Richard Foreman began his theater career as a playwright and progressed toward international recognition as one of the most influential auteurs of the contemporary American avant-garde. Foreman’s writing style helped to establish what has come to be called the postmodern aesthetic, in which character no longer exists as a theatrical element, and the Theater of Images , in which aural and visual elements of a production become more important than the literary. His scripts for the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre represent only the workings of his mind while he writes them.
As a designer, Foreman constructs a playing space jumbled with objects and sensory input, which he then obscures from the spectator by shining blinding white lights into their eyes. Although he still presents Ontological-Hysteric Theatre productions, over which he maintains absolute control, Foreman has begun to direct other classic and contemporary plays, yet his unique directorial style is always apparent in his work.
Foreman established his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in 1968, in a long, narrow loft that he converted into a performance space in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. The name Ontological-Hysteric, although chosen rather capriciously, has come to symbolize many of Foreman’s preoccupations. In both his playwriting and his subsequent staging of his own texts and those of other playwrights, Foreman’s goal is to materialize the workings of consciousness and to make spectators aware of how they perceive their world.
Foreman sees consciousness as a perceptual mechanism that filters the world through the senses, and he believes that habit has taught people to limit their sensory input. To free them to explore their perceptual potential, Foreman constructs a rigorous attack on habitual ways of seeing the world and seeing art. Foreman’s early Ontological-Hysteric Theatre works, such as Sophia = (Wisdom) Part III, Pain(t), and Vertical Mobility, Pandering to the Masses, and Rhoda in Potatoland (Her Fall-starts), insistently aimed to reshape spectators’ perceptions by focusing on form and structure. He created a perceptually challenging environment that forced the audience to participate actively in constructing the theater experience.
In contrast with realistic theater (which strives to provide catharsis and to resolve its ambiguities and questions in a happy conclusion), Foreman’s art avoids moral issues and the linear development of traditional plots. He forces spectators to expend their energies on “blasting” themselves into productions in which the entire framework of traditional theater—plot, characterization, and settings—has been discarded. The required perceptual work replaces the usual theater experience, in which the audience passively awaits catharsis through identification with a hero.
Foreman was considerably influenced by the theories of Brecht, whose alienation effect forced spectators into critical contemplation of the actions presented in his epic dramas. Brecht discouraged the identification processes of more realistic theater, which he believed rendered spectators passive and unable to move toward political change. Brecht’s stagings were presentational. He used placards to announce his drama’s episodes, intentionally interrupting the seductive narrative flow. His performers were taught to present quoted characterizations that maintained the separation between actor and character and gave the spectators room to contemplate the play’s meanings.
Where Brecht encouraged critical distance in order to allow political self-determination, Foreman, however, was emphatically apolitical: He wanted his spectators to contemplate purely perceptual concerns. His work, moreover, departs from traditional Brechtian techniques. Particularly in his early Ontological-Hysteric Theatre pieces, preferring to work with nonactors, he discouraged his performers from acting as anyone other than themselves, and he directed them to deliver their lines in a flat monotone. Sometimes, performers’ dialogue was recorded on tape and played back during performance, dissociating them from their voices. The performers moved through a series of complex, carefully choreographed movements and tasks. Actors in Foreman’s early productions were merely demonstrators for his perceptual experiments.
Foreman established his unique style while other artists were also disrupting the conventions of traditional theater. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Performance Group, the Living Theatre, and the Open Theatre staged their productions environmentally, using the whole theater instead of only the stage behind the proscenium. All three encouraged their performers to interact physically with the audience and created texts that were often didactic, reflecting the radical political sentiment of the era.
Foreman, a staunch formalist, was at that time diametrically opposed to what he called such “expressionistic” theater. He maintained the proscenium/spectator arrangement, carefully orchestrating his stage pictures in static or slow-moving tableaux behind the proscenium frame; he prohibited his actors from interacting with spectators and maintained the fourth wall convention, in which spectators expect to feel as though they are looking into a world from which they cannot be seen; and he offered no didactic meanings for his spectators to consider from a political perspective. Within these conventional outlines, however, Foreman’s theater was revolutionary in other ways.
