New York

Richard Foreman and John Zorn

Ontological-Hysteric Theater

I first became aware of the work of Richard Foreman and his Ontological-Hysteric Theater thanks to a review of Rhoda in Potatoland in 1975. My recollection is misty but I think it was an assertion to the effect that Foreman was to Heidegger as Brecht to Marx that caught my fancy—not that I’d read Heidegger or even Marx then, but the names meant something to me. My first direct contact was with Book of Splendors, Part Two, two years later—though in the meantime I had seen the production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera that Foreman directed for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976. By now, I don’t see his works so much as individual, self-contained entities but as installments in the ongoing saga of how Richard Foreman thinks and feels about thinking and feeling, closer to one of those endless open-field poems like Ezra Pound’s Cantos than to anything else I know of in the theater. As if to prove the essentially inchoate and in-process nature of his art, Foreman recently began posting on his website masses of the daily notations from which he has long sculpted the texts of his productions, inviting others to use them as raw material for their own.

Although he gave one piece from 1987 the title Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good, Foreman has said for some years that his work in the theater is coming to an end and that his real interest now is in film and video. So far, the main result has been that his theater work has increasingly incorporated projected imagery. But in a public Q&A that took place following the performance I saw of his latest production, Astronome: A Night at the Opera, 2009, a collaboration with composer John Zorn, Foreman insisted that he was through with the stage, that after some forty years of making what he considers mature work it no longer motivates him, and that in the future his work will occur solely in the medium of the moving image.

With that in mind, one is tempted to see Astronome (which eschews film) as a sort of summing up, and this despite Foreman’s assertion, in the same dialogue, that he does not consider it a work of his own, but simply his staging of Zorn’s music—an extraordinary and rather exhausting three-movement assault of what I can only call heavy-metal jazz, led by the wordless vocal pyrotechnics of Mike Patton. And certainly if what makes a work Foreman’s is its text, then Astronome is hardly Foreman’s, because it has hardly any text. Most of what the seven actors (of whom the most memorable is surely the large green man with a feather headdress and padded belly) do is silently mime to the prerecorded score. And yet for all that, this really did seem like the quintessence of Foreman—because for all his interest in ideas (he mentioned he’s been reading Badiou of late), his is not really an intellectual theater but an intensely physical one built out of coded gestures, like silent film. Actors suddenly falling to the floor; an alternation between static tableaux and moments of frantic movement; the tension between the exaggerated and mechanical onstage response to a deafening noise and the imperturbability required of the audience: That’s what Foreman is about. Primal feelings of aggressiveness and vulnerability and their formalization and distancing are the substance of his theater; language is always only trying to keep up. In Astronome, Zorn’s music incessantly drives the actions onward but in no way explains them. The actions manifest an obsession that breaks free of all verbal elucidation. In their alienation is their beauty.

Barry Schwabsky