28 February 2012

'Blood Knot'

My first performance experience at the brand-new Pershing Square Signature Center, the permanent home of the Signature Theatre Company in the glass tower at 42nd Street and 10th Avenue, was Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, a 1961 play from this season’s Residency One playwright. Performed in STC’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (to give it its full name—they like ‘em long at STC these days), the revival of the apartheid-themed play about two brothers separated by race inaugurated the new complex, and my frequent theater companion Diana and I caught the show on Wednesday evening, 22 February. (On 18 February, I published an article on ROT which describes the Signature Center and the three new theaters within it.)

A scathing indictment of South Africa’s policy of apartheid, against which Fugard campaigned fiercely, Blood Knot is the story of two biracial half-brothers, Morris and Zachariah. The men are the sons of the same mother but by different fathers, and light-skinned Morris has passed for white with little impediment—he’s even learned to read and write—but dark-skinned Zach strains as he labors in a park for whites only. The brothers live and clash together in Korsten, a black enclave outside Port Elizabeth (the town in which Fugard grew up), in a shack pieced together from corrugated metal and littered with bits and pieces of a miserable existence where Morrie has returned to look after his brother and save money—from Zach’s pay—to buy a farm. Morrie regulates the brothers’ daily lives, the sound of a ringing alarm clock signaling the times for eating, bible-reading, and sleeping, and monitors the expenses. While Morrie is focused on the brothers' future, built around a romantic notion of buying some land in one of the “blank spaces” of the map of South Africa, Zach is more interested in the present, especially when it comes to “woman.” The half-brothers frequently role-play with one another, adding an additional level of performativity to the play. These games, as the brothers call the interludes, especially the last, extended one, are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett and particularly Waiting for Godot, a play that had opened in London just six years before Blood Knot premièred. (There are also parallels between Zach and Morrie and Estragon and Vladimir that suggest the similarities aren’t accidental or even subconscious.) At the time of the play’s U.S. première, Fugard explained that the play had two aspects: “The first is an enactment of the race problem. The second is more meaningful and personal to me, since it is an expression of the white man’s guilt of responsibility.” (Nominated for a Tony as Best Play in 1985, the Broadway staging of Blood Knot starred Fugard as Morris and Zakes Mokae as Zachariah. The same cast appeared in the sole performance of the play in a makeshift theater inside an old factory in Johannesburg on 3 September 1961, its world première and the first South African play to have a multi-racial cast; previously, white actors in South Africa wore blackface to portray native African characters.)

Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for ‘separateness’ or ‘apartness’—in other words, segregation—was instituted in what was then the Union of South Africa in 1948. Under apartheid, residents of South Africa were classified into four racial groups: native (black), white (principally Afrikaner and English), Asian (mostly Indian and some Chinese), and “coloured” (mixed-race). The entire society was divided into services and areas restricted to one or another of these groups and non-white South Africans were completely disenfranchised in 1970, losing both the right to vote and, for blacks, their citizenship. (Native Africans became citizens of designated “tribal homelands.”) The system was in many ways far worse than the American Jim Crow era of segregation and there was both internal and international resistance to the policy. South Africa, which became a republic on 31 May 1961, simultaneously withdrew from the British Commonwealth because it wouldn’t have withstood the scrutiny of other members, especially the Asian and African Commonwealth nations, for a readmission vote required by its change of status. International opprobrium and sanctions increased, isolating South Africa as a pariah state in international business, sports competitions, and even tours by international performing artists. This status didn’t end until 1994 with majority rule, meaning the re-enfranchisement of native Africans and other non-white groups, and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa.

As the late Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia had been with respect to communist oppression in Eastern Europe, Athol Fugard, who turns 80 in June, was an articulate and passionate opponent of apartheid and one of the opposition’s most widely heard voices. His plays, starting in 1956, spoke eloquently and directly about the horrors of the system, even when they were comedies. Fugard used humor a great deal to illuminate the circumstances of oppression and brutality. He himself was persecuted and watched by South African authorities and his plays were banned in his home country; following a 1967 BBC telecast of Blood Knot, the South African government confiscated Fugard’s passport as a mark of its displeasure. He exacerbated this situation by insisting that his plays, which often have racially mixed casts, be performed before non-segregated audiences. Fugard had to start his own theater companies, constituted as private clubs, to effect this. Black actor Zakes Mokae, who died at 75 in 2009, was the dramatist’s frequent partner, collaborator, and colleague. The dramatist persisted, however, and plays like Blood Knot, one of his masterworks, helped spread the truth about the policies of the white minority government abroad and raised the consciousness of countless Americans and Europeans who pressed their societies and governments to pressure South Africa in increasingly effective ways. As Howard Taubman wrote of the first U.S. production, it “begins to dig deeply into what it must feel like to be a colored man in South Africa.” By depicting the dehumanizing world of South African apartheid in the lives of two individuals rather than entire groups, Fugard made the true awfulness of the system as it affected ordinary South Africans accessible to spectators who wouldn’t really understand it from a distance. In his review, Taubman continued that “as the play develops, Mr. Fugard strips away the protective coverings of playfulness and fraternity that the brothers wear for each other. At the end one sees them in a desperate struggle, which cannot be won or ended.” Using humor strengthens the sense of glimpsing reality because, as an acting teacher of mine used to quote Laurence Olivier, “Humor makes more human.”

Aside from the belated Broadway run, from 10 December 1985 to 2 March 1986 at the John Golden Theatre, a transfer from Yale Rep directed by the author (who’s also directing at Signature), there have been two other Off-Broadway productions: the 1964 American première at the Cricket Theatre in the East Village directed by John Berry starring James Earl Jones and J. D. Cannon, and a 1980 production by the Roundabout Theatre Company directed by Suzanne Shepherd with Danny Glover and Cotter Smith. The 1964 staging, produced by Lucille Lortel, launched Fugard’s career in the United States. The STC revival is the first in 26 years in New York City. (Concurrently, the first Broadway production of Fugard’s 1984 play, The Road to Mecca, is on stage at the American Airlines Theatre, a revival by the Roundabout Theatre which opened on 17 January.)

STC, which dedicates its seasons each to one playwright, has enhanced its programs with the opening of the Signature Center. The former “one writer/one season” residency has been transformed into Residency One, and Fugard, the first non-American dramatist in the series, is the designated writer for 2011-12. He’ll have three plays at STC this season: Blood Knot, which opened the new complex on 31 January; My Children! My Africa!; and the New York première of his latest play, The Train Driver. (Among its other expanded programs, STC now has another residency, Residency Five, for less-established writers. There are three productions this season from those dramatists, all premières. A seventh show in 2011-12 is Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque, which I’ll be seeing next month. Albee is this season’s Legacy writer at STC.) Fugard has directed Blood Knot and will also stage Train Driver this summer; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directed the Signature revival of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars during the troupe’s 2006-07 season, will stage My Children! My Africa! in the spring. (I’ll be seeing both the other Fugard plays later this season and reporting on the performances on ROT soon after I do.)

The Griffin, as the theater is called, is a little proscenium house, modeled, as I reported in my article on the new complex, on an old-time European opera house. It served admirably, both from the perspective of its acoustics and its layout. Though the audience risers are fixed in place, the stage platform is removable and Blood Knot’s set, which includes its own sort of platform in the floor of the hut which is raised up as if built on sawhorses and junk, is constructed in the center of the room’s floor, some three feet lower. (In fact, Christopher H. Barreca’s design includes the floor beneath what would have been the stage, with piles of trash and discarded stuff littering the space around the hut in the center of the performance area.) This makes the performance area of the Griffin resemble a black box, with the walls of the room serving as the walls of the set, pipes and conduits and all, even as the auditorium remains a more formal theater environment. This provides the performance venue a kind of mixed heritage—like the characters in Fugard’s play.

The published reviews all had some reservations about the production or the play and the Times centered its misgivings on the acting—or at least the interpretation of the apartheid-affected world which the characters inhabit. My impression of Charles Isherwood’s response was that perhaps the actors, Colman Domingo as Zach and Scott Shepherd as Morrie, are too young to grasp completely the way that world was in 1961, that it is just too distant from them in 2012 for the actors to immerse themselves viscerally in that existence. I can only say that if that was so when the play opened in January, it wasn’t much in evidence when I saw the performance. Perhaps the South African accents—Morrie’s Afrikaans-inflected English and Zach’s native African speech pattern—are a little iffy (I’m not that up on those accents; the dialect coach was Barbara Rubin) and they wobble a bit now and then, but what Domingo and Shepherd do on the Griffin’s stage that paves over any possible flaws is create the most astonishing relationship I have seen in any performance in my memory since probably Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn did The Gin Game together back in 1977. Zach and Morrie may be the oddest brothers a playwright can imagine, but Domingo and Shepherd build a credible, grounded, solid, palpable blood knot that was thoroughly engrossing and holds the 2½-hour performance together even as the play’s structure grows more and more diffuse and fuzzy. (It’s interesting to note that the two actors come together in this production from pretty diverse acting experiences: Colman from musicals—a Tony nomination for The Scottsboro Boys—and Shepherd from the Wooster Group and the Elevator Repair Service—Hamlet, Vieux Carre, Gatz.) If the actors don’t fully inhabit the world of apartheid, they are so linked together and so forcefully connected to one another, that the relationship alone can carry the show.

The hut set, as I said, is built on a platform elevated in the center of the floor and there’s a pathway around it, like a mote around a castle or a stream surrounding a little island. The shanty’s claustrophobically tiny but suggests a refuge cut off from the rest of the world. Fugard directed the actors to enter at stage right, step down onto the floor level and then trudge all the way across the front of the hut, around the left side and the back and come back around the right side to climb up into the shack. There are no walls so we can see the whole passage, and especially when Zach returns from work at the park (where he’s been required to stand guard at the gate to keep blacks and coloureds out, instead of doing some kind of active labor, which he’d prefer), he walks like a bone-weary, footsore drudge. But when he arrives home, Morrie has prepared a footbath of warm water and bath salts to soothe his brother’s callouses and hard spots. (Like Beckett’s Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Zach has constant foot problems.) When Zach remonstrates over the smell of one brand of salts over the healing properties of the other, Morrie comes up with the perfect solution: he’ll pour in half of one and half of the other so Zach gets the benefits of both. Shepherd and Domingo parry and dodge; it seems that Zach won’t be satisfied while Morrie keeps trying to find a way to accommodate his brother and the two actors begin to build the brotherly relationship that grows deeper and more complex as the play unfolds.

The relationship sometimes looks as if it might degenerate into one of master and servant (a shadow of Pozzo and Lucky in Godot?), with Morrie taking command and almost cowing Zach into going along with one of his ideas, and Shepherd may skirt that dynamic but always pulls back before the brothers can descend into it. At the same time, Fugard seems to mean for us to see the danger of that possibility as an inherent consequence of the established divide South African society has mandated. At the same time, there are hints in the relationship of paternalism as Morrie cajoles or coddles Zach when the black brother hesitates or resists, or when Morrie must take command because he can read or write or rationalize, “white” skills in the segregated apartheid world. There are also clear indications of Morrie's sincere solicitude for Zach; for instance, there’s only one bed in the tiny shack, obviously Zach’s—so where does Morrie sleep? Possibly they share the bed, Zach sleeping at night and Morrie during the day while his brother’s at work, but I suspect Morrie sleeps on the floor beside Zach’s cot. I think this is what Fugard meant by “an expression of the white man’s guilt of responsibility,” but Shepherd and Domingo don’t play the political overtones, they play the personal core of the scenes, and that’s what makes this performance—these performances—so strong and vibrant and what makes the play so moving and powerful, even now when apartheid and Jim Crow are both merely nagging memories which we’re all still trying to shake and move on from.

