As soon as I get my lower lip, my two legs, and my right arm back in working order, I may be able to speak to you - or coney a message by typewriter - about the latest product of the Megan Terry - Tom O'Horgan - Cafe La Mama combine. It is called "Massachusetts Trust", it was improvisationally arrived at during six weeks of experiment at Brandeis University, and it opened as the piece de resistance, to considerable resistance, at the Brandeis Summer Festival 10 days ago. I should be in some sort of shape after 10 days.
You must understand that there was no violence involved. All of the evening's violence - or "vi-lence," as it is generally pronounced by Mr. O'Horgan's actors - took place on the stage. There, actors were seized, turned upside down, and had their heads inserted into other actors' crotches while loyally continuing their unavoidably garbled speeches, actors who may have been representing Men of the Mafia were shot down in cold catchup, and what seemed thousands of supernumeraries raced hotly up the aisles to assault a possible political candidate in a free-for-all that was really quite convincing. Where a melee is wanted, O'Horgan is your man.
The evening was roughly political, generally unintelligible, devoutly gymnastic. But it must be said that whenever the assorted acrobats left the stage to join those of us who were being responsibly attentive in the auditorium - this happened approximately every one and one-half minutes by my watch - they behaved with admirable discretion. They looked closely into our faces, demonstrating eyeball-to-eyeball contact, they crawled down the aisles clutching at us only occasionally, they offered us cookies - but they did nothing to account for my own eventually paralyzed condition.
The problems I have been having with lips, legs and formerly stout right arm are all problems of response. Obviously, we are meant to respond in some way, to the visual, aural, and physical inundation, to the fact that we are totally surrounded by blaring microphones, booming drums, performers dangling directly over our heads from swinging cranes, feet, feet, feet, forever. (All performers go barefoot, and are rarely upright, which means that dirty soles become our most familiar companions.)
Response, however, is not meant to be uniform. Text and staging are carefully uncohesive, rigorously fragmented, so that nothing - neither political comment nor abstract visual image - can come into the kind of focus that might bind an audience together. Massed eyes and ears in the auditorium are denied the definition that would make them see and hear the same things, with the result that each onlooker responds as he responds, and hang the fellow on the other side of the house. It's every nervous system for itself.
This is undoubtedly the intention of the creative spirits behind the enterprise. Engagement ought to be personal. For me, it became very personal. For instance, as a person, I am fond of hearing what is being said. This is mere habit, I know, and somewhat outmoded; but i leap for joy whenever a string of words escapes the cacophony in the general form of a sentence, or a thought. And I did leap when, the cross-sound having subsided for a moment, an actor was to be heard discussing how he'd been stretched out with a girl, happily sucking on her lower lip while she sucked on his upper lip.
Ah, I thought with relief, something tangible, something to cling to as a memory when all hell breaks loose again. Because all hell promptly broke loose again, I had little time to cherish this one little remnant of straightforward speech, of remembered life, and to think about it. That was my downfall. You can't chew on a girl's lower lip while she is nibbling on your upper. It's not possible. I began trying to imagine it in the theater and have been unable to pass a mirror without rehearsing it ever since, with the result that one of my lips - it is becoming harder to tell them apart - now looks as though it had barely survived the ministrations of a particularly unfeeling dentist. I report this simply because it may make Miss Terry and Mr. O'Horgan happy. They engage me.
My legs became engaged because I am accustomed to crossing them in the aisle. The principal advantage of being a reviewer with aisle seats has never been the proclaimed one of having easy, immediate access to the nearest exit; reviewers are people who sit through shows, and, after all, if you are firmly determined to get out of a theater you can get out no matter where you're sitting. The principal advantage is that you can lop one knee over the other and let a leg dangle in the lovely aisle.
Unfortunately, if the aisle is going to be occupied by racing, gyrating, tumbling bodies, you are going to have to get that one foot out of there in a hurry or run the risk of maiming an actor, which no decent man would wish to do.
