King Cowboy Rufus rides into London

Opening on August 14, Richard Foreman’s 2004 play King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe! rides into town for a brief run at the London Theatre Workshop. This marks the London premiere of the play, to be directed and designed by Patrick Kennedy.

Though Kennedy will reformulate the play as a comment on the Trump presidency, Foreman originally wrote the play as a response to the George W. Bush administration. Foreman wrote at the time:

I always feel that my overriding obligation is to make a complex compositional object that gives aesthetic pleasure. 
Yet sometimes, the pressure of the real world is such that I feel the need to respond to what’s happening politically or socially. But though I am anti-Bush and anti-war — I don’t find it artistically satisfactory to simply “preach to the converted” and create a theatrical diatribe that expresses my political views.

The question is — can what’s happening in the real world, and one’s response to it, be shaped in such a way that some kind of “mythic response” is created — so one speaks about the real political situation — yet is still creating an exhilarating theatrical object that allows one’s imagination to expand along with the twists and turns of its polyphonic structure. 
The solution I attempt in King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe is to put on stage, not George Bush himself, but a foppish English gentleman who, while seeming a figure from out of the past — yet dreams of becoming an imitation George Bush — acquiring that same power and manifesting similar limits of vision. I hope this allows many levels of theatrical irony and comic energy to co-exist with my anguished point of view concerning the direction in which current American policy is leading us.

New productions of Foreman’s plays are rare four years after the premiere of his final stage play, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, at the Public Theater, though as the new London production of King Cowboy Rufus suggests, they can speak to our own traumatic times as well. It could be that the innovative techniques he brought as a director to these plays overshadowed their more literary qualities, even though text was always primary in his productions. But the gnostic qualities of his texts invite a variety of directorial responses.

Back in the day, when I wrote about theatre and drama, I wrote quite a bit about Foreman’s work; now that parenthood and waning interest leave me with little time for theatre and drama, I still turn to his texts at times (King Cowboy Rufus can be found in TCG’s Bad Boy Nietzsche! and Other Plays). I have it on very good authority, however, that young children who attended Foreman’s productions were fascinated by and very much enjoyed the chaotic goings-on up on the stage. In a way, children whatever their age are his ideal audience. Like a child, I had to open myself to a sense of wonder and experience in experiencing his plays, a sense that’s all too rare in adulthood. It was the play itself, of course, that rekindled that sense. And perhaps this is something that’s been missing from theatre since Foreman’s retirement from the form. At least, it’s been missing for me.

More information about the London production of King Cowboy Rufus can be found here. I last wrote about Foreman when I reviewed The Manifestos and Essays, a collection of his theoretical texts, in 2014. That review can be found below.

Novelist, filmmaker, and raconteur Richard Foreman is best known for his theatre work as playwright, designer, and director — but even here, one must be careful to distinguish Foreman’s more commercial projects (from his musicals with Stanley Silverman to his opera and “straight” theatre work) from the plays he’s been producing over nearly 50 years through his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, founded in 1968; the most recent OHT production, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, ran at the Public Theater in 2013.

Foreman’s influence has often been cited as a central ingredient of contemporary drama and theatre, but this influence may be more through his example than his specific techniques and plays themselves. Since 1968, Foreman’s OHT plays have been uncompromising investigations into the nature of his own vision and consciousness; while the Incubator Arts Project, which now occupies the space at St. Mark’s Church once occupied by the OHT, was a project undertaken with Foreman’s blessing, most of the work produced there doesn’t resemble Foreman’s. Foreman’s spirit emerges in the courage that he engenders and recommends in these theatre artists to be uncompromising in investigating their own visions, not his. [NOTE: The Incubator Arts Project closed in July 2014.]

While Foreman’s theatrical productivity has tapered off somewhat in the past few years, and the OHT productions have become more rare, we are fortunate now to have The Manifestos and Essays, a new collection from Theatre Communications Group that gathers Foreman’s theoretical writings, many of which are hard to come by, into a convenient single volume. The contents span from the three “Ontological-Hysteric Manifestos” written in the 1970s, to more personal essays from the 1980s and 1990s, to two interviews conducted with Foreman in 2008 and 2009, and finally 40 pages of notes that relate to his film Once Every Day, which ran at the New York Film Festival in 2013.

Central to Foreman’s theatre and film through this entire period is the nature of consciousness itself: that new ways of seeing the world can lead to new ways of acting within it and contemplating it, that in our daily lives we remain immune to the underlying dynamics of our experience as a body and object and subject in a world against which other bodies and objects and subjects continue to press. Foreman, a Barnumesque showman, often finds these dynamics erotic and comic, though more often than not one is left with a note of melancholy as the difficulty and (for some of us) the impossibility of rearranging our consciousness becomes more and more evident. His spare early productions, sometimes three hours in length, gave way to a more baroque sensibility as his designs became more crowded (the more objects, after all, the more there is to investigate) and more frenetic (as our own perceptions have become more fragmented and hysterical, one following and seizing upon another in an unending spiral that leads to chaos).

“Diagram 2 explains, once and for all, all of my plays!” Richard Foreman in “The Manifestos and Essays,” p. 94-95.

