRICK: A Caffe Cino in the 1960s: An actress walks out on a show. Reason: Someone stateside was laughing in what she considered inappropriate places and she felt artistically compromised. Result: Joe Cino made a few phone calls and a galaxy of Off-Off luminar­ies appear in an impromptu revue which included sever­al songs that went on to become world classics.

At La Mama in the 1970s: Half the cast leaves a show. Reason: They had all been offered paying jobs in an uptown Off-Broadway turkey that not one of them be­lieved in. They told the La Mama playwright, “Just postpone the show and we’ll be back when this folds.” Result: The turkey lingered on and La Mama had to bring in a production from outside, but the canceled play was eventually produced with great success elsewhere.

At Theater for the New City in the 1980s: Half the cast walks out on a play after the first of three scheduled weeks. Reason: They got a bad review and felt the play was no longer a good showcase for TV jobs. Result: The author is told he cannot extend the run beyond the three weeks Equity allows even if he recasts, and if the play later moved, he would still be responsible under the showcase code to offer the roles to the actors who walked. Because theaters now get their grants based on how many premieres they do, he has not been able to get a second production anyway.

There were, and are, many exceptions to these moods, but the general picture is accurate. The original Off-Off spirit now seems to be in the clubs and outside New York.

lRENE FORNES: What draws me to theater is the adventure. Working Off-Off-Broadway I can do a play as often as I want, as often as my endurance permits. That is the greatest riches I can ask for.

The longevity of a writer depends on being unafraid to think about writing in ways different form the way he or she thought about writing before. The longevity of a playwright depends on having a place where his or her work will be performed with love and trust, a place that is not filled with terror and fear of collapse. A place that would rather collapse than give up the idea that there is such a thing as art.

JACQUES LEVY: The audiences in the middle-to-late ’60s were as unconventional as the work itself. People came prepared to have their expectations upended, craving to be startled, shocked, even assaulted for the purpose of having a Fresh Experience. We were trying to make the theater jump out of its skin.

When I directed Red Cross (Sam Shepard’s first Off-Broadway production), I had loud rock ‘n’ roll music blasting form the moment the audience entered the theater, and the all-white lighting on the all-white set was blinding. Over a 20-minute period prior to the beginning of the play, the intensity of both sound and light diminished until the theater became silent and dark; the actors took their places; then the lights banged on at full intensity.

However, on opening night, when the lights banged on, a main fuse in the theater blew. While I, helpless at the back of the theater, was having something close to a coronary, the audience — this knowing audience, by then accustomed to taking a you-can’t-put-one-over-on-me stance, a slightly paranoid and more than slightly cynical attitude — sat there as if nothing untoward had occurred (some of them laughing that special laugh that indicates they are in on the joke), for what must have been 10 minutes. Thinking back, I question whether we hadn’t perhaps loosened the fabric of expectations too much. Did we really want to create a situation, establish a conspiracy, between audience and creator, wherein all judgment of competency was suspended?

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WYNN HANDMAN: I came to off-Broadway 23 years ago, when there was no support institution for new American playwrights. Then those writers appeared in all their diversity, outrage, and talent. They found places all over the city; suddenly there was room for them. “Writing is a solitary act,” one playwright told me, “but I have found a family.”

PAUL FOSTER: I had written a play which I thought was an act of genius. Unfortunately no other producer thought so. So Ellen Stewart said “We’ve just got to build a theater to put this on.” “Where in hell will we get the money to do that?” “Don’t worry honey, we’ve got backing.” “We got backing, where?” “I got the check right here.” She dove into her pocketbook and pulled out her $55 unemployment check.

Later when things got clicking, Ellen was really bank­rolling everything, with a job she had in a bathing suit factory. She kept Tom O’Horgan and me on a daily stipend. I got $5 a day, enough for a hamburger and a pack of cigarettes. Then I found out she was giving O’Horgan $10 a day and I was furious. So I faced her down. She knew she was trapped. She told me,”Honey,­ he’s got a lot of laundry to do.”

