How I Watch a Richard Foreman Play
By Jonathan Kalb
[This essay was written for the Wiener Festwochen
program book of Richard Foreman's Panic! (How to be happy), which
toured to Vienna in Spring 2003.]
The theater landscape in New York City is dauntingly
crowded--not only with commercial entertainers and the countless non-profiteers
who envy and emulate them but also with hundreds of avant-gardists whose
stock in trade is resistance, protest, and experiment. Even in this
noisily congested field, Richard Foreman stands alone. After 35 years,
he is the senior artist of the American avant-garde, its de
facto rebbe, the only one of his pioneering 60s generation who has hewed
so strongly and single-mindedly to a specifically theatrical vision
over the ensuing media-saturated decades that his productions are now
objects of annual pilgrimage for thousands of loyalists.
His current, tiny theater is located in a church,
inside which he builds "art installation"- like settings packed with
mysteriously obsessive arrangements of totemic objects, such as zebra-
striped strings, sliced up rugs, lewd chandeliers, kabbalistic symbols,
and more. Thus the Ontological-Hysteric Theater has acquired a shrine-like
aspect, a reputation as an island of idealized idiosyncrasy in an ocean
of urban pandering and titillation. Whatever the truth of this, the
uncompromising nature of Foreman's work has long provided unique hope
and sustenance to other theater-makers whose faith in their unconventional
impulses might otherwise have flagged.
I am too young to have seen Foreman's early pieces.
I first came upon him by chance in 1981 when, knowing nothing, I bought
a student ticket to Penguin Touquet at the Public Theater and
found my imagination blasted open in ways that thrilled and startled
me. Since then I've seen nearly every piece he has done, not only to
follow him but also, I readily admit, to revisit and reflect on what
happened to me that first time. Foreman's frenetic and hermetic theater
gets under your skin and leaves you obsessing about why.
I always begin my Foreman-going by reminding
myself to take note of the man at the back of the house. That balding,
somber, heavy-lidded, vaguely Rasputinesque fellow obsessively turning
knobs and pressing buttons is the author-director, whose work is always
first of all a mapping of his own strange and capacious consciousness.
He begins making his plays by collecting scenes and snatches of conversation
from his notebooks, in which he writes constantly, often while listening
to those same looped musical tapes heard in all his shows. The texts
amount to debates with himself about various metaphysical, therapeutic
and practical issues which are of urgent concern to him. In
other words, he invites you to enter his mind and roam around there
to get a sense of how it operates, which may seem odd at first but is
actually a basic attribute of all great art.
Nietzsche--a writer close to Foreman's heart--once
wrote: "As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased
to understand my position and consequently my arguments! You have to
be the victim of the same passion!" Foreman's greatest challenge,
after assembling his texts, is to avoid killing or falsifying his passion,
which would short-circuit the passion of others and consequently invite
them to align themselves against him. Thus, he never develops
his fragments into sequential arguments, or decided theses, or knits
any of his rags together into familiar-shaped garments. He strives instead
to maintain the truest possible image of his actual PROCESS of thought--invariably
feeling in the end that he has failed.
But if there is a failure it is the failure of
which Beckett speaks, the failure immanent in any attempt to "express"
with imperfect materials . . . such as words, or actors. Foreman's actors
are his reluctant and refractory surrogates, the terrible alter egos
who drag his self-analysis out of the private study and into exquisitely
shabby carnivals where he loses full control. Don't be misled by the
seeming omniscence of his amplified voice--more prevalent in Panic!
than in previous plays. The actors have brought their own unpredictable
desires, expressions, gestures, tastes, and distastes crucially into
the mix, and their multiple voices and bodies (often scantily clad despite
their intricately layered costumes) mirror and challenge Foreman's manic
thought, transforming his strings of discrete, pearlescent moments into
adventures of deadly serious silliness.
For my part, I make little effort to remember
precisely what is said in these plays. I see them as carefully engineered
shipwrecks in which my memory is both a friend and an enemy. Those who
struggle mentally to reassemble what has been punctiliously torn asunder
here will find themselves swimming against a current they can't fight.
(Foreman: "it's only the distractions, it's only the suggestion that
life goes off in a million different directions at all moments that
provide, for me, an interesting subject for art.") If on the other hand
you use your memory tactically, reflexively, as a bobbing sailor uses
his arms to grasp flotsam, you have at least the chance of discovering
an impromptu logic in the wreckage and in your own confusion.
The work can teach you how to enjoy it, if you're
receptive. Unlike most avant-garde theater-makers, Foreman doesn't undermine
conventional (Aristotelian) cause-and-effect as a rebellion for its
own sake but because neutralizing it, stilling the hunger for it, is
the surest path he sees to his desired experiential "paradise" (variously
called "poetry city," "paradise hotel," "the cure," etc.). "The delay
of gratification is gratification," says a voice in his play Maria
del Bosco. Thus, openness to ricocheting and reverberating meanings,
and the ability to experience non-specific anticipation as pure suspense,
perpetual deferment of connection as a new sort of connection, is the
grail. Pattern and whimsy, "meditation" and "racing," stand in perfect,
precarious balance where "story" has been truly displaced by flash discoveries,
inspirations, surprises, and fortuitous accidents. After all (as another
of his voices says): "you will never be as smart as you are right now."