PRINT September 1977

Richard Foreman’s “Book of Levers”

RICHARD FOREMAN’S LATEST PRODUCTION, Book of Splendors (II) Book of Levers: Action at a Distance is inarguably a theatrical production. Foreman labels his Ontological-Hysteric activities “theater.” Why, then, has he produced them mainly in the socioeconomic context of visual art, to the point of staging a miscellaneous piece at the Whitney Museum, reading at the Franklin Furnace Archive of Artists’ Books, and getting reviewed in art magazines? Foreman’s support, like that of many other avant-garde dramatists, musicians, dancers, writers, filmmakers and photographers, has come mostly from the world of visual arts rather than from the theatrical community. Why does the art-world support Foreman? Would theatrical support actually be more appropriate?

In fact it would not be. Although Foreman’s performance works are formulated more or less as are conventional stage plays, and although he has realized several works in traditional theatrical formats (including three musicals or operas and at least one successful staging of a music-theater work written and originally produced by others), Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric productions are informed at least as much, structurally as well as contextually, by the histories (and thus the traditions) of painting, music, fiction and cinema as they are by the history of live theater.

The spatial, chronological and thematic structures of Book of Splendors (II) Book of Levers: Action at a Distance demonstrate Foreman’s cross-disciplinary responsiveness. Book of Levers demonstrates this feature of his work even more clearly and effectively than most of the other plays in the Ontological-Hysteric cycle. Book of Levers is one of Foreman’s tightest and most gripping productions; it suffers from little of the temporal flabbiness that made previous pieces sag into ennui halfway through. Instead of bracketing a long period of spare, contemplative, somewhat dreary activity with frenetic opening and closing volleys, in Book of Levers Foreman alternates periods of high and low energy, explosions of passionate violence and Hellzapoppin’ wackiness constantly interrupting poignant, dreamlike passages.

That constant, rhythmic give-and-take between periods of high and low energy (analogous, perhaps, to principles of visual contrast like Hans Hofmann’s push-pull theory) is set within an overall trinary chronological framework, the exposition-development-recapitulation format that characterizes the symphonic tradition in music. This A-B-A, sonata-form structure was more explicit in the earlier Ontological-Hysteric productions, patterned as they were on a sequence of wildness-calmness-wildness. The sonata form is sensed in Book of Levers in the modified recurrence of certain single events, levels of activity, and the cumulative densities of otherwise isolated images.

Bonnie Marranca has designated Foreman’s work, along with that of Robert Wilson and the Mabou Mines group, as a “theater of images.” Indeed, the pungency of the visual—and verbal, and sonic—image is what propels Foreman’s plays through time and space to meaning. Elements of plot and dialogue cohere through the power of their dramatic impact rather than through narrative logic. In this dependency on events and aphorisms (many so memorable in themselves that Foreman devotees can quote or reenact them like Monty Python skits) Foreman’s theater hews close to visual art and literature of this century. In this respect Foreman also emulates the quick-take informality of cabaret performances and the cinematic tradition as well; not since Bertolt Brecht, perhaps, has anyone used jump-cutting on the live stage to such an extent.

The thinking that underlies Foreman’s stage sets and incorporation of props also bears at least a tangential relationship to visual art and to modern dance; and by extension this thinking also abuts that evident in French Surrealist and especially German Expressionist films. In the context of image-sequences, props become tools around and with which to structure gesture, both narratively and abstractly. Thus an actor holds a mirror before his or her face not only to indicate reflection or self-admiration, but to emphasize a spatial relationship, a line down an extended arm and out or through the mirror; or else a larger pane of round, clear glass is held up by one performer against another, supporting or framing the other. Even when “meaning” is overt in the props of Book of Levers—in the clothes rack, for example, which provides the focus for a whole manic discussion of undressing, or the ancient hooded camera with which someone voyeuristically appears at various times—the props themselves are treated at least as much like visual plumb-bobs as like signifying objects.

Foreman has removed the networks of string which mapped out the rigorous spatial definitions of his previous pieces and stressed the Brechtian removal of play from audience. Now the props and the set themselves determine the linear ordering, as if Oskar Schlemmer had taken over the stage after Piet Mondrian had laid down the guidelines. A catwalk, on which much of the action in Book of Levers occurs, runs the length of the stage-left wall. The rolling thrones, cabinets, and elevated platforms on which Foreman dotes issue on horizontal courses from stage right. Four pewlike corridors separating the audience from the proscenium, in which the characters run, pose, and struggle, echo this horizontal bias.

Having set up this dynamically constructivist grid-work of active passage, Foreman thwarts its precision with gleefully perverse touches. The stage floor recedes upward. Twin houses all the way upstage reach almost to the ceiling, their skewed perspective recalling the sets in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The rolling platforms are higher rather than lower the further upstage they are positioned. The actors leap over the corridor baffles below the proscenium like soldiers taking hurdles in basic training. And, as Foreman has trained the stage lights into the audience’s eyes, the deeper recesses of the cavernous stage—in which, as the subtitle indicates, a number of important events do occur—seem a smoky gray blur.