When we began we obviously knew very little. The first director we had asked where the light board was. I was unsure what a light board was. Ellen pointed to the single on-off switch on the wall. He said, “All right, where’s the lights?” We showed him some tin cans. Then he asked for gels. That threw us; neither of us knew what he meant. Ellen said, “I’ll look in my pocket­book. I must have some somewhere.”

RONALD TAVEL: I met Eddie McCarty in some disreputa­ble place back in ’63. He was short, untoned, freckled, redheaded, and pale to the point of green. He was also broke and Irish. He ate raw potatoes and cried a lot. And most people said he was the best gentile pianist in America.

In February 1967, Harvey Tavel hastily staged a one-­acter of mine, Kitchenette, to pay the rent on the old Play-House of The Ridiculous. We asked Eddie and leggy Mary Woronov to star in it. We rehearsed for five days and Mary couldn’t learn her lines. Harvey would stand right on stage feeding them to her. That gave me an idea: it was the first of my plays to incorporate the actual director as an actor. But it was Eddie’s manic performance that caught up the critics. He got an Obie. A scout for The Times was in the audience one night and, after seeing him, told me The Times ought to be covering this sort of thing. And down they were for the next (Gorilla Queen), in which Eddie also appeared.

He starred again in Arenas of Lutetia in 1968, but by this time something was wrong. He repeatedly struck an actress on stage, her boyfriend intervened, and the show folded. In the years that followed I was not always in touch with Eddie. But when I did see him, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. And no one seemed able to help. He returned to Decatur, Illinois, his hometown, and a bit after, a phone call came from Jo Ann Forman telling me that Eddie McCarty had passed away. An autopsy failed to disclose any reason. I lost my voice for three days. He was 31.

JOANNE AKALAITIS: Every performance is special, but Red Horse Animation at Theater for the New City was unforgettable, because the fact that you could hear wind through the walls added an amazing effect. One night during a blizzard we performed for only two people, Philip Glass and Bob Fury.

I’ve never seen anything like the strong sense of com­munity I find off-off Broadway even today. It comes from knowing we are survivors.

JOSEPH PAPP: When we first started to tour Shake­speare, we had gone up to Harlem and set up our stage in a big school yard. There were several tough guys hanging around. I said to one of them, “You can’t stand here, this is backstage.” He looked at me hard for a moment and said, “Are you kidding? This is third base.”

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SUSAN YANKOWITZ: In 1970 I received a Drama Desk award as most promising playwright of the year for my work on the Open Theater’s Terminal. The award was given at Sardi’s, a highly incongruous setting for a writer who was being paid $25 a week and whose theatrical environment and experience had been confined to a loft with uneven floorboards on 14th Street. Dressed to kill, knowing that Lauren Bacall and other luminaries were to be present, I approached the door, where to my astonishment and chagrin I was given a chit entitling me to one drink at the bar and advised that further refresh­ments were to be at my own expense. The glamour of celebrity was immediately dispelled, and not restored even by John Lindsay’s kiss on my cheek as I accepted the citation.

CHRISTOPHER DURANG: Titanic Sinks. Titanic Hits Bottom. So said the headlines. “Horrors,” said Doug Watt. I should have known better than to title a play Titanic.

My first two plays in New York were one-acts done at 11 p.m. at the now defunct Direct Theater, run by Allen Belknap. First was Nature and Purpose of the Uni­verse, warmly received. Months later came Titanic, which got more mixed reviews but had a bit of a cult following, so Yale classmate (and actor) John Rothman decided to move it to Off-Broadway.

Mel Gussow’s review of the first version had said that if the play were cut by about 10 minutes it would “float” (this play triggered endless boat metaphors). I cut pre­cisely 10 minutes. Sigourney Weaver and I came up with our first version of Das Lusitania Songspiel as a cur­tain-raiser. To save money it was decided that I would act as assistant stage manager and the director, Peter Mark Schifter, would be production stage manager. I also appeared as the body of the Captain’s wife, which meant I had to strip to underwear and be wrapped in a sheet and tied to a handcart, with a pillowcase over my head.

The day after opening Sigourney and I had been booked on the Joe Franklin Show, and had to stare at him blankly when he asked us about reviews and pre­tend they hadn’t come out yet. He didn’t know who or what we were anyway, and asked us endless questions about nutrition because he had some food expert on the program. Sigourney remarked that she and I always ate liver and green beans for energy. Franklin seemed im­pressed with her beauty and called her Sigornia.