Among the most remarkable aspects of Blood Knot are the games Morrie and Zach play. At first, they’re recollections of their shared childhood, before Morrie went off to live in the white world. We see the split that formed even then, though, when Zach tells his brother that Morrie got all the toys—somehow there was always only one, like a top Morrie doesn’t even remember—and that their mother sang different songs to each brother. Briefly, Morrie panics that maybe they didn’t share the childhood he thought they had had in common, but then they light on the game they played in the shell of an abandoned car as they took imaginary trips with Zach at the wheel and Morrie describing the passing scene as they drove out of the town into the country, going faster and faster. I could sense in Shepherd’s momentary fear the loss of the connection he was sure they had, and the return of the fraternal blood knot, “the bond between brothers,” when they relive the road-trip fantasy. Just when it looks like Morrie and Zach might slip into an exploiter-exploited relationship, Shepherd and Domingo realign the portrayals and I saw again the bond that brought Morrie back to Korsten. The farm is a dream, of course, almost certainly an impossible one, but Shepherd made me believe that he really wants it for both of the brothers, even if Zach isn’t so sure. Domingo keeps Zach focused on the here and now, the more immediate needs and desires: his feet, his racist boss at the park, and a woman for sexual companionship.

It’s that last desire that nearly breaks the brothers up and threatens real disaster. Since Morrie’s arrival in Korsten about a year earlier, Zach hasn’t had much contact with an old friend who used to come by so the two could drink together and go cruising for women. Morrie wants to save all of Zach’s earnings toward the farm, so socializing has been eliminated, and Zach misses it—especially “woman.” The more Zach talks about it, the more animated, even lustful, Domingo gets, and finally Morrie lights on an idea that he convinces Zach will be just as good as an actual woman: a female pen pal chosen from a newspaper ad. The next day, the brothers select a candidate and start the correspondence, with Morrie being the Cyrano of the duo and the illiterate Zach, the inarticulate Christian de Neuvillette—until the young woman sends a photo. It’s then Morrie discovers that Zach had brought home a newspaper for whites and that all the ads were from white women. To make matters worse, Ethel, the pen pal, has a brother who’s a policeman. Morrie sees the danger in continuing even to correspond with a white woman, but Zach insists and begins to wax more fanciful in his letters. Domingo’s portrayal hints at a kind of defiance, revolt against the kind of marginalization he’s suffered at the hands of a racist society (as illustrated by his treatment at work by his white supervisor). It’s nearly subliminal, but it’s there. Then Ethel announces that she’s going to be in Port Elizabeth for a holiday and would like to meet Zach, and Morrie nearly falls to pieces in fear of the likely consequences. The brothers decide they can’t avoid the meeting by lying about not being available, so Zach convinces Morrie to go in his place and they go so far as to buy a suit and other appropriate accessories for a white gentleman. Luckily, Ethel cancels the visit and ends the correspondence when she writes Zach that she’s getting married, but the potential that the entrance of a third party, even before the men learn she’s white, might tear the dream apart—the money Morrie’s saved to buy the farm has already been spent on the fancy duds—and that Ethel could split the two up, makes clear that what Morrie had in mind was a two-man farm, a world for just him and Zach to inhabit, a larger version of the shanty, a safe and happy place insulated from apartheid, prejudice, inhumanity, injustice, and all the failings Zach had experienced and for which Morrie had to teach him the names. In 1961, no place like that existed in South Africa, but Morrie is blind to that reality.

The games get more precarious and dangerous in act two, as the play slides inexorably away from Naturalism to Absurdism, when they move from innocent childhood role-plays to more contemporary situations, as when Zach brings home the new suit for Morrie so he can meet Ethel. (It’s amusing to see what Zach and Morrie’s notions of white gentlemanliness consists of, both in dress—the suit’s electric blue!—and in demeanor.) As the brothers rehearse for the meeting, Shepherd gets more and more into his role as the superior white man with Domingo playing the menial black man. Morrie gets carried away in a flash and calls his brother “nigger.” The look of shock on Domingo’s face and of instant shame and regret in Shepherd’s tells the whole story in a beat and reveals the very core of Fugard’s play—the destructiveness of apartheid and prejudice of all kinds, how it demeans all the participants, even those who resist its viciousness. (Morrie had returned to Zach because he didn’t like passing for white.) It invades the body and the mind, and no matter how hard you try, it gets in and eats away at your humanity . . . until you can call your own brother “nigger.” That right there is what Fugard spent his career writing about—and against.

The final game, during which Zach and Morrie essentially knock down the cabin and clear the floor platform, spins off into Beckett-land. (There’s also a bit of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s Motel in the scene, too, though that play didn’t come along until three years later.) The elements of Godot and End Game are so clear that I have to conclude that the impulse wasn’t subliminal but conscious and deliberate. If Becket was writing about the existential collapse of humanity and civilization (and I’m being very general and superficial here), Fugard was writing about the same collapse, but in a more concrete and visible context. I’d never seen Blood Knot before, though I’ve known about the play for years. From this 21st-century mounting, I can only imagine the impact it must have had on American audiences in 1964—it must have been a revelation.

Diana objected to the lax dramatic structure of Blood Knot (though in the end, she effused about the performances as much as I did, so I gather they overshadowed her intermission misgivings by the time the play ended). In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli agrees that the “first act of this revival dillydallies on a road to nowhere interesting” but continues that “the show eventually picks up. The first half lulls you into a snooze; the second slaps you awake” and Joe Dziemianowicz writes in the New York Daily News: “The play moves slowly and at times gets ponderous before delivering a wallop.” My feeling is that the problem’s nothing more than a very young playwright, 28 at the time with only four plays produced before this one, trying new ideas and styles, not having really come to grips with the form. At 2½ hours, the script could have stood some editing and streamlining 50 years ago, but the loose structure, almost non-structure, of the play didn’t bother me. (I should note here, perhaps, that among my all-time favorite plays are Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, two notoriously unconventionally structured plays. I may not be the person whose judgment you want to follow in this instance.) Charles Isherwood, writing in the New York Times, says that “the production is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally engaging” because “a crucial spark of authentic feeling remains stubbornly absent.” I want to note, though, that Isherwood adds that the actors hadn’t “as yet” completely absorbed the nuances of their roles and the relationship, so I’m going to suggest that by the time I saw the production, both Shepherd and Domingo had nailed those aspects of the characters. (Of course, maybe Isherwood and I just don’t see this work the same way.) The Times reviewer concludes his notice by stating: “As the lights dim on the brothers facing a vacant future, bound in a relationship now potentially tainted by all that has passed, the heart remains cool because the performance never truly plumbs the play’s anguished depths.” I can’t agree. Maybe my heartstrings are more easily plucked than Isherwood’s, but I was left heart sore and moved. In Back Stage (a paper, after all, aimed at actors), Erik Haagensen declares that “thanks to the superb performances of Scott Shepherd and Colman Domingo and author Fugard's knowing direction, the show keeps picking up steam and ends with a Beckettian wallop.” In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout (in a review headlined “Waiting for Mandela”) states unequivocally: “If you don't find this revival enthralling, you're not thrillable.” Most reviewers came down in the end, as I did, on Teachout’s side.

I should add at the end that though, as I said, the Griffin Theatre works excellently as a performance space, the umbrella of the Signature Center presented a few inadequacies that didn’t reveal themselves when I visited the complex on 2 February. First, when the company was housed at the single-theater Norton Space, the two-window box office was more than sufficient to handle the audiences arriving to pick up will-call tickets or to conduct other business before curtain. (My partner is often late enough that I have to leave her ticket at the box office when I decide to go on into the auditorium, for instance.) With three performances starting at about the same time at the new Signature Center, the line-up at Concierge Desk was well over a dozen people when I arrived to claim my seats, and when I decided not to wait for Diana in the lobby any longer, I saw that I’d be standing in a line again to leave her ticket for her, long enough to chance being late into the theater. There were three concierges on duty, but their efficiency was apparently poor as they searched for each arriving patron’s tickets, and had I not hesitated a moment to get back on the line, during which time Diana popped up, I’d have been waiting there myself a second time. That clearly needs to be ironed out. Further, when the staff announced that the house was opened for audience seating, the PA system was almost inaudible over the hubbub of three audiences gathered in the lobby. I’d noticed that the acoustics in the lobby weren’t good when I was there earlier, but I hadn’t realized that even under amplification, announcements couldn’t be heard there when there was a full room of people hanging about. As I did remark before, however, the Signature Center’s lobby isn’t a very comfortable space to wait; in practice it isn’t any more welcoming than I thought when I saw it on the tour. The Norton lobby, such as it is, is cramped and has little seating for waiting spectators, but it isn’t being sold as a place to gather and hang out; the Signature Center’s lobby is supposed to be more than a place to wait for the theaters to open their doors. For now, at least, I don’t think I’ll be treating it as anything more than that.

23 February 2012

'Look Back in Anger'

by Kirk Woodward

[Frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward saw the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger earlier this month. He hasn’t written a conventional report, but he’s submitted a discussion of the play’s importance—or lack thereof—as a major piece of theatrical literature. Does it belong in the canon, or not? Does it have significance for today’s theater? Today’s audiences? American audiences? Did it ever? No play staged in an important venue such as Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Broadway Theater District needs further rationale to merit discussion, but nonetheless, let me set the scene, so to speak, with a little theater history that explains Look Back’s significance a little.

[As Kirk notes in his article, Osborne’s drama opened in London on 8 May 1956 at the Royal Court Theatre. The English Stage Company’s production, directed by Tony Richardson, immediately caused a stir among theater people, reviewers, and spectators. It was a break with convention that was to go on to have profound repercussions in Western theater, especially in Britain and the United States. Almost all of our theater in the last 56 years has happened in great part because of
Look Back. Kirk speaks of this in his discussion, so I won’t burden readers with a preview, but I’ll note two aspects of Osborne’s creation that are particularly significant, both for the stage of the last half century and perhaps even more importantly, for the cinema. First, Osborne’s protagonist in Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter, was the prototype for the Angry Young Man, a figure that has populated a great deal of Western drama, both live and filmed, for five decades and counting. The careers of the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and many others would have been severely curtailed had it not been for Jimmy Porter. So would the writing careers of Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, among others. (Race was no boundary—or the gender of the author. One of the most prominent AYM’s of the era was Walter Younger of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Raisin in the Sun.) In fact, little of the Hollywood of the ’60s could have existed without the Angry Young Man. If John Osborne hadn’t invented Jimmy Porter, someone else would have had to or we’d all still be going to see Horse Eats Hat!

[But Jimmy Porter wasn’t just the first important AYM of the Western stage. He was also the first important (and successful, theatrically speaking) anti-hero. He was arguably the first leading character of the modern stage who was thoroughly unlikeable as a person. You might sympathize with him, even come to understand him some—but you would have to work very hard to
like him. He’s not a nice person. He treats everyone badly—sort of Gregory House without the medical degree and the wit. The list of Hollywood and Broadway or Off-Broadway characters who took after Jimmy Porter in that respect is too long even to start. I’ll drop two names, though: Charles Bronson and Neville Brand. I don’t think either man played anything but anti-heroes. (They had the looks for the role—but, boy, were they fun!) Of course, there were anti-heroes before Look Back—Richard III and Macbeth come to mind immediately—but Jimmy Porter defined the type for a generation of writers, directors, and actors. If you look anti-hero up in an encyclopedia, Jimmy Porter’s picture will be there. (Of course, he’ll probably look a lot like Richard Burton—who played the role in the 1959 film. Kenneth Haigh played the character on the stage both in London and on Broadway—but no one remembers what he looked like anymore.)

[All this alone would have made
Look Back in Anger an important historical phenomenon, though perhaps just a footnote in today’s theater texts. Look Back’s most significant contribution to cultural history is that it launched what became known as “contemporary theater” as differentiated from “modern theater,” which pretty much began with Henrik Ibsen’s Realistic plays, starting essentially with Doll House in 1879. (We’re into Postmodernism now—whatever that means!) The contemporary drama began in the aftermath of World War II and most authorities date it from 1956 with the opening of Look Back in Anger. Kirk will be discussing some of the thematic reasons for this divide, but suffice it to say for now that Look Back marked a major change in the way theater was made, viewed, and discussed. However we may judge the script today, with the perspective of time and distance, good, bad, or indifferent, Look Back in Anger has a permanent place in the annals of theater history. ~Rick]


A landmark play had better have more to it than the novelties that made it a landmark, if it is going to be worth reviving.

