Theatre Journal
by Ross Wetzsteon
The Village Voice - March 6, 1969

NOTE: This article also reviews Joseph Chaikin's production of The Serpent, and is a comparison of that show and Hair.

Comparisons aren't necessarily odious, in fact they're one of the most important ways we learn - and if one attempts a comparison of two such superficially different plays as Hair (at the Biltmore) and The Serpent (at the Open Theatre loft), it is not just because Tom O'Horgan and Joseph Chaikin are probably the two most interesting directors in the American theatre, but because despite their obvious differences in style, tone, and conviction, the directorial vision of both plays is strikingly similar.

Three images dominate The Serpent, images deriving their power not from conventional theatrical confrontations of character but from one of the essential ingredients of the avant-garde theatre of our generation, the nearly metaphysical interdependence of bodies.

Early in the play, the members of the Open Theatre mime the three assassinations in the forms of which we experienced them - through the media, through film and television in particular, and in terms of of the discrete images these media involve.  President Kennedy's assassination, for example, is enacted as if in 12 movie frames; as an actor calls out the numbers one through 12, four actors, (the Kennedys and the Connollys) move abruptly, from one still ("one"), to the next ("two"), to the next ("three"), and so on, the rest of the cast applauding and waving from the sidewalk as if under a slow strobe, reacting to the shots two or three counts after the victims lurch in pain.  As in the media, as in our minds, all three assassinations are played over and over again, sometimes forward, sometimes backward ("one-two-three-four-three-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight..."), as we examine the frames one by one,  as we go over and over the tragedy - and, most moving, as we try to play the film backward, to reverse time, to travel into the past with Kennedy, back down that street, back out of Dallas, back to the airport, back to Washington, back to the time before the shots rang out on Dealey Plaza.  The fact that this conception isn't original with the Open Theatre doesn't detract from their enactment, for in none of the other reverse-time has the sense of interdependence of lives been so movingly evoked -  a series of Friezes, in each of which victim and witnesses and mourners are as carefully placed as in a Giotto fresco, in each of which the absence of the assassin doesn't imply the fragmentation of our society so much as the gratuitousness of the event, that gratuitous absurdity, affecting all of us equally, which is our modern, depersonalized, choiceless, equivalent of tragedy.

Later, when the serpent tempts Eve, Chaikin groups five actors so their heads seem to bob like nucleii in the center of their weaving limbs, their tongues lapping with lascivious suggestion in the middle of their distorted faces - a striking and original image not only invoking "many tongues," not only fusing the image of the serpent with that of the tree, but totally combining comedy, terror, carnality, and even a kind of spiritual greed.  Irony thus becomes immanent, horror fascinating, and knowledge sensual - for the temptation appeals not only to man's pride but to his lust for the unknown, and the fall from grace seems not so much a tragic ignobility as an ennobling tragedy, man having not only created suffering through sin but also having undertaken it through courage.  We are all involved in Eve's temptation, of course, for is her decision to eat the apple is a tragedy, still like all great tragic decisions of our cultural inheritance, it is one we willingly continue to invoke.

Finally, when Cain attempts to kill Abel, he learns that murder involves not so much the confrontation as the alliance of two bodies, for as he assaults his brother, attempting to tear off his limbs, to twist his neck, to crush his skull, he discovers with rising horror that Abel is not yet dead, that Abel's body continues to survive, only twitching now, in unconscious gasps and impulsive shudders, but still alive, still alive! - and in his panic, in his realization of the eternal, undeniable interdependence of Abel's body and his murderous intentions, Cain forgets his original motive, very nearly forgets his original motive, very nearly forgets himself and now desperately strives to kill Abel - and this is what becomes so horrible - for no other reason than that Abel is still alive, the most profound and terrifying image of murder I've ever seen in the theatre, and one in which, in their desperate unity, murderer and murdered become a kind of black and violent pieta.

In all three scenes, then, the images involve not a theatrical contrast but a ceremonial unity interconnecting relationships replacing drama confrontation, human archetypes replacing individualistic character.  The participants in this play, as is the case with most ceremonies, are both depersonalized and universalized, by which I mean that their humanity is honored to the degree that their personalities are ignored.

