Genuine Illusions of our Times: Richard Foreman in conversation with Magda Romanska
[The following conversation with Richard Foreman was conducted on October 12, 2001, one month after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Some short excerpts were printed in Theater magazine (32:1, Winter 2002), but this is the first time the interview has been published in its entirety. More than a decade after the traumatic events, Foreman’s assessment is as fresh as ever.]
MR: What do you think September 11th changed? What did it change for theater? For New York theater?
RF: It’s too early to say whether there is a deep or just a superficial change. It depends on whether there are continuing events. Right now (a month after the event) people are obviously upset. But the important thing is to respond not only to what happened but to the forces underlying what happened. I.E. what lies deep in the psyche of all men, friends and antagonists and self that can cause such a horrible eruption. I do NOT think it is “anti-patriotic” to examine oneself as well as one’s enemies. But the immediate change is only of the moment.
MR: What do you think is that change of the moment?
RF: Obviously people are scared and angry. But this is no “change”–simply an automatic emotional reaction. I myself had a similar immediate reaction. (I saw everything happen through the window of my loft.) But this emotion, in itself, does not fuel art. At least, not the kind of art that is my own obsession. What fuels my art and the art I love and that seems relevant to the evolved 21st-century situation, is the hands-on, sensual manipulation of materials–language, sounds, shapes–that then lead one into deep psychic territory.
MR: The title of your last work is Now that Communism is Dead My Life feels Empty. Does it still hold true?
RF: Well, not at the moment. Obviously, one’s perception is changed. For the moment, there seems to be a new set of problems. What communism promised was utopia (though it obviously never worked in the real world, that was the dream). After communism failed, the lack of alternatives to global, exploitative capitalism seemed to leave life “empty” for many of us. Fukuyama talked about the end of history. But as of this moment– has history somehow re-begun? What the World Trade Center event should suggest is a simultaneous reexamination of the global capitalism that I do believe helped to produce the arena in which this catastrophe occurred. Though a response to the event was inevitable and proper, it doesn’t lessen the dark fact that we are now commanded by men who are oriented to the oil industry, the right wing and the military. With this configuration of circumstances, there are no “answers.” An artist must simply try and plumb the depths of what’s really happening, what’s really “there” on all levels. The artist doesn’t know how to help avoid tragedy–he or she can only try in some way to make it re-available to the psyche in a form that gives compassion, detachment and mental energy.
MR: Do you think it is a beginning of new history or the continuation of the old history?
RF: It would be very superficial of me to have an opinion at this early stage.
MR: In Manifesto I of the Ontological-Hysteric theater you wrote: “art can’t be based in conflict.” Does this hold true? Are you planning to create any art from this conflict?
RF: I said that in a particular context–America in the early 70s. Obviously, much art in the past was rooted in the experience of conflict But the source of art that I am interested in is not an external conflict–but rather the internal problematics of any form of discourse. Am I now making art from this new conflict? It’s true that right now, in rehearsal, I suddenly find myself staging a scene where a model airplane, piloted by a baby doll, flies toward a large lighted window that looks very much like. . . And my mind of course flashes the horrific image of those two buildings on fire. That image is certainly going to stay with me, and I suppose others, for the rest of my life. In my art, I must somehow assimilate that in a way that gives calm lucidity. One still must live, on all levels.
MR: Do you think that the events will produce an internal conflict in people or in you?
RF: Well, you always must live knowing that such events would, could and might happen. And as horrible at it was, this represents but one single level of reality. While artists should not be denying that level of reality, they should operate on many other levels as well. So whether this event has any effect on them, as artists, in the long run I don’t know. It will affect them as human beings, but an artist should try very hard, in a sense, not to allow his or her “mechanism” to be affected. Even if one’s internal “atmosphere” changes, the mechanism should not alter its focus.
MR: You said once about the 1960’s that “there was genuine illusion of a genuine counterculture.” What, if any, “genuine illusions” do you think America has now?
RF: The role of the contemporary artist has always been to envision a form of counterculture, as an alternative to the repressive atmosphere of the ruling culture. Does the September 11 event supersede this? No. This too shall pass. Eventually. And we will still have the problems we had before September 11–probably much intensified.
