One of the revolutions theorized in a new Theatre of Revolt must be a revolution not only in society or politics, but also in the realm of consciousness: in the perspective from which one sees the world and approaches the material from which one constructs it. Richard Foreman (b. 1937), in this sense, must be among most radical of the eight dramatists I’m considering here. Since 1968 and the foundation of his Ontological-Hysteric Theater (which closed its doors a few years ago), Foreman’s project has been to take Brecht’s efforts to contemplate and reconsider conventional perceptions of reality and, utilizing may of the same estranging techniques, transform them into metaphysical speculations about how to interpret and engage with the world. If Brecht hoped to undermine capitalism and fascism, Foreman undermines the given structure of the world itself in a liberating project to see it — and human possibility — anew.
Foreman turns epistemology into slapstick comedy: the objective world is the banana peel on which the individual subject is constantly slipping, with ensuing perceptual pratfalls. Foreman’s landscapes, then, have over the years become more and more littered with barriers and perverse intrusions of the natural world. The urge of the human being to dominate his environment turns the Foreman character into a miles gloriosus, striding across the stage with firm confidence and conviction, only to be tripped up by the untied shoelaces of his own imperfections. The strong erotic element of Foreman’s plays reveals the feminine as the possessor of an uncertainty that nonetheless provides metaphysical truth and the ability to forego domination: instead, she remains open to new experience, even as that experience may be denied by an oppressive masculinity.
But does this experience necessarily come at a price? If so, it is a low one: it is only the confidence that one is always right that must be repudiated. The desiring will operating through the body guarantees that stasis is not possible: frenetic activity on Foreman’s stage is not always chaos, but sometimes a canvas from which the subject can pick and choose significances and meanings. Even so, anxiety cripples many Foreman characters, at least early in the plays, but more often than not one or more characters sees a light at the final curtain: not certainty, perhaps, but a new perspective that allows reinterpretation and liberation: the self, even if it constantly changes, is at least finally whole. This is a form of reconciliation with the world that permits creativity — for new selves and new worlds.
Because his interest is in the individual subject, Foreman has always been an internationalist; his plays have sometimes found more success in Europe, especially Austria and France, than in the U.S. The final three plays at his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre acknowledged not only the shrinking world (in which space itself, one of the Kantian a priori categories of experience, is foreshortened and disguised) but also its mediation through digital technology. As human perception stretches across the oceans in this artificial manner, he suggests that the spread of the subjective imagination may be accompanied by a consequent loss of depth in the human character, as the subject engages more and more in two-dimensional representational simulacra of the Other. We face not other individuals, but screens, mistaking the binary digits of the aptly-named “digital” world for depth. The content of these surfaces consists of both less than the individual and more than the image: another mechanical banana peel which threatens the equilibrium of the subject. Globalization has had both laudatory and destructive effects on economies, cultures and nations — Foreman suggests it’s had both of those effects on the individual subject as well. His exploration of these effects contributes to a world theatre in which traditional forms of drama seem pathetically inadequate — and places Foreman among those dramatists who work to determine a form of revolutionary theatre that suits the new century.
After more than 40 years, Richard Foreman’s plays and theoretical writings are spread across a variety of volumes and periodicals, from the 1976 Richard Foreman: Plays and Manifestos from NYU Press to forthcoming collections from both TCG Books and Contra Mundum Press. The best starting point for his work — essential, but introductory — is Unbalancing Acts: Foundations for a Theatre (1992), originally published by Pantheon Books but available in a paperback reprint from Theatre Communications Group. Gerald Rabkin’s Richard Foreman (1999, from Performing Arts Journal Books) should be consulted for essays, interviews and early criticism about Foreman’s work from a variety of writers, including Foreman himself. Better, there is Richard Foreman: Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Volume 1, a 2008 DVD from Tzadik, which contains a wealth of archival video material from Foreman’s entire career, including Ernie Gehr’s film of the complete 1972 Sophia=Wisdom Part 3: The Cliffs. While it is no substitute for a live Foreman production, the DVD provides perhaps the best available examples of his theatre work.
If the post above seems broad, I have written about several individual plays and productions of Foreman’s work here.