PRINT September 2016


the Wooster Group’s Town Hall Affair

The Wooster Group, The Town Hall Affair, 2016. Performance view, the Performing Garage, New York, June 9, 2016. From left: Germaine Greer (Maura Tierney), Norman Mailer (Scott Shepherd), Norman Mailer (Ari Fliakos), Jill Johnston (Kate Valk). Photo: Paula Court.

WHAT EXACTLY IS The Town Hall Affair, an hour-long performance piece the Wooster Group staged this past May as a work-in-progress at the Performing Garage in SoHo? Is it a reconstruction of Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s 1979 feature Town Bloody Hall, which documented the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” presented April 30, 1971, at New York’s Town Hall by the Theatre for Ideas? Is it a deconstruction? A hall of mirrors? A stroll down memory lane?

Multiple iterations of a narrative (often jumping from medium to medium) tend toward myth. Such has been made of that archetype-populated April evening when Norman Mailer took the stage to defend his masculinist manifesto “The Prisoner of Sex,” which had just appeared in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, before a panel of four women (three of whom would publish accounts of the event) as well as a packed house.

Originally, Mailer had wanted to debate Kate Millett, author of the literary polemic Sexual Politics (1970) and bête noire of Mailer’s countercritique of feminism. Millett refused and so Mailer made do with the Australian feminist Germaine Greer, then on a book tour promoting her best-selling feminist analysis The Female Eunuch (1970). The panel was rounded out with Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of now; Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston, recently out as a lesbian; and New York intellectual dowager Diana Trilling.

Mailer, a regular participant in the Theatre for Ideas (a semiprivate intellectual salon founded by Shirley Broughton in 1961), set the format and engaged Pennebaker to document the show. After delivering an opening monologue playfully characterizing “The Prisoner of Sex” as “probably the most important single intellectual event of the last few years,” Mailer introduced each guest for a ten-minute talk, during which he can be observed idly playing with a paper cup, and followed each with his own analysis. As shown in the film, these can be brutal: Ceballos finishes her speech by demanding paid vacations for housewives, and Mailer wonders how this will alleviate the “profound boredom” of modern life; Greer’s rambling attack on the male artistic ego is dismissed as “diaper Marxism.”

But then Johnston, a lanky imp dressed in denim, delivers a poetic manifesto, filled with Steinian wordplay, declaring that “all women are lesbians except those who don’t know it.” Her contribution has nothing to do with Mailer, and she incurs his disapproval by exceeding the allotted time. Ordered to cede the microphone, Johnston waves two “lesberated” cronies onstage for a bout of canoodling so strenuous that the women collapse on the floor.

“Come on, Jill, be a lady!” Mailer plaintively scolds. Johnston splits in triumph, leaving the stage to a real lady, namely Trilling, who suggests that women’s liberation may be a new form of authoritarianism, upholds the validity of vaginal orgasm, and delivers a measured defense of Mailer’s book, which he then ungallantly accuses her of misreading. By now, the isolated volleys of hectoring from the audience have become a steady machine-gun chatter, overridden by Mailer’s occasional outbursts. (“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you harridans harangue me and say yes’m, yes’m!”)

Everything was part of the act. The Town Hall colloquium was a media event, reported in the New York Times and recounted in the Atlantic Monthly by V. S. Pritchett and Joyce Carol Oates. The Voice ran a front-page picture of Mailer and Greer seemingly poised to rub noses and published the full text of Johnston’s presentation plus two amused articles on the proceedings, by Rosalyn Drexler and Frederic Morton, the latter of whom noted the ubiquity of “tape recorders, movie cameras, flashbulbs, [and] press pencils ascribble.”

Pennebaker lit the auditorium as if it were a set and filmed the event as though it were a rock concert, focusing on the audience as well as on the performers onstage. (In his monograph on Pennebaker, Keith Beattie offers the surreal suggestion that the filmmaker saw the movie, edited in the late 1970s by Hegedus, as a “remake” of Nanook of the North with Mailer as Nanook.) To add to the craziness, a BBC crew filming Greer’s American tour was also on hand.

For most of The Town Hall Affair, the Wooster Group sticks to the original script and maintains the event’s panel-discussion mise-en-scène. As the evening was largely defined by role-playing, so The Town Hall Affair generates considerable meaning through director Elizabeth LeCompte’s casting. The part of Norman Mailer is assumed by two actors, Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd. Rather than doubling his authority, their tag-team alternation has the effect of diminishing it. Mailer is transformed into a generic male voice while Diana Trilling is rendered additionally ridiculous for being played by Greg Mehrten in unconvincing drag.