The Van Dam theater went from being pretty full during previews to having about 12 people per night after we opened. Schifter became sloppy running the tape machine, and one night the sound effect of the ship hitting the iceberg came out as a mere “pip”; the poor actors pretended to hear something larger, and fell to the floor in a heap, though their bodies shook with laughter.

I’ve never been back on the Joe Franklin Show, but I’m still hoping.

MEREDITH MONK: In Vessel, back in 1971, we moved the audience around in a bus, starting at my loft, then to the Performing Garage, then on to a parking lot on Wooster Street. One night I remember so well, it was raining, and because I played an electric organ in the piece I was afraid I’d be electrocuted. The police had interrupted the rehearsals that afternoon and the children in the piece were scared to perform because they thought the police might come back. The motorcycle riders in the company missed their cue. And in the middle of the performance someone leaned out of an apartment which faced the parking lot and started singing along with the rest of us.

It’s no longer possible to do pieces like Vessel. There were 100 people in that piece, all volunteer. Today peo­ple either perform professionally or don’t perform. In Europe there’s more money, but you have to have the production all worked out before you start rehearsals. That’s no good for me because I work on all the ele­ments of my pieces simultaneously. At least Off-Off still offers the possibility of working that way. It may mean light-bulb school of lighting, but there’s freedom in that.

AL CARMINES: The Judson Poets Theater began under the auspices of playwright Bob Nichols and myself. Right off we discovered a beautiful play by Joel Oppen­heimer, The Great American Desert, for our first pro­duction in September 1961. It was serious spoof on Western heroes like Billy the Kid. Our theater at that time was the balcony loft of Judson Church. We could seat about 80 by crowding. We placed actors all over the place — on the organ pipes, or under the balcony. An actor might pop up under your feet.

Our budget for each production the first two years was $37.50 per play. We charged no admission; people contributed what they could. We begged, borrowed, and occasionally stole what we needed. In those days there was a shortage of actors (hard to believe now), so I often ended up acting in some of the early plays. I remember that during a performance of a play by Derek Wolcott two actors were sick and I did both roles, kind of throw­ing my voice for the double effect.

We were in close communion with the other Off-Off theaters at the time. We exchanged props, costumes, actors, even playwrights. I remember the first time I met Rosalyn Drexler. She came in wearing a crucifix. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” my secretary asked. “Why the crucifix?” “Well,” she replied, “I knew I was coming to see a minister. I figured it couldn’t hurt.” We always had beer parties after the plays, and I remember danc­ing with Joyce Aaron and her telling me about her new boyfriend Sam Shepard. “He’s a budding playwright,” she said. Then she sighed, “I wonder if he’s bisexual like all my boyfriends.”

Joe Cino was the father of us all. On a stage no bigger than a postage stamp, he created Magic Time for all his audience. When he committed suicide, the beginning days of Off-Off-Broadway officially ended.

ISRAEL HOROVITZ: The night before Line was set to open at La Mama, the actor playing the lead finished dress rehearsal and made the most extraordinary announce­ment. He said he had gotten the lead in a TV pilot in Hollywood and that he would have to be on a plane for L.A. the very next morning. He did that. He highest tribute I can pay to that particular memory is that I’ve actually forgotten his name. We were stunned. Nobody wanted to leave the theater after the announce­ment. The director, Jimmy Hammerstein, had noticed that throughout rehearsals I had been mouthing the words on the sidelines. “You know the part, Israel. You play it.” We rehearsed all night.

Line begins with an actor, on stage, in line behind a white tape on the floor, waiting. My character enters and immediately challenges the other character, Flem­ing, for first place. My first line was “Is this a line?” With great enthusiasm I came out into that safe, famil­iar room and — by God! It was full of strangers. Critics lined the front rows. I forgot who I was, where I was, why I was. The stage manager, Bonnie, had the unpleas­ant task of having to respond to my sick little plea: “Line, please?” She yelled out, “Is this a line?” I repeat­ed, “Is this a line?” “What’s it look like?” Fleming answered, and the audience laughed and clapped.