The Roundabout Theatre in New York City opened its production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on January 13, 2012, scheduled to run through April 8, 2012, and I saw it on February 9. When the play first opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1956, it caused a memorable stir. Most reviewers slammed it. Kenneth Tynan, the theater reviewer of The Observer, on the other hand, famously wrote that “I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.” His opinion, and that of Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times, helped turn the tide in favor of the play.

What caused the controversy? The best known British playwrights at the time were Noel Coward and Terrence Rattigan. Compared to John Osborne, they, and the British theater of that era, were decorous, and their plays focused on the middle and upper classes, with the lower classes typically presented for comedy or contrast.

Osborne looked at class distinctions from the bottom up; his hero is intelligent but also plebian, and he works in a sweets shop. Osborne also put on stage a rough, unpleasant, decidedly unstable home scene, and mixed it with a strong dose of skepticism about the typical assumptions of British life. Audiences are said to have been mesmerized, and even shocked, by the sight of an ironing board on stage in the play. It seemed to symbolize a whole aspect of life that had not been dramatized before.

Look Back in Anger centers on Jimmy Porter, an aggressive, bright, witty, caustic, restless young man from the lower classes, as opposed to his wife, Alison, whose upper class parents bitterly oppose their marriage. The couple live in a small, uncomfortable flat. The play finds their relationship at a low ebb; Alison can’t express her feelings, Jimmy can’t help expressing his feelings in eruptive gusts, and neither can help wounding the other.

Look Back in Anger, along with Waiting for Godot, which had its first London production a year earlier, in 1955, caused permanent change in British theater, and influenced Western theater as a whole. Old boundaries disappeared. Gritty, realistic, pessimistic plays about people of all classes became acceptable, while on the other hand, the Theater of the Absurd opened the door for surrealism and fantasy. Neither Anger nor Godot were box-office smashes, but, to the distress of writers like Noel Coward himself, they shaped the way the plays that followed them were perceived.

That was then, this is now. Look Back in Anger is fifty-six years old this year. The changes it brought about are commonplaces these days, practically wallpaper in today’s theater. So its current revival raises the question: does Look Back in Anger matter now, except as an historical artifact?

The director of the Roundabout production, Sam Gold, has done everything he can to make the play connect with today’s audience. He has set the play on the apron of the stage, so the playing area is as wide as the stage – and no more than half a dozen feet deep, which gives the audience an appropriate feeling of claustrophobia, and surely does the same for the actors, who can barely move past each other. Everything is painted black (the New York Times compared the set to a blackboard), with just a few set pieces on it – a kitchen cabinet, an ironing board, a fold-up table, a couple of chairs, a chest of drawers, a mattress pushed up against the wall, and lots and lots of paper and garbage on the floor.

Gold has cut the play, including one character (Alison’s father), reducing it to two acts. (I was surprised that the new act break didn’t take place one scene later, so the first and second acts could each begin with a woman – a different woman each time – doing the ironing.) Gold stages Anger to emphasize its resemblance to the plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, with long pauses pointing up non-sequiturs and moments of strong emotion. Most importantly, much of the political talk is gone; the characters are less specifically rooted in the England of 1956, and presumably more accessible to American audiences of 2012.

So the play, in its Roundabout production, is at least effective. It is, however, no longer controversial, partly for reasons not its own fault – its surprises have become commonplaces – and it is not a masterpiece of dramaturgy. Brooks Atkinson wrote a penetrating review of the play in The New York Times in 1957, and he pointed out that after an act or so of remarkable freshness, it becomes a much more conventional play, although it does return to its strengths in the last scene.

With its political focus severely reduced, the play is also deeply exasperating, because it must rise and fall on the character of Jimmy, its main character. Jimmy is deeply unhappy, and since the political context of the play is largely gone, we are left with not much but his wife Alison’s remark that Jimmy was born out of his time – that he should have lived during the French Revolution. Nothing is going to satisfy Jimmy’s sense that life is a mess. He brings to mind Hamlet’s statement:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
There’s not a chance that I can set it right.

. . . except that’s not exactly what Hamlet says. Hamlet believes, however fitfully, that he was born to “set it right,” and as a result he is a hero. Jimmy would laugh at the notion of a hero, and at anyone we dared to designate as one. I’m not sure why Osborne says Jimmy looks back in anger. He looks with anger in every direction, and even in the modestly calm ending of the play, we can tell he’s not going to remain that way. Robbed of his context by time and directorial decisions, Jimmy is just angry.

Look Back in Anger isn’t revolutionary any more – it has won its revolution – but it is still hard to take. Most reviews I’ve seen of the Roundabout production were at best mixed. (Charles Isherwood, writing in the Times, focused on the daring extremes in Sam Gold’s staging, noting, for example, that the squalor and rubble in the flat is so blatant that it’s a wonder Alison, raised after all in a more sophisticated environment, doesn’t just pick the stuff up.)

My own opinion is that Sam Gold’s staging both strengthens the play (by its theatricality), and weakens it (by removing the heart of the political argument), but that in any case, Look Back in Anger is unsatisfactory as a play. It’s interesting, with strong acting roles, and it certainly has value as a piece of theatrical history, but at its heart it’s an uneasy combination of a wail and a fairly conventional story, and I suspect it will always be more referred to, for its place in theatrical history, than enjoyed.

[Following our graduation from college, Kirk and I joined a group of students led by our college theater director on a trip to London. It was actually a summer course (with assigned readings and a paper), but as we’d graduated and were basically marking time until we each had to report for active military duty later in the year, Kirk and I went along for the fun of a month or so of theater and other diversions in London, in those days, my favorite city in the world. (The journey to London, on which Kirk didn’t come, went through Rome, Florence, and Paris—three others of my favorite cities. We were in Rome when the first astronauts landed on the moon—and all Americans were heroes for a while. In Florence, a friend and I spent the afternoon watching the David—because I swear to God, that statue breathes! In Paris, my friends and I played “ex-pats,” drinking Pernod and smoking Gauloises—like characters in Midnight in Paris! It was a truly glorious break from real life. It was July; by December came the army, which ended up taking nearly five years of my life. Not without its rewards, but far less carefree.)

[The program was housed in a dormitory of London University and along with the shows we saw, we had meetings and lectures from a number of theater figures, both pros and academics, at the dorm. At one of those sessions, a talk by playwright Christopher Hampton, an incident centering on
Look Back in Anger drew me up short. Hampton, whose play The Philanthropist had just opened at the Royal Court Theatre as I remember, came to speak to us about the rise of the contemporary theater (or something like that—I forget the actual topic after almost 43 years). In his discussion, Hampton mentioned that an important influence in his artistic development was the original production of Look Back in Anger in 1956, which he'd seen when he was 10. I quickly did the math and figured out that Hampton was the same age as I was—born about 1946. I was immediately depressed (and have remained so ever since, by the way) because here he was, a produced playwright of some renown already and here I was, sitting, as it were, at his feet, having accomplished nothing so far in my life. (Addendum: It turns out that Hampton's about exactly 11 months older than I am. He's gone on to write several important plays, including Total Eclipse and Liaisons Dangereuses, and a batch of screenplays, while I have gone on . . . to continue to do nothing of significance—with the possible exception, says Kirk graciously, of starting Rick On Theater; but that’s only a late development. Ah, well . . . such are the inequities of life!)]

18 February 2012

The Signature Center

After 14 years at the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street near 11th Avenue, New York City’s Signature Theatre Company opened what it designates as the first new theater complex in Manhattan since Lincoln Center, the Pershing Square Signature Center at 42nd and 10th, on Tuesday, 31 January, just in time for the company’s 20th anniversary season with a morning ceremony featuring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, architect Frank Gehry, and actor Edward Norton (who chaired the theater’s capital campaign). STC’s first production of the season, a revival of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, opened for previews the same evening. (I’ll be seeing that show on 22 February and an ROT report will follow.) The new complex, which contains three theaters as well as other facilities for the company, was designed by the Los Angeles-based Gehry. Located on three of the lower floors of a new highrise residence and hotel (Yotel New York At Times Square) at 480 W. 42nd Street, New York’s first “green” Off-Broadway theater is part of the 63-story glass tower that’s known as MiMa (for the Middle of Manhattan), which opened last spring. (Gehry had no association with the design of MiMa itself, created by the Miami-based architecture firm of Arquitectonica.) With the Signature Center, the company inaugurates several new programs, including playwrights’ residencies.

The Signature Theatre Company, founded in 1991 by James Houghton, devotes each season to the work of one playwright. (New York’s Signature Theatre Company shouldn’t be confused with the award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, which produces musicals both old and new.) Usually the playwrights spotlighted are living and the season includes at least one new work, either a world première or a New York début, but circumstances have occasionally interfered. For the 2006-07 season, for example, STC announced that the selected dramatist would be August Wilson and that he would introduce a one-man piece, his newest work after completing the 10-play cycle on the African-American experience. Wilson died of liver cancer in October 2005, after the announcement, and the Wilson estate threatened to withdraw the plays. STC was able to negotiate an agreement and presented three Wilson plays, all revivals. Again in 2009, as STC was developing Horton Foote’s nine-play series about his father, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, the dramatist died after completing the scripts (produced in association with Hartford Stage in Connecticut, where they were first presented). Foote died in March and the Hartford production débuted in September, so the author never lived to see the epic work on stage. (STC has also occasionally presented seasons of plays by mixed authors, such as the Negro Ensemble season in 2008-09 and the seasons of 2000-01 and 2001-02, which were dubbed “All-Premiere Celebrations.”)

In November 2005, STC launched its Ticket Initiative to provide low-cost tickets to patrons. The troupe lined up a group of sponsors to subsidize the program, which initially offered all seats at $15 each for the originally-scheduled run of every production. (Extensions revert to the standard Off-Broadway price, approximately $75 now.) Subscribers got the whole season, usually three plays, for $15 per show and single-ticket purchasers got the same price at the box office and on line. Eventually, the ticket price rose to $20 a seat until 2010, when the original program expired. STC negotiated with new sponsors and the current cost of all seats for the initial performances is $25. One of the reasons I’ve gone back to STC so often, even if I’ve subscribed to other theaters in the same season, is that the cost is so much lower than theater of its quality at another company. Now called the Signature Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access, the program is scheduled to continue until 2031.

The troupe, which has won numerous awards and accolades since its earliest seasons, gets consistently good to excellent reviews in the New York press and presents strong, well-acted, -directed, and -designed productions of first-rate plays by a variety of important writers, from Romulus Linney to Adrienne Kennedy. I haven’t subscribed to every season, but it’s the only company to which I’ve returned over and over again and enjoyed almost all its presentations. I’ve occasionally questioned the theater’s choice of script (Edward Albee’s Occupant and Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days, both in 2002), but never the stage work it generated. Several have been extraordinary theater experiences, namely The Orphans’ Home Cycle, an astounding event from every perspective (see my reports on ROT on 25 and 28 February 2010), and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (11 December 2011 on ROT).

The playwright in focus for a Signature season has always been engaged in the production process (with the obvious exceptions), but the new Signature Center will allow the company to expand the residency programs. The original "one writer/one season" program is now called Residency One. The initial residency was established 20 years ago to provide the dramatist freedom and support, and afford New York audiences a full experience of an accomplished artist's body of work. This program continues this season with the works of Athol Fugard (Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, and The Train Driver). The Legacy Program, originally marking Signature's 10th anniversary, invites past playwrights-in-residence to present revivals of established works or new plays. In the past, this was an occasional special program of STC, but with the expanded facilities, it looks like it will be a seasonal addition to the company’s offerings. This season, the Legacy playwright is Edward Albee (subject of the 1993-94 STC season) with The Lady from Dubuque as the first Legacy production at the Signature Center. (I’m scheduled to see Lady on 9 March and will report on the production shortly thereafter.)

