Rochelle Owens first achieved success in the theater in the 1960’s. Because she is both a poet and a playwright, her plays contain poetic imagery. In her Who’s Who in America entry, Owens states that “Creativity, idealism and mental concentration have enabled me to pursue the world of ideas, transforming itself always into art.”
Futz was Owens’s first play to attract significant critical attention. It is about a gentle farmer, Cy Futz, in love with his sow, Amanda. He lives alone and raises vegetables for himself and his sow, but the people of the community will not leave him alone. Majorie Satz, the town whore, fancies him and finally inveigles him into a three-way sexual encounter with her and his pig, but Cy prefers Amanda.
Cy’s amorous devotion to his pig has unfortunate consequences for Oscar Loop, who hears the grunts and groans coming from Cy’s barn. The sounds and sight of Cy’s lovemaking antagonize Oscar to the point that he murders randy Ann Fox, whom he has brought with him and with whom he is engaging in some amorous activity of his own: He is driven insane by the idea of evil and his need to wipe it out. Oscar is arrested for the murder, and subsequently Sheriff Tom Sluck and Bill Marjoram come to arrest Cy, too. Meanwhile, Majorie has become worse than ever, upsetting the Satz family so much that her brother Ned resolves to take matters into his own hands and vindicate the family’s loss of honor.
In jail immediately before his execution, Oscar is visited by his mother, who gives an account of her son’s conception and birth. Oscar is obviously mad, thinking that the “spice-seed insects” he gives his mother have miraculous powers. The suggestions of incestuous feelings between them are quite broad, but Mrs. Loop seems interested mostly in her position of respectability and as an object of sorrow in the community.
Neither Oscar’s execution nor Cy’s murder by Brother Ned has any effect on the sexual mores of the community. Two characters, Buford and Sugford, take Majorie (in a “whorey mood”) with them to a field. Majorie suggests that she and her friends kill Cy’s pig, offering to do it herself when they demur. They go as Brother Ned prepares to kill Cy because, he says, “You make my brains red!”
Futz thus dramatizes and satirizes some of the worst aspects of humankind’s vicious animal nature and counterpoints them to its gentler manifestations. Cy intends no harm to anyone and asks only to be left alone. The members of his community find his bestiality intolerable but are oblivious to the far more damaging consequences of their own animality toward one another, as in Oscar Loop’s treatment of Ann Fox, or in her treatment of him (she leads him on shamelessly, unwittingly preparing the scene for her own murder). The scenes in the field between Majorie and Buford and Sugford are devoid of any of the feelings that Cy has for Amanda; likewise, Mrs. Loop’s feelings for her son are a perversion of genuine motherly love. Nothing softens the conclusion of the play: Owens intends that the full force of human brutality should be felt, and it is.
Clive Barnes, in a review that appeared in The New York Times in October, 1968, called Futz a conventional play about an unconventional subject. The rapid alternation of scenes is hardly novel, and neither is the use of a narrator, who gives stage directions that are dispensable and makes choral comments that are not. The music and dance of the production in New York...
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by O’Horgan doubtless filled out the play, which by itself can hardly take up an evening.
The String Game
The String Game, Owens’s next play, is similarly conventional in structure and in theme as well; only its setting is novel: Greenland. A group of Eskimo are sitting around in a hut playing the string game, guessing at the patterns or pictures that the string makes, usually erotic ones. Father Bontempo, a Maltese priest who is with them, tries to get their minds off sex. He objects to their customs of wife exchange, adult breast-feeding, and other heathenish practices. For their part, the Eskimo cannot understand Bontempo’s objections to what they regard as natural behavior.
Cecil, a half-breed (he is half German), also tries to get the Eskimo interested in something else—business. He suggests various schemes, such as a herring factory, the manufacture of clay pipes, and so on, to help them get ahead. Personally very ambitious, he is baffled by the lack of ambition among the others and enlists Father Bontempo’s aid in a plan to involve everyone in a shoe-selling business about which he learns from a matchbook cover. At first, the Eskimo resist, seeing nothing creative about this venture as compared with the string game; in any case, they are comfortable enough with their government checks. Under Bontempo’s persuasion, however, they acquiesce, though still with misgivings. They recognize only too well how “it’s the outer world that wants to change the inner one. The foreign influences.” When Bontempo dies, choking on the pasta and sauce with which Cecil had bribed him, the shoe-selling scheme dies with him. The Eskimo throw Cecil out and resume the string game.
