Foreman's Film Society

New York theater's philosopher king goes to the movies

Foreman, who received a MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1995 after three decades of writing and directing, emphasizes that he's not abandoning theater for film. The idea is to create a new dialectic between what's filmed and what's live, between the pictorial and the animate. While the form ("a living, moving wall of people doing certain symbolic activities, and then a few live punctuations in front of that") is new, the proposed project extends many ideas Foreman has previously explored in plays—perhaps most explicitly in his 1987 Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good, but also his wordless 2002 work Maria del Bosco, a symbolic meditation on mortality and other themes. "My plays have always been dominated by images of death," he says. "I think of the theater, because of its repetitive nature, as being about the death of real spontaneity."

The film-performance project might sound strikingly bold for an artist who has never