Eric Bogosian Bogosian, Eric - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

Careful Moment (play) 1977

Men Inside (play) 1982

Voices of America (play) 1982

FunHouse (play) 1983

Talk Radio (play) 1985; revised version produced 1987

Drinking in America (play) 1986

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll (play) 1988

Talk Radio [with Oliver Stone] (screenplay) 1988

An American Chorus (play) 1989

Dog Show (play) 1992

Notes from Underground (play) 1992

Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead (play) 1994

Suburbia (play) 1994

John Howell (review date October 1982)

SOURCE: A review of Men Inside and Voices of America, in Artforum, October, 1982, pp. 72-73.

[In the following review, Howell asserts that “Bogosian's characters, [in Men Inside and Voices of America,] … are smartly selected and executed with finesse; finally, however, his case studies don't tell you much beyond what they show. …”]

For the last several years Eric Bogosian has presented two solo performances, Men Inside and Voices of America, in casual performance spaces like Inroads, P. S. 122, Club 57, and Franklin Furnace. Throughout July he performed the two as a twin bill every Thursday in the more formally theatrical space of the Public Theater's Martinson Hall, and, as with most nontraditional performance, the import of his work shifted along with its context. These partly improvised, constantly re-ordered collections of short “bits” appeared more polished and sometimes more provocative than the downtown-Saturday Night Live revue sketches they had resembled, but they also weighed in as not-too-substantial theater, with their string-of-beads form and uncommitted point of view. Bogosian's characters, like those of the media-conscious, image-mongering Hallwalls group (with some of whom Bogosian has worked), are smartly selected and executed with finesse; finally, however, his case studies don't tell you much beyond what they show,...

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Clive Barnes (review date 29 May 1987)

SOURCE: “Long Night's Radio Journey Into Hell,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXVIII, No. 12, September 7, 1987, p. 190.

[In the following review, originally published in New York Post on May 29, 1987, Barnes calls Bogosian's Talk Radio “a scathing document of a frightening, frightened man and the America he creates and lives in.”]

Eric Bogosian's strange and important play Talk Radio—based on an original idea by Tad Savinar—which opened at the Public Theater last night, concerns a very sick man and the misuse of power.

If the medium is the message, the messages that the media deliver can sometimes be...

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Howard Kissel (review date 29 May 1987)

SOURCE: “The Voice of America,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXVIII, No. 12, September 7, 1987, p. 189.

[In the following review, which was originally published in Daily News on May 29, 1987, Kissel asserts that “Talk Radio is directed and performed with the special energy of people who know they're doing something hot.”]

One reason people are nostalgic for early radio is that it was soothing. The announcers' voices were robust, their tone sometimes stern, sometimes jolly, but invariably reassuring in a fatherly way.

In the wake of the '60s any kind of paternalism was suspect. Radio reflected that. The new...

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David Sterritt (review date 4 June 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Talk Radio, in Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1987, p. 31.

[In the following review, Sterritt praises Bogosian's portrayal of radio host Barry Champlain in Talk Radio.]

Theater is more intimate than TV or radio. Yet stage directors seem increasingly drawn to mass-media techniques—as a subject and as a theatrical device. The trend continues in … Talk Radio, written by and starring Eric Bogosian at the Public Theater. …

Talk Radio centers on one Barry Champlain, a broadcaster who's rude, foul-mouthed, abrasive, bigoted, and egotistical—qualities that mean fame and fortune in some inexplicable byways...

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Douglas Watt (review date 5 June 1987)

SOURCE: “Second Thoughts on First Nights,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXVIII, No. 12, September 7, 1987, p. 190.

[In the following review, originally published in Daily News on June 5, 1987, Watt argues that “the oddly interesting thing about Talk Radio is that Barry Champlain isn't much of an exaggeration.”]

Talk Radio at the Public is a hypnotic play about a late-night talk show presided over by an abrasive, egomaniacal, intransigent host who takes phone calls from the flotsam and jetsam of a big city, in this instance Cleveland. Barry Champlain, played by the playwright himself, Eric Bogosian, admonishes, insults, or...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Paula Bryant (review date 19 July 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Drinking in America, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Bryant discusses how Bogosian's on-screen personas translate onto paper in Drinking in America.]

Like Sam Shepard, performer/playwright Eric Bogosian helps himself to the iconography and idiom of American voices. Both artists are dynamic ventriloquists shouting out our collective Angst in borrowed tongues that disturb and involve us. A manic mixture of Lenny Bruce, Lily Tomlin and Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian questions stereotypes by embodying them. We're forced to question our own carefully contrived boundaries when confronted...

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Robert Siegle (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Eric Bogosian in the American FunHouse,” in his Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency, J. H. University, 1989, pp. 259-64.

[In the following excerpt, Siegle discusses the multiple identities found in Bogosian's Drinking in America.]

… Known most widely for writing and starring in Oliver Stone's film Talk Radio, Eric Bogosian is more direct and probably more acerbic in his responses than [Spalding] Gray, as his comments in the introduction to Drinking in America (1987) indicate. Bogosian remembers how, “numb with boredom, I would walk out of a half-baked theatrical production of Hedda Gabler and find...

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Clive Barnes (review date 9 February 1990)

SOURCE: “Bogosian's Creeps from the Deep,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. LI, No. 2, February 5, 1990, p. 383.

[In the following review, originally published in New York Post on February 9, 1990, Barnes discusses Bogosian's show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and states, “An evening with the brilliantly garrulous Bogosian … is like a freefall from a jetliner without a parachute.”]

Sweet are the uses of perversity, as Shakespeare might have said had he ever encountered that most dazzling of perverse performers, Eric Bogosian.

An evening with the brilliantly garrulous Bogosian—he calls this one Sex, Drugs, Rock...

