Rochelle Owens was born Rochelle Bass, daughter of Maxwell and Molly (Adler) Bass. Reared in Brooklyn, Owens was educated in New York City public schools and was graduated from Lafayette High School in 1953. She was married to David Owens in 1956 and divorced in 1959. She began writing poetry early. When George Economou saw “Groshl Monkeys Horses” in a 1960 issue of Yugen, he invited her to submit some of her poems to Trobar, which he had just begun editing with Robert Kelly. She sent him a packet of verse, many of the poems appearing in Trobar (II), including “Humble humble pinati.” Trobar Press also brought out her first book of poems, Not Be Essence That Cannot Be (1961), simultaneously with Paul Blackburn’s The Nets. In 1962, Owens and Economou were married, and many of her books subsequently have been dedicated to her husband, a poet in his own right, who has also appeared in some of her plays (he played the Robed Man, for example, in Istanboul).
Although written several years earlier, Futz was first produced by the Tyrone Guthrie Workshop in Minneapolis on October 10, 1965, where it played for a single performance. Later revised, it was produced in New York by the Café La Mama Theatre Troupe on March 1, 1967. During this period, several other plays were produced in New York and elsewhere. On February 12, 1965, the Judson Poets Theatre produced The String Game, and on September 12, Istanboul. Andre Gregory produced Beclch at the Theatre of the Living Arts with the Southwark Theatre Company in Philadelphia on December 20, 1966. The controversial production was at least in part responsible for the termination of relations between Gregory and the Theatre of the Living Arts.
By then, Owens’s association with Café La Mama had already begun, and Homo was taken on tour, to Europe in the summer of 1966, where it played in Stockholm, and later in New York. O’Horgan’s production of Futz followed early the next year and was made into a film by Commonwealth United in 1969, O’Horgan again directing and Owens contributing additional dialogue for the screenplay. Portions of The String Game and Beclch were televised by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). On April 12, 1969, Café La Mama staged two plays: The Queen of Greece, a curtain raiser, and Homo.
Owens continued writing poetry during this period and began giving readings of her verse throughout the United States, including appearances at universities such as Princeton and Columbia. She has made several recordings, reading both her own verse and some of the primitive and archaic poetry that has obviously influenced her writing.
In the 1970’s, several new plays by Owens were produced, most notably The Karl Marx Play, which opened at the American Place Theatre in New York on March 16, 1973. For this production, the original one-act version, first published in Stanley Richards’s The Best Short Plays of 1971, was revised and expanded to a two-act play. The music for the play was composed and directed by Galt MacDermot, with Mel Shapiro in charge of overall direction. The production was honored by the New York Drama Critics Circle. He Wants Shih! opened the spring season of Theatre Strategy at the Gate Theater in New York on April 1, 1975, and in 1977, the American Place Theatre performed Emma Instigated Me as a work-in-progress, expanded from the original version published in 1976. Chucky’s Hunch, a play for a single actor, first opened Off-Off-Broadway at the Theater for the New City on March 22, 1981, with Kevin O’Connor. It was revived, again with O’Connor, on February 18, 1982, when it opened at the Harold Clurman Theater in New York. Later in the same year, Who Do You Want, Peire Vidal? opened at the Theater for the New City on May 8.
Owens’s chief interests remain poetry and drama, and doubtless each nourishes the other. She has written several unpublished works, including the radio play “A Guerre Trois” (1991), and she has written and produced video works, such as “Oklahoma Too” (1987). Although many of her published works in the 1990’s were poetry collections, a volume containing four of her plays, Plays by Rochelle Owens, was published in 2000. Her reading performances at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum are popular with the artistic community of New York.
Rochelle Owens emerged as an early leader of the Off-Broadway underground experimental theater of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Her use of primordial character types, scatological and obscene language, and perverse sexual relationships, including bestiality and sadomasochism, was surreal and shocking. This free use of language and sex, juxtaposed with wit and humor, satirized traditional American values and reflected the social unrest and free-speech movement of the day.
Born to postal clerk Maxwell Bass and Molly (Adler) Bass in Brooklyn, Rochelle graduated from Lafayette High School in 1953. She then attended the Herbert Berghof Studio and New School for Social Research, and she immersed herself in the developing Greenwich Village counterculture. There she met and married David Owens in 1956. Her poetry had begun to attract attention, so when her marriage ended in 1959 she retained the name Rochelle Owens professionally. One of her early poems, “Groshl Monkeys Horses,” led Trobar editor George Economou to publish her first collection of poetry, Not Be Essence That Cannot Be. She married Economou in 1962.
Owens’s guttural and violent poetry is often described as “evolving organically” into her plays. Her free use of language and time, with characters spewing raw emotion and humor, resulted in 1965 productions of The String Game and Obie Award-winning Istanboul at the Judson Poets Theatre, Beclch at Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts in 1966, and Homo in 1966 at the Café LaMama Theatre. The Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis gave Futz a workshop production in 1965, which led to a revised script being presented at the LaMama in 1967, directed by Tom O’Horgan. That production drew outrage, critical attention, acclaim, and Owens’s second Obie Award for Best Play.
Futz tells the tale of Cyrus Futz, who falls in love with his sow “because she is good.” The story becomes an allegory as the outraged townspeople kill Futz because of this gentle relationship while being blind to the animalistic nature of their own destructive lives. All of Owens’s plays depict decadence and corruption presented in outrageous allegory. The String Game dramatizes the destructive nature of foreign intervention as a German capitalist chokes to death while trying to involve a group of Greenlanders in the shoe business. Beclch shows the destructive relationship between active and passive temperaments as a tribal queen destroys men who withdraw from painful acts but is destroyed herself when confronted by a man even more odious than she. Istanboul and Homo depict scenes of dominance and submission, countercultural merchants who are allowed to trade by paying the price of self-abasement, and mother and sex-goddess archetypes pitting in competition for base male drives.
Owens’s overriding theme is the eternal conflict between the peaceful people of the world and the repressive people who violently oppose their simple lives. Her early dramatic career reached its height with the 1973 production of The Karl Marx Play. It best demonstrates her reputation as a poet of the theater, and in it she crafted a play which made its point largely by poetic imagery, “tonal meanings,” and the juxtaposition of experiences meant to create a “theatrical experiencing of the extreme humanness of Karl Marx.”
Even though Owens is most widely known as a playwright, she has been perhaps more prolific as a poet. Her poetry is also intended to elicit strong emotional reactions through both its content and form, including the placement of the words on the page. She has been featured in myriad anthologies, magazines, and journals and has routinely published collections. The majority of her early verse was gathered in volumes published between 1992 and 1997. She notes that in her work she is responding to an oppressive childhood, a destructive sexist culture, and a need to interpret technological developments through art. She has taught at the University of Oklahoma, been writer-in-residence at Brown University, and remained an active lecturer and performer of her own works to audiences around the world. She returned to the theater in 1981, receiving her third Obie Award for Chucky’s Hunch, an emotion-laden series of unanswered letters written to a former wife. Rochelle Owens continues to experiment with language and form, always attempting to shock her audience into contemplation through the juxtaposition of emotional extremes.