MR: In an interview with Arthur Bartow you said of yourself that you are American to the soul, and that “American culture is adolescent culture. I feel that I’m an adolescent.” On your return from Europe, you said: “I have to come back and work out of the dumb, naïve openness that is a great strength of America, but which is very hard for me to accept.” Many critics suggest that September 11th marks the end of American innocence, that, in the words of one journalist “America’s sheltered life comes to an end.” Will American culture still be an adolescent culture? If it is so, what kind of adolescent culture will it be? And how do you think your adolescence will fit into it?
RF: Okay. We ask, “Is this the end of American innocence? Did America’s sheltered life come to its end?” I don’t think so. I think American pragmatism will persist, still wearing the blinders of a “bottom line” mentality unable to assimilate the nuances necessary to adult acceptance of a world of ambiguity and internal contradiction. I am totally sympathetic to the vast majority of Americans who are horrified by this event and want to do something about it, but that suggests no transcendence of adolescence. Americans are upset. Americans are talking about how it is going to be a different country from now on. But there have been previous traumas in America, and somehow we manage to absorb them–on a deep level they are forgotten. And I think that one adolescent aspect of the culture is the very asking of questions such as, “Will this change America forever?” The question is premature–an adolescent hunger for an immediate “fix” rather than an adult realization that we are forever and always in a state of insecure flux.
MR: My question was more along the line of comparison between the European culture which was affected so much by its historical….
RF: Well, since we’ve taken over the world, we’ve inherited the colonial empires of European cultures (through the Military Industrial Complex of which Eisenhower warned). We are the power–and power is ALWAYS corrupt and blind. And at this point, having done their own dirty work in the past–I think European cultures have, perhaps, a more mature understanding of what’s going on vis-à-vis those cultures. Not that we don’t have equally informed intellectuals and scholars in our “ivory tower” universities. But these mature minds are perhaps “able to understand” precisely because they have no real power. Those in power are always and forever (excepting occasional miracles) blind to the ways in which they themselves create situations which must give rise to evil people doing evil things. Such is the sad tragedy of life on this planet.
MR: You wrote in Manifesto II: “one can respond to the world-as-it-is instead of responding to a dream world” And later, in the interview: “I felt that the world that I was living in was a living death, and the real energies were lurking somewhere down there in the depths, but nothing in my culture seemed to allow or recognize those energies. So the only hope was to strip away the facade of this culture that had been planted over the few genuine springs of spiritual feeling that I was sure must be down there, somewhere.” Do you think that September 11th stripped the façade off American culture? If so, what did it reveal about our culture? What façades will your theater strip now?
RF: I don’t think it stripped anything off the façade of our culture. Our responses to this situation are still couched in terms of the ideological given of our particular culture, and I don’t see that really changing. There are always individuals in America who see deeper. But the basic American response–America has to defend itself–okay. But this is no change, this is business as usual. A threat arises. We do the necessary things to defend ourselves against this threat. But this is not a response that will change our psychic orientation to the world.
You further ask–what façades will my theater strip now? Actually, I believe my orientation has been shifting slightly over the last year, and since I myself am in the midst of a reorientation, it is hard for me to tell how this latest event is affecting what I am doing right this minute. As I write this, I am in rehearsals, evolving something. I do know that for six months or so I have been very troubled, because the particular intellectual Western tradition from which I drew so much inspiration, in a way this tradition has begun to seem less relevant to me. I am beginning to be convinced by those who say the digitalization of culture, the eternal co-presence of total information on the web, and the psychic effects of the new style of writing and thinking emerging through computerization–all this will slowly form a new kind of human material replacing what has heretofore been established as “a human being.” Parallel to this, I have been looking for a way to make words and events leap outside normal discourse and ring like a bell sounding deep inside oneself. In a sense I find, much to my surprise, this approach producing moments that resonate with the huge, tragic, mythic event that just happened to us. But again, since the collapse of communism and the full emergence of U.S. superpower status I believe that many of us had already entered a period of intellectual and psychological perplexity.
