Rochelle Owens Owens, Rochelle - Essay

Rochelle Bass

Owens, Rochelle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Owens, Rochelle 1936–

Owens is an American playwright and poet who considers her drama an "organic evolution" from her poetry. Her work is characterized by a reliance on primordial character types, which she utilizes to explore the subconscious side of man. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

"The Karl Marx Play" … is an erratic mixture (a Rochelle Owens mixture) of historical fact, wild fantasy, and bold anachronisms, of songs and dance routines, and of her own peculiar combination of mockery and deep conviction. According to her program note, Miss Owens sees Marx as a latter-day Job—a raging, inspired, sometimes ridiculous Hebrew saint, plagued by boils, money worries, a large, affectionate, and demanding family, and a case of writer's cramp that amounts to paralysis. (p. 58)

The show is not entirely successful. This may be because Miss Owens' style is no longer a surprise, but I doubt it. Somehow, the magnetism seeps away long before the end, and much of the fooling turns foolish and the ardor tiresome. Even so, there is more wit and originality and feeling and good writing here than one finds in many more successful enterprises…. (p. 59)

Edith Oliver, "Marx to Music," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 7, 1973, pp. 58-9.

If Brecht could make a poem out of the "Communist Manifesto," why shouldn't Rochelle Owens turn the life of Karl Marx into a musical comedy? Indeed, how else can you treat Marx in these topsy-turvy times….

["The Karl Marx Play"] converts Marx and Engels, those titans of Western thought and revolution, into Keystone Cops of history, slapstick clowns whose perceptions, profundities and programs are just bubbles burped forth by their dyspeptic souls. The show pivots around the confrontations between poor old Marx, who is trying to overcome a deep-seated inertia and get on with the writing of his big script, "Das Kapital," and Leadbelly, who represents the rising consciousness of the world's black people. Leadbelly (named after the late great American folk singer) sees Marx as the last flatulent gasp of burnt-out white European thought. Rising from the earth itself (a trapdoor in the stage), dressed in funky African-style beads and colors, shaking a pair of gourds like a salesman demonstrating a witch-doctor kit at Abercrombie & Fitch, he puts down Marx in rich riffs of superfly rhetoric. (p. 117)

Much of this is very funny and very smart. Miss Owens is a true theater poet with an animal shrewdness, an authentic member of the wised-up generation. That is the trouble—Miss Owens is so wised up she has no time to be wise. She sees through everything and everybody—Marx is a self-hating Jew who thinks Germany is the hope of the world, a frustrated poet who turned to economics, a man of the people who lusts after the "aristocratic flesh" of his highborn wife. Leadbelly may be the black wind of the future, but he is as much wind as he is black, and even he hankers for the milky charms of Mrs. Marx. Unlike Brecht, who structured his cynicism into a powerful esthetic and didactic form, Miss Owens finally has nothing to give us but the gleeful energy of disenchantment. (p. 118)

Jack Kroll, "On Your Marx," in Newsweek (copyright 1973 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1973, pp. 117-18.

Futz is a very short play—[Rochelle Owens] cannot sustain dialogue—and what words there are are mostly hollow, uncouth, obscene, or even meaningless grunts….

Miss Owens wants us, I suppose, to see in [Futz] the calvary of the nonconforming individual, the greater bestiality of the supposedly normal majority, and society's cowardice in not daring to espouse an animality it secretly craves. But even assuming that we agree with the author's theses—one of which seems to me old hat, one questionable and one ludicrous—they are not couched in a dramatic event, a set of characters, a language that can move any part of us other than the stomach.

The construction of the play is awkward: tiny open-ended vignettes in which the characters burble pretentious non-sense or infantile naughtiness, while the narrator recites the action. The people are all demented, depraved or retarded…. As for the language, it has three modes. (1) Pretentious and preposterous: "sticking his fingers out like stone worms," "how can well I go describing on?" "his knee-bones high like the two hemispheres," "my choppers say yes to your head under their feet." (2) Synthetic hillbilly, a cross between Dogpatch and Volapük: "You make it wus tan it is mentionin' the pig … O o o o so indecent I am, and now the filty dreams 'ill come. O Gods help meee that we shoulda both laid with a sow." (3) Scatolgy, obscenity, baby-talk and grunts: "HAHA-Haaaah-shhhhhushy yeah yeah," 'Yeeeiiiiiey Oyu Big man-bloke!" and much more, less suitable for quoting. Each of these elements is painful in itself; together, they are well-nigh unendurable. (p. 144)

John Simon, in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.