Genuine Illusions of our Times
Richard Foreman in conversation with Magda
[The following conversation with Richard
Foreman was conducted on October 12, 2001, one month after the 9-11
terrorist attacks. Some short excerpts were printed in Theater
magazine (32:1, Winter 2002), but this is the first time the interview
has been published in its entirety. More than a decade after the traumatic
events, Foreman's assessment is as fresh as ever.]
What do you think September 11th changed? What did it change for theater?
For New York theater?
It's too early to say whether there is a deep
or just a superficial change. It depends on whether there are continuing
events. Right now (a month after the event) people are obviously upset.
But the important thing is to respond not only to what happened but
to the forces underlying what happened. I.E. what lies deep in the psyche
of all men, friends and antagonists and self that can cause such a horrible
eruption. I do NOT think it is "anti-patriotic" to examine oneself as
well as one's enemies. But the immediate change is only of the moment.
What do you think is that change of the
Obviously people are scared and angry. But this
is no "change"--simply an automatic emotional reaction. I myself had
a similar immediate reaction. (I saw everything happen through the window
of my loft.) But this emotion, in itself, does not fuel art. At least,
not the kind of art that is my own obsession. What fuels my art and
the art I love and that seems relevant to the evolved 21st-century situation,
is the hands-on, sensual manipulation of materials--language, sounds,
shapes--that then lead one into deep psychic territory.
The title of your last work is Now
that Communism is Dead My Life feels Empty. Does it still hold
Well, not at the moment. Obviously, one's perception
is changed. For the moment, there seems to be a new set of problems.
What communism promised was utopia (though it obviously never worked
in the real world, that was the dream). After communism failed, the
lack of alternatives to global, exploitative capitalism seemed to leave
life "empty" for many of us. Fukuyama talked about the end of history.
But as of this moment-- has history somehow re-begun? What the World
Trade Center event should suggest is a simultaneous reexamination of
the global capitalism that I do believe helped to produce the arena
in which this catastrophe occurred. Though a response to the event was
inevitable and proper, it doesn't lessen the dark fact that we are now
commanded by men who are oriented to the oil industry, the right wing
and the military. With this configuration of circumstances, there are
no "answers." An artist must simply try and plumb the depths of what's
really happening, what's really "there" on all levels. The artist doesn't
know how to help avoid tragedy--he or she can only try in some way to
make it re-available to the psyche in a form that gives compassion,
detachment and mental energy.
Do you think it is a beginning of new
history or the continuation of the old history?
It would be very superficial of me to have an
opinion at this early stage.
In Manifesto I of the Ontological-Hysteric
theater you wrote: "art can't be based in conflict." Does this hold
true? Are you planning to create any art from this conflict?
I said that in a particular context--America
in the early 70s. Obviously, much art in the past was rooted in the
experience of conflict But the source of art that I am interested in
is not an external conflict--but rather the internal problematics of
any form of discourse. Am I now making art from this new conflict? It's
true that right now, in rehearsal, I suddenly find myself staging a
scene where a model airplane, piloted by a baby doll, flies toward a
large lighted window that looks very much like. . . And my mind of course
flashes the horrific image of those two buildings on fire. That image
is certainly going to stay with me, and I suppose others, for the rest
of my life. In my art, I must somehow assimilate that in a way that
gives calm lucidity. One still must live, on all levels.
Do you think that the events will produce
an internal conflict in people or in you?
Well, you always must live knowing that such
events would, could and might happen. And as horrible at it was, this
represents but one single level of reality. While artists should not
be denying that level of reality, they should operate on many other
levels as well. So whether this event has any effect on them, as artists,
in the long run I don't know. It will affect them as human beings, but
an artist should try very hard, in a sense, not to allow his or her
"mechanism" to be affected. Even if one's internal "atmosphere" changes,
the mechanism should not alter its focus.
You said once about the 1960's that "there
was genuine illusion of a genuine counterculture." What, if any, "genuine
illusions" do you think America has now?
The role of the contemporary artist has always
been to envision a form of counterculture, as an alternative to the
repressive atmosphere of the ruling culture. Does the September 11 event
supercede this? No. This too shall pass. Eventually. And we will still
have the problems we had before September 11--probably much intensified.