The evils of foreign influences are dramatized in Istanboul and Homo as well. In Istanboul, set in fifteenth century Constantinople, the crusaders Godfrigh and Baldwin try to make a commercial deal with Saint Mary of Egypt, while Godfrigh’s wife, Alice, and her friend Gertrude compete for the favor of the Byzantine dancer, Leo, also desired by two native women, Mary and Zoe. A robed man watches most of the action of the play in silence. In a religious/sexual frenzy, Saint Mary cuts off Godfrigh’s leg, which results in Godfrigh’s death and Alice’s widowhood. The play ends as Alice lies in bed with Leo, an hour before the Saracens arrive to overthrow Byzantine rule.
If effetism, decadence, religious ecstasy and corruption, and the mutual attraction and repulsion of East and West are major themes in Istanboul, white European racism and greed are the themes of Homo. Bernice is the blonde bitch-goddess worshiped by the horse-man and the Asiatics in the play, while Elizabeth, a fiftyish, fleshy European female, is abused by Asiatic workmen but is also adored by them, especially when she gives them her sugarcoated fingers to suck. Thus, competition is set up between Bernice (the goddess) and Elizabeth (the mother archetype), objects of primal masculine drives. Elizabeth’s husband, the Dutch merchant Gelderen, is also abused by Asiatics, officials who allow him to do business at the price of self-abasement. The time shifts between the mid-nineteenth century and the present, and the so-called Asiatics may actually be played (the stage directions tell us) by Mediterranean types, who speak much better English than Gelderen. Owens thus does not depend on mere verisimilitude to drive home her satiric point about cultural imperialism or to dramatize her themes.
Beclch (pronounced Bek-lek) is one of Owens’s most ambitious and difficult plays and her first full-length one. Here she strikingly unveils the violence, lust, sadism, and brutality that she sees at the heart of perverted human nature. Beclch is a power-maddened woman living in Africa, manipulating Yago and others to satisfy her desire to rule supreme among the poor specimens of humankind that surround her. She is unleashed passion personified, finding no reason at all to keep her impulses in check. Succeeding in making her husband, Yago, king through means both cruel and disgusting as well as (to him) extremely painful, she later becomes bored and persuades him to die by self-strangulation, whereupon she becomes queen. She plans to marry her lover Jose, but he recognizes her for what she is, refuses to participate fully in her activities, and eventually runs away, leaving her husbandless and thus ripe for ritual slaughter. Her depravity is best expressed by her words as she faces death: “I hope I drool like an animal.”
From all accounts, Beclch was a failure, if an interesting one in some respects. Lavishly produced in New York after its original opening in Philadelphia, it was condemned even by usually sympathetic critics, such as Clive Barnes, who found the play badly written or at least badly played and reeking of bad taste. Julius Novick commented on the play’s failure finally to shock because it overshot its mark. If excess is its theme, it should not have been allowed to drown in its own excesses.
The Karl Marx Play
Plenitude is also a quality of The Karl Marx Play, but here Owens exercises firmer control over her material, even as she allows her innate lyricism full expression. Owens all but abandons traditional concepts of plot in favor of a representation of Karl Marx, the man and the historical figure, surrounded by family, friends, and—in the anachronistic character of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter, 1888-1949), the famed black American blues singer—a nagging and insistent conscience. Like the biblical Job, Marx suffers from boils and must force himself finally to go to the British Museum and write his famous Das Kapital. He has reveries about his romantic and aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen, and he thinks of her voluptuous breasts when he should be concocting his theories on economics. Indeed, one of the running jokes in the play is that Marx hates economics and must be driven to write his treatise. His friend and supporter, Friedrich Engels, also emerges as a comical figure. Very mittel European, as the stage directions indicate, he speaks with a German accent and, as the heir to his family’s manufacturing concern, provides the funds on which Marx and his family live. The language throughout the play is vivid, idiomatic according to character, and often raunchy. Songs are frequent and help to emphasize the essential lyric quality of the drama; in fact, the play opens with Leadbelly singing a kind of hymn. Hymns, however, are by no means the chief kind of song the audience hears.
In keeping with its lyric approach to drama, The Karl Marx Play moves back and forth in time easily: One must not look for linear development here. Owens’s exuberance is not confusing but refreshing and enlivening, aided by Galt MacDermot’s music. The Karl Marx Play received many favorable reviews, vindicating Owens’s intentions; she says in her author’s note:The play evolved out of investigations of the circumstances and events, factual and imaginary, of the life of Karl Marx. It is a play with music whose story is told as much by its imagery and tonal “meanings” as it is by its plot. It is a theatrical experiencing of the extreme humanness of Karl Marx, a vision of the man’s spirit and fate.
