Experimental Theater Analysis

The United States

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The history of American experimental theater is conventionally dated from 1958, the year that Joseph Cino opened his coffeehouse in New York City, Caffé Cino Begun mainly as a haven for artists and offering exhibits, poetry readings, and a café menu for its growing clientele, Caffé Cino soon expanded its fare to include, first, play readings and then productions of complete plays, evolving into a regularly operating theater. Perhaps its most enduring contribution to the development of experimental theater in New York was its influence: Other companies began to emerge following the Caffé Cino example (notable among them Ellen Stewart’s Café La Mama).

Thus was Off-Off-Broadwayborn, reflecting some of the features of what had been called Off-Broadway (equity waiver, small house, low budget) theater, but containing one relatively new element: the will to experiment, to break rules—both aesthetic and, often, social. Small companies proliferated during the 1960’s and 1970’s, many achieving little more than the thrill of the ephemeral moment of artistic freedom (sometimes all that was desired), but a few achieving fame (desired or not). To this liberated milieu were attracted a new wave of writers whose work has left an enduring stamp on the American experimental theater: Jack Gelber, Rochelle Owens, Ed Bullins, Leonard Melfi, Adrienne Kennedy, and the brilliantly prolific Sam Shepard. The work of others, such as Arthur Kopit, Lanford Wilson, and Amiri Baraka, has also continued to nourish the growth of this theater. Still others, though perhaps less widely known, have been integrally involved in the development of experimental theater, both in the United States and abroad; it is these latter writers whose work will be discussed.

The Living Theatre

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In 1959, a watershed event occurred: the production of Jack Gelber ’s The Connection by the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina The history of the Living Theatre actually begins in 1951, when Beck and Malina, recently married, began theater productions in their New York City apartment. The couple soon moved into the Cherry Lane Theatre but were forced out because of fire-law violations. In 1954, they relocated to a rented loft. Forced out again in 1956 because of safety violations, they eventually reopened in a building of their own at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Avenue of the Americas.

One of their most significant offerings was Gelber’s The Connection, a production that set important precedents for the emerging experimental theater movement in at least two respects. First, it dealt in a free and forthright manner with the still somewhat taboo subject of drug addiction. Second, it challenged the barriers that separate actors-characters from audience in conventional theater environments. It is not that the methods that Gelber and Beck and Malina used to accomplish this effect were new—their antecedents could be found in Antonin Artaud, Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht, and others. The particular distinction of The Connection was, rather, its ability to bring some of these unconventional techniques together in an especially forceful and memorable fashion, at a time that was marked by growing restlessness both within the theater community and in American society at large.

As The Connection’s audience entered the theater, they encountered an uncurtained stage—something relatively unknown at the time—with actors sprawled about in assorted postures (one sleeping on a bed, one slumped over a table). As the audience would soon discover, these were junkies waiting for their “connection”—the fix to be brought by their pusher, Cowboy. Others, musicians in this jazz play, were dozing in their places, also waiting for Cowboy. After the audience was seated, two men came down the aisle and jumped onto the stage: Jim, a film producer, and Jaybird, a writer. Jim explained that they were doing a documentary on narcotic addiction and that they had assembled the junkies for this purpose, with the bait of the fix. This was, then, a...

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Ellen Stewart and La Mama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ellen Stewart founded Café La Mama in 1960, partially influenced by her interest in the Caffé Cino operation. Like Cino, a former dancer, Stewart had no experience in theater production. With her background in retail clothing and fashion design, she opened a boutique in New York. From the boutique, Stewart (“La Mama” to some of her friends) began working with writer Paul Foster to produce plays, and Café La Mama came into existence (licensed as a café to accommodate city codes). Like Beck and Malina, Stewart was plagued by city officials and was forced to change the location of her theater a number of times. Like the Living Theatre, Café La Mama went to Europe (under Tom O’Horgan’s direction) and returned highly acclaimed. Back in New York, Café La Mama’s production of Rochelle Owens ’s Futz pr. 1965) received Obie Awards. Stewart took Futz and Paul Foster’s Tom Paine (pr. 1968) on a second trip to Europe and returned with more raves. Suddenly Owens, Foster, O’Horgan, and Stewart were established figures in New York theater.

Throughout this period of its growth, Stewart dedicated her time and energy exclusively to the enterprise, which was sometimes barely existing. She performed every task from making soup and washing floors to selecting the plays for production and introducing each performance. She was completely in charge. The company continued to grow and to change and to move. In 1969, operating from a...