In an interview with Arthur Bartow you
said of yourself that you are American to the soul, and that "American
culture is adolescent culture. I feel that I'm an adolescent." On your
return from Europe, you said: "I have to come back and work out of the
dumb, na´ve openness that is a great strength of America, but which
is very hard for me to accept." Many critics suggest that September
11th marks the end of American innocence, that, in the words of one
journalist "America's sheltered life comes to an end." Will American
culture still be an adolescent culture? If it is so, what kind of adolescent
culture will it be? And how do you think your adolescence will fit into
Okay. We ask, "Is this the end of American innocence?
Did America╣s sheltered life come to its end?" I don't think so. I think
American pragmatism will persist, still wearing the blinders of a "bottom
line" mentality unable to assimilate the nuances necessary to adult
acceptance of a world of ambiguity and internal contradiction. I am
totally sympathetic to the vast majority of Americans who are horrified
by this event and want to do something about it, but that suggests no
transcendence of adolescence. Americans are upset. Americans are talking
about how it is going to be a different country from now on. But there
have been previous traumas in America, and somehow we manage to absorb
them--on a deep level they are forgotten. And I think that one adolescent
aspect of the culture is the very asking of questions such as, "Will
this change America forever?" The question is premature--an adolescent
hunger for an immediate "fix" rather than an adult realization that
we are forever and always in a state of insecure flux.
My question was more along the line of
comparison between the European culture which was affected so much by
Well, since we've taken over the world, we've
inherited the colonial empires of European cultures (through the Military
Industrial Complex of which Eisenhower warned). We are the power--and
power is ALWAYS corrupt and blind. And at this point, having done their
own dirty work in the past--I think European cultures have, perhaps,
a more mature understanding of what's going on vis-Ó-vis those cultures.
Not that we don't have equally informed intellectuals and scholars in
our "ivory tower" universities. But these mature minds are perhaps "able
to understand" precisely because they have no real power. Those in power
are always and forever (excepting occasional miracles) blind to the
ways in which they themselves create situations which must give rise
to evil people doing evil things. Such is the sad tragedy of life on
You wrote in Manifesto II: "one can respond
to the world-as-it-is instead of responding to a dream world" And later,
in the interview: "I felt that the world that I was living in was a
living death, and the real energies were lurking somewhere down there
in the depths, but nothing in my culture seemed to allow or recognize
those energies. So the only hope was to strip away the facade of this
culture that had been planted over the few genuine springs of spiritual
feeling that I was sure must be down there, somewhere." Do you think
that September 11th stripped the fašade off American culture? If so,
what did it reveal about our culture? What fašades will your theater
I don't think it stripped anything off the fašade
of our culture. Our responses to this situation are still couched in
terms of the ideological given of our particular culture, and I don't
see that really changing. There are always individuals in America who
see deeper. But the basic American response--America has to defend itself--okay.
But this is no change, this is business as usual. A threat arises. We
do the necessary things to defend ourselves against this threat. But
this is not a response that will change our psychic orientation to the
You further ask--what fašades will my theater
strip now? Actually, I believe my orientation has been shifting slightly
over the last year, and since I myself am in the midst of a reorientation,
it is hard for me to tell how this latest event is affecting what I
am doing right this minute. As I write this, I am in rehearsals, evolving
something. I do know that for six months or so I have been very troubled,
because the particular intellectual Western tradition from which I drew
so much inspiration, in a way this tradition has begun to seem less
relevant to me. I am beginning to be convinced by those who say the
digitalization of culture, the eternal co-presence of total information
on the web, and the psychic effects of the new style of writing and
thinking emerging through computerization--all this will slowly form
a new kind of human material replacing what has heretofore been established
as "a human being." Parallel to this, I have been looking for a way
to make words and events leap outside normal discourse and ring like
a bell sounding deep inside oneself. In a sense I find, much to my surprise,
this approach producing moments that resonate with the huge, tragic,
mythic event that just happened to us. But again, since the collapse
of communism and the full emergence of U.S. superpower status I believe
that many of us had already entered a period of intellectual and psychological
Let me quote you again: "There is one
thing on this planet that I don't trust: it's the response of any kind
of group of people." How do you think the events of September 11th will
affect your audience? Will it be easier or more difficult to communicate?