A third program facilitated by the new complex is Residency Five, Signature's latest endeavor. Residency Five will give a group of emerging writers an artistic home and provide them the opportunity to build a body of work with three full productions over the course of their five-year residencies. The first young dramatists with productions this season are Katori Hall (Hurt Village), Will Eno (Title and Deed), and Kenneth Lonergan (whose previous work includes This Is Our Youth at Second Stage, 1998-99) with an as-yet unnamed new play; two other writers also have residencies but aren’t represented on the 2011-12 Signature Center’s stages: Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons, 2009-10) and Regina Taylor (Crowns at Second Stage, 2002-03).

Though STC currently reaches out to schools and to young artists through the Theatre Development Fund and other organizations, offering meetings with professional artists and special performances, the company has no education program in place now. The limited space in their previous facilities restricted what the troupe could manage, and the planning, financing, and building of the Signature Center has been a consuming occupation for the past seven years. Starting Residency Five and mounting multiple stage productions at the same time where they had been used to doing only one at a time—previous seasons usually comprised three or four plays while 2011-12 includes seven—surely has meant a complete rethinking of STC’s management and administrative practices as well. But a spokesman for STC announced that an education program is on the theater’s agenda for the near future now that its permanent home is a reality and the Ticket Initiative has been guaranteed for 20 years to come. As for when such a program might begin or what it will entail, that remained unspecified, however.

STC was originally one of the arts organizations selected in 2004 to take up residence in the World Trade Center Performing Arts Center. Gehry came on board at that time, designated as one of the architects of the proposed building. But by 2007, when, among other impediments, those plans couldn’t be financed, Signature had to look for another space. The lease on the Peter Norton Space was scheduled to expire last year, and STC got the chance to obtain extensive space in the new building being developed by the Related Companies. Plans for the green space also had to keep the costs low, so Gehry planned to make substantial use of traditional materials with raw finishes in innovative ways. The architect designed the complex using mostly concrete, glass, and 45,000 square feet of plywood. “That’s the same plywood you would buy at Home Depot!” remarked Artistic Director Houghton, and to prevent the common building material from looking cheap, the plywood, a motif of Gehry’s design for the Signature Center, was treated, stained, and warped in unusual ways.

Before moving to the $66 million, 70,000-square-foot, Signature Center, the theater had limited facilities, with a single performance space at the Peter Norton and administrative offices about a half mile away on 9th Avenue at 45th Street. The new complex houses three theaters, two rehearsal studios, state-of-the-art backstage and technical services, and new administrative offices. (While large scenery pieces are still built off site, the Signature Center includes tech shops to serve the three houses.) In addition to that work space, the new complex includes a common lobby housing a café and bar and a bookstore. The three theaters are the 299-seat End Stage Theatre, modeled on the Peter Norton Space, a proscenium stage; the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, an adaptable space that can be reconfigured for each show for the best performer-audience relationship, seating from 199 to 249 spectators; and the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, resembling a miniature opera house with 191 seats.

On 2 February, I took a tour of the new complex, conducted by David Hatkoff, STC’s Director of Marketing and Audience Services. The theater’s been giving these tours for some time, but only since last month have they been able to do it in a completed building rather than a construction site. (Some of the décor is obviously not yet complete, of course, and there are parts of the space that are still off limits to visitors, but the building is finished. Construction noises can still be heard over the conversations, but some of that, at least, is set-building going on—the set for Albee’s Lady from Dubuque in the End Stage, for instance, is under construction now, even as the play is being rehearsed.

The Pershing Square Signature Center’s entrance is off the 42nd Street sidewalk at the southeast corner of 10th Avenue, under a glass marquee that identifies the theater complex with giant, illuminated signs. The small ground-floor lobby, where the box office is located, is dominated by a plywood-clad staircase leading to the larger upper lobby (5,500 square feet) that contains entries to the three theaters. (There’s also a pair of elevators.) STC intends to use the second-floor lobby, which includes a “concierge desk,” the small bookstore (devoted to STC, its writers-in-residence, and the productions), bar, and café, for informal gatherings. “It’s like a big loft,” said Hatkoff, “with different rooms.” The walls, white-washed with unpainted wood trim, are decorated with black-and-white murals of the playwrights who’ve had seasons at STC. Near the entrance to each theater is a large panel, including a video screen, with all kinds of information, photos, maps, and quotations concerning the play in progress there, the playwright, and the writer’s past work and relevant life experiences. (Outside the theater housing Blood Knot, for example, the panel displays a lot of information on apartheid, the political system against which Fugard worked for a large part of his life and which is at the heart of the 1961 play.) There are also three large interactive video panels (85-inch iPads, Hatkoff called them) that present the history and mission of STC through photos, artist bios, and other background material.

This lobby, through which the actors, crew, playwrights, patrons, and visitors must all pass, is designed as a place where artists and spectators will mingle. “There’s no stage door” at the Signature Center, pointed out Hatkoff, “no back door through which the actors can sneak in and out”; everyone goes through the lobby. STC will use the bookshop to host book club meetings and the café and bar will both be open before and after the shows, so the company expects the lobby to be a hub of activity beyond just waiting for the theaters to open their doors. In fact, the company hopes that the artists, technicians, patrons, and visitors will get into impromptu discussions there. Hatkoff recounted seeing young playwright Will Eno in conversation at the bar with his senior colleague Edward Albee and described an enthusiastic reunion of director Patricia McGregor, in rehearsals for the Resident Five staging of Hurt Village, and Athol Fugard, whose My Children! My Africa! McGregor had directed earlier in her career. “You can be in any of the theaters,” exclaimed Houghton, “and there’s another event—a collective event—that’s happening in the lobby.” The building, open to the public, will be accessible from 10 in the morning until 12 midnight after performances.

The largest of the three new theatres is the End Stage, also the most like the smaller (160 seats) Peter Norton Space. In both houses, the width of the audience seating is the same as the width of the stage so there are no seats with partial views cut off by the edge of the proscenium. Within walls of plywood which Gehry has cracked and shaped, the raked seating rises from the edge of the stage platform. The shaped wall panels are painted to fade to black as they near the stage, creating a transition from the auditorium to the scenic space of the performance. The idea, according to Houghton, is that “as you experience it in the room, one end its [sic] very understated and low key, and as you come to the back of the room it becomes extremely dynamic and sculptural.” The End Stage Theatre débuted on 14 February with Albee’s Lady from Dubuque (on stage until 25 March), to be followed by Lonergan’s new play, scheduled for 15 May to 24 June.

Named for the late playwright who died in January 2011, the subject of signature’s very first one-playwright season and a long-time friend and supporter of the company, the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre is also the company’s most flexible venue. The courtyard style of performance space, with its long history in Western theater history, can be arranged in multiple configurations to accommodate the most appropriate relationship between the performers and the audience. The Linney can be adjusted as an “end stage” theater, a modified thrust stage, a runway, a flat-floor format, and many more formations. The current production, Katori Hall’s Hurt Village, uses an “alley configuration,” with the stage in the center, stretching from one end of the room to the other, and the audience risers on two opposite sides. STC can conform the Linney, inspired by the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe in London, to just about any shape a playwright can devise. The theater has a row of second-level gallery seats overlooking the stage that encourages the performers to work with the whole space and the small house places spectators in a close relationship with the actors. The Linney was inaugurated by the Residency Five production of Hurt Village, which opened on 7 February (running through 18 March) and will later house two of the current Residency One writer’s plays, Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (1 May-10 June) and The Train Driver (14 August-23 September), the New York première of the South African dramatist’s latest work.

The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre is the most intimate of the three theaters, intended to engulf the audience in the world of the play. Reminiscent of a tiny European opera house, the Griffin, with a single three-row balcony, places the audience as close to the stage as possible, creating an intense and intimate performative experience. Though the seats are fixed, the stage platform is removable so that the performance area resembles a black box. (Blood Knot, for instance, is performed on the floor level, without a stage.) The auditorium has shaped plywood panels which frame the proscenium in overlapping waves and wrap around the front of the balcony creating a ceiling under the lighting bridges above the seats. The panels, acoustically designed to saturate the theater with clear sound, are dark brown, causing them to disappear as the house lights fade to black. “The Jewel Box is my favorite theater,” effused Residency Five playwright Will Eno. “It reminds me of a drawing of a theater that would appear in a children’s book. It’s small and elegant.” The Griffin opened with Fugard’s Blood Knot (the Signature Center’s inaugural production) which will be followed by the world première of Eno’s Title and Deed (8 May-3 June).

Next door to the Linney, the Studio, the second of the new rehearsal spaces (Rehearsal Studio 2), can also serve as a performance venue (as the Studio Theatre). A black-box space, it can seat up to 99 spectators for informal or workshop presentations. STC plans to continue presenting readings in its new home—the Residency Five writers are guaranteed three full productions but there will be readings and workshops in addition—and I imagine those will take place in the Studio. (In fact, I just recently received notice of the first reading, of Eno’s new play, earlier this month in the Studio Theatre.)

All the foregoing are facts and more-or-less objective observations. My subjective impression of the new theater complex at first glance is that it seems a little cold and stiff. In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout proclaimed, “I don't much care for the high-ceilinged public areas of the Pershing Square Signature Center, which are stark, boxy and uninviting . . .,” though the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood described the complex as “light-filled, handsome and spacious” and added that it’s “a spectacular shot in the arm” for STC. (Other theater reviewers, commenting in their notices for Blood Knot earlier this week, were generally enthusiastic about the Signature Center.) For all the activity STC predicts—hopes—will blossom there, all the white plaster and blond wood, and the big, white rectangular light boxes that illuminate the lobby, it’s not quite a warm space. The acoustics of the theaters all seem fine: we had no trouble hearing Hatkoff from the stages even though, as he proudly proclaimed, he’s not trained in vocal projection. (None of the theaters is wired for amplification except for sound and technical effects: the actors have to rely on their natural equipment.) But in the lobby, which the company intends to use for group events as well as informal gatherings, there were two glaring acoustical impediments. It doesn’t seem that holding a private conversation in the lobby would be hard, but any time someone shifts a chair in the café and bar area, the scraping resounds across the lobby like a magnified nails-on-a-blackboard screech. (Hatkoff, when asked about this annoyance, said the company already had plans to pad the chair legs to prevent the scraping. We’ll see if that’s sufficient.) At the same time, whenever one of the guides or greeters in the theater tried to make a general announcement for the tour participants, unless I was standing within two feet of them, I couldn’t hear a thing they said. If STC plans meetings or lectures in the lobby space, they’ll need to attend to both of those annoying issues—particularly, I’d think, the latter.


In the end, though, a theater’s only real value is how well it serves the art; no one goes to Times Square to hang out at the Winter Garden or the Marquis. “Our intent was to fashion a space that captures the rough-and-ready and experimental spirit of the actors and playwrights that will inhabit it,” said Gehry of the “elegant yet modest new home” he conceived for STC. “The drive for me was to create an intimacy between the performer and the audience, and to create a space that encourages the innovation that Signature is known for.” I’ll soon be seeing two productions in two different houses at the Signature Center, so I’ll get an idea shortly how well Gehry did by the art of theater—if the spaces themselves perform as well as the troupe’s actors, directors, writers, and designers always have. But for now, despite the company’s and Gehry’s wishes, it’s not a place I’d head to to hang out, have drink or a snack, or meet up with friends.

[Though the Signature Center’s correct address is 480 W. 42nd Street, the other parts of the building in which it’s housed have different street addresses. In case anyone tries to look the various premises up (and as a matter of curiosity), MiMa, the residence and commercial building whose entrance is at Dyer Avenue, gets its mail at 450 W. 42nd Street; Yotel New York At Times Square, the European-style “pod” hotel (which isn’t really in Times Square despite its full name), has its entrance around the corner from STC, at 570 10th Avenue. However you look at it, though, they’re all within the same building.

