13 May 2010

'War Carnival'

[The mid-1960s were a turbulent time in the United States. The civil rights movement was getting heated, women and other disenfranchised Americans were becoming vocal and activist, the threat of nuclear war and destruction was increasing and, above all in those years, the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was a focus of the young Americans who were subject to the draft and their families and friends. Anti-war activism was becoming increasingly common all across the country and the war’s popularity was plummeting. The war and its images were being projected into the living rooms of America daily, and the war’s managers in Washington and its supporters around the country had become the villains of much of America’s youth. In 1967, New York University hired British playwright John Arden (Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance) as a visiting lecturer in the undergraduate theater program at the brand-new School of the Arts and he taught a course on politics and theater.

[Out of this class came a remarkable performance project, conceived, at the behest of the students, by Arden, an artist long associated with leftist causes (including Irish independence); his wife, actress Margaretta D’Arcy; and NYU theater games instructor Omar Shapli, a onetime member of the improvisational troupe The Second City in Chicago. The students of acting, directing, and playwriting developed the project and events in New York City around the time of its conception bore on the theme of the project, presented beginning in the afternoon of Saturday, 13 May 1967, 43 years ago today. One of those directing students was a young Leonardo Shapiro, the future leader of The Shaliko Company about whom I’ve written in the past. Already a political radical and anti-war activist, Leo (whom Arden described as a “balding bearded-weirdy”) was drawn to Arden, whom one writer characterized as “a mix of English establishment and international bohemian.”

[On 30 December 1966, members of the Bread and Puppet Theater picketed St. Patrick’s Cathedral “wearing black cowls and carrying grotesque masks impaled on poles” to protest Francis Cardinal Spellman’s public support of the war in Vietnam. One marcher set a doll spattered with red paint on the cathedral steps; another carried a sign reading “I am Mary. My Baby was napalmed in Vietnam.” At the Spring Mobilization on 15 April 1967, between 100,000 and 400,000 people demonstrated against the war at the U.N., where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the rally and Pete Seeger sang “This Land Is Your Land.” Some demonstrators gathered in Central Park where one activist burned an American flag in protest to the war. The next day, Chuck Connors, the actor (The Rifleman), raised a flag that had flown over the Capitol on the spot of the flag-burning as if to expiate the “desecration.” Earlier on 13 May, the very day the NYU performance, which became known as War Carnival, a "Support our Boys in Vietnam” parade, partially organized by the Johnson administration, moved down Fifth Avenue. Some of the 70,000 marchers, who included uniformed police officers and firefighters, nuns in habits, and veterans’ groups, stopped along the way to assault spectators who carried anti-war signs; one bystander, who wasn’t involved in the opposition movement, was tarred and feathered because the marchers took exception to his long hair and sandals. For students already focused on the war, such incidents so close to them in both time and location were bound to affect their imaginations. In this atmosphere, War Carnival came to be.]

John Arden, calling himself a “Britnik” playwright, characterized War Carnival, conceived as a day-long “episodic show,” as an “unscripted under-rehearsed attempt at something new.” A protest against the Vietnam conflict in particular and the military in general, War Carnival was performed free at NYU’s School of the Arts’ Central Plaza Building at 111 Second Avenue in the East Village beginning at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon, 13 May, until sometime after midnight the following morning.

Described as a “combination medieval passion play and modern day Play-In,” the piece came out of seminars Arden and D’Arcy conducted with playwriting and acting students. According to Arden’s recollection, it was principally D’Arcy who conceived the notion of the show. NYU had hired Arden as a lecturer for a course called Politics and the Theatre but then had asked him to lead some students in a performance project. D’Arcy was not formally on the payroll, but Arden agreed to conduct the workshop if his wife could officially direct the practical work, which Arden felt was more within her experience than his. In his preface to The Workhouse Donkey (1963), Arden had proposed a day-long event, with spectators coming and going and “rival attractions” offered in the atmosphere of a “fairground or amusement park” with “all sorts of thematically-relevant interludes” intermingled. Arden conceived of “a kind of ‘promenade theater,’ with performances running in a desultory fashion all day long,” and the NYU students wondered if such an event could actually be realized. Furthermore, Arden and D’Arcy, like Brecht, believed that theater must make spectators—and participants—more cognizant of the day’s important questions and provoke action. “I have been challenged by my class of drama students at NYU to put this theory [of the promenade theater] to the test,” said Arden. According to one student, the classes had been contemplating theater that was relevant to its time and audience and which involved the spectators, and some students were already concerned about Vietnam. “Why do we never discuss serious matters?” he said the students complained. So D’Arcy challenged the students: “You want to act: So act against the War.”