In The Indian Wants the Bronx, John Cazale played Gupta, an East Indian, and Al Pacino played Murph, wherever and whenever somebody would let us do the play. Cazale was brilliant, but I thought it was going to be insulting to East Indians to have a Caucasian play the role. I insisted on finding a real Hindu and did: an accountant who lived in Queens and had a penchant for the stage. Our first and only performance in Hampton Bays there were 3000 seats and only three people showed up: three old ladies in huge hats, atop hopeful bluish-haired heads. Midway through the performance, they left. They simply stood and they simply left. A migraine hit me like a thrown plant pot.

We got Cazale back, we got Hammerstein, but the new producer wasn’t buying Al. “He’s too short.” “The man’s a genius.” “He’s too short.” “You can’t do the play without him. I won’t do it.” “He’ll have to audi­tion” “He’ll audition.” “You’ll have to consider other actors.” “I said, ‘He’ll audition!’ ” He did. Al got two lines out of his mouth and the producer was startled. I ran down the aisle and screamed out to Al, “You got the part!” The 20 other actors sitting waiting to audition were not happy. Now, looking back, I don’t think Al minded having to audition at all. He knew he was un­beatable. He still is. He still knows it.

TED MANN: In April of 1956 Circle in the Square theater was on the verge of going under; we decided that if we were to close, we would make the final production the biggest, the most challenging and most difficult. We chose O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play that had failed on Broadway 10 years before, had a cast of 25, and ran over five and a half hours. Jose Quintero was set to go into rehearsals with Howard da Silva playing Hickey, but da Silva withdrew at the last moment. A young actor came in and pleaded for an opportunity to read for the role. We had found our Hickey — Jason Robards Jr.

JAMES COCO: My first experience Off-Off was in a production of Salome. Contrary to all reports, I played Herod the king. We had a special makeup person, and I ended up with more makeup than Salome herself. I had a tough time finding a job after that.

CRYSTAL FIELD: We’ve been doing Street Theater at Theater for the New City as long as we’ve been around. That’s 14 years. Early on we decided to move into the boroughs. Schaffer Beer had shown an interest in spon­soring us in Greenpoint, where they had a brewery, but pulled out at the last moment — something about beer and children. George [Bartenieff] thought twice about going, but I said, “Come on, it’s Brooklyn, they’ll love us.”

We were doing Undercover Cop that year by Bob Nichols and when we arrived, the first thing we found was two gangs in the midst of a verbal brawl. “That’s O.K.,” I said, “a play will calm them down.” One gang leader assured us that a play with singing was just what was wanted, so we proceeded to start. There was no electricity in the playground, so three members of one gang climbed a fire escape, broke into an apartment and plugged us in — it happened so fast we couldn’t say no.

In the play, George, playing a druggie, was to steal Margaret Miller’s purse and run through the audience. Margaret was supposed to scream and run after him, followed by me (I was playing a little fat boy) screaming and running after her. Well, I had always shut my eyes when I screamed because it had to be loud and from a sitting position. When I opened them, the entire au­dience was on its feet, chasing George. “It’s just a play,” I screamed. “If you keep behaving like this we won’t come back next year.” They all looked contrite. But it wasn’t three minutes before the growling began again between the two gangs and chains swung and knives twisted in hands.

We never felt directly threatened ourselves, though we thought we might “get it” by mistake and it spoiled our concentration and I never felt that they really un­derstood the show. But there were no injuries and no thefts. They pointed the way to the bridge and cheered us as we drove off.

NORRIS HOUGHTON: Back in the earliest days Circle in the Square was dedicated to new actors, and the Living Theater to a new kind of theater, but there was no place for established actors to perform away from the pressures of commercial theater. What with tickets up to a $6.60 top, it looked like Broadway was pricing itself out of existence.

So T. Edward Hambleton and I started the Phoenix. We opened with Sidney Howard’s Madam Will You Walk? starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, on December 1, 1953. The audience was extremely favor­able and our hopes were high, but the newspapers had gone out on strike. Fearing the Phoenix would be re­duced to ashes in our very first season, we made a curtain speech begging the audience to spread the word. By the end of the week we had sold out.

