Ronald Tavel Essay - Critical Essays

Tavel, Ronald

Tavel, Ronald 1940–

Tavel, an American underground playwright and poet, founded the "Theatre of the Ridiculous," a name invented, he says, partly to startle the critics. His best known play, Gorilla Queen, has been called entertaining, disgusting, mystifying—a camp nightmare. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Attending a performance of [Ronald Tavel's] Gorilla Queen is like being present at a particularly rambunctious drag ball—the evening is as fruity as a nutcake. Emboldened by the popular success of camp, pop, and the underground film, the homosexual Mafia has now decided to advance the sexual revolution another step by exposing its privates in that most public of places, the theatre: the move is both audacious and carefully prepared. The author of Gorilla Queen … has even issued a programatic document called "The Theatre of the Ridiculous" in which he defines the terms of the movement, locating its influences (Art Nouveau, Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, the movies of Maria Montez, and psychedelic art), explaining its name ("We have passed beyond the absurd; our position is absolutely preposterous"), and analyzing its "pasty" and "moldy" derivations in the nether regions of rough trade. Although Tavel's language is the inflated prose of the autodidact ("so far as I could sensate"; "For me it is a claimant of joy in the witness of human freedoms") and his spelling and sentence structure are incredibly slipshod, he is protected against conventional criticism by the subliterate form in which he works: as a character in Gorilla Queen remarks, "Hastiness in creation is at the core of camp." Besides this, like most pop artists, he has tapped a virtually bottomless well of material, and he brings to his plays an irritating but quite genuine wit. (pp. 47-8)

Still, for all the refreshing novelty of Gorilla Queen, its honesty is not a sufficient antidote to its singlemindedly sexual emphasis, and I came away from the play feeling as if I had been pounded into the ground by a particularly merciless jackhammer. Tavel's method is based exclusively on faggot parodies of Grade B jungle flicks from the thirties and forties, using men in most (not all) of the female roles. (p. 48)

Robert Brustein, "Notes from the Underground" (1967), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 47-50.

Ron Tavel's new offering [Queen of Greece] is a hydra-headed, fire-breathing monster of a play. It has swallowed American imperialism, as well as ancient and modern Greece, and spews forth a dazzling multitude of ideas and constructs, with an overlay of pop lunacy.

The oddly baroque plot involves Socrates and Plato, Jackie and Ari, along with Byron and Marina Souvlacki Joplin. The nature of their involvement isn't always clear, but it is never dull. Mr. Tavel's verbal virtuosity is intriguingly entertaining, although it frequently fails to support the play's premises….

Even though Mr. Tavel's meaning and intent are not fully realized, Queen of Greece is often challenging and provocative, which prompts me to address the playwright in his own words: "I wish I was educated in Aristotelian logic so I could understand you as well as I don't." (p. 8)

Dulcie Eisen, in Show Business (copyright © Leo Shull), November 29, 1973.

The Last Days of British Honduras [is] a curious farrago purporting to explain the mystery of the apparently sudden disappearance in the twelfth century of the 53-million Mayan nation. Tavel, a well-known underground playwright, postulates a science-fiction explanation, allegedly based on recent decodings of Mayan glyphs, as well as—peculiarly—the Bible, Jehovah and Quetzalcoatl working, it appears, hand in hand. The play moves back and forth among the British Honduran jail in which the young American archaeologist-hero is detained on suspicions of espionage, the jungle where his girl friend is assaulted by a native guide and both are captured by an enigmatic Indian, a tavern where a native politico hatches schemes for the morrow when he expects to take over as president (we are on the eve of a plebiscite), a secret attic full of C.I.A. plotting, and an ancient Mayan pyramid where space-and-time-defying revelations are made.

It is a tale of the suprarational, full of sound and fury, rather like an old Republic movie with fancy language and the fourth dimension added. More pretentious by far, it is, ultimately, no less bad. But the case of Tavel is instructive. A former Andy Warhol scriptwriter and founder of the Theater of the Ridiculous, he is the author of several plays and other works of a preponderantly campy orientation, notably the awful but mildly amusing Gorilla Queen. Tavel's specialty is the (perhaps deliberately) bad pun, which he stuffs into every character's mouth, and situations that range from the ridiculous to the outrageous. While his activities were confined to the twilight zone, one could laugh at and, occasionally, with him. Then came discovery by the Establishment. A feeble Tavel play, The Boy on the Straightback Chair, won awards; other plays were reprinted in the Tri-Quarterly and Partisan Review; a New York Times profile and Guggenheim Fellowship followed apace. To live up to such grandeur, Tavel writes his new play, presumably in quipu, in which it should have been left, full of Higher Metaphysics and ludicrous aspirations. He was better when he merely aspired to be ludicrous. (pp. 87-8)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), December 2, 1974.