New girl in town and freshly minted celebrity that she was, Germaine Greer is enacted by a guest performer, Maura Tierney, who, if not a household name, is a familiar face (having played Nurse Abby for ten seasons on E.R.). But the real star is made instantly apparent when, vamping and mugging in a long red wig, shades, and denim pantsuit, Jill Johnston, hilariously impersonated by Kate Valk, appears, mouth agape with incredulous self-enjoyment. Writing in the Voice back in 1971, Morton had described Johnston as “Carol Burnett playing Joan of Arc in some weird Preston Sturges film”; apt as that characterization may be, it barely does Valk’s performance justice.

Shown on multiple monitors positioned behind The Town Hall Affair’s seated actor-panelists, Town Bloody Hall functions as a footnote to the Wooster Group’s antics, furnishing reaction shots and occasional crowd noise. But it is also part of the show: As with the group’s 2006 re-creation of the 1964 “Theatrofilm” of Richard Burton’s Broadway turn as Hamlet, the players speak in uncanny sync with their on-screen counterparts.

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the disorder of the evening,” Trilling later wrote, “the raucousness, the extreme of polemic, invective, obscenity.” As LeCompte productions must, The Town Hall Affair features a second-act freak-out, here based on an even more drastic instance of Mailer playing Mailer. The source is the writer’s third, and most grandiose, feature film, Maidstone (1970), a full-fledged psychodrama (also shot by Pennebaker) in which Mailer appears as movie director Norman T. Kingsley, who is contemplating a run for president but fearful of being assassinated. In The Town Hall Affair, Fliakos plays Norman; Shepherd plays a stand-in for Rip Torn, who unexpectedly attacked Mailer with a hammer in Maidstone’s last scene.

As rowdy and ridiculous and filled with gender cartoons as they were, the events of April 30, 1971, might have provided great material for a farceur like Jackie Curtis or the diva Viva. But, of course, nobody from that demimonde was in the audience. As only Drexler had the wit to note, the evening’s other “very ‘hot’ ticket” was the opening of Andy Warhol’s Whitney retrospective.

The Town Hall Affair isn’t the first stage production to be derived from Town Bloody Hall. The middle part of Nic Green’s Trilogy, first staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009, was inspired by and incorporated footage from the documentary; on November 4, 2013, former V-Girl Jessica Peri Chalmers staged a reenactment of Town Bloody Hall at Columbia College in Chicago. Not having seen these productions, I don’t know if they rehash the time-bound ideological quarrel between Mailer and Greer or that between Greer and Trilling.

The Town Hall Affair examines neither. Rather, in its rambunctious, self-reflexive way, LeCompte’s production restores the drama of narcissistic self-dramatization. At one point, the principals all sing the Elvis ballad “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” as if addressing themselves in the mirror. Rather than merely stage a nostalgic revisitation of the early ’70s, the Wooster Group salutes Johnston as a forerunner—a performance artist avant la lettre. It is she who opens and closes The Town Hall Affair. (Indeed, the show’s title is taken from her account of the evening.)

That a letter defending Vito Acconci’s Untitled Project for Pier 17 (which involved the artist famously revealing disturbing secrets about himself to anyone who approached him on an abandoned Manhattan pier) was published in the same issue of the Village Voice as readers’ responses to Johnston’s intervention reminds us that the spring of 1971 was also the spring of performance art. (Trisha Brown’s iconic Roof Piece postdates the Town Hall event by less than two weeks.) Johnston was not only representing what she came to call the Lesbian Nation but the new psychodrama that had only recently arisen in the lofts and streets of SoHo. She had taken it upon herself to infuse the Theatre for Ideas with the idea of theater.

Two years before, the Theatre for Ideas had precipitated an even greater debacle by inviting Julian Beck and Judith Malina, founders of the Living Theatre, to participate in a symposium titled “Theater or Therapy?” Within half an hour the event “broke down into chaos,” the New York Times reported. Members of the Living Theatre ridiculed speakers and disrupted the discussion, shouting out lines from their notorious provocation Paradise Now and parading around without their shirts.

At one point, Mailer rose out of the audience and, speaking in a heavy Southern accent, compared the evening to “the French Revolution.” According to John Tytell’s history of the Living Theatre, Mailer was promptly propositioned by the actor James Tiroff, “dressed in velvet, with black glasses, violet plumes, and an orange cape.” Too bad no one was on hand to film that. It might have been the stuff of myth . . . but now it’s only a legend.

The Wooster Group will perform The Town Hall Affair at deSingel Internationale Kunstcampus in Antwerp, Belgium, September 21–24, and at the Centre Pompidou, as part of the Festival d’Automne à Paris, October 6–8.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Read a June 2014 review by Melissa Anderson of Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall.