Books received: Northern Liberties

About the Lower East Side, where I live now, there seem to be few brief, straightforward narrative histories. Not so for the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, where I lived and spent quite a bit of time through the 1970s and 1980s and about which I wrote here. Just yesterday, Amazon dropped at my door Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward by Harry Kyriakodis, a nicely illustrated 200-page history of the neighborhood published by The History Press in 2012. A full report will follow.

Roundup

T.S. Eliot and Jeremy Irons.

This week, the week before Christmas 2017, I mused over some of T.S. Eliot’s holiday-season “Ariel poems” — “Journey of the Magi,” “A Song for Simeon,” “Animula,” and finally the unjustly neglected (and my personal favorite) “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” — and I hope that they gave you as much pleasure as they did myself.

To wrap things up, a little audio present for you. Last New Year’s Day — January 1, 2017 — the BBC ran a splendid series of programs which featured Jeremy Irons reading just about all of Eliot’s collected verse. You can find the entire series here, but below is a 38-minute excerpt from the whole, in which you can hear Irons reading all of the poems published here this week. As an introduction, host Martha Kearney interviews actress Fiona Shaw about Eliot’s poetry; Ms. Shaw after discussing her own performance of Eliot’s poems proceeds to compare Eliot favorably with Samuel Beckett, Leonard Cohen (well … okay), and Beyoncé (about this I’m not so sure). But the interview is quite brief, and Irons’ glorious performances of “The Hollow Men” and the other poems follow.

Coincidentally, Irons plays Hans Gruber’s brother in one of the sequels to my favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard. Michael Hann wrote about this cheerful holiday entertainment in the Guardian yesterday.

I’ll be lifting a holiday glass with my lovely wife at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Merry Christmas to all.

Now you can see it

Following my republication of an earlier essay about Richard Foreman today, I came across — tucked into a corner of the PennSound web site — his new 70-minute film Now You See It Now You Don’t. A production of Bridge Films, Sophie Haviland, and Richard Foreman and the Ontological Hysteric Theater, it is, as usual for a Foreman production, packed with mystery. The film is released and exclusively distributed by PennSound Cinema.

I haven’t had the chance to watch the entire film yet, but don’t let me stop you. You can find it here.

“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.

Culture shock

When I first visited Vienna about 25 years ago, a city gallery was presenting an exhibition of black-and-white photographic nudes of some kind. What particularly struck my American eye were the advertisements for this exhibition pasted on kiosks and the sides of trams around town — advertisements which featured details from these nudes that included both male and female genitalia. I was at the time perhaps much more Philadelphian than I am now; hence my somewhat uncomfortable surprise to see these depictions plastered in various public spaces. As a tourist, though, I was in the minority. The Viennese men, women, and children who passed these advertisements every day seemed particularly comfortable with them, rarely glancing at them a second time. By the end of my stay, I was comfortable with them too, and even pleased. These public displays of the naked human body, I thought, were admirable in a way — far more admirable than the ads for violent movies and cheap consumer goods that surrounded me on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.

Apparently it wasn’t only my Philadelphian blood that gave rise to that original discomfort. In the past few weeks, the Vienna Tourist Board has been buying advertising space in Cologne, Hamburg, and London to promote upcoming Vienna exhibitions of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele (their Viennese Modernism 2018 web site can be found here), but the posters they created have run into some problems in those cities. According to Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times,

According to a Vienna Tourist Board spokeswoman, Helena Hartlauer, Transport for London rejected the original images, citing trepidation about depicting genitals in public space.

Ms. Hartlauer said that modified advertisements with pixelated genitals were also declined. Ultimately approved were versions using the same artworks (Schiele’s “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” 1910, and “Girl With Orange Stockings,” 1914, and other paintings by the artist, all from the Leopold Museum collection), but with certain bits covered by a banner.

The banner reads: “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.” The modified images are now on view on bus shelters in Cologne and building facades in Hamburg, and, since this week, in tube stops in London.

The original ads were also banned from Facebook as obscene, Ms. Bradley reports. Right now the big New York show is the Michelangelo exhibition at the Met, and ads for that are everywhere too, though obviously they don’t generate the same angst.

The Vienna Tourist Board is playing the controversy big, “highlighting images of the public ads with the hashtag #DerKunstihreFreiheit (#ToArtItsFreedom in English) on social media,” Ms. Bradley writes:

The hashtag comes from the slogan “To every age its art, to art its freedom,” still visible in German on the facade of the Viennese Secession, an exhibition venue co-founded by Klimt in 1897 and still operating today as an autonomous artist-run institution. And the controversy certainly echoes discussions that took place in Schiele’s time. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, an era of dramatic shifts in both art and society, many considered the artist’s work to be pornographic. Schiele’s first broader acceptance didn’t come until early 1918 with a major exhibition in the Secession — later that year, the artist succumbed to Spanish flu at age 28.

“We want to show people just how far ahead of their time Vienna and its protagonists really were,” Mr. Kettner said. [Norbert Kettner, that is, chief executive of the Vienna Tourist Board.] “And also encourage the audience to scrutinize how much really has — or hasn’t — changed in terms of openness and attitudes in society over the times.”

Both Klimt and Schiele were products and agents of the sensual revolution in fin de siècle Vienna (though, obviously, to say that they were “ahead of their time” ignores the observation that they were of their own time and apparently no one else’s). This revolution was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s air itself from about 1898 to 1914, and the current controversy underscores the fact that, if the rest of Europe and the United States ever caught up, they’ve retreated from that openness and social attitude since then, regressing into a consumerist puritanism instead. Erotics, gender, and sensuality became central philosophical and aesthetic concerns in Central Europe in the years before World War II, taking on an atonal, irresolvable tone, far more revolutionary than similar thinking in France, for example — a tone evident in its visual art (Klimt and Schiele), literature (Musil and Doderer), and music (Schoenberg and Webern). The dissemination of this art through the Secession — and more recently through posters and tram ads — is an acknowledgement of the extent to which this erotics forms a part of our daily public and private lives, even when we’re just grabbing a subway train from one place to another.

Klimt, Schiele, and Richard Gerstl were all dead by the end of 1918, and as the Viennese coped with being reduced to a provincial capital from the seat of one of Europe’s largest and most powerful empires, the center of this activity moved to Germany, where the Neue Sachlichkeit movement revisited the inner workings of the erotic and sensual self from a more urban perspective. In many ways, though, it was an extension, not a rejection, of Austrian Expressionism and its erotic concerns. And though we tend to look at these artists through the hoary glass of history, their explorations remain ours. The erotic, the sensual, is public too, and the attempts to bury it point to a recidivist authoritarianism that in the past has led to people like Hitler and Stalin. In Cologne, Hamburg, and London — and possibly New York, too — they’re still getting out the shovels. In Vienna, though, you can still breathe it in.