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
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."