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Criticism: The Archaeology Of Sleep

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SOURCE: Rich, Frank. A Review of The Archaeology of Sleep. In Hot Seat: Theatre Criticism for the New York Times, 1980–1993, pp. 289–92. New York: Random House, 1998.

[In the following review, originally published in 1984, Rich pans The Living Theatre and its production of The Archaeology of Sleep.]

As is their wont, the nomadic members of the Living Theatre scamper through the aisles of their new temporary New York home, the Joyce Theatre. And, as is also their wont, they're not content to leave well enough alone. Suddenly, I found a performer poised above me, asking the question, “Are you afraid if I touch you like this?” And, even as the performer's final sibilant lingered in the air, I felt a sweaty kiss on my right ear. Before I could respond, another performer—Julian Beck, the Living Theatre's cofounder, no less—was by my side, asking the same question. The next thing I knew, Mr. Beck had reached his hand under my notebook and placed it between my legs.

Perhaps the only way to avoid such tactile encounters is to extend one leg and send Mr. Beck into a pratfall during one of his earlier journeys up the aisle. I'll never know. Perhaps Mr. Beck had singled me out for special treatment because he identified me as a journalist and was hoping I'd create a scene that would play into his penchant for self-promotion. But feeling more bemused than shocked, I just sat there—call me a pacifist or, if you will, a coward—and started counting the minutes until I could get home.

I also started thinking back to the Living Theatre's last American tour, in 1968. In those days, learned people actually engaged in heated, serious debates about whether the Living Theatre's Dionysian group rites might presage a revolution in world theater. There aren't likely to be any such debates this time. Though Mr. Beck and his partner, Judith Malina, are still turning their old tricks, their gimmicks look tacky now. In 1984, we can see the Living Theatre's sexual assaults for what they are: pathetic and impotent attempts to camouflage the troupe's far cruder assaults on our brains.

The Archaeology of Sleep, the first of four Living Theatre productions in repertory, is a quasi-Adlerian, quasi-Joycean meditation on the “millennium-old mysteries of sleep.” We know this not because of what happens on stage but because Mr. Beck announces his intentions in one of the program's several turgid manifestos. (Ms. Malina's program note is a poem reminding us that “in sleep the linkage of images from the subconscious to the remembered is allowed.”) The program further contains a complicated but useless explanatory list of over sixty scenes and subscenes—each with cute titles like “Dante's Circles” or “Terry and the Pirates.”

The program also lists five sleepers whose dreams we are meant to follow—but you must add five to the theater's seating capacity to get an accurate total of the number of sleepers in the house. It's impossible to tell the official somnambulists apart in any case. The Living Theatre is now a scraggly collection of indistinguishable riffraff; the troupe could be a defrocked Moonie ashram, or maybe a seedy bus-and-truck company of Godspell at the end of a fifteen-year tour. (It's no treat when a half-dozen cast members expose themselves in the coy, living-statues finale.) Some of the performers have only a passing acquaintance with English, and, thank heaven, almost no one can project a line. The company's once-praised mass choreographic movement has degenerated into mass chaos; the slitherings and gyrations could pass for an adolescent game of Capture the Flag.

(This entire section contains 1004 words.)

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at the end of a fifteen-year tour. (It's no treat when a half-dozen cast members expose themselves in the coy, living-statues finale.) Some of the performers have only a passing acquaintance with English, and, thank heaven, almost no one can project a line. The company's once-praised mass choreographic movement has degenerated into mass chaos; the slitherings and gyrations could pass for an adolescent game of Capture the Flag.

Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina have lately been in exile in France—where they are apparently objects of veneration second only to Jerry Lewis. Perhaps that's why they are so out of touch with the avant-garde New York theater. The hallucinatory theatrics attempted in Sleep have long since been perfected by Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, and JoAnne Akalaitis. Next to these artists' most elegant effects, the Beck electronic soundtrack is tinny and their images are threadbare. The big visual conceit in Sleep is a shaky, moving platform referred to as “the train of thought.”

What's more, the rigorously conceived associative links that give other dreamy theater pieces their surreal continuity are nonexistent in Sleep. The sloppy vignettes tumble forward incoherently under Ms. Malina's direction—and require periodic professorial monologues from Mr. Beck to acquire their banal significance. The orgiastic interludes are thrown in arbitrarily, like old songs in a campy nostalgia revue, in a vain attempt to break the boredom. The mystical religious rituals and lame invocations of high culture icons (Artaud, Shakespeare, Wagner) are bald attempts to intimidate the illiterate. A typical witticism is the line “The void is nothing.” A typical chant goes “Slumber! Sandman! Soporific!”—and that's no joke.

And what has happened to the Living Theatre's anarchic cries for revolution? Aside from a pointless mention of Trident missiles, the only political concern of Sleep is a strong antivivisectionist stand against the use of cats in scientific sleep experiments. The point is illustrated by a bit in which one actor, playing a cat, simulates an act of necrophilia with an actor playing a cat corpse. With friends like the Living Theatre, the feline community might just as well go to the dogs.

(1998 postscript)

This was a sad if somewhat comic postscript to what had once been the most admired radical American theater company of the 1960s. The Beck-Malina troupe had almost no resemblance to the company that electrified the theater with Frankenstein some fifteen years earlier. It now seemed instead like a demented cult that had lost its way after too many years abroad and too many drugs. This was, however, the only time that I was actually molested in the theater—an experience so weird I was more stunned than angry. But Doug Watt, my colleague on the Daily News, was so angry about what he witnessed that he offered to go slug Beck on my behalf. I took a pass.

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