I don't think that it will have any effect whatsoever.
It might well affect that brand of theater with larger and more generalized
audiences. My audience is limited. People interested in what I do will
remain interested in alternative visions.
Do you think it will be easier or more
difficult to communicate with the viewers, with their psychic apparatus?
I don't understand why there should be any difficulty.
I may be rudely surprised, but I don't think so. After all, for thirty
years I believe I have been providing "mind-massage" that teaches myself
and my audience precisely how to function with lucidity and zest amidst
disruptive catastrophe and ambiguity--Keatsian "negative capability."
Humor is essential for your plays. You
want people to laugh during your shows and you encourage it. Some commentators
say we have reached the end of irony (and what follows, the end of comedy
and laughter). Do you agree with this view? If not, what comedies will
American playwrights write about September 11th? What role will laughter
play in your theater?
As I respond to all these questions I feel a
certain frustration building. Because if I somehow manage to be a courageous,
strong person (laughs), well--I don't think any of this should have
any effect on either me or my work. I think there still should be irony
in my theater. At rehearsals we have been making jokes amongst ourselves--black
humor of the most intense variety--and I think that's a healthy response.
I think that my plays will continue to reflect my feeling that, alienated
in the very midst of our society--I don't "belong." And since that alienation
is the deep source of my artistic energy, when some outside force appears
and performs some evil upon us, and we respond "as a group"--that only
reinforces my sense that I do not belong. Now, people might say, "Ah,
you do belong in spite of yourself, because you share the feelings of
fear and upset with all your fellow Americans." Well, not really. Because
the event was so gigantic--of course, there is going to be a momentary
emotional bond vis-Ó-vis that horrific event. But the minute I take
the first step away from that event--deeper into thinking about that
event or analyzing that event, immediately I again realize that my take
on it, after the initial psychic and psychological shock, is different
from many other people in my society. So, I still feel like I don't
belong, even if in a partial sense I do. But isn't this the inevitable
position of the artist?
Anything else you would like to add?
Just to emphasize that the interesting artists
of the twentieth century are people who do not belong. So, this event
has not altered the basic source of their art. Even more radically,
let me say something that may at first sound horrible. This event, this
thing that happened, should inside the psyche turn into a non-event.
People hate us, people want to kill us. In a funny way, this should
be a non-event. It has nothing to do with the reality of trying to call
into being the electricity of an alternate way of seeing the wide range
of dangerous, upsetting "bad stuff" out there in real life before and
after a terrorist attack. As a human being, of course I don't want to
be killed. I'd rather be neurotic and upset by aspects of global capitalism,
of "bottom line" mentality, of spiritual emptiness and simple-minded
response--but art is made out of the way human beings can process terrorist
attacks, global capitalism, prejudice, stupidity--not the things themselves
but the way of PROCESSING them. Art is the machine that processes that
negative material. I don't think that should or will change because
of terrorism, no matter how powerful the momentary image (a negative
idol) it creates in our consciousness.
[Further thoughts one week later]
Most theater (which I reject) in some way or
other spotlights our daily passions and concerns in order to make us
feel that such normal involvement and commitment to the things of our
life are indeed the "most important matters at hand." But the art I
am hungry for (perhaps this has been the role of the avant-garde) manages
to imply that everything that seems important in our lives is merely
"chatter." Life itself simply makes use of our passions and commitments,
so that something else, some other energy or rhythm, rolls on regardless
of our plans and belief systems--most of the time even outside our conscious
awareness. But this "radical" kind of art. through style and tone, gives
a glimpse or intuition of that "totally other" realm--producing the
aesthetic/ecstatic response--a brief flash of lightning. It's for this
reason that I believe, finally, that the "event"--horrible and inescapable--is
yet strangely irrelevant to the always secret life of art, which is
not really tuned to our daily turmoil, but merely uses that turmoil
as the self-hypnotizing chatter--the potential fertilizer--of an evolution
we can only intuit.