Richard Foreman Does Not Create His Own World

Richard Foreman edited by Gerald RabkinPARADISE HOTEL AND OTHER PLAYS
Richard Foreman
The Overlook Press ($29.95)

edited by Gerald Rabkin
Johns Hopkins University Press ($19.95)

by Aaron Kunin

The subject says to the object: "I destroyed you," and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: "Hullo object!" "I destroyed you." "I love you." "You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you." "While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy."
--D.W. Winnicott

Richard Foreman writes, designs, and directs plays; he also writes polemical essays and gives interviews about the plays. Some of the results of this activity, which includes nearly every avenue for the production and reception of his work except for onstage performance (a point to which I shall return shortly), are collected in two new books: Paradise Hotel and Other Plays, which consists of texts and brief production notes for plays produced at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in the late nineties; and the retrospective anthology Richard Foreman, edited by Gerald Rabkin, which includes Foreman's interviews, essays, and program notes, as well as critical essays and notices by theater historians, academic critics, and journalists.

Maybe the publication of a book is not as significant an occasion for assessing Foreman's career as the production of a new play. But the history of theater will ultimately be written by people whose relation to theater is primarily text-based. And, too, Foreman, who says that "the real subject of theater is death" as long as plays are enacted in accordance with a predetermined script, insists he's primarily a writer ("my writing pushes further ahead, faster, in terms of stylistic, aesthetic adventure, than does my staging"), and that the basic model for his theater is reading. In other words, the performances are supposed to bring out the text, clarify it, as much as possible; in a sense, they're conceived as external and anterior to another event that they're supposed to document: Foreman writing in his notebook.

For example: in the 1974 play Rhoda in Potatoland, a crew person "resembling Richard Foreman" comes onstage and asks Rhoda, played by Kate Manheim, if she is "the famous Richard Foreman." Rhoda: "Yes." Crew person: "It's an honor to meet you." One thing this moment suggests is that the character played by Kate Manheim is standing in for Richard Foreman as a kind of surrogate writer/director/designer. Since Kate Manheim performs as Rhoda in nearly all the plays from the early seventies, a period that Rabkin calls the "middle period" in the history of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater but which could just as easily be called the "Rhoda period," it seems possible that that character is generally available to stand in for Foreman. Or one might read this moment not as a statement of surrogate authorship but more simply as a statement of authorship: Kate Manheim is the writer/director/designer and therefore deserves to be addressed as "Richard Foreman."

I'm just stating the obvious. What's surprising is that Rabkin, who writes about this moment in the introduction to the anthology Richard Foreman, doesn't see it. Instead, he uses this moment to make the much less obvious point that Foreman and Manheim are opposed figures: "If she possesses a weighty antagonist, it is Foreman himself, present through the sepulchral tones of his taped voice or his invisible hands on the audio controls." She is the "physical presence" that his "philosophic mind could not ignore"; he is the subject, she is the object; he is the experimenting agent, she is the patient who's there to be "harassed and tormented." Richard Schechner's essay on Rhoda in Potatoland, which appears later in the collection, makes the same non-obvious point in a more extreme form: "The sexual struggle in Foreman's plays . . . is the male's illusion that he can transform the woman into something like himself by imposing on her the strictures of literature." Here, then, is one reason why Schechner (and perhaps Rabkin) can't see Rhoda as author: because he thinks that Foreman could not possibly identify across genders with a character played by a woman. For Schechner, a crude sexual politics in which "man" and "woman" are elemental categories has the status of the obvious, while the idea of cross-gender identification has the status of "illusion."

Another reason why none of the critics in the Rabkin anthology sees this reading is that Foreman doesn't seem to see it either. Consider a moment in one of the "chamber plays" from the eighties in which Manheim, playing the character identified in the stage directions as "Kate" (but in the main text usually called "Paula"), addresses a speech to a voodoo doll: "You say ‘trivial' and a word lights up on a distant mountain." Again, it's a suggestive moment, and it clearly shows, among other things, that Manheim is acting as an author-surrogate: like the director of a play, she's manipulating the speech and movements of a human figure (the doll). Foreman, in a note, draws out practically every implication of this scene except for the obvious one: "As Kate delivered the speech, aspects of the character's relation to working people, including the fact that she had never been forced to do meaningless work to make a living, seemed to crystallize . . . It's also true, however, that Kate herself had worked at various menial jobs when she was younger . . . my idea was that by holding the doll and half talking to it, the doll would stand in for a side of herself she had never encountered, so she was actually talking to her own fear." Foreman seems to undergo a failure of imagination somewhere beyond normative sexual politics; his brilliant self-critique, which is almost as good as the play (one way of expressing the difference: the critique is on the side of the rational, the play isn't), is attentive to the play's complex arrangement of subject-object positions except in this one respect, where it's totally blind.

