If one is to stand in opposition to the middling masquerade that is Princeton culture, to scowl openly at every meaty guffaw or celebratory chant, then one would hope to rest confidently on a wealth of personal depth. It is far more appealing, and far more interesting, to be a crusader for an idea than a reactionary critic. The tenor of Princeton life, that sea of screams, transforms many of us immediately into flag-bearers of the counterculture. Yet if we stand opposed to the world that surrounds us, what precisely do we stand for? Defining oneself wholly in opposition to external displays of shallowness can leave one feeling, well, shallow.
At least this is how I have been feeling. I decided to recharge my batteries by getting in touch with the counterculture, that movement or group of which I am, I suppose, a representative. Like any journalist of integrity I installed myself in the subversive youth culture as covertly as possible: I went to a play.
The playwright Richard Foreman, for decades now the resident expert of madness and delirium, has written a play called “Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind is Dead!” Foreman has his own theater, called the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, in which he puts on roughly one, if not two plays per year. Other recent plays include “The Gods are Pounding On My Head!” “Panic! (How to be Happy)” and “Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty.” Richard Foreman, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Brown, has received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship and a PEN Club Master American Dramatist Award. The Hysteric-Ontological Theater is located in the Lower East Side’s Saint Mark’s Church, a run-down building that is still frequented mostly by homeless men, derelicts and nogoodnicks. If ever there was an opportunity for some subversive, substantive, mind-altering theater, this was it.
I got to the theater early. Outside the door, a homeless man was selling necklaces he had made out of beads. To get to the theater door, one has to walk around the side of the church along a stone pathway that cuts through a small cemetery. The headstones were leaning one against the other, like homeless men napping on each other’s shoulders. I walked up the old wooden steps to the waiting area outside the small stage. There was one bench across from the door, and seated in a neat row were three strikingly beautiful women, dressed to the nines, hair straightened and pulled back, lips apuff. This is always a bad sign when searching for the core meaning of a subversive counterculture. One should look for dreadlocks, lazy eyes and fingers twitching and bloodied. Women should be androgynous and pierced, the men drunk. I felt a twinge of skepticism, which was only confirmed by the show’s program.
Always beware a statement of mission. When attending a Richard Foreman show, one cannot possibly miss the grandiose declarations of alternative, subversive artistic intent. A flyer within the program informed me that I had been brainwashed by linear plot and coherent characterization. Those preconceived comforts, so thoughtlessly consumed, were about to be shattered! Torn to bits! In bold letters, Foreman described the play that I was about to experience as “FASCINATING!” Thank God. And I was starting to worry that I had wasted my money.
They oversold the show, and I had to sit on a cushion on the floor. In a way, I was like the alternative member of an alternative audience at an alternative show. It was deliriously empowering. The theater was small, no bigger than my common room, and the set was well executed. The theme was a black and white chessboard, with doll heads and patches of red interspersed throughout. Newspaper clippings covered the back and side walls, and a large model airplane hung from the ceiling, the cockpit filled to bursting with dolls. Two screens hung along the back and left wall of the stage, and throughout the play film clips were projected onto both of the screens simultaneously. Foreman himself came out at the beginning of the play and told us to turn our cell phones off. The tone of his voice and his familiarity with the audience implied that he attended all of his shows, that the theater was his bedroom and the play his private property. This is very warming, and as the show began I noticed that he took a seat in the audience.
Very recently, Foreman has incorporated elements of film into his plays. In “Wake Up…,” the action on stage was interspersed with clips of Portuguese actors repeating phrases continuously. The most often repeated (and by far the best) line of the show, is spoken by various actors in a broken, Portuguese dialect: “Maybe it will happen in my lifetime.” Onstage, five actors lurch about in near silence, as a pastiche of broken phrases come through the speakers:
—Tick tock. It is broken and cannot be fixed.
—The invention of the Aeroplane, a critical blow to the unconscious.
—Oh where, oh where has the unconscious mind gone?
The actors onstage scribble furiously on blackboards, prostrate themselves, cover their heads in red lampshades and rip newspapers. The actions, like the lines, are repeated again and again, while occasionally bright lights flash in the face of the audience.
What is the conscious mind to make of such a muddle? Foreman, in his declarative program, informs us that the play is a remake of one that he saw on an alien planet when he was recently abducted. Indeed there are frequent references to behavior specific to the planet, repeated through the speakers by an altered female voice. Yet this is a paltry shadow of a notion that flitters by along with the rest of the garbled lines and exclamations. Clearly, Foreman is trying to write a play that appeals directly to our subconscious, and in so doing, I believe, makes a serious mistake.
The subconscious was the savior of the twentieth century, as far as art is concerned. Interacting with the subconscious mind, explicating the subconscious mind and certainly tapping directly into the subconscious mind was the concern of everyone from the Dadaists to the Post-painterly abstractionists, from Picasso to Pippi Peancereau (who I made up). That there are forces beneath our conscious decisions, that we as individuals are actually sitting on broiling volcanoes of inaccessible thoughtstuff, is an idea as attractive as delicious icing to an artist. Yet after we have walked past an enormous Pollock, clutching a copy of Beckett to our chest, we of the twenty-first century have come to suspect that the subconscious, as an idea, might be a bit thin. There is certainly space beyond our measly conscious, but it is limiting to demarcate this beyond as an area, a “subconscious” that can be probed, explored, and even discussed. It seems insulting, at this point, to brave a conquest of what is so unknown as to be, dare I say it, sacred. The artist is indeed pointed out at this beyond, and his work, if it is successful, is a form of worship. To presume either to wake it up or declare it dead, as Foreman does, is sheer hubris. And as a result his play is absolutely meaningless.
As a mere showpiece, the play reveals its true self, and the truth is grim for anybody searching for the substantively subversive. The black and white and red velvet that forms the aesthetic of the play (and the play is naught but aesthetic) is the banner for the punk movement that is centered in the neighborhood that surrounds the church. Saint Mark’s, and much of the surrounding area of the Lower East Side, was once a playground for raging young kids wearing torn leather and studs. These rebels would drink malt liquor and sleep in squats, they would howl at cab drivers and tell the tourists to fuck off back to New Jersey. Most of these young punks were from New Jersey themselves. But they were tough, so I hear.
There are still such kids in the area. Some of them have tattoos, to be sure, but their complexions are much clearer, and when they glance at you it is with half-veiled embarrassment or tepid curiosity. Teenagers walk into stores like “Trash and Vaudeville,” which advertises bondage masks and cock rings, and pay for torn jeans with their parent’s credit cards. Sometimes the parents come with them to fund their anarchic extremism directly. These kids then, presumably, thank their parents before telling them to fuck off back to New Jersey. Then these kids drink malt liquor. Then they go to a Richard Foreman show.
I felt like such a dupe. Here I was searching for some kind of organization, ideally some underground of frustrated politicos smoking cigars and listening to Chavez on broadband radios. I wanted to find the local chapter of the International Subversive and report in on how I was holding things down on Princeton Campus. “Don’t worry,” I would have told them, “I keep those kids in line. I scowl like crazy.” Instead I had paid good money to watch Disney Presents the Avant-Garde, and let me tell you I was crushed.
It was a frustrating first step in my search. But do not fear, dear reader, for I did find El Dorado. My next article will concern my trip to the Anthology Film Archive, where thoughts are bubbling like a volcanic subconscious.