PRINT October 1997

Richard Foreman

My first exposure to Jack Smith was Flaming Creatures, which I remember seeing more than a dozen times in a row. It was an overwhelming experience, one of unfathomable mystery and emotionally delirious “otherness.” Opening one’s eyes to its faded, “pasty,” incredibly unplaceable beauties was to experience the radiance of angels—not the fallen type, but the real and inexplicable “nonhuman” kind—a blinding white acid that bleached the film emulsion as it passed through a mere camera. (The stock Jack used was outdated, but the “bleached out” results were nothing less than pure illuminations of grace—accidents that occur only to those who position themselves at the exact pivot point where accident turns into revelation.)

In his films and performances, Jack twisted each new moment of frustration into the baroque complex of a torture machine that, step by step, made consciousness more and more alive, as long as the audience could keep awake to the fact that what was happening before them was the purposeful induction of everything that could interfere with the success of the project. Each tiny, torturous step toward ever-renewed catastrophe added one more revelatory crack in the walls of the art prison confining all us art lovers so that the totally cracked Jack Smith could blind us with the light of something else—the lurch toward paradise that begins the workings of all the art machines that then inevitably build nothing but their own beautiful coffins for consciousness . . .

I think of it like this. I am very young, it’s my first experience at the theater. The orchestra starts playing and the footlights glow on the tapestry-like front curtain. That glow of footlights—that anticipation—the intricate tapestry, rising from the warm footlights into the upper blackness of full potentiality. Then the curtain is rising, there’s color and light and feet first, then legs and whole bodies with faces painted in makeup, and—for just a moment—it is magic and total otherness. But invariably, a few minutes into the play, something goes wrong in the relation between my spectator’s consciousness and the spectacle onstage. The scenery wears out, the paint on the drops and flats begins to look chalky and awful, the actors start to sweat. You wonder why they don’t notice you watching, why their gaze seems distracted. And soon you jump to thinking about them outside the play, and a tone of voice rings a little false, and you realize, “Oh no, this is all wrong, the magic is falling apart!” But you suppress that cry of anguish and replace it with a tiny bit of boredom and/or deadness of consciousness and you continue along your bumpy ride.

But Jack Smith, director, leading actor, was the only true theater revolutionary I know about, and before you could think even a glimmer of “Oh no, this is awful,” Jack would beat you to the punch. And in his nasal, cracked voice, he’d start complaining and changing the costume of one of his coactors as a piece of scenery fell over; he’d stop to visibly struggle with that inside his head, but everything would be so slow and deliberate and “tasted” by the high panic of his aesthetic consciousness that every moment the stage began to glow with total potential, just like that singular moment before the curtain rose. Somehow Jack immersed you, the audience, in what theater truly was—alive inside your anticipatory excitement—before it turned into the dead thing of a “job well done.” A job well done, even magnificently done, may give you a feeling or two, but what it can’t give you is the radiant “noticing” in the midst of unavoidable life as a thing “always badly done” (which life always is) that was the ravishing center of Jack’s revolutionary art.

Richard Foreman is a theater director based in New York.