[The names of the Signature’s new theaters, as you might guess, are all a matter of money. The Center’s name, for instance, became the Pershing Square Signature Center in January when the Pershing Square Foundation gave the theater $25 million, the largest gift the foundation, established by hedge fund manager William Ackman and his wife, Karen, ever made to a nonprofit arts organization and the largest private donation Signature received for this project. With the gift went the naming rights. The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre was named for the late playwright when philanthropist and Signature board member Margot Adams made a gift of $5 million to the Signature Center in honor of Romulus Linney. (Adams made the donation in memory of her husband, actor Mason Adams, who died in 2003.) The theater had wanted to name one of its performance spaces for its founding playwright-in-residence because he’d been a strong supporter of the company since its start. Signature named the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in September when investment banker John A. Griffin also donated $5 million to the company in honor of his mother. Alice Griffin reviewed theater for
Variety, Theatre Arts magazine, and WNYC, the NPR outlet in New York City; she taught English and drama at Hunter College, and eventually headed the graduate English Department at Lehman College in the Bronx. Even names for parts of a space go to the highest bidder: the Diller-von Furstenberg Grand Staircase cost the family foundation of Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg $3 million. (The City of New York, which was also instrumental in helping STC secure the space in MiMa, contributed $26.5 million toward the construction of the Signature Center.)

[The website for the company is http://www.signaturetheatre.org and for the Pershing Square Signature Center itself is http://www.signaturecenter.org.]


13 February 2012

“Revealing Glimpses Into Minds Most Mad”

By Ben Brantley

[In this article from the New York Times’s arts section (on 11 July 2011), Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley describes several portrayals of madness in the New York stage during the last season. My having been an aspiring actor, this kind of description always intrigues and interests me and ROT being ostensibly a theater blog, I figured it’s a good forum to rerun Brantley’s observations for the edification of both readers who are theater folk and those (poor, benighted) folk who aren’t. I hope you all agree and enjoy the chance to visit the article again. ~Rick]

“Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.” That well-turned observation was originally made about one Prince Hamlet, and doubtless it’s useful advice regarding future heads of state. But the dictum applies equally to those who tread the stage. Few things test the mettle of an actor—or separate the artists from the hacks—like the simulation of a whopping case of mental illness.

On one level, conveying the idea that you’re out of your mind is a piece of cake (three layers, heavily frosted, lots of candles), in the same way that portraying drunkenness is. You or I could do it. Widen the eyes as far as possible, gnash the teeth until they threaten to crack, shake like a leaf in a hurricane and—voilà—you’re a certifiable basket case for public consumption. (For drunkenness, substitute: slur the words, squint the eyes and lean to one side until you almost fall over.)

For centuries, this overwrought approach was widely considered great acting and frequently rewarded with prizes. (Just check the list of Oscar winners over the years.) Such performances, after all, are as dramatic as all get-out, the kind that frighten little children (or, worse, make them dissolve into giggles).

What they don’t do, as a general rule, is lure you into the mind of the afflicted character, or make you realize what a vague line divides the so-called sane from the insane. Audiences can rest comfortably as they watch such displays, thinking, “Well, that’s not me, is it?” What get beneath the skin are the interpretations that make you feel the seductiveness of an escape from reality (or into an alternative reality), in which madness starts to seem like a viable existential choice.

Such thoughts came to my (more or less sound) mind frequently during the past year, which offered plenty of examples of good actors losing it. (And no, I’m not back on the subject of Lindsay Lohan.) This summer alone has provided two sterling portraits of women in states of breakdown that were very different but both entirely persuasive: Joely Richardson’s take on a politician’s bipolar wife in Michael Weller’s “Side Effects” and Carey Mulligan’s interpretation of a young woman succumbing to schizophrenia during a family vacation in “Through a Glass Darkly,” Jenny Worton’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 movie. (Both plays recently ended their New York runs.).

Ms. Mulligan, who is only 26 and a movie star in the making, may well turn out to be one of the great actresses of the 21st century. She is an artist who combines extreme delicacy with matching clarity, so that even when she’s onstage (and you are many yards away from her), you feel as if you were watching her doing the emotional equivalent of needlepoint in close-up. I first saw her as Nina in “The Seagull” at the Royal Court Theater in London (and later on Broadway), where she managed the final breakdown scene with a credibility I have never witnessed elsewhere. (Let’s face it, it’s not easy repeating variations on the lines “I’m a seagull! No, I’m an actress!”)

In “Through a Glass Darkly,” her character, Karin, has recently been released from the hospital, where she was treated for delusions, and she has joined her husband, father and brother on an isolated island to recuperate. From the very beginning, you sensed this woman was torn between the conflicting calls of familial responsibility and a self-contained fantasy world. What was astonishing was how authentic Ms. Mulligan made the world of illusions seem to us.

Long before she erupted into what might be described as anything like derangement, we could sense from her movements — suddenly, slightly speeded up, then slowed to near-paralysis — that she listened to a different internal metronome than anyone around her. And you could read the sensory reality of her phantoms—you felt they had textures, voices and smells all their own—so legibly in her facial reactions that it almost seemed possible to follow Karin into her private universe. She brought to mind what the director Peter Hall said of Vanessa Redgrave after seeing her in “The Lady From the Sea” some 30 years ago: “You could see right through the skin to the emotions.”

Ms. Richardson, as it happens, is Ms. Redgrave’s daughter. As an actress she may be less conspicuously open than her mother or Ms. Mulligan, but she possesses a sharp and affecting lucidity of her own. Her character in “Side Effects,” Melinda Metz, is bipolar, and she doesn’t wear her illness all that visibly at first. But as she interacts with her staid, loving and frightened husband (a pitch-perfect Cotter Smith), Melinda, like Karin, seems to be moving to a rhythm that is subtly out of sync with that of the everyday world she inhabits. At times, her reversals of tempo and of mood are so abrupt and intense, they’re scary.

But they are also kind of exhilarating. And that’s the beauty of this performance. We understand why Melinda chooses not to take her medications (and lies about it). Off them, she may spiral into really high spirits that are dangerous to her husband’s career (not to mention the furniture). But unedited and unshackled, she is fully alive in a way Mr. Smith’s character never can be, and you know why he remains so attracted to as well as terrified by her. Any of us who experience irrational fluctuations of feeling from time to time will see a heightened mirror of ourselves in her, and we start to question what defines mental illness.

Sometimes, of course, a more classic scenery-chewing madman is just what the, uh, doctor ordered. In the title role of “Diary of a Madman,” adapted from Gogol for a production seen last winter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the prodigiously gifted Geoffrey Rush played insanity as stark, raving stand-up comedy, to eerily entertaining effect.

At the other end of the spectrum was Edie Falco’s portrait of Bananas, the hallucination-prone, apartment-bound wife in this season’s Broadway revival of John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves.” If Mr. Rush’s interpretation of madness might be said to have been in Technicolor, Ms. Falco’s was in MRI shades of gray, an exercise in somber, clinical exactitude. I’m not sure this interpretation always suited Mr. Guare’s whimsical writing, but it was certainly fascinating to watch. On the other hand, I was never entirely able to identify with her or Mr. Rush’s characters, as I could with Ms. Mulligan’s and Ms. Richardson’s.

Of course, there was at least one other outstanding portrait of madness in extremis in recent months, that of Derek Jacobi in the last acts of “King Lear,” also seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Shakespeare’s use of madness—including the feigned madness of our friend Hamlet—occupies its own cosmic level in world literature. That’s a topic for another day.

08 February 2012

Short Takes III


SKINNY-DIPPING WITH WACS

I’ve written about some of my activities as a Military Intel officer in Berlin during the ’70s, some of them mighty serious and even dangerous. There were also some less orthodox—if you'll pardon the alternative use of the term here—amusements in which we indulged occasionally. (I did some amateur theater in Berlin, as you'll see momentarily—but I'm thinking of slightly different diversions here.) Living in Berlin got claustrophobic at times, what with the Wall and the security regs, and though the army and the other occupational forces offered outlets, as did the city itself, we could go stir-crazy sometimes if we hadn't been out of the city for a while—especially if we’d been working overmuch for a while, like when I was on 24-hour call for an extended time. We were still pretty young then, my fellow junior officers and I, and we were—or at least I was—still prone to adolescent excesses. Physics suggests that if you put too much pressure on one place, something's likely to pop out somewhere else, and I guess that's what happened to us. At one time, we got a visit from the U.S. Army Synchronized Swim Team. That's what used to be called water ballet—and the team was all WAC's. I don't recall if I actually went to the "performance" (I'm not sure what you call it) or not—probably not, since I don't remember it. But one of my friends, who was especially adept at that kind of thing, had hooked up with the team afterwards. A group of us—mostly lieutenants, but a few enlisted men were included—gathered to party. Nothing lewd, just a moveable drinking and eating event. Think frat party on wheels. Somewhere along the line—I'm sure we'd consumed a fair amount by that time in the evening—someone from our gang, a Special Services officer who was in charge of Berlin Brigade's recreation facilities, announced that he still had the keys for the pool. "Whoooaaa! Let's go swimming with the WAC's," we all decided at once. And why not? It's not like it was against any rules or anything. Not much! (At the very least, it was fraternization since the swim team were all enlisted women.) Well, we organized car pools on the spot—I don't remember where we were at that moment; probably someone's BOQ—and off we went to the pool on one of the compounds. "Hey! Let's go skinny-dipping!" someone suggested. So we did. (There were some wives along, too, by the way. But what the hey.) So there we were, maybe a dozen or so junior officers and EM's, a couple of wives, and the WAC swim team skinny-dipping and partying at the empty rec services swimming pool after hours. I don't recall that anyone brought booze to the pool, but we'd had enough before to keep us buzzed well into the night. I won't describe what went on, but I'm sure you can give it a good guess. We stayed there until after dawn started to show and the buzz began to wear off. I was one of the first to leave—I'd begun to prune up, not to mention sober up—and I took one or two partiers with me (I was one of the drivers—not to say "designated drivers"); I don't know how long anyone else stayed at the pool. Astonishingly, as far as I know, no one ever learned of our midnight escapade. Considering how many of us there were and how much we'd all had to drink during the evening, that's amazing. It's possible, I suppose, that the word got out but no one decided to do anything about it—but I doubt that would have been the case.


A SPOOK IN THE THEATER

As I said, I did some amateur theater in Berlin. The principal outlet for that was the Berlin Entertainment Center, a facility of the Special Services Office of Berlin Brigade. There’d been one incident where I wore my MI hat. Well, cloak I guess. The woman who directed Special Services came to me because a staffer had been telling people he was a spook. He’d even taken to wearing a fedora! Remember, I was an intel agent and a lot of people had an inflated idea what we could and might do because of movie figures like James Bond, Derek Flynt, and Napoleon Solo. I never disillusioned any of my acquaintances of their fantasies—hey! our work was classified, so let them believe what they want—and this Spec 4 or whatever he was one of those in awe of my spook status. So I came to the Special Services office and had a talk with the guy. I believe he thought I might actually make him disappear or something. Now, I never made it official, but I gave him one of my “stern talking-to’s”—like I did in SAEDA (Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army) briefings where I had to put the fear of God into some poor GI who’d breached security regs. I put the Special Services guy on notice—like a traffic cop who says, “I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but don’t let me catch you speeding again!” He was ummmm . . . shall we say, chastened? He thought I was King Shit after that. I just let him.

When I was getting out of the army to go to acting school and people remarked that that would be a big change, I used to say it really wasn’t. After all, I’d been acting a role all the time I was in the army. Now you also see what I meant.



AN ORIGINAL RICHARD KRAMER

When I was a boy, I made construction-paper collages which I give to friends and family instead of greeting cards. (I’d been inspired by an artist whose work had been shown at a small art gallery in which my parents had an interest.) One of my creations was sitting on a table in the apartment of a family friend when she was entertaining a local society lady. The lady spotted the collage as she was leaving and asked her hostess what it was. "Oh," joked the family friend, who had a sly sense of humor, "that's an original Richard Kramer." "Yes, I've heard of him," responded the lady, not knowing, of course, that I was all of about 11 at the time.