Arden and D’Arcy engaged Shapli, who was teaching theater games and improvisation at NYU, and they developed some material around which the student playwrights and directors (one of the latter being Leo Shapiro) built 24 small plays which formed what Shapli, who served as MC at the event, described as “a running soap opera about a family whose grandmother is Vice-President of the United States.” The Grandma cycle was presented as an “allegory of US involvement in S.E. Asia,” Arden asserted. Making use, too, of Hovey Burgess’s circus classes, the performance included war gods on stilts and actual military recruiting speeches MC Shapli used to get the audience to participate, while U.S. Army training films were being shown on a tarp behind them. (To make sure the point was obvious, another training film of similar content was also screened—one from Nazi Germany.)

Declaring that a “play should come out of the crowd,” Arden intended War Carnival to evoke the atmosphere of a Happening, the audience free “to arrive when it wants and leave when it wants,” then moving at liberty among the events and demonstrations. All around the hall were skits, films, songs, and midway games of various kinds. The visiting playwright asserted that he’d concluded that “spontaneous ensemble improvisation is perhaps the only force to jerk the theatre forward from the successive ruts in which it sticks.” One of Arden and D’Arcy’s major focuses was the investigation of theater as communal expression.

At 2:00, spectators began to flow into the Central Plaza. Signs directed them to stairs or the elevator which took the spectators to an upper lobby where they found more signs, vendors, cotton candy, balloons, and a Coke machine. Admission was free so there were no ushers or ticket-takers at the door to the large, open studio with platforms with bleacher-like seats on opposite sides, a curtain across a third side, and a tarp stretched across the fourth wall. Before the planned performance started, the space presented the appearance of a fair, with carny games like a ring-toss or one where a player throws a ball into the navel of a life-sized painting of naked woman. Suddenly, a scuffle broke out between two students and quickly became a brawl. A young woman shouted, “My God he’s dead,” and flung herself on the motionless body of a classmate. The stilt-walking war gods appeared immediately and Arden made a funeral speech ending with a call for “Peace.” In the Orwellian parlance of the event, that meant war and the events of the occasion began.

The effort in War Carnival was to encourage the spectators to engage in the Game that was at the center of the event, filling the interstices between the student-created Grandma plays. This involved members of the audience, “recruited” into either the green army or the red, each “soldier” marked with a green or red dot of greasepaint. They all wore placards hung around their necks with arbitrary character traits (“Hysterical Jewish Philosopher”; “Talkative Holy Conservative”) written on envelopes stuck to the signboards. After the soldiers were “trained” (with the help of the films projected on the tarp) by two “sergeants,” Shapli called each soldier at random to engage in “combat” which the MC designated. This consisted of verbal contests (“Make up proverbs, first man to falter is dead”; “Construct a rhyming poem, alternate lines to each player, first man who drops meter or rhyme-scheme is dead”) or physical conflicts (a race between “One-Legged Dutch Sailor” and “Athletic Russian Interpreter”). Reminiscent of Brecht’s Man Is Man, and related in a way to such experiments as Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous exercise at Yale, the Game, Arden explained, was a demonstration of how easy it is for “unprincipled demagogues” to whip up people’s emotions.

“Campaigns,” each comprised of several “combats,” occurred at intervals throughout the event; in between, the Grandma chronicle unfolded in “partially scripted, partially improvised scenes” with minimal props and costumes—including masks cut from cereal and cracker boxes—varying in style and approach but united by their focus on opposition to the Vietnam war. Forming a wildly complex tale, Grandma begins when an Air Force bomber accidentally drops a nuclear warhead on the Appalachian Valley, irradiating a family of share-croppers who “begin to glow in the dark.” In a political maneuver, Johnson (played by now-well-known actor Larry Pine) enlists Granny to run as his V.P. in the upcoming election and they win. Granny gets Johnson impeached on the grounds that the war in Vietnam is unconstitutional and she assumes the presidency. While President Granny’s on a mission of mass destruction to Vietnam, she finds that her conscientious-objector son, Obadiah, has started a revolution at home. Aided by the war gods, who’d been exhorting spectators and participants “to acts and thoughts of violence,” Granny and Obadiah confront one another.