Rather than depending on a series of discrete, transcendent directorial images for its power, Hair seems to contain no parts at all, to consist of nothing but a flow of energy punctuated by explosions, and if it's dated, a little deceitful, and more than a little hoked up ("Hare Krishna" is turned into a production number), still Tom O'Horgan's conception of the plot of a musical as a storyless contrast of values rather than as a clothesline for songs, his conception os musical comedy vitality as giving the actors toys to play with rather than teaching them stunts to perform (allowing rather than choreographing their exuberance), makes his commercial work nearly as interesting as his more ambitious projects with the La Mama Troupe.  The put-ons of the first act (especially the song which begins "sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus," not advocating or flaunting perversions so much as comically exploiting the audience's aversions) seem to me much more fun than the didacticism of the second act, for the hippies, and their nudity in particular, are more effective when mocking our seriousness than when expressing their own.

O'Horgan is getting all the blame for the gimmicky excesses of "the new theatre" but little of the credit for its fluent physicality and disciplined spontaneity.  Those who use the word "O'Horganism" as a pejorative seem to me to mistake fluidity for sloppiness, imagistic intelligence for mindlessness, and evocative artifices for stage trickery, and while it could be argued that many so-called avant-garde devices are actually borrowed from the traditional theatre (swinging out over the audience on a rope is nothing more, really, than "the girl on the red velvet swing," and even the birth ritual in "Dionysus in '69" had its predecessor in a Broadway play called "The Last Analysis"), still O'Horgan has rejuvenated them, rediscovered their vitality, made them excitingly relevant rather than nostalgically mannered.  Furthermore, much of the action of Hair consists of stage games and acting exercises, which seems to me less self-indulgent than a provocative examination (in the vein of process art of our age) of the forms and imperatives and boundaries of the very art form in which he's working.  More important, O'Horgan didn't trick up Hair but found and expressed its essence, not its draft card plot but its exuberant life-style, its hostilities and evasions as well as its challenges and humor, its sense of communal life, of improvisatory values, of abandonment and decency, all grounded in the conviction, if not always in the follow-through, of the moral value of the physical life.  Behind the sensationalism and glib inventiveness of Hair is an astonishing amount  of aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and social experimentation, experimentation both bold and tentative, a combination which characterizes inquiry at its most serious.  And at its most serious, hippie life is a joyful musical comedy with a sad if not tragic ending.

I don't like those lists of O'Horgan's favorite "devices," lighting tricks and sound effects and anti-illusionist games and so on, because those who present them seem to think they're telling us what his theatre is like, overlooking the vision which animates and unifies them - a vision, I suspect, which is suprisingly like Chaikin's.  The first and most obvious connection between O'Horgan's and Chaikin's work would probably be in terms of the disciplined conjunction of bodies - over and over, in the work of both one sees stage images formed through a kind of visual kinetics: moving circles, Laoeoon writhings, chains and piles of bodies, leanings and fallings and carryings (Bob Pasolli, who suggested comparing these two plays, points out that the "walking in space" number in Hair closely resembles one of the Open Theatre's acting exercises).  On one level, this is direction by grouping rather than by contrast, acting through interdependence more than through interaction;  but more important, both O'Horgan and Chaikin seem to be involved in the ensemble work less for the effect of meshed performance than for the philosophical convictions it expresses.

Unlike most directors, neither O'Horgan nor Chaikin subsume their art to the demands of a playwright but seek to express their won conceptions of human nature;  they don't hire themselves out to illuminate the plays of others so much as seek out those dramatic structures that allow them to explore their own ideas;  what they are both looking for, I suspect, is a truth of human nature beyond the conventional individualistic behavioral patterns of learned gestures, enacted emotions, and bodily illustrations of spiritual needs.  Obviously the differ radically in many ways: emotionally, for instance, their work is poles apart, O'Horgan seeming to seek exuberant forms for turbulent feelings, Chaikin intuitive motions for subtle thoughts.  (O'Horgan's Eden would be far more lush than Chaikin's, Chaikin's hippies far more meditative than O'Horgan's.)  Nevertheless, I don't think it would be a mistake to argue that what they share is far more important, something which can be summed up in the remark of Norman O. Brown (and to the extent that it's true, what a revolution it requires in acting styles!) that "what we call 'character' is really a disorganization or malfunctioning of the body."