That said, there is a progression in Foreman’s career from those early, near-minimal productions to a more carnivalesque phase, then more contemplative in plays like The Cure (1986) and The Mind King (1992), then more controlled with his plays of the early 21st century. Surprisingly for a body of work which foregrounds abstraction, they are all products of their time, as all plays and works of art are, on some level, products of their time. Symphony of Rats (1988) and King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe! (2004) both have explicitly political themes, but the questioning of the ideology of consciousness in 20th century America obviously has an implicit political dimension as well. To stop, to think, to contemplate, within a culture growing more and more transparent and anxious — these may be the most politically (and, obviously, aesthetically and culturally) radical actions in a society seemingly in love, and perhaps in lust, with its own rapid, fearful, frantic movements.

The manifestos and essays in the TCG volume detail the frustration and dissatisfaction Foreman experienced in the theatre of the 1960s (often expressed with surprising vehemence), even the theatre of other avant-garde theatremakers, and mark out the intellectual basis for the OHT. The plays themselves, of course, emerge more from Foreman’s instinct as a theatremaker and writer than from any body of philosophy he may or may not have come across. Like many other artists similarly well-read and seemingly over-intellectual, Foreman picks and chooses, denying that he “understands” some of the more abstruse structures of thought. Instead, he’s a packrat — he takes from those structures what he desires, what is useful to him in his own thinking about his work.

Foreman recommends a similar approach to his own theoretical writings, introducing the “Film Notes” to this volume:


And indeed, while the book is organized chronologically, that might not be the best way for newcomers to Foreman’s theory to “read it through” either. My own recommendation for the relative newcomer is to read the raconteur (the interviews) first, then the genial storyteller (the essays), then the theorist (the more demanding manifestos), and finally the writer and artist himself (the “Film Notes”).

Foreman’s plays themselves, available in several collections, are also continually worth reading; his theatrical design may be the most spectacular aspect of the shows, but the wordplay and language of his drama has remained neglected. Read in conjunction with these plays, The Manifestos and Essays signifies the lasting contributions of Richard Foreman to the art of drama and theatre in America. It is as essential as Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years – and as entertaining, provocative, and ever inspiring.  (For some of us, Foreman’s passionate enthusiasm and radicalism will easily trump both of these books anyway.) Here’s hoping for a few more contributions from the Grand Master himself.

Friday music

Below, Marilyn Nonken performs the second of Arnold Schönberg’s Three Pieces (Opus 11) at the Neue Galerie last Wednesday night for a members-only audience.

For those who were unable to be there, fear not: she and her fellow musicians violinist Rolf Schulte and cellist Coleman Itzkoff will perform a similar program for the public at NYU later this year. See you at Cafe Katja later today for a nice big glass of Grüner Veltliner.


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Friday roundup

Maurice Ravel.

I spent some time with Vienna this week, watching Joseph Koerner’s fine documentary about the city and noting Marilyn Nonken’s appearance at the Neue Galerie next week. I also reposted a little essay about duration and the sacred.

Closing out the week, I offer a Vienna Philharmonic performance of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, conducted by André Previn. Carl Schorske begins his magisterial study Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture with a short study of this 13-minute work, seeing in it a metaphor for the condition of the city at the turn of the 20th century. He writes:

At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer’s hands a frantic danse macabre. “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.” His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Although Ravel celebrates the  destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other — the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.

Ravel’s musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? …

Schorske spends the rest of the book trying to answer this question, but begins with Ravel. The performance can be heard below; have a good weekend.

Joseph Koerner’s Vienna

I hope to write a few words about Ilsa Barea’s excellent 1966 book Vienna: Legend and Reality in a few days, but in the meantime I repost here Joseph Koerner‘s Vienna: City of Dreams, a BBC documentary that was first televised in 2007. Koerner’s film is not so much a history of the city as a series of meditations on its place in modernity. It’s beautifully shot, however, and Koerner is a pensive, thoughtful guide. The Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, he is the creative director of the Vienna Project at Harvard University, also worth a look.

Schönberg and Webern at the Neue Galerie next Wednesday

Richard Gerstl, Portrait of Arnold Schönberg (detail)

Next Wednesday night, July 19, at 6.30pm, members of the Neue Galerie will be treated to a concert of music by Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken and friends. Those esteemed friends are violinist Rolf Schulte and cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and they’ll be presenting the following program:

Arnold Schönberg: Three Pieces, Op. 11 (1909)

Arnold Schönberg: “Columbine” (from Pierrot Lunaire) (1911)

Arnold Schönberg: Song Without Words from the Serenade, Op. 24  (1924)

Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (1910)

Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4  (1899)
Arranged for trio by Eduard Steuermann after poetry by Richard Dehmel,
inspired by Mathilde (Zemlinsky) Schönberg

Marilyn will also be discussing Schönberg’s early music in connection with the Neue Galerie’s current exhibit Richard Gerstl, exploring the community of artists to which he belonged. Here are a few bios of the participating parties:

Upon performing Schönberg’s piano music, Marilyn Nonken was recognized as “a determined protector of important music” (New York Times). A Steinway Artist and Associate Professor at New York University, she studied with Leonard Stein, Schönberg’s longtime assistant.

Fresh from his success at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna, violinist Rolf Schulte is an expert in the music of the New Viennese School. He has recorded most of Schönberg’s chamber works, the Violin Concerto, and Phantasy, as well as music of Anton Webern.

Cellist Coleman Itzkoff, Artist-in-Residence on American Public Media’s Performance Today, has performed as soloist nationwide, recently giving his Walt Disney Concert Hall concerto debut. He performs regularly at the Aspen Music Festival, La Jolla SummerFest, Music@Menlo, and Bargemusic.

The concert is open to Neue Galerie members only, but if you must go, you can fix that by becoming a member yourself — it’s worth every penny. Tell ’em Arnold sent you.