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Joseph Chaikin

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Joseph Chaikin began appearing in roles at the Living Theatre in 1959. He acted in The Connection during the first European tour and performed the role of Galy Gay in Brecht’s Mann ist Mann (pr. 1926; A Man’s a Man, 1961) on their return. In 1963, he left Beck and Malina and founded his Open Theatre The main focus of Chaikin’s work has been on the actor, not the character—what Chaikin called “presence.” The performance itself concentrated on the “inside”—the interior of the person and the situation, a kind of subtext distinguished from the “outside” illusion of conventional theater. Chaikin’s actors are required to work on “inside-outside” techniques, moving, for example, back and forth from nonverbal to verbal contexts.

The main productions of the Open Theatre were generated through workshops featuring such techniques—collectively developed performances to which the writer contributed but did not dominate. Terry’s Viet Rock was developed in Open Theatre workshops, though it was presented in 1966 at Café La Mama. Other major productions were Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Serpent (pr. 1967); Terminal (pr. 1969), with a text written by Susan Yankowitz; and The Mutation Show (pr. 1971), written by Chaikin and Roberta Sklar. The Open Theatre toured extensively both in the United States and in Europe before closing in 1973.


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The Performance Group

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Richard Schechner formed the Performance Group in 1967 at what he called the Performing Garage on Wooster Street in Manhattan. Schechner, a university professor, had moved from Louisiana, where he had been involved with a theater group and had edited the Tulane Drama Review, which also moved to New York, becoming The Drama Review. Like Chaikin, Schechner had been influenced by Grotowski’s laboratory methods. Another main Schechner interest was environmental theater , a chief dictum of which was that “all the space is used for performance; all the space is used for audience.” His Dionysus in ’69(pr. 1968; based on Euripides’ Bakchai, 405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781) epitomized Schechner’s Performance Group doctrines. Developed in rigorous workshop sessions, Dionysus in ’69 was language-transcending ritual theater in which the audience was encouraged to participate—chanting, dancing, or disrobing when the actors did. The “environment” consisted of three- to five-level scaffolding around an irregular central space. Audiences climbed the scaffolding or sat on the floor. Actors moved in and out of character, sometimes speaking and acting on their own, as themselves. Dionysus in ’69 was followed by Makbeth (pr. 1969), Commune (pr. 1970), and a variety of other works, including some by outside writers, such as Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (pr. 1972), Ted Hughes’s adaptation of Seneca’s Oedipus (pb. 1968), and Jean Genet’s The Balcony (pr. 1979).

After Schechner left the group in 1980, it continued, quite actively and prominently, as the Wooster Group , directed by Elizabeth LeCompteand including some of the former Performance Group actors, notably Spalding Gray. Under LeCompte, the Wooster Group came to be identified with experimental plays that straddle the boundaries of traditional theater and other media. The use of film, video, and electronic sound has been a trademark of LeCompte’s productions of the early twenty-first century.

Influential Regional Companies

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many other companies were noteworthy in the development of American experimental theater. The San Francisco Mime Troupe begun in 1959, has continued to generate excitement with its abrasively original work. Quick to point out that its title does not refer to pantomime but a “miming,” or satirizing, of the powerful in society, the company has become internationally known for its free street theater and, in 1987, won the Regional Theatre Tony Award. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has continued to produce its experimental branch of political theater and live music. It has reaped community awards for its Youth Theater Project, which seeks to involve troubled inner-city children in production and...

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American Theater in the 1990’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The proliferation of small companies on both coasts and across the United States notwithstanding, the need for social protest and the new, sometimes shocking techniques with which to express that protest dwindled by the early 1990’s. In their place occurred a consolidation of sorts that is symbolized in the move, for example, of Akalaitis from the Off-Off-Broadway Mabou Mines to the Off-Broadway Public Theatre In 1992, when Joseph Papp, founder and guide of the Public Theatre for many years, died, Akalaitis took over the leadership of the theater, but under her direction the theater lacked the energy and creativity that characterized it at the height of the Papp years. In fact, the play The Sisters Rosensweig (pr. 1992),...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jean-Claude van Itallie, Belgian-born, arrived in the United States in 1940. His first play, War , which had opened in 1963, was given a production in March of 1965 at the Caffé Cino. In April, America Hurrah! (the Motel sequence) was performed at Café La Mama. War had introduced some of the techniques that would characterize van Itallie’s work: symbolic action, expressionistic mixing of visuals and dialogue, an emphasis on highly stylized antirealism. Motel, hich would later be combined with Interview (pr. 1966) and TV (pr. 1966) to complete the America Hurrah! trilogy, remained, in the view of many, the play with which van Itallie would be most readily...

