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).
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:
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 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.