FLORENCE TARLOW: I first appeared at Judson Poets Theater in Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias, playing a kiosk. Only my arms were visible, so the kiosk could express itself. From then on, for a period of six or seven years, I seem to have been in one play after another, from the truly splendid to the god-awful, but each had tremendous energy and enthusiasm. Some transferred to off-Broadway, like Shepard’s Red Cross and Irene Fornes’s Promenade, and had respectable runs and good houses. Others were not so lucky. On a beautiful summer matinee day, when I fervently wished I were at the beach and was performing instead at the Martinique in Ronald Tavel’s marvelous comedy Gorilla Queen, there were twice as many of us on stage as out in the audience.

Close contender to the Judson for my fond memories of Off-Off Broadway in the ’60s was the Hardware Poets Theater, situated over a hardware store in a block now occupied by the New York Hilton Hotel. Performing in their always-original, often-mad plays was enormous fun. There were frequent special events like the three­-day Yam Festival during which one could participate or watch events continuously for the entire period. I did both, without leaving the premises for 72 hours, and emerged into the bright sunshine with something like the bends.

TAYLOR MEAD: Outside of the dreadful bullshit and sadism of almost every producer and director I worked with in the ’60s, there was an intensity of living both on, and off stage. Sometimes the two were indistinguish­able — if the lines or timing didn’t suit the individual’s mood of the evening, voila, a new play! Ondine was one of our greatest prima donnas — beating up members of the audience or ordering them to leave if they laughed at the “wrong” part. In Conquest of the Universe we al­ways wondered whether he would go on or not, or when the curtain would rise on him still fixing his makeup.

Conquest was one big anecdote because we had a very strong cast, fortunately, and because we had a very strong director — John Vacarro — and nobody took any nonsense from anybody. When I first read the script I thought it was unreadable, pointed to the middle, and said, “I’ll do it if I can sing ‘I’m Flying’ from Peter Pan right here.” Vacarro said, “Okay,” and we had a ball. Later I performed the song (covered in jewels) on the Johnny Carson show. A nervous Bob Crane was guest host. He thought I was going to answer the questions the way I did in the interview, but when he asked, slightly acidly, what I did all day, “the dishes?” I replied: “I only have one dish.”

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RICHARD FOREMAN: In the early ’60s, when I entered the Off-Off Broadway world, I had just spent six years deeply involved with Jonas Mekas and the underground film movement. It was quite a few years before my tiny film-oriented audience started to include more “establishment” Off-Off Broadway spectators. From ’68 until ’72, we would normally perform for 15 to 20 people a night, half of whom would leave within the 20 minutes. We measured the success of the evening in terms of how many people stayed till the end (often not more than five or six). I’ve often thought that if it hadn’t been for the lucky accident of the Voice sending Arthur Sainer to review my first pieces, for which he wrote enthusiastic reviews, the general audience hostility (and tinyness) might have done me in. As Gertrude Stein says: artists don’t need criticism, they need praise.

RICHARD BARR: Edward Albee, Clinton Wilder, and I ran the playwrights unit on Vandam Street for about 10 years. The manager of that unit was Charles Gnys. At the beginning we each read all the plays submitted; later Gnys read them alone. Then Albee submitted his new play, Box, under a pseudonym; Gnys wrote a scathing review. The play became Box Mao Box. Just shows what can happen if you delegate authority.

MICHAEL FEINGOLD: The first show I directed Off-­Off-Broadway was at the Old Reliable, around 1970, a pair of one-acts by Lonnie Carter. I made a terrible mess of one and did the other brilliantly. In the first one Neil Flanagan played the god Bacchus; Arthur Sainer gave us an awful pan in the Voice, but he mentioned that Neil wore a nine-foot garden hose coming out of his fly as a phallus, so the next day we had lines around the block. In the second play Neil was a mad German physicist who had discovered a way to remove space from time, Joan Pape was his wife, who did nothing all day but make ginger-ale-flavored yogurt, and Albert Poland­ — his last onstage performance — was their villainous nephew, who wanted to exploit Neil’s discovery. They had a very tense confrontation in the final scene and one night, just as they hit this moment, with dead silence in the theater, there was a gunshot, very distinct, in the building next door. Albert went completely white; they both stood stock still for a minute. Then Neil, trying to recover, said, “Nephew,” very softly, and thank good­ness, just then we heard the police siren approaching. “Nephew,” Neil said, “you’re not going to get away with this. I took the precaution of phoning the police.” And everybody cheered.