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The Formalists

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Representing another side of experimental theater were the formalists—writers such as Robert Wilson, Alan Finneran, and structuralist Michael Kirby. These were often artists of the minimalist and postmodernist schools who strove to free their subjects from all traditional, received content and styles, reducing them to their elementary forms. Of those working in theater, many came from other artistic disciplines (Wilson was originally a painter, Finneran a painter-sculptor, Kirby a sculptor).

Wilson ’s Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds , many of whose members were physically disabled, provided a rich environment for this work. By giving his performers freedom of interpretation, he was able to explore new and unexpected...

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The Twenty-first Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The beneficiaries of experimental fervor (new feminist, gay, and African American dramatists), who in the 1960’s would have had a hearing only Off-Off-Broadway, continued to have their works produced in the early twenty-first century in more comfortable Off-Broadway and even Broadway theaters. Since the 1980’s, their subject matter has become increasingly accepted by regular theatergoers: for example, Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig with its three middle-aged Jewish sisters; Kramer’s The Destiny of Me (pr. 1993), which, like his The Normal Heart (pr. 1985), sought to turn AIDS into a political issue and was a radical message by one of the founders of the activist gay group ACT UP; August...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the fall of 1955, Peter Brook was astonishing traditional Shakespeare audiences with his bold version of Titus Andronicus, starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. n the same season, Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954) was being given its London premiere. A few months later, in 1956, George Devine formed the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. A revolution was under way in English theater, and John Osborne, Harold Pinter, John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, and Tom Stoppard (to name a few of the major writers) began their domination of the stage. Also by 1956, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre...

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England in the 1960’s and 1970’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Besides those already mentioned (Theatre Workshop, Belgrade Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Traverse Theatre Workshop, People Show, CAST, Quipu, Royal Court, and Mercury Theatre), the main Fringe theaters by 1968 included the Arts Laboratory in Drury Lane, formed by Traverse founder Jim Haynes; Ed Berman’s Inter-Action (which would spin off other influential sections such as the lunchtime Ambiance Basement, The Other Company, and the children-oriented Dogg’s Troupe); and William Gaskill’s Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre. David Hare and Tony Bicat (later joined by Howard Brenton, Snoo Wilson, and Trevor Griffiths) began Portable Theatre ; Nancy Meckler, also American, founded Freehold ; and the Pip Simmons...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Howard Brenton rsquo;s first play, Ladder of Fools, was performed while he was a student at Cambridge in 1965. This was a sprawling piece, which Brenton himself has described as “jokeless, joyless.” From that point on, however, his work would be marked by tight, spare construction and fast-paced dialogue liberally sprinkled with humor. His next play was a farce titled Winter Daddikins (pr. 1965), written after his graduation from Cambridge; Wesley (pr. 1970) and Gargantua (pr. 1969) were among the plays that followed. In 1969, Brenton wrote his first full-length play, Revenge (pr. 1969), exploring what would become, for him, a central situation: the criminal versus the police in a...

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British Fringe in the Twenty-first Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Like New York’s Off-Off-Broadway, by the early twenty-first century, London’s Fringe had lost some of the vitality of its heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The experiments, however, continued. Experimental theater remains at the vanguard of performance art in both countries. The “Theatre of Cruelty” experiment that Brook and Marowitz conducted in 1964, for example, had a direct influence on Brook’s 1965 triumph, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (Marat/Sade), which in turn has had a continuing pronounced influence on the general development of theater in Europe and in the United States. For his...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Blumenthal, Eileen. Joseph Chaikin: Exploring the Boundaries of Theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Perceptive study of this influential American experimental dramatist, whose life is inevitably tied to the history of Off-Off Broadway theater. Bibliography and index.

Brater, Enoch, and Ruby Cohn, eds. Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Essays include critical analyses of works by playwrights Maria Irene Fornes and Tom Stoppard, and a perceptive overview of experimental theater from 1959 to 1989.

Craig, Sandy, ed....

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