This story made the rounds in my family—my mother still thinks it's hilarious 55 years later—and eventually reached the ears of an uncle in Massachusetts. He and my aunt were in New York City a few years later, shopping in a gallery on Madison Avenue. While my aunt was browsing, my uncle, who had a peeve about pretensions and phoniness, cooled his heels until a saleswoman asked if he needed help. "Yes," he replied, in all apparent seriousness, "I'm looking for some original Richard Kramers." The assistant told him, "I'm sorry, we don't happen to have any at the moment, but we're expecting some in shortly."

I never did become a famous artist, by the way.



THE HISTORY THAT NEVER WAS

About a dozen years ago, I read about a guy in Germany, Heribert Illig, who denies the existence of the entire Middle Ages. Illig, whom the New York Times described as "an independent scholar" (and who'd hire him, after all?), claims that the 297 years from 614 CE to 911 CE were simply made up by either "a seventh-century Byzantine ruler" or Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (crowned in what we think was 996 CE but was actually 699 CE). Illig, who lives near Munich and has published two books entitled The Middle Ages Invented (Das erfundene Mittelalter) and Who Adjusted the Clock? (Wer hat an der Uhr gedreht?), believes that Otto "conspired with the pope" (Gregory V, elected the same year that Otto assumed the HRE throne) to push the calendar forward so Otto could preside over Y1K. Illig doesn't say why Otto would have wanted this distinction, or why Gregory would have acquiesced. The Times doesn't report if the good doctor explains who made up all that European history we had to learn back in school or who came up with all those monarchs' names like Pepin the Short (751-68) and Eudes (Odo) (888-98) in France and Egbert (802-39) and Ethelred I (865-71) in England. Who'd make up names like that if they weren't real? (The theory also doesn't take into consideration the histories of non-European cultures during this period. I doubt the Chinese, say, who were immensely powerful and sophisticated at this time, would invent nearly 300 years of history just to accommodate some European emperor and a pope of whom I doubt they were much aware, if at all.)

According to Illig, then, what we all just celebrated on January 1 was not New Year 2012, but merely New Year 1715. That means all those folks who hoarded stuff against Y2K a dozen years ago and built bunkers to hide from the millennial terrorists and the break-down of civilization have another chance to use them. In another 285 years. (An MRE ought to last that long, I'd imagine.) One benefit to Illig's theory, though, is that the question of whether the new millennium actually started 12 years ago or 11 (2001 instead of 2000) becomes academic now. The world'll have the better part of another three centuries to figure that out, and none of us will have to worry about it. (And since we all missed the turn of the 18th century without even noticing it, we probably won't have to worry about that question in 85 years, either.)

The conspiracy to perpetuate the hoax of the Holocaust would be pretty vast—bigger than the JFK cover-up. But hiding 297 years for a period of 1,398 years—almost a millennium-and-a-half—now that's a conspiracy! I just wish Illig had exposed it before I got C's in European history.



POSTHUMOUS MARRIAGE

One figure on whom Antonin Artaud heaps considerable opprobrium in his writings is Isidore Ducasse, a poet who wrote under the pseudonym of the Comte de Lautréamont. He was considered by the Surrealists to have been an important precursor, though he died (mysteriously, as it turns out—possibly murdered by agents of Napoleon III) in 1870 at the age of 24. Now, leap ahead 134 years—to the spring of 2004 here in New York City. A 31-year-old New York-based performance artist who calls herself Shishaldin—I don't know what her real name is—applied to the French president for permission under a Gaullist-era law to marry the dead poet. (I won't detail the law. Take my word for it that it's a real law and has actually been invoked hundreds of times.) As I understand it, only the French president can grant this permission.

Okay, now that's weird enough, I think—but wait; it's not over yet! A French Surrealist film maker, painter, and poetess claimed in June 2004 to have already married Ducasse/de Lautréamont under the law in the 1970s—to mark the centenary of Ducasse's death. "Mrs. Ducasse"—I don't know her real name, either—rejects the performance artist's application as a publicity stunt intended to increase the performance artist's profitability. (Pot calling a kettle black, maybe?) I don't know what the current state of this . . . ummm . . . affair is—but as far as I know, no one has asked Ducasse's opinion on the matter!

Hey, if you can have posthumous marriages, why not a little posthumous bigamy?? (Besides, if you're married to a dead person, that makes you an instant widow/widower. Wouldn't that free your spouse to remarry? Oohh, never mind! It makes my head hurt.)



SPOOK BOOK

Have you ever heard about the book Who's Who in CIA? When it was published in East Germany in 1968, it created quite a stir in the circles of official Washington, especially among foreign service officers. Who's Who in CIA purported to name everyone who worked for the spy agency—but it ended up naming almost everyone who ever served overseas, even privately. In fact, it left out actual CIA people: Richard Helms is in there, but the woman who was the Bonn embassy spook isn't.

Now, someone’s first impulse might be that the book was deliberate disinformation and I wouldn't doubt that that was part of it, though the book was "privately" published—the imprint is not a government agency of the GDR. I think mostly the publishers cast a very wide net, plus they assumed, based on common practice in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, that all diplomats were really spies anyway—all theirs were, to one extent or another. My dad, for instance, had served in the CIC during World War II—he interrogated Nazi prisoners during the occupation because he spoke German—though his combat service had been as an artillery battery commander. It didn't help that my dad and many others worked for an agency called the US Information Agency (or Service—it had one name in the U.S. and one abroad). In most European languages, including German and Russian, 'information' and 'intelligence' are the same word. In German, it's Nachrichten and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, or Federal Information/Intelligence Service) is the (West) German counterpart to the CIA. (My grandfather thought Dad was a spy until the day Grandpa died. He came from Eastern Europe, after all.)

If you were anybody, you were in the book. In fact, if you weren't in the book—you weren't anybody. There was a rush on copies to see if your name was listed—and, as I hinted, my dad was in it. (Believe me—or don't; it's really too late now, anyway—my dad was not in the CIA!)

Unfortunately, after Dad went into a medical facility, Mom moved to a smaller apartment and had to get rid of things like their accumulated books and records because there wasn't any room to keep them. She didn't recognize his copy of Who's Who in CIA for what it was, 25 years later, and it went with the other books. Ever since then, I'd searched for an affordable copy in good condition (in English—there was a German-language edition, too), but the book usually goes for around $80 and up on the antiquarian book market, often without the dust jacket and with other deterioration. (Soviet bloc publications weren’t known for their high quality so they probably haven't kept very well. Even the copy in the New York Public Library is now on microfilm—you can't get the actual book anymore—and the one at NYU is in the rare books collection. I have no idea how many copies were printed and I guess people who got the book because their names were in it have kept it as a souvenir.) Well, back in February 2005, on one of my periodic searches on BookFinder.com for books I'm looking for, I found a German shop offering an English edition for 18 Euros ($23) shipped. I inquired, and it was reportedly in good condition and with the dust jacket and though the store required cash payment—no credit cards or checks—they would send the book and bill me. I ordered a copy and it arrived at in about a week. It's in excellent condition, essentially a new book even though it's over 40 years old. I gladly sent them the 23 bucks, and I have back that little odd memento of Dad's foreign service life—and the ’60s cold war. It's a kick in its own right as well, and something of a tiny, little time warp.



WATCH MY FOOT!

When I was a little kid, somewhere in middle school, I was riding the public bus home with a friend. The bus must have been a little crowded—after school was the start of the rush hour, I guess—because we couldn't sit together. I was behind my friend, I recall, but I must have gotten seated before he did. As he was sliding into the seat next to the man who already occupied half of it, the other guy announced, "Watch my foot!" My friend sat down, and began staring at the floor. The guy looked over at him—we were all of about 12, I'd guess—and asked what he was staring at. "I'm watching your foot, like you told me," he explained, "but it's not doing anything." I cracked up—I don't remember what the seatmate's response was.

(A history note: That friend went on to become something of a well-known journalist in Washington, an editor and publisher and host of several TV news shows. He also served in several sub-cabinet posts in at least one presidential administration.)



MIND THE STEP!

Some years later, when my family was living in Europe and on a vacation to London—that makes it Christmas 1963, my 17th birthday (I recall this specifically because on the plane trip over, my younger brother, in answer to some remark I made, observed, "What do you know? You're not even 17 yet.")—my brother (again) took a similar stance as my friend years earlier. We were at some tourist attraction or other, maybe the Tower or some place like that. Wherever it was, we had a guide, and as we were going into one building, which required climbing a couple of stone stairs, the guide warned, "Mind the step!" My brother immediately sat on the step. My mother asked him what he was doing, and he replied simply, "I'm minding the step." (My brother would have been not quite 15 at the time.)


03 February 2012

Guy Debord & The Situationists

Guy-Ernest Debord was a French Marxist writer and filmmaker. He was a founding member of the Lettrist International in 1952 and of the Situationist International in 1957. In all my reading over the decades, I don’t think I’ve ever run across a political philosophy as odd as the Situationists, who had a remarkable influence over one of the most turbulent periods of Western history. I didn’t remember even ever having heard of them until a friend told me he’d been influenced by Debord and the Situationists and I decided to look them up and read about them.

Guy Debord was born in Paris on 28 December 1931. When his father, Martial, a pharmacist, died of tuberculosis in 1936, Debord's mother, Paulette, went with her son to Nice to live with her mother, Lydie Rossi. During World War II, Debord spent most of his youth with his grandmother as they moved from one Mediterranean town to another across Unoccupied France. After Debord graduated high school in Cannes in 1948, where his interest in film began, he started studying law at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), but he hated the school and dropped out in 1950. Married twice, to writers both times, Debord had affairs with many other women—apparently with the acquiescence of his wives (with whom he had “open marriages”). He also had a serious drinking problem which destroyed his health, including severe nerve damage which caused him great pain. Presumably to end the pain, Debord fatally shot himself in the heart at age 62 on 30 November 1994. The French press promptly declared him a celebrity, never before having acknowledged Debord's work or the importance of SI.

Debord joined the Lettrists in 1951, when he was 19. The predecessor to Situationism was founded in 1945 by Romanian-born Isadore Isou (1925-2007, born Ioan-Isidor Goldstein), a few months after he immigrated to France. Isou had started composing his philosophy in the early ’40s as a young art journalist in Romania during World War II. Lettrism, an avant-garde art and literary movement, was based on principles of both Surrealism and Dadaism (the leading figure of which was a fellow Romanian, Tristan Tzara, whom Isou admired). The movement eventually published hundreds of works covering poetry, film, painting, and politics.

(The group’s name has no relation to ‘belle-lettrist,’ more commonly written ‘belletrist.’ Known in French as Lettrisme, the movement’s name comes from the French word lettre, or ‘letter,’ because their early writings centered on letters or other visual or verbal symbols. In English, the name is often rendered as Letterism, which the adherents preferred for English publications, but Lettrism/Lettrisme is common in both languages. LI, the splinter group Debord formed, was known in French as Internationale Lettriste and SI was Internationale Situationniste, also the title of a periodical published irregularly between 1958 and 1969. I’ll be sticking with the Anglicized forms.)

Isou’s theories of Lettrism were very esoteric, full of special words he and other Lettrists invented to describe their ideas. Basically, if simplistically, Lettrism posited that the existing forms of poetry, painting, and music had all come to their logical and creative ends and that nothing new or innovative could be produced by following the old forms. In order for new creativity to develop, the old forms must be broken and new ones take their places. (Though I never read of a connection between Antonin Artaud and the Lettrists, this sounds very much like his argument, too. Artaud, who died in 1948, had, however, been associated with the Surrealists but fell afoul of André Breton and was expelled from the movement. We know that Isou, who formed Lettrism partly from Surrealist roots, had little respect for Breton as well. The Situationists, however, invoked Artaud’s ideas and even quoted from his writings.) In poetry, for instance, the new compositions are characterized by strange or meaningless arrangements of letters, called lettrie, not dissimilar from the poetry of the Dadaists that had been composed since the end of World War I by the likes of Raoul Hausmann or Kurt Schwitters. The idea was to reduce art to its most elemental component—the letter or the sound for poetry. Many Lettrist poems don’t contain readable words, and some not even readable letters: the poets depended on invented characters. Much of this work is really visual poetry rather than anything we’d recognize as literary. Lettrist art also includes sound poetry, installations, calligraphy, rebuses, and what we’d call performance art today. Lettrist painting (such as the work of Maurice Lemaître, a Lettrist founder) resembles abstract art except that it incorporates a great deal of text or letters and symbols, not all of it readable. In Lettrist music, the voice and the shout became the essential elements of the art. To be sure, the distinctions between poetry, visual art, and music is nearly invisible among Lettrist artists (who are often described as hyphenates like poet-painter or composer-poet). Isou himself acknowledged that true Lettrist art might not even be possible in reality, but insisted that the mere contemplation of the possibility would free the creative energy.

