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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Next Wave Infamy: The Birth of the Poet

The Birth of the Poet
After the Paris premiere of Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance in 1971, founding Surrealist Louis Aragon famously declared that the 29-year-old Wilson “is what we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us.” It’s a shame that none of the Dadaists were still around (or that none of the living Surrealists still adhered to Dada’s program of playfully nihilistic absurdity) when Wilson’s contemporary, Richard Foreman, broke onto the scene in the late 60s. A shame, because just as long as Wilson has been carrying the torch of Surrealism, expanding its theatrical possibilities, Foreman has been doing something similar with Dada.

Perhaps the silence of Dada’s founders toward Richard Foreman is a sort of Dadaistic passing of the torch. A goal of Dada performance, after all, was to enrage the audience, to shake them out of placid passivity. Such a nihilistic approach to creation cancels out the possibilities of tradition.

Which brings us to The Birth of the Poet, Foreman’s production of a play written by downtown legend Kathy Acker, with music by Peter Gordon and sets by David Salle. Part of 1985’s Next Wave Festival, The Birth of the Poet was reviled at its premiere: the audience (those who hadn’t already walked out) barraged the actors with boos, and the next day’s reviews unanimously echoed the audience’s rage. The Birth of the Poet is still considered one of the most panned shows of the Next Wave.   

This might seem puzzling to us now, 27 years later, given a lineup that evokes nostalgia for the bygone New York scene. But perhaps the negative reaction came from the combination of so many strong voices. Acker’s scatological, obscenity filled text told a sexually charged tale of apocalypse that jumped between an atomically blasted New York of the future, ancient Rome, and Iran in the 1980s. Foreman’s direction added another layer of meaning with its many references to the avant-garde of the past, while Gordon’s score was an unceasing collage of noise and incidental music that often worked against the actors’ speech, and Salle’s sets played with the line between realism and abstraction. Certainly, there was a lot to absorb in this prickly, punky, neo-Dada melting pot (or meltdown, depending on who you ask).

The Birth of the Poet
Thanks to Stuart Hodes, an actor in The Birth of the Poet who published a brief memoir about his experience in the production, we have some insight on Foreman’s process as he sought to weld this strange Frankenstein of a play. Hodes also tape recorded the majority of the rehearsals, and transcripts from his archive are sprinkled liberally throughout his essay. Here is a transcription of one of Foreman’s addresses to the cast:
We live in a corrupt and corrupting world and you can't say tomorrow you'll change. Never mind your desires for transcendence. You'll never make it. You all know you're stupider, cruder, nastier than you should be and you're not going to change. That's the tragedy and that's what this piece is about. Remember that. In art we're simply trying to confront the impasse.
These are undeniably powerful words. Clearly, Foreman's vision was steeped in a long history of confrontational, politically charged theater. Hodes has done a great service by publishing his memories of The Birth of the Poet, which he calls both “mighty” and “failed.” Here is Hodes’ reasoning behind publishing his thoughts:   
All over the world, sales meetings, faculty meetings, and board meetings are dutifully recorded, turned into minutes, and end up in files no one will ever read. But the magical history of Oklahoma!, The King and I, Sweeny Todd, Hair, and every other work of theater is lost, including the histories of flops, which may be even more interesting and instructive.
Composer John Cage is considered a genius, but that didn't prevent hoards of audience members from storming out of performances. Indeed, perhaps it is time to reconsider The Birth of the Poet. Revival, anyone?

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