Between episodes of Grandma and further combats, there were visiting groups such as Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre performing songs from Peter Brook’s 1966 documentary anti-Vietnam war protest play US; Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre. which at this time hadn’t moved from New York to Vermont yet; and the New York Knickerbocker Theatre, which performed scenes about civil rights. Musicians and singers, including the African-American Bethel Baptist Church choir and a rock-and-roll band, and speakers like political writer and Irish activist Conor Cruise O’Brien, poet Ned O’Gorman, and novelist John D. Caute (introduced by Arden as the British “minister of defense”) also performed. Enlisted by D’Arcy (whose idea it had been to have outside groups), the visitors presented “interludes” and multi-media displays as they came and went, demonstrating “the function of the arts in wartime.”

Following one of the frequent interludes, some planned, some spontaneous—and some of uncertain impetus, Granny, to punish her son for turning the people against her, and Obadiah, to preserve the country, kill one another and the war gods are stripped of their elaborate accouterments, revealing, like the wizard in Oz, that they were mere students. The end of the Grandma saga (which I have greatly simplified here!) was followed by a symbolic destruction of national symbols—that is, small paper flags—and Arden made as if he was about to burn an American flag that had been hanging on one of the nearby walls. “I won’t burn it because it belongs to the university,” the playwright explained, “but I would rather burn a piece of cloth than a piece of flesh.” He then spread the banner on the floor and trod on it.

War Carnival received very little coverage. Aside from a chapter in Arden’s own To Present the Pretence (1977) and a lengthy description and analysis from someone who was there (Victoria Manchester, “Let’s Do Some More Undressing: The ‘War Carnival’ at New York University,” Educational Theatre Journal 19.4 [December 1967]: 502-09), there was only one newspaper report and it came out before the event: Robert Pasolli, “John Arden’s Theatre: Rich Tibetan Nun vs. Mad Malaysian Dentist,” Village Voice, 11 May 1967: 25, 30. Not even the Washington Square News, NYU’s student paper, reported War Carnival (though it did run a very short announcement on 8 May). There is surprising little about the project in the Tisch School (the successor to the School of the Arts) archives at NYU’s Bobst Library—a few memos and letters, mostly concerning logistics and equipment requests. According to Ted Hoffman, the director of the Theatre Program, journalists were present at the performance, but none of the papers published anything on it. Arden complained that the university didn’t publicize War Carnival conscientiously, but Hoffman asserts that the university sent out releases and publicity to all New York media and to other schools. The playwright himself designed the poster, which Hoffman described as a “gem of witty Sacred Cow self-depreciation.” (Hoffman may have meant ‘self-deprecation,’ but that’s not what was published! Indeed, the title of the program director’s “postscript” to Manchester’s article was rendered as "Reconniotering Arden's 'War.'") Whatever the state of the promotion, Hoffman reported that the audience reached the capacity for the room (250 people) and that “we had to hold people outside until others left.” Manchester recorded that by 11:30 Saturday night, “the audience had increased to overflowing, sitting and standing wherever they could.” (Forty-five minutes later, Manchester wrote, the audience went “through one of its periods of turnover” as some of those Hoffman wrote of waiting outside came in to replace spectators who had left.)

Arden had participated in the event as a sort of ringmaster-cum-commentator, helping War Carnival progress. At the same time, he revealed his own feelings about the place of NYU and its community in the show’s development. He blamed the “nearly impossible conditions” imposed on his group on “the structure and attitude of the University” and assailed the “‘subconscious’ attitude” of the NYU administration which “stifle[s] creativity,” disparaging not just Hoffman, but Dean Robert Corrigan of the School of the Arts (whom the playwright compared to Alger Hiss, accused of spying for the Soviet Union in 1948) and NYU President James M. Hester. Arden essentially called the university a shill for the federal government and the Johnson administration, suppressing dissent and independent thought. In fact, at one point in War Carnival, Arden announced that he was being paid by the CIA—explaining later, “We don’t really know where my money comes from,” and since the government subsidized schools like NYU, some of his salary could, indeed, come from the same coffers as CIA funding.

Though Hoffman disputed Arden’s interpretation of the facts regarding the university’s support, an April letter from the theater chairman to Arden and D’Arcy protested any elaborate scenography in the Central Plaza space due to cost and the availability of personnel. Hoffman told Arden that the space was committed to both rehearsals and performances during the time Arden planned War Carnival and many of the students were already involved in other performances for which they were currently in rehearsal. While Hoffman’s concerns as expressed in the letter may have been wholly legitimate and reasonable, the litany of obstacles reads as if the School of the Arts administrator was throwing roadblocks and impediments in the way of Arden’s project. Nonetheless, Hoffman described War Carnival in the end as “a remarkable experience.” Whether because of Arden or despite his efforts, it was almost certainly that.

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