Now it would be perfectly all right if the actors stayed in the aisles. You would adjust very quickly to the new state of affairs, tuck your knobby knees back where other people put them (pressed against the seat just ahead), and rest content. But Mr. O'Horgan's gymnastics are inconsistent in this respect, never making up their minds where they most want to be, and it's up onto the stage, down into the aisles, up, down, up, down, the whole night through. And since leg-crossing is by this time a reflex with me, I was thoughtlessly lopping and then frantically retracting until the nice lady sitting next to me began to look at me most peculiarly. I have had very little exercise lately and may possibly come out of the theater in better trim, though with a twitch. Whatever the upshot may be, and my legs are fairly steady now, I do have muscles that remember where they were that night. They know they were involved.
As for the matter of my right arm, the trouble came about this way. I was paying close attention to the stage, hoping to discover why one of the political parties involved was searching so assiduously for a "tiny-titted" candidate, when a performer who was crawling stealthily down the aisle reached out and put a hand on my arm, whether for solidarity or support I cannot say. He held it there quite a long time, so I assume this was yet another example of the Contact so many theatricalists are groping for these days.
Well, I didn't mind. He wasn't brutal or anything. Just one thing happened. I became terribly, terribly conscious of my right arm. I couldn't think of anything else. I couldn't think about the actor, or what he might be doing in relation to the play. I couldn't think about the play. I just thought about this thing that was mine, buzzing there all by itself, imprisoned, detached, improbable. I still look at it nights, when I'm alone. It has somehow left me, divorced itself from what used to ba an unthinking, unselfconscious unit. My arm has been isolated, and i wish it would relax and go back about its business.
I am sure that if I told Mr. O'Horgan about this, he would say fine - if the evening made me conscious, really conscious of anything, even my arm, it would have accomplished its purpose. The current avant-garde has a standard reply to everything that may be said about it, whether hostile or friendly. Raise an objection and that was the objection you were expected to make, supposed to make; the event brought you alive so that you could make it. This is rather a bottomless well, and it led to an incident at intermission time on the steps of the handsome circular building that houses Brandeis's three theaters. One theatergoer was proclaiming his dislike of Megan Terry's random text, which is politically a great deal less trenchant than, say, "Of Thee I Sing", and of the planned unintelligibility in the staging which kept him from being able to say just what he disliked about it. A gentleman connected with the production overheard him and immediately snapped, "Well, are you going to boo at the end?" The first man, trained to politeness in the auditorium, said no, he thought not. "Well, you should!" snapped his interrogator, "you're sitting here all evening, and you should do something!"
There is a certain logic to this; and in fact, there was a good bit of booing, mixed with a fairish applause, at final curtain. The difficulty with this bottomless-well position, the assertion that any response is the right response, is that it turns booing into victory, makes good and bad drama, good and bad performing, good and bad reaction, indistinguishable.
Pass that. The most curious sensation I had, listening to the split responses and paying some attention to my own constant distraction, was this: The more public the experimental theater tries to be the more private it becomes.
This is true, I think, even of Mr. O'Horgan's advancing romance with the public nude. Having shown nudes under gauze in "Tom Paine", and nudes dimly lit in "Hair" the director was honor-bound to show us nudes brightly lit in "Massachusetts Trust". That, or lose his franchise. And so he did. (Never mind what next, if he is not going to retreat; there is only one possibility.)
To what effect? The boy and girl in this instance had reasonably attractive bodies; so far from being visually offensive, the spectacle simply reminded us that the human body, before it runs to fat, is an admirable and pleasing sight. But normally when we look at it in public we look at it in paintings and statuary, where no contact is possible and contemplation can revel away without tension. The moment the flesh is real and contact theoretically possible, a natural tension crops up. In this case the tension begins, all right, particularly since contact has been so emphatically stressed all night long, only to be thrown back instantly because no true contact is possible. Theoretically speaking, the form rejects itself, denies the one thing it is pledged to, actually makes us more sharply aware of our own isolation. Instead of communion, taboo fills the air. Each member of the audience is instantly returned to his privacy, whatever that may be, and 700 spectators are made 700 alonenesses. The barriers are not down. they are more firmly up than in the actual lives we all lead. In some fundamental sense, a naked actor is a Stop sign.
Mr. O'Horgan's staging - whatever about Miss Terry's incomprehensible
and never witty text - seemed a bit neater than usual, possibly because
the company was uniformly dressed in all purpose whites, giving them a
faint Rockette air at times. The flexible and inviting Spingold stage
was as kind to the material as a house could be. An internal contradiction
remains unsolved: The reaching-out does not embrace, it causes the public
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