The sentimental sensualists in our theatre, of course, would regard this Brownian insight as indicating the need for little more than good muscle tone and regular sex, but the work of O'Horgan and Chaikin seeks far more than a mere "letting go."  The behavioral gestures of conventional acting ("character," "malfunctioning of the body") seem to be regarded as a kind of dialect or inflection distorting the language of truth, and the individualism of the traditional concept of personality as a deflection rather than an expression of our humanity.  In their theatre, on the other hand, the aim of a movement is not merely to illustrate a movement on a stage (the way the letters f-e-e-l-i-n-g transpose the emotion from reality to convention in order to communicate it through another medium) but rather to become the very form that feeling spontaneously and inevitably takes when it expresses itself in action.  More broadly, then, this theatre rejects the conventional Western dualism of body and soul, seeking out the ways in which healthy bodily " organization and functioning" (and thus, simultaneously, the subconscious, the spirit) expresses itself in a unity of impulse and language, in both gesture and thought.  Thus acting "with the body," or the physicalization of language," are not rejections of mind and language, as commonly argued, but rather the method of seeking the fusion of body and mind of the physical and spiritual, which writers like Brown argue is really our lost Eden.  (One of the weaknesses of The Serpent, incidentally, is that the Open Theatre doesn't seem to have thought out the implications of its apparent rejection of Western dualism in terms of its acceptance of the Adamic heritage.)

One should return to those lists of devices to indicate the many ways in which the conception of human nature influences acting styles (The Serpent, for instance, is improvisatory in conception, Hair in performance, in both cases not so much to honor the unique personalities of the performers as to allow everyone to learn from the unmediated, undeflected, non-individualized expression of what, for lack of a single word, I'll have to call "bodily emotions") - but what it means, essentially, is that both directors seem to be less interested in the differences between people as in their similarities, a fact which obviously involves significant alterations in traditional approaches to acting.

We've been too much conditioned to believe that what we share is demeaning (e.g., body functions), that the ways in which we differ are the ways we define our virtues (e.g., individual creativity).  But we've recently come to realize that we are all in danger, for the first time in history,  of dying the same death;  this renewed awareness of community, of  interdependence, has obviously had a profound influence on contemporary conceptions of human nature; and O'Horgan and Chaikin  are among the foremost of those trying to find artistic expressions of this new conception. seeking in their work archetypal patterns and shared impulses which we will value all the more, rather than less, once we realize they are held in common.  (Alan Watts has said that the most common things paradoxically, are often the most precious - eyesight, for example - and we all know that a caress can be as profound a gesture of love as a poem.)

In any case, ensemble work for these two directors ultimately involves a kind of democracy of the spirit, speaking to the common humanity more than to the unique personality in each of us - which may be why their work  is so inimicable (sic) to those rooted in the tradition of art as the expression of the aristocracy of the spirit, and which undoubtedly means that it's unfair to the people with whom they work so intimately to single them out for praise.  (While neither director goes as far as the Living Theatre or the Performance Group in directly involving the audience, both these plays begin with and end in the audience, as if both directors consciously intended to indicate that their work is speaking from rather than to us.)

In short, these directors are working not in terms of mere physicalization but are attempting to find that unity between the physical and the spiritual which will transcend traditional dualisms;  they are working not in ideas of mere ensemble acting but are attempting to find that unity between people which doesn't depend on traditional conceptions of individualism (the dualism of one).  So these two plays, like people, are unique, radically unique, and yet, like people, what they share is finally more important.

Did you know, but the way, that Hair was originally written for the Open Theatre?

Copyright The Village Voice.

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