“The Manifestos and Essays” by Richard Foreman

A scene from Richard Foreman’s 1974 Pain(t). Photo: Kate Davy.

Up until a few years ago, I wrote a great deal about two topics: Vienna and Richard Foreman. Unfortunately after years of writing about both, I got a bit lost in the forest and pursued other paths, but after some thought I’m coming back to both topics with the supposed benefit of a longer perspective. What especially struck me after writing yesterday’s post and later idly paging through Foreman’s Unbalancing Acts: Foundations for a Theater was just how much both the Viennese Modernists and Foreman, in their own ways, pursued a project of resensualizing and re-eroticizing human experience — of re-establishing erotics as a means of pursuing happiness and meaningful relation, and delineating the ways in which contemporary culture and art suppress the erotic instinct that lies at the root of our intellect, our emotions, our spiritual lives, and our souls.

You can find a few posts about Vienna here. In 2014, I noted the publication of Foreman’s The Manifestos and Essays with the below review. I step a few more paces back and hope to write more about both (no promises, though) from that longer perspective.


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 Theatre, founded in 1968 [NOTE: 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding] ; the most recent OHT production, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, ran at the Public Theater only last year [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 work. 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. [NOTE: The Incubator Arts Project closed several years ago.] 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.

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 new, 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 and Berlin Film Festivals.

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 in a world against which other bodies and objects 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).

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 and The Mind King, 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 and King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe 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 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, 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 seems to pick and choose, denying that he “understands” some of the more abstruse structures of thought. Instead, he’s a packrat — he takes from those structures what he chooses, 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:

WHAT FOLLOWS IS NOT TO BE READ STRAIGHT THROUGH. PERHAPS NOT TO BE “READ” EXACTLY — BUT OCCASIONALLY “DIPPED INTO” WHEN ONE (MYSELF) FEELS BLOCKED AND EMPTY: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS TO RE-FRAME THAT EMPTINESS AS A MEANS TO …

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 element of the shows, but the wordplay and language of his drama has remained neglected. Read in conjunction with these plays, The Manifestos and Essays signify the lasting contributions of Richard Foreman to the art of drama and theatre in America.

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