MR: Let me quote you again: “There is one thing on this planet that I don’t trust: it’s the response of any kind of group of people.” How do you think the events of September 11th will affect your audience? Will it be easier or more difficult to communicate?
RF: I don’t think that it will have any effect whatsoever. It might well affect that brand of theater with larger and more generalized audiences. My audience is limited. People interested in what I do will remain interested in alternative visions.
MR: Do you think it will be easier or more difficult to communicate with the viewers, with their psychic apparatus?
RF: I don’t understand why there should be any difficulty. I may be rudely surprised, but I don’t think so. After all, for thirty years I believe I have been providing “mind-massage” that teaches myself and my audience precisely how to function with lucidity and zest amidst disruptive catastrophe and ambiguity–Keatsian “negative capability.”
MR: Humor is essential for your plays. You want people to laugh during your shows and you encourage it. Some commentators say we have reached the end of irony (and what follows, the end of comedy and laughter). Do you agree with this view? If not, what comedies will American playwrights write about September 11th? What role will laughter play in your theater?
RF: As I respond to all these questions I feel a certain frustration building. Because if I somehow manage to be a courageous, strong person (laughs), well–I don’t think any of this should have any effect on either me or my work. I think there still should be irony in my theater. At rehearsals we have been making jokes amongst ourselves–black humor of the most intense variety–and I think that’s a healthy response. I think that my plays will continue to reflect my feeling that, alienated in the very midst of our society–I don’t “belong.” And since that alienation is the deep source of my artistic energy, when some outside force appears and performs some evil upon us, and we respond “as a group”–that only reinforces my sense that I do not belong. Now, people might say, “Ah, you do belong in spite of yourself, because you share the feelings of fear and upset with all your fellow Americans.” Well, not really. Because the event was so gigantic–of course, there is going to be a momentary emotional bond vis-à-vis that horrific event. But the minute I take the first step away from that event–deeper into thinking about that event or analyzing that event, immediately I again realize that my take on it, after the initial psychic and psychological shock, is different from many other people in my society. So, I still feel like I don’t belong, even if in a partial sense I do. But isn’t this the inevitable position of the artist?
MR: Anything else you would like to add?
RF: Just to emphasize that the interesting artists of the twentieth century are people who do not belong. So, this event has not altered the basic source of their art. Even more radically, let me say something that may at first sound horrible. This event, this thing that happened, should inside the psyche turn into a non-event. People hate us, people want to kill us. In a funny way, this should be a non-event. It has nothing to do with the reality of trying to call into being the electricity of an alternate way of seeing the wide range of dangerous, upsetting “bad stuff” out there in real life before and after a terrorist attack. As a human being, of course I don’t want to be killed. I’d rather be neurotic and upset by aspects of global capitalism, of “bottom line” mentality, of spiritual emptiness and simple-minded response–but art is made out of the way human beings can process terrorist attacks, global capitalism, prejudice, stupidity–not the things themselves but the way of PROCESSING them. Art is the machine that processes that negative material. I don’t think that should or will change because of terrorism, no matter how powerful the momentary image (a negative idol) it creates in our consciousness.
[Further thoughts one week later]
RF: Most theater (which I reject) in some way or other spotlights our daily passions and concerns in order to make us feel that such normal involvement and commitment to the things of our life are indeed the “most important matters at hand.” But the art I am hungry for (perhaps this has been the role of the avant-garde) manages to imply that everything that seems important in our lives is merely “chatter.” Life itself simply makes use of our passions and commitments, so that something else, some other energy or rhythm, rolls on regardless of our plans and belief systems–most of the time even outside our conscious awareness. But this “radical” kind of art. through style and tone, gives a glimpse or intuition of that “totally other” realm–producing the aesthetic/ecstatic response–a brief flash of lightning. It’s for this reason that I believe, finally, that the “event”–horrible and inescapable–is yet strangely irrelevant to the always secret life of art, which is not really tuned to our daily turmoil, but merely uses that turmoil as the self-hypnotizing chatter–the potential fertilizer–of an evolution we can only intuit.