ARTHUR SAINER: As Voice drama critics, Michael Smith and I would often go to the theater together. We’d confer after the show; the unwritten rule: whoever liked the play better would write the review. In June of ’63 Michael wrote and directed a play at the Caffe Cino called I Like It. In it, a mother and grown son spend most of their time in a big brass bed. (Michael hauled over his own bed for the run.) I was scheduled to do the review; I was also temporarily staying in Michael’s apartment. I wrote the review (mixed) on Michael’s typewriter, listened to the periodic downward thrust of the pants presser in the shop below (it was hovering near 100 degrees that week), visited the adjoining apart­ment, where Tom O’Horgan had painted his living room walls a deep green to give one a vivid sense of the subterranean life, and finally in desperation wrote a one-act play, The Bitch of Waverly Place, which two years later was to mark my debut as a playwright in that then arcadian world of Off-Off Broadway.

I’d written The Bitch as a solo performance for Jenny Hecht. Jenny was nervous about soloing and couldn’t fathom what the play was about. She (the entire cast) vanished the last two days of rehearsals. Opening night, searching for something to hook into, Jenny began im­provising: “I don’t know what this play’s supposed to be about. Mr. Sainer wrote this stuff, I can’t make any sense of it, can you?” I had a recurring fantasy about running onstage and turning Jenny’s monologue into a dialogue, but was too timid in those days. Well, Jenny has since departed from this Earth, as have Joe Cino and others who were in the forefront of a strange and lovely moment in theater history. Bless them.

HARVEY FIERSTEIN: I worked my ass off for 11 years in over 60 productions, playing everything from Greek tragedy to Christmas camps. Eleven years of rat-ridden rehearsal rooms, thrift shop costumes, organ loft dress­ing rooms, and sweatbox theaters. I suffered the slings of Michael Feingold, the arrows of Michael Smith, and the outrageous fortunes of Joe Papp. I sported tuxes and togas and lamé gowns. I tap-danced and stripteased and hung by chains from the walls. I ruined my health, alienated my family, and embarrassed my friends. And all for what? So that one day I might be sitting in Art D’Lugoff’s columned hall, drinking sangria snatched from the next table, when the emcee announced, “For outstanding everything, the judges have awarded an Obie to Harvey Fierstein.”

So did it ever happen? Every year I sat there, my acceptance speech scrawled in my sweaty palm, and for 10 years it was always the same: “For outstanding every­thing, the judges have awarded an Obie to Maria Irene Fornes.” After 10 years I figured they’d at least give me a lifetime achievement award. After all, Irene already had four of those. But no, my 10th year slipped by unnoticed. In fact, I wasn’t even invited to the Obies that year.

Now this saga does have a happy ending. I was finally awarded an Obie for writing and acting. (God forbid they should give me two separate ones. They gave Irene three that year.) The award hangs prominently among a humbling array of such trophies and I’m certainly glad to see it each morning. But in closing let me just remind the august Obie Committee that 1986 marks my 15th year among y’all and I’m sure Irene’s walls are full while I have a country house to decorate. Enough said. See you at the Obies.

From his performances with the Living Theater, through the startling ensemble produc­tions he created with the Open Theater and the Winter Project, from his interpretations of Beck­ett, through his collaborations with Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin’s work has been a model of the best of Off- and Off-Off: noncommercial, uncon­ventional, intelligent, visceral theater.

A year ago, Chaikin suffered a stroke. He has only partially regained his speech, but recently wrote and recorded two radio plays with Shepard and hopes to conduct a workshop in Israel next fall. When I asked for a contribution to this history, he handed me letters from Shepard. In one the playwright quotes his favorite line from a Brecht poem: “You can make a fresh start with your final breath.”