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Howard Kissel (review date 9 February 1990)

SOURCE: “Style, Little Substance in Sex, Drugs,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. LI, No. 2, February 5, 1990, p. 384.

[In the following review, originally published in Daily News on February 9, 1990, Kissel complains, “Ultimately much of the satire [in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll] seems on a facile level, and a lot of the characters are not really explored in depth.”]

Eric Bogosian is a monologist for the wired generation.

Whether he's playing a subway panhandler, a man who is paranoid about the environment, a participant in a wild bachelor party, a rock star trying to be convincingly anti-drug, a rapper...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Doug Watt (review date 16 February 1990)

SOURCE: “Sex,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. LI, No. 2, February 5, 1990, p. 384.

[In the following review, originally published in Daily News on February 16, 1990, Watt discusses the experience of watching Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.]

The scatological vaudeville that Eric Bogosian has created in his riveting new solo show, the 100-minute Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, cuts so close to the bone that the borderline between theater and the world outside seems almost nonexistent at times.

Yet this is entertainment, and the gallery of a dozen or so wildly assorted characters ranging from rich megalomaniacs to...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Melanie Kirkpatrick (review date 20 February 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, in Wall Street Journal, February 20, 1990, p. 382.

[In the following review, Kirkpatrick lauds Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.]

Americans needn't travel abroad to be embarrassed by their countrymen. There are more than enough right here at home, and Eric Bogosian creates about a dozen of them (as well as one reptilian Brit) in his 90-minute monologue, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll (at the Orpheum now, on HBO later).

On a nearly bare stage and wearing basic jeans and a white shirt, Mr. Bogosian brings to life a sad and scary group of New Yorkers, whose only common thread is an...

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Eric Bogosian with Lilly Wei (interview date July 1990)

SOURCE: “Eric Bogosian,” in Art in America, Vol. 78, No. 7, July, 1990, pp. 135-36.

[In the following interview, Bogosian discusses the life of an artist.]

Eric Bogosian has been making solo performance works and plays in New York since 1977. Among them are Sheer Heaven (1979), The New World (1980), Talk Radio (1987), Drinking in America (1988) and, most recently, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. He makes occasional appearances on television and in motion pictures, and his play Talk Radio was released as a film, directed by Oliver Stone. Bogosian has been awarded an Obie, a Drama Desk Award and a Silver Bear...

(The entire section is 1543 words.)

Clive Barnes (review date 4 February 1994)

SOURCE: “Equal-op Offender,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. LV, No. 2, 1994, p. 34.

[In the following review, originally published in New York Post on February 4, 1994, Barnes praises Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead and advises “never miss Bogosian, because the sharp-tongued, sharp-shooting Bogosian never misses you!”]

Some performers are simply a force of nature. Eric Bogosian is a force of such consummately contrived artistry that he can seem like a force of nature.

He is an actor who transforms the theater into an arena for one-on-one encounters. Every customer gets to meet a little Bogosian...

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Thomas M. Disch (review date 4 February 1994)

SOURCE: “Bogosian Hits ‘Nails’ on the Head,” in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. LV, No. 2, 1994, p. 31.

[In the following review, which was originally published in Daily News on February 4, 1994, Disch asserts that Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead proves him “to be reckoned the best-endowed taboo breaker the theater has got.”]

The theater is where we can go to see taboos broken. The kind of jokes politicians are thrown out of office for telling are the stock and trade of standup comics. And it's in their live performances in clubs—and when they get that important, in theaters—that standup comics can let it...

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Michael Feingold (review date 15 February 1994)

SOURCE: “Wrong Guy Land,” in Village Voice, Vol. XXXIX, No. 7, February 15, 1994, p. 97.

[In the following review, Feingold asserts that although Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead is the same as his previous shows, there is enough difference to keep from limiting him.]

A great actor-playwright once said of his profession, “The best in this kind are but shadows,” and Eric Bogosian must agree, since he starts his new show [, Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead,] as a magnified shadow on the upstage wall—a right-wing crank, waxing nostalgic over how perfect America was in the '50s and how lousy it is now. Then he's...

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Frank Scheck (review date 18 February 1994)

SOURCE: “Pounding Nails Gives a Big Jolt,” in Christian Science Monitor, February 18, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Scheck states that “Bogosian's success has not dulled his sharpness, but it has instead presented new situations and characters to skewer” in his Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead.]

Eric Bogosian may be maturing, but he is not getting any less angry. The title of his latest performance piece, Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead, is a testament to that. This edgy, wiry, black-clad monologist is the Lou Reed of performance art, chronicling urban lives of disaffection and alienation.


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Nancy Franklin (review date 21 February 1994)

SOURCE: “The Male Animal,” in New Yorker, Vol. 70, No. 1, February 21, 1994, p. 108.

[In the following review, Franklin discusses the ambivalent position of the audience of Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead.]

“Hello, my name is Eric, and I'm a recovering male” is how Eric Bogosian begins one of the twelve monologues in his new one-man show, Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead, at the Minetta Lane. His portrait of this sap, who feels guilty because he can't stop having sexual thoughts about women (“I'm just a man with a penis. And for that I'm sorry,” he writes to one of the objects of his fantasies), is one of the...

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Further Reading


Gerard, Jeremy. “Pounding Nails in the Floor.” Variety 354, No. 1 (7 February 1994): 60.

Gerard criticizes Bogosian for covering the same ground in Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead that he covered in previous work.

Gussow, Mel. “Stage: Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, About a Late-Night Host.” New York Times 136, No. 15 (29 May 1987): C3.

Gussow discusses the intensity of Bogosian's performance in Talk Radio.

Kroll, Jack. “Hanging at the 7-Eleven.” Newsweek CXXIII, No. 24 (13 June 1994): 58.

Kroll asserts that although...

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