Eric Bogosian 1953-
American performance artist, playwright, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Bogosian's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 45.
Bogosian is regarded as a leading American performance artist. His stage productions typically involve skits combining artful combinations of a range of characters and personas, through which he is able to comment on various aspects of American society and the contemporary world. Bogosian has also garnered success as a playwright and screenwriter, winning awards in both roles.
Bogosian was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 24, 1953. He was educated at a local high school and a local drama school, and then attended the University of Chicago in 1973. Bogosian quickly decided that he wanted a career in the theater, and left the University of Chicago to attend the theater program at Oberlin College, where he received his B.A. in 1976. Bogosian became disenchanted with traditional theater and was influenced by such performance artists as Spalding Gray, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Longo, and began to develop his own one-man show. Bogosian first offered his monologues at New York's Performance Space, The Kitchen （where he also served as director from 1977 through 1981）, the Snafu Club, and Franklin Furnace. He was the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Arts Council. His Drinking in America （1986） received a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award in 1986, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll （1988） won an Obie Award in 1990. He was also the recipient of a Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear Award in 1988.
Bogosian's first performance piece centered on the character Ricky Paul, an entertainer and comedian who spent his time on stage ranting about the problems of the modern world. With Men Inside （1982）, Bogosian dropped the Ricky Paul persona and instead featured an array of characters representing the American male, all of whom were played by Bogosian himself. There was little in the way of set or costume; Bogosian wore simple black jeans and a white shirt. Bogosian's shows were carried by his manic energy and his ability to completely transform himself into a variety of personas through use of mannerisms and dialect. Bogosian's work is filled with references to pop culture, including McDonald's restaurants, BMW automobiles, Nyquil cold formula, and such pop icons as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Cassius Clay. With a caustic wit and biting sarcasm, Bogosian's characters provide a critique of American postmodern culture and make the audience question their own comfortable existences. With Talk Radio （1985）, Bogosian limits himself to a study of one character, Barry Champlain, a vituperative talk show host. In this play, which was developed into a film in 1988 and directed by Oliver Stone, the lines are blurred between media-created hype and reality, between the pathetic existence of the show's callers and the self-loathing of the show's host. In Drinking in America, Bogosian once again tackles the male psyche as he takes on such roles as a fast-talking Hollywood agent, a teenage drug addict, a zealous television evangelist, and an unprincipled salesman. Each impersonation is linked to the lust for power—financial, sexual, or political, among others—and its intoxicating and corrupting capabilities. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll features an array of Bogosian's familiar street people and also includes a few new types. One is an arrogant rock star, supposedly recovering from substance abuse and in the process of exploiting environmental causes to further his own celebrity. In Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead （1994） Bogosian again takes on multiple characters, many of whom represent the disenfranchised masses of his earlier shows. Onstage Bogosian becomes a homeless man who terrorizes a subway car full of people, a guru who blames his selfishness on his “inner baby,” and Eric, a hyperactive comedian desperate to connect with an audience. Bogosian attempts a more conventional play format with Suburbia （1994）, which tells the story of a group of twenty-somethings as they hang out in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven convenience store.
Often compared to comedian Lenny Bruce, critics laud Bogosian's onstage melding of different personas and techniques. Reviewers consistently praise Bogosian for his ability to slip in and out of character, and for his ability to use different dialects such as the southern drawl or urban black English. Frank Rich calls him “a born storyteller with perfect pitch for the voices of various ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds.” Some critics, however, complain that Bogosian's sketches lack depth; for example, John Howell asserts, “What's missing is the emotional subtext, the stance of Bogosian the performer vis-à-vis Bogosian the character of the moment, which would make what are basic acting exercises into a true show …” Reviewers frequently comment on the ambivalent reactions audiences have to Bogosian's shows, feeling offended while they are being entertained. Some feel that Bogosian's later work contains too much familiar material, while others hold that he retains a freshness. Jan Stuart asserts, “Any datedness or sense of deja vu is eclipsed by the urgency behind his connections … and the dazzling technique of his performance.”