Debord, having joined Isou’s movement in 1951 and then making a film for him (Hurlements en faveur de Sade or Howls in Favor of Sade, 1952), formed a splinter group, the Lettrist International, in 1952 and went his own way. In 1957, Debord again bolted and established the Situationist International. In fact, LI had almost nothing in common with Lettrism; it was more a preliminary organization to SI, whose basic tenets LI anticipated. The name was pretty much ironic. Though Debord and his rebels had already formed LI secretly, the split occurred openly when Debord’s faction disrupted a Charlie Chaplin press conference at the Hotel Ritz in October 1952, denouncing Chaplin as a “fascist” and “emotional blackmailer” for the sentimentality of his work. (Chaplin was in Paris on a publicity tour for Limelight, having been hailed by the public all over Europe and having met Queen Elizabeth, to whom he had bowed as required. Before he left Europe, however, U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon had accused the Democratic administration of President Harry Truman of being soft on communism and Congress labeled Chaplin, a British subject, subversive and prohibited him to reenter the U.S.) Isou tried to distance himself and the original Lettrists from Debord’s group, but Debord and his supporters bolted and formally founded LI in December.

Membership in Debord’s LI ranged across a broad spectrum of the arts and various social and political ideologies, but their main commonality was their youth (they averaged in their early 20’s when LI was formed in ’52) and their rejection of religion. They’ve occasionally been seen as the French counterparts to the American Beats. (I think the comparison is superficial. The Beats were almost all writers of one kind or another, had no organization that even pretended to represent their philosophy—if they can even be said to have had one—and they had no strong political agenda beyond a libertarian need to write and live as they pleased.) Actually, what LI seems more to resemble is the literary and artistic arm of the Occupy movement—although that’s a simplistic comparison as well. One of the leaders of Occupy Wall Street acknowledged the influence, explaining, “The idea came from the Situationist movement” who “use their wits, and they find ways for making people laugh, and think about the paradigm shift just through the power of their wits.” There was also a streak of the anarchic fun of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (which didn’t come along until 1964), as the crashing of the Chaplin press conference demonstrates. Most of the LI members’ time, however, was spent in bars in Saint-Germain-des-Prés; in fact, their official headquarters (later also the center of SI) was the Tonneau d'Or, a bar on the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviéve (which LI supporters adamantly called "Rue de la Montagne-Geneviéve" to flaunt their disdain for religion). If they weren’t drinking, the LI devotees were wandering around Paris, sometimes for hours or even longer. We’ll see that this activity was the initiation of the dérive, a central principle of Situationism (and, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll leave the definition and description of this tenet till I get to SI shortly). Other Situationist principles and practices had their origins in LI.

In July 1957, LI officially merged with two other international avant-garde organizations to form the Situationist International with Debord as the guiding figure of the new movement’s activities and philosophy. Debord and his cohorts put out the first issue of Internationale Situationniste the next June, publishing their new terms and concepts (many of which had originated in LI) and setting out their goals. At the outset, the aim of SI was to blur the boundary between art and culture, and daily life, making them part of one continuum. (There was more to this goal, of course, and I’ll try to simplify it as I attempt to describe it all. Most of SI philosophy has been published, and much of it is still in print, but the fact is that not only SI publications but many of the efforts to explain or analyze their beliefs and practices are impenetrably dense, especially when it comes to SI’s jargon and arcane language. It doesn’t help that most of SI thought originated in French, which often doesn’t translate cleanly into English.)

When SI first formed, it was a predominantly aesthetic movement, concerned with the place and condition of art and creativity in modern life. It wasn’t until later, around 1962, that SI developed a political and social component, basically applying its aesthetic principles to life and politics. By 1968, the year of the student uprisings in Paris (in which SI was intimately involved), the group had become almost entirely revolutionary. Many other leftist groups even beyond France had begun to adopt their ideas, turning SI precepts to their own purposes.

In “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action,” the manifesto of Situationism published in June 1957, Debord wrote: “First of all we think the world must be changed. We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that this change is possible through appropriate actions.” The Situationist maxim was that society engenders the very “desires, tastes, and aspirations” of people through advertising, making them identify with fictional constructs generated by the publicity industry so that they “internalized craving [they] did not truly have.” Debord described the life of the ordinary citizen as dull and predictable, dictated for him by a society which had become reduced to what he called a “spectacle”: little more than a sham dressed in the trappings of living. To change this world, Debord and the Situationists proposed organizing “situations,” which he defined as “the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality,” a kind of installation-cum-Happening. The original idea was for various artistic disciplines to come together to create these “situations” that would transform people’s outlooks and “change life.” Debord’s idea was to get people involved in their own lives again. In popular culture, Debord alleged, the passive spectators are led to identify with a hero so that they’ll live through the fictional figure and not themselves become active. The Situationist drive was to prevent society from allowing an active hero, a Rambo or a Batman, say, or Thelma and Louise—or even a Hamlet or a Nora Helmer for that matter—to do their living for them. The media had made these images attractive; they are derived not from life, but from movies, TV, advertisements, and magazines, invented elsewhere by the “Society of the Spectacle” and foisted on ordinary people who absorb them passively. Getting the spectators to take an active role in their own lives defeats this societal control mechanism, leading eventually, the Situationists hoped, to revolution and the downfall of the “Society of the Spectacle.”

In the 1967 booklet The Society of the Spectacle, a collection of “theses,” Debord described this as a society “in which the consumption and contemplation of images has replaced all forms of human communication.” A spectacle, as theater folk know, is a show (in French, it’s another word for ‘play’) and for a show to take place there must be active participants and inactive watchers whose participation is only vicarious. Only the small group who organize the spectacle—that would be the establishment—have an active role while the large majority—the rest of us—are spectators. In order to perpetuate the spectacle, the authorities manipulate the images and symbols we see and to which we are conditioned to respond. “The spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images,” wrote Debord. He meant that the spectacle wasn’t just TV or advertising or movies or images in popular magazines, but everything, the world we see around us. As one of the leaders of SI said, “To us, you understand, it was all spectacle; advertising was not worse than anything else.” The Society of the Spectacle, according to the Situationists, promotes a false sense of both happiness and freedom, an image of the real thing. In other words, we aren’t living an actual life, but the image of a life prescribed by the authorities who regulate society. The use of a theatrical word evokes the very artificiality of the existence we’re all led to pursue, as if we were all living a collective Truman Show life.

A good illustration might be the character of Jason in Jean Anouilh’s 1953 version of Medea. (I don’t know that Anouilh specifically subscribed to either Lettrism or Situationism, but there are some parallels between those movements and Existentialism, of which Anouilh was a proponent, particularly in the notion that people need to be engaged in their own lives. “Choose,” demand the Existentialists; “Soyez engagés”: “Be engaged!”) Jason wishes to exchange the chaotic life of the rootless outsider for a settled existence in which he embraces comfort and the illusion of “happiness, poor happiness” by abiding by the conventions of people like Creon, the King of Corinth, who establish rules to maintain order. “I want to accept now,” he tells Medea, who insists on seeking out her true self regardless of what the consequences are. Jason longs for an orderly life within the “Society of the Spectacle” and the conflict with Medea’s rejection of pretense is ultimately tragic. Medea, despite her horrific acts, is still the heroine of the play because she takes direct action that is true to her nature, however violent and destructive; Jason remains the man of compromise, the sell-out.

Along with their obvious Dadaist and anarchist links, the Situationists claimed a debt to Bertolt Brecht. The situation, like Brecht’s Epic Theater, from which Debord derived the concept, was meant to disrupt the spectator’s programmed passivity and inspire a sense of engagement. The situations weren’t the actual goal in themselves, but a catalyst, a passage to a new, thoughtful, critical life (just as Brecht intended his Epic Theater to make people stop and think anew about the circumstances on display rather than jump mindlessly to programmed conclusions). It was meant as a way to shake up the passive observer, to make people take an analytical or critical look at their daily lives and go after their real goals rather than the artificial ones the spectacle has made them want. (Just to further the theatrical connection, the inspiration for the term ‘situation’ was in part drawn from Jean-Paul Sartre, an Existentialist philosopher. In his 1947 essay “For a Theater of Situations,” Sartre wrote: “But if it’s true that man is free in a given situation and that in and through that situation he chooses what he will be, then what we have to show in the theater are simple and human situations and free individuals in these situations choosing what they will be.” Choose! Be engaged!)

The avant-garde artists of SI were expected to bring their technical and artistic talents together to create the situations, actual and psychological environments that would give people a chance to experience a moment of real, spontaneous living, a glimpse of “the nonmediocre part of life.” (This was also a way for art and life to come together in an everyday circumstance.) The Situationists insisted that the spectacle was artificial, but the situation was authentic. Of course, there was a huge element of anarchism in the construction of situations since they weren’t authorized or planned with city permission; they were very much like guerrilla theater, except that the performers were ordinary people who happened on the situation as they made their ways through the streets of Paris. So while the Situationists were combatting the spectacle, they were also subverting the conventional passage of the city plan, a tactic we will see was called the dérive. Unlike the structures, both concrete and social, of the spectacle, the situations of SI were “ephemeral, without a future; passageways,” observed Debord. Additionally, if the situations had no future, they had no past, either. They were unconnected to the past or tradition or history—they were sui generis and had to be negotiated without reference to anything the encounterer had seen or done before. It required active participation; it was present and actual. This made those who passed through a situation, at least for the moment of the experience, “livers,” as Debord called them, instead of watchers or receivers.

As I noted earlier, when he was still leading the Lettrist International, Debord devised the activity he called the dérive, a concept of pyschogeography. (Psychogeography is another Situationist idea, fairly self-explanatory from its name, which I’m not going to discuss. One of the two other groups that amalgamated with LI to form SI was the London Psychogeographical Association.) This was another method of subverting the spectacle and of experiencing life without the control mechanisms of established society and it became one of the central principles of SI. The dérive (French for ‘drift’; from dériver, ‘to divert’) consists of wandering randomly through different parts of the city in order to absorb the life that is there and subvert the prescribed organization of architects and mapmakers to follow the wanderer’s own imagination. Ignoring the city planners’ intent that the plat force people to be more controlled and orderly, the dérive also subverts the established educational system. As laid out in the 1958 essay "Theory of the Dérive," Debord wrote, “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” (The descendants of the Spanish and Mexican settlers in the American southwest have a similar practice, though with a different motivation. They “go paseando,” wandering the countryside without apparent plan to experience whatever fate sends their way. From what I gather, the Australian native practice of going “walkabout” isn’t dissimilar, though I don’t believe either custom has the deliberately anarchic aspect that’s part of the dérive.) The pace of the dérive is leisurely so that the wanderer can absorb the atmosphere of the surroundings as she passes through. The point is to become aware of the different emotional response the stroller has to the environment in contrast to the predetermined way he might have reacted before when following the formal plat. (There seems to be a vague relation between the dérive and the more current pastime of parkour where the idea is to use radically alternative means to traverse an area, but parkour is a sport not a philosophical tactic and it requires speed and skill by the traceurs, while the dérive is unhurried and doesn’t demand athleticism to practice.)