Along with Robert Wilson and Lee Breuer, Foreman’s work helped coin the term Theater of Images. Despite his theoretical concern with language, Foreman’s theater is distinctly nonliterary. The Theater of Images increases the value of its visual and aural elements, displacing the text’s primacy as the motivating principle. As a result, plot and character lose their places as the predominant bearers of meaning. Because the Theater of Images is dominated by sights and sounds that occur in space and time, within the immediate theater experience, sense impressions and the present-tense manipulation of perception become primary.
It is impossible to understand the full impact of a Foreman play by reading it on a page, because the experience of time and space is so important to his work. The atomization of movement and motion allows spectators’ minds to roam freely, considering each part of the stage picture. The carefully constructed tableaux allow theatrical time to pause or even slow to a standstill, so that the spectator can choose which elements of the complex picture to relish visually and which objects to connect with others placed around the space.
Foreman takes a phenomenological approach to the stage space and his props. His aesthetic is similar to Gertrude Stein’s, whose notion of a “continuous present” informed her landscape plays, which also stripped things to their essences. Wrenched out of context, objects become things without associations that impose meaning. To this end, Foreman constructs his scenography to render the ordinary extraordinary. Potatoes in Rhoda in Potatoland (Her Fall-starts) become larger-than-life. Clocks, such as the grandfather clock in Sophia = (Wisdom) Part III, become animate objects that enter the playing space. People become objects related to other objects. The potatoes that come crashing through windows in Rhoda in Potatoland (Her Fall-starts) are as much performers as the human beings inhabiting Foreman’s cerebral landscape.
Spectators are also kept from finding meaning in Foreman’s plays by the intentionally disorienting, uncomfortable process of perceiving the work. Lights shine directly in the spectators’ eyes, making it difficult to see the stage. Loud noises startle the spectators out of passive contemplation, jolting them back into full awareness. The texts constantly comment on Foreman’s process of creating them, calling attention to the arbitrary nature of words themselves. Snatches of familiar music are used to seduce the spectator into a feeling of ease, then are abruptly curtailed.
Foreman’s scripts are plotless, self-reflective meditations on the act of writing. Although nothing ever happens in the conventional sense of action and linear narrative in a Foreman play, his scripts are often humorous and ironic, and they invite spectators to share in their witty investigations of how meaning is being created or withheld in the present theatrical moment. Where Brecht’s writing was episodic, Foreman’s is atomistic, a succession of brief, discrete moments intended to replicate the workings of his mind in the process of writing his plays.
Although there are no carefully crafted, fictional characters in Foreman’s work, each person onstage represents a part of Foreman’s consciousness. In his early work, a group of characters reappeared in different productions over several years. His works from this early period resembled something of a soap opera, in that the plotless productions never gave spectators the pleasure of a satisfactory ending. The character Max, whom some critics saw as Foreman’s fictional counterpart, was a kind of artist figure constantly defining himself intellectually in relation to Rhoda. Rhoda, who was always played by Foreman’s lover, Kate Mannheim, and who had a direct influence on his writing and staging, represented the archetypal woman. She symbolized the dark continent of sexuality and repressed psychology that could not be explained by rational male intellect. These strict gender dichotomies, which some feminist critics find misogynous, are very apparent in Foreman’s early work and, despite minor alterations, operate throughout his oeuvre.
Although Foreman’s theater is clearly ontological because of its obsession with questions of consciousness and being, his theater is aptly named “hysteric” in that it also deals with a more surrealist world of dreams, sexual desire, and anxieties. Foreman uses the ubiquitous Max and Rhoda to represent his consciousness and fears. Rhoda, in particular, represents Foreman grappling with the nature of sexuality and a...
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