The experiments of Owens’s poetry pay off handsomely in this work, which, one critic has said, is as much about the creative process as about Karl Marx. Marxism has never appeared less doctrinaire than it does here, thanks to the humanity that Owens reveals underlying the historical facts.
He Wants Shih!
As restless in dramatic experiments as she is in her verse, Owens has continued to explore the frontiers of her art in other plays, such as Kontraption and He Wants Shih! The latter was begun as early as 1967 but waited for eight years to be produced. Written partly in a kind of pseudo-Chinese, it is one of Owens’s most richly poetic dramas; the Chinese words act as images and enhance through sound and rhythm other aspects of the diction. The play’s multiply punning title is ambiguous; in a note, Owens says that Shih is pronounced shur and means “Law, Command, Poetry.” Lan, the young emperor of China and the last of the Manchu Dynasty, strives for complete self-fulfillment to the extent that he is willing to surrender all worldly responsibility in his quest. That quest, Owens says in her author’s note, is “toward the supernatural . . . toward an ultimate transformation: the means of entering the Unseen by force, of driving his way into the Power over the world.” Instructed by his tutor, a monk named Feng, Lan recognizes the male-female duality within himself and actively courts his half brother, Bok. He also loves the Princess Ling. While China is beset by civil war and foreign invasion, Lan pursues his own goals, longing to answer questions of being and becoming. He is more interested in learning magic tricks and acrobatics than in fighting battles; indeed, he advocates disarmament. According to critic Bonnie Marranca, Lan embodies both the Buddhist thought that informs the play and Neo-Confucian teachings on the infinite number of principles, or laws, that make up the universe. By the final scene, having killed Princess Ling with a golden dart, he transforms himself into both Lan-He and Lan-She, male and female, and carries on a dialogue with himself/herself, dancing and singing as appropriate. Ultimately, however, Lan is a tragic figure: Dethroned and imprisoned, he is murdered by rough Chinese soldiers at the end of the play in an ecstasy of self-abasement and poetry.
Reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), Hortten and Abdal—the chief characters in Owens’s Kontraption—are friends living in an absurdist world in which reality and fantasy freely interchange. Their love-hate relationship oscillates between deep devotion and vigorous attacks. Abdal appears most violent and is punished shortly after he suffocates Mr. Strauss, an Albanian/German laundryman who has asked only to sit down and rest for a while, entertaining them with tales of Gastour, his fantasy ideal of himself as a he-man surrounded by lovely ladies. The master deity of the play’s universe, a Chemist, appears and transforms Abdal from “an agreeable bald man” smelling of myrrh and sweet herbs (his own conception of himself) to a square-shaped contraption from the neck down, part mechanical, part animal. Justifying this action, the Chemist says, “I smelled his fear, his longing!” A symbol of technology gone awry, the Chemist boasts that he has now made Abdal into a perfect man, “a blending of nature and graceful art.”
Gradually, Abdal recovers from his shocked state and begins dancing and singing. At first, Hortten is impressed with his friend’s new form and being, but the alternation of devotion and name-calling in their relationship quickly returns, along with more fantasies and the haunting memory of Mr. Strauss. The fantasies are mostly erotic ones and arouse the passions of the two friends. The Chemist reappears and forbids grief: “We put grief in a mudhole!” he declares. At the end, Abdal dies and ascends to heaven, leaving Hortten in intense despair, imploring his friend to come down to him, promising him food and water and good times again in the summer. “There’s nothing up there! In the sky!” he cries, berating himself for not nailing Abdal down while he had the chance.
In her introduction to The Karl Marx Play and Others, Owens proclaims that she writes “so that God will not hate you.” By portraying our “visceral anguish,” as in Kontraption, she reveals humanity in its deepest agonies, but she also believes in human joy and its recovery, as in the lighter one-act play O. K. Certaldo. “Authentic theatre,” she says, “is always oscillating between joyousness and fiendishness.” In her later plays, such as Emma Instigated Me and Who Do You Want, Peire Vidal?, she continues to reject theater as entertainment in favor of experimentation. “We are extremists,” she says of herself and of similar playwrights, “and attempt both in our lives and in our art to explore aesthetic possibilities and to become more open to the profound, endless dimensions of creating art.” Only in Chucky’s Hunch, an epistolary drama written for a single actor, does Owens appear to concede anything (but not much) to traditional conceptions of theater. This successful play, with Kevin O’Connor playing Chucky in both New York productions, was quickly followed by the boldly conceived Who Do You Want, Peire Vidal?, suggesting that Owens has surrendered nothing of her integrity as an innovative dramatist.