The fourth important concept of Situationism is détournement, which allows artists to appropriate material created by others and redirect its purpose and meaning, like recaptioning a comic strip, in order to detach it from its usual cultural perspective and provide a kind of Brechtian distancing. (The word is French for ‘misappropriation,’ from détourner, ‘to circumvent’ or ‘deflect.’) It’s another method of making people reject the alienating environment to which they’ve become desensitized and oblivious and build new associations with the objects they encounter in their daily lives. A prime, if obvious, example are Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades” like his Fountain, a urinal he selected and mounted as a piece of art. (I always think of Woody Allen’s What's Up, Tiger Lily? as a light-hearted application of détournement.) The new work comments on the détourned work, usually as a way to negate its meaning or deride its importance, so the original piece must be generally familiar to the public. Variations of the tactic have become familiar in this country in politics, especially in attack ads, and advertising. (One immortal example was the phrase “Where’s the beef?” which was originally conceived in 1984 to sell hamburgers in the TV commercials for Wendy’s restaurant chain. In the 1984 Democratic presidential primary campaign, former Vice President Walter Mondale used the phrase to great effect against Senator Gary Hart as a comment on Hart’s lack of substance.) In détournement, the new work closely resembles the original one and may even be an exact duplicate with selected details changed or added, unlike a parody, which only alludes to the détourned original. Therefore, Duchamp’s Dadaist “Mona Lisa” poster, L.H.O.O.Q., can be seen as détournement, but Fernando Botero’s original painting of the same subject is not. Ironically, when SI became significantly involved in political causes after 1968 and unrelated leftist activists began to use Situationist tactics, adapting them for the new groups’ own purposes, SI itself became the victim of détournement.

As I hinted above, the Situationists weren’t without a sense of humor (which is what reminded me of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters). They made up their own games, usually to subvert the prescribed games society determines we should play. The Situationists were not trying to lead society anywhere, though; they were trying to break it. In 1958, for example, Debord and one of his SI colleagues published Mémoires, a book made up entirely of détourned elements. The text ran in all directions with sentences that broke off and passages superimposed on one another; connections among the quotations were never explained; the images, absconded from every conceivable source, seemed unrelated to each other or the text. As the ultimate gesture of disdain, the book was bound in a sandpaper cover so that it damaged the books next to which it was shelved. When Debord was still a member of Isou’s Lettrists, a group of younger adherents showed up at Notre Dame for Easter Mass, which was being televised across the country. One Lettrist, dressed as a priest, mounted the podium and addressed the congregants, announcing, “Brothers, God is dead,” and began calmly discussing the implications of that development for several minutes before the worshippers understood what had been happening.

Détournement had what perhaps was an unintended consequence. Because the Situationists (and their progenitors, the Lettrists) philosophically encouraged plagiarizing the artworks of others for the Situationists’ own purposes, virtually anyone could be an “artist.” This Situationist contention meant that art had no special value in Situationism above, say, advertising or sign-painting. The Situationists, who had begun as an aesthetic movement, mistrusted art, perceiving it as having been “co-opted” by the spectacle as a false image of beauty. By isolating the beautiful and spotlighting the positive, art, Situationists felt, enabled the spectacle to divert the public’s attention from the truth and the dishonesty that really surrounded them. Art, in the Situationists’ view, supplied the establishment the tools to maintain the spectacle. Debord saw that the forms of art had been adapted by advertising and marketing and used to sell consumers goods or propaganda. It is, after all, artists who make the images used in advertising and public relations. Even as avant-garde artists developed innovations and new techniques or tactics, the spectacle absorbed them and co-opted them. The Situationists pointed to the artists’ presence in museums and galleries, auctions, and academies as evidence of their participation in the spectacle. Genuine forms of “art” for the Situationists were the flyer and graffiti.

And despite the clear theatricality of the situations that were fundamental to Debord’s philosophy, SI had the same reservations and distrust of theater as it did of the other arts, using theories of both Brecht and Artraud to show how theater, too, had been taken over by the spectacle because conventional theater performances appeared to be real events but weren’t. It is what contemporary American playwright Mac Wellman calls the “non-event” in the theater which presents “the banality of the received idea, the time-honored, the enshrined, the ‘classical’”; it provides for a “manipulated response” that can be controlled by the establishment. The Situationists believed that Brecht and Artaud both wanted to destroy the theatrical spectacle. The Happening by the likes of Allan Kaprow and John Cage, on the other hand, was a non-repeatable performance in which the presentation was an actual event, with no pretense or artificiality. These were the theatrical models of the situations, not the plays of the Paris stages.

Ironically, perhaps, Debord engaged in another art form, closely allied to theater, which he diverted not just to Situationist purposes but to Situationist style: cinema. Debord began his fascination with movies when he was a boy in Cannes. He was allowed to do little, he’s said, but go to the movies, but he found them so boring that he often left in the middle. Then he joined the Lettrists just at the time that Isadore Isou was making films (and one contingent was entering into a campaign against moviemaker Charlie Chaplin). To the Lettrists and the Situationists, cinema was a principal agent of the spectacle, perhaps its strongest weapon, and stood for everything that the Lettrists and SI had to defeat. Debord made his first film for Isou in 1952, Howls in Favor of Sade, which “might be called an attempt to drive the film audience to screams by a sadistic deprivation of images.” The film is two imageless hours of either a completely black screen or a completely white screen over which is recited about 20 minutes of phrases from newspapers, the writings of James Joyce, the French code civil, and lines from the John Ford movie Rio Grande. I haven’t seen many of Debord’s films—they’re extremely hard to sit through—but I viewed a few when I was researching Situationism because they were so fundamental to Debord’s work. I can say that the ones I watched were much like Howls. Debord made several films, or anti-films as some critics characterized them, over his lifetime, and he had an influence on several contemporary movienmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard (who didn’t acknowledge the debt). According to Christopher Phillips, a senior editor of Art in America, Debord “actively explored a number of techniques—such as film flicker, the physical manipulation of the film surface and radical disjunctions of sound and image—that later became staples of European and American experimental cinema.” Three of his other five films are described by Phillips:

  • On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time (Sur un passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps), 1959, is the result of a compilation/collage technique . . . . The film combines footage collected from newsreels, film trailers and advertising clips with voice-over readings from pop sociology books and science-fiction novels.”
  • Critique of Separation (Critique de la séparation), 1961, provides . . . a critique of the documentary film genre. Using a rapid succession of readymade images—press photographs, comic strips and documentary film footage, for example—as well as voice-over citations, the film challenges the spectator to use these fragments to fashion a new, critical way of apprehending narrative cinema.”
  • “[In] The Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle), 1973, . . . [t]he soundtrack has Debord reading passages from the book as well as new material, along with quotations from Clausewitz, Machiavelli and Marx. The image track consists entirely of preexisting footage taken from a variety of sources: fashion commercials, Vietnam war newsreels, European film classics and Hollywood cowboy epics.”
Debord made two more films after the dissolution of SI, the first a 1975 commentary on the criticism of Society of the Spectacle. The last film Debord made, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (We Turn in the Night, Consumed by Fire), made in 1978, was largely autobiographical and has been called his most beautiful film. (The title is a famous Latin palindrome and riddle known as "the Devil's verse," but in girum imus can be translated as ‘we wander,’ possibly a reference to the dérive.) Debord starts by addressing the audience, telling them in quiet tones “I will make no concessions to the public in this film.” The camera then turns to the audience itself in a sense, showing images of moviegoers. Debord then talks about his life, setting himself forth as different from the audience, their opposite. The text, as with Debord’s other films, is interrupted by still photos and film clips mostly taken from existing sources (that is, détourned). Like all of Debord’s work, In girum imus is an indictment of a vulgar reality in which advertising imagery takes the place of authenticity.

Before his suicide, Debord made a video documentary called Son art et son temps (His Art and His Time) focusing on social issues in the 1990s. The darkly autobiographical film has been seen as a suicide note. It was completed by Brigitte Cornand, a documentarist, and aired as Guy Debord, son art, son temps on French television in January 1995. A commentary on television itself, Guy Debord uses images from familiar TV exploitations such as the Tiananmen Square face-off and a Columbian girl trapped in a mud slide.

Like psychogeography, Situationism includes a number of other concepts than the four I’ve outlined. In my understanding of the movement, however, these four are the most significant to the group’s philosophy and I’ll let interested readers follow up on the additional details of SI on their own. The main point of Situationism, it seems to me, is to reanimate people so that we live the lives we want to, not what artist David Wojnarowicz called the “pre-invented world” makes us want, and to see the spectacle for the artificial environment that it is. (I’m not suggesting that Wojnarowicz was a Situationist. Although I think a lot of what he did and said aligned with Situationism, I’ve never seen his name connected with SI, which disbanded when the artist was only about 18.) Anything that accomplishes that, that revolutionizes the public, is Situationist by definition. The Situationists contended that through authentic and radical works of art which defied prevailing societal beliefs, they could lay the groundwork for an upheaval in perspective that would launch a social and political transformation. To accomplish this, they couldn’t just stand back and criticize the way things were; they had to bring down the establishment from inside. According to the Situationist belief that any free act is revolutionary and superior to submission to the spectacle, even violence can be a legitimate expression of autonomy. (Hence Anouilh’s Medea as the heroine of her play.) Raoul Vaneigem, one of SI’s principal theoreticians, even saw the role of Situationism as the equivalent in the realm of ideas to the violent savagery of juvenile delinquents. (In this view, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, depicting a world so dehumanized that its citizens are programmed to behave acceptably through Skinnerian conditioning, can be seen as a Situationist film. In this dystopia, Kubrick suggested, the sole outlet for actual human action is violence, since it’s the only behavior a person remains free to select. Programmed behavior, the director said, is not truly human: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”; and Sartre wrote: “The most moving thing the theater can show is a character creating himself, the moment of choice.”)

In March 1968, a group of students at the Sorbonne began agitating for changes in the administration of the school. The activists occupied the administration building and the school authorities called the police. The resistance of the students spread beyond the campus and enveloped the entire city, first among other students and then to the labor movement which was reacting against the French communist control of the unions and the repressive regime of the De Gaul government. (Situationism, though fiercely anti-capitalist, wasn’t blind to the dishonesty and deception of the non-capitalist world. They saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as merely the replacement of one falsehood by another, which manipulated the public with its own form of the spectacle.) In May 1968, the unrest broke out into the largest general strike in the country’s history and “May ’68” became the term that meant leftist uprisings around the world, from Western Europe to Latin American to the United States—even though in each country, the causes and goals were different. Among the French student militants, Debord’s 1967 treatise, The Society of the Spectacle, became the exegesis of the discontents of the radicals that had triggered the events of May ’68. Early that month, several Situationists, including Debord, met with the Committee for the Occupation of the Sorbonne and issued a call for students and workers to organize to topple the Gaullist government. This was the first time in its history that SI gained national and even international prominence, their name and the names of their leaders appearing in the press and on the lips of both the radicals and the rightist opposition. Many Situationist slogans were spray-painted on the walls of Paris and became watchwords around the world for youth revolutions that never had any relationship to SI. Situationism became, in a sense, the chief philosophical cornerstone of the student uprisings. Debord, however, saw this prominence and the way that other groups had adapted Situationist tactics and slogans as evidence that SI had itself become part of the spectacle. The only way to defeat this, Debord concluded, was to dissolve SI, and after publishing one more issue of Internationale Situationniste in 1969, he disbanded SI in 1972. (It was also true that by that time, SI had expelled so many of its core members, including many of its founders and leaders, over factional disputes that there were only a handful left.) The Situationists’ influence in art, literature, and politics, however, continues even to today.

[In 1999, a theater troupe called the Rude Mechanicals (known as the Rude Mechs) of Austin, Texas, produced Lipstick Traces: A Second History of the 20th Century, a stage performance based on the 1989 book by Greil Marcus. The book, which focuses on the social upheavals of the 1960s, includes many connections to Debord and the Situationists. Lipstick Traces was performed in New York several times, most recently May 2001 (at the Foundry Theatre). Ben Brantley of the New York Times described the show as a “smart, spirited examination of punk rock and its antecedents.”]