It's no accident that the critics in Rabkin's anthology are blind in exactly the same place. This is probably because they're taking their cues from Foreman, who has been unusually successful in his efforts to control—or direct—the reception of his work. In this sense, all of the critics could answer "yes" to the question: "Aren't you the famous Richard Foreman?" Some of them may approve or disapprove of various strategies and effects in the plays, but all of them are fundamentally sympathetic to Foreman in the sense that they unquestioningly accept his statements about himself. (One exception to this rule would be Jalal Toufic, who unfortunately is not represented in the Rabkin anthology; his letter to Richard Foreman, published in Over-Sensitivity, is at once attentive and unsympathetic, and offers a much more radical interpretation of the Rhoda character than the one I suggest above.)

You might even say that the critics who disapprove are the more sympathetic group, if their disapproval is registering the increasing anti-theatricality of the recent plays. The Ontological-Hysteric Theater seems to have become the only kind of theater that Foreman likes, and he doesn't seem to like that particularly either. "I've reached a point," Foreman tells Elizabeth LeCompte, "where I'm not sure I could give up writing. But I could give up directing, I think." This anti-theatrical tendency is amply documented in Paradise Hotel and Other Plays. The opening line of Pearls for Pigs: "I hate the actors who appear in this play." Next line: "What I hate is the play." Paradise Hotel itself opens with the announcement that the play has been replaced by "a much more disturbing, and possibly illegal, play entitled—'Hotel Fuck'!," which is similarly in danger of degenerating into a "much LESS provocatively titled play, entitled ‘Hotel Beautiful Roses.'" ("Oh my God, that DOES sound like a boring play!" a character later exclaims.)

The new plays also amply document, despite the lack of any encouragement from Foreman or his critics, a sophisticated analysis of sexual politics. When, in Paradise Hotel, Giza enters in full Louis XIV style, bearing before him "a big black-and-gold striped dildo," it's obvious that we're seeing some kind of projected idealization of Foreman's body-image, but it's equally obvious that we're seeing an idealized erotic object whose visible sign of sexual differentiation is not only detachable but actually detached and worn by some of the women who appear in the play. (Let's not forget that one of Foreman's privileged antecedents is Jack Smith, who made the cinematic "Scheherezade party" Flaming Creatures.) Or, to take a less outrageous example, the actor David Greenspan, who appears in drag as the character "Madame" in Benita Canova, is a likely author-surrogate (especially because Greenspan is also a playwright and director); and so is the protagonist Benita, who tends to speak of herself in the third person and whose gaze, like the "Rhoda stare," has uncanny effects on those who encounter it.

I'm concentrating on a blind spot in Foreman's self-critique partly out of a desire to see his work from outside. But my way of doing this—using Foreman against Foreman—is ultimately sympathetic. (Am I the famous Richard Foreman? "Yes.") My point, which is also Foreman's point, is that subject and object are never static positions. Foreman knows that every object we encounter comes with a set of instructions detailing the intended uses of the object and, sometimes, penalties for improper uses. ("I am a lamp. I go on. I go off. Don't try to do anything with me that you should not do with a lamp.") He also knows that the instruction manual is far from complete. ("I am a lamp. But I can also be a projectile that you hurl at your enemy. I could also be something that you can lay on its side and put ketchup on and try tasting to see if it tastes good.") And he knows that people come with similar, albeit longer, instructions. But Foreman, who is something of a materialist monist, doesn't recognize any strong distinction between people and objects, or, for that matter, between mind and body. You can say that Giza's Louis XIV get-up is an objective correlative of his self-image, but that's really a false distinction if, as Foreman says elsewhere, "it's the same material, head and sky."

If that's true, then there's no real difference between what's inside the plays and what's outside. This insight may explain Foreman's reluctance to participate fully as a performer in his plays; it may also explain the persistent recurrence of the "world of art" metaphor in his statements about theater, a metaphor that traditionally subtends a realist-illusionist aesthetic. It's possible that Foreman can't fully appear onstage because he respects a division between the real world and the world of the theater. Thus, he can appear onstage only as a recorded voice, as a film or video image, or through versions of himself played by actors; or, if he does physically appear onstage, the name "Richard Foreman" must be given to someone else. But maybe the explanation for these restrictions on Foreman's representation of himself is precisely that he doesn't appreciate a distinction between art and reality, or that he's waiting for that false distinction to evaporate. Maybe he's waiting to go onstage when there's no longer any division between onstage and offstage. Maybe that's what he means when he says "I have absolutely no goals anymore, except maybe to get out of the theater."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001