The sensate discomfort to which the audience is subjected, while never unbearable, is carefully maintained, important as it is to the sense of disorientation that underlies Ontological-Hysteric productions. In Book of Levers, however, Foreman has become at least aurally kinder. His characteristic loud bells, buzzers, raucous Dixieland, and other grating sounds still issue from the loudspeakers and act with Foreman’s own shouts of “Cue!” as signals for the shifts between image-events (or else as “false signals” which in effect illustrate a temporal grid against which the performers can be understood to be acting). But in Book of Levers these sounds alternate with softer ones: far-off gongs, quiet music, ticking—sounds at once poignant and ominous.

For all its structure-oriented abstractness, Book of Levers does contain, and does describe, a plot. Like other Ontological-Hysteric manifestations, Book of Levers concerns the interactions of specific personages—tribulations that might be described as Alice in Wonderland absurdities in which psychological impulse is exteriorized. The most noticeable subject matter is sex and the tensions which enmesh the principals in sexual communication. Foreman evidently views sex as a source of towering frustration. Happily, he seems to view this frustration, in its turn, as a source of sublimating ritual or some such kind of patterned behavior, the esthetics of which provide satisfaction if not release.

Foreman’s wise unwillingness to trust any but his own subjective viewpoint as the source of psychological and philosophical observation makes Book of Levers, in my comprehension, something of an essay on woman. Man, Foreman appears to demonstrate, operates on automatic impulses: his work and his sex drives. The male actors in Book of Levers are garbed in work smocks and at times grip long black phalluses in frenzies of group masturbation. Woman, however, embodies guilt and innocence (dressed in either white or black) and is thus saddled with the moral responsibility of choosing between the two. Unfortunately, neither choice is the “correct” one, at least not with regard to the best interests of herself or man. Both ways she seems damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t, trapped no matter what in an overwhelming vortex of—usually deflected—passion.

Illustrating this outlook is Rhoda, the female archetype throughout the Ontological-Hysteric series, who, in Book of Levers, achieves the status of main character. Max, the male archetype, has receded to a supporting role, even fusing with his erstwhile alter ego/nemesis Ben to produce a “Ben(Max)” of intense sexuality (modeled on Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable) and a “Max(Ben)” of sluggish dutifulness. Sophia, para-goddess of wisdom, is nowhere to be seen; instead, Rhoda has sprouted her own double, Hannah, a menacing and teasing figure who constantly challenges Rhoda to get tough. Another woman, Eleanor, also plagues Rhoda, less frequently and less vehemently but perhaps more cruelly. Rhoda, more than ever, is under constant siege; she is the object of Ben(Max)’s lust, to which she responds with confused ambivalence, and the object of Hannah’s and Eleanor’s nastiness—self-torment and/or other women’s jealousy—which she would much rather do without but which she needs to keep her on her toes. Those furtive, terror-laced glances that Kate Mannheim was always making in previous Ontological-Hysteric productions are now fully substantiated.

Given the identification of Mannheim with Rhoda in Foreman’s mind, in his audience’s, and perhaps in her own, it is only logical that the Ontological-Hysteric cycle has progressed to the point where Rhoda is the pivotal character. Mannheim is the only actress who has been continuously identified with Foreman, the only person who ever plays Rhoda in his (as opposed to others’) productions of his plays. Her body stiff, neck craned, and eyes opened wide, Mannheim exudes a constant air of melodramatic paranoia; that, combined with her awkward but intense sexuality, gives her the air of a silent-movie vamp playing a fear-crazed match girl. Similarly firm in their rendition of parodically simple, and thus contextually complex, personages are the supporting actors: John Erdman as the grim smoothie Ben(Max), Robert Schlee as an alternately determined and stupefied Max(Ben), Cynthia Pattison nonchalantly evil as Eleanor, and Peyton playing the knife-wielding bitch-woman Hannah. A cast of six male and female “drones” intercedes between these primary figures and the play’s array of props and devices.

These overstated, larger-than-life, old-time cinematic portrayals jibe perfectly with Foreman’s stylistic intentions. His work refers to, and often borrows from, sources of vernacular entertainment popular in the early 20th century—silent film, vaudeville, and dime-store detective novels. Foreman’s last collaboration with composer Stanley Silverman, Hotel for Criminals, was based on the novella-cum-movie of that title about the Parisian arch-villain Fantomas, and something of that slickly menacing ambience has found its way into Book of Levers. Foreman also seems to make references to culture heroes of the current avant-garde scene, including Lynda Benglis (at one point a nude Rhoda wields one of the long black phalluses) and even Robert Wilson (the railroad train image suggests the first scene of Einstein on the Beach).

Such similes as these last might be star-struck interpolation on a viewer’s part, but Foreman is sly enough to have slipped them in, and in any case the fabric of his work is rich enough to incorporate them seamlessly. Again, they demonstrate Foreman’s ability to address himself to multiple esthetic contexts. His Ontological-Hysteric works carry a theatrical shell, but to the continuing confusion and rage of traditional theatergoers and the delight of audiences from other disciplines, within the shell is a rich formal and referential amalgam of the several arts, visual art not least among them.

Peter Frank

The production will be performed at the Ontological Hysteric Theater, 491 Broadway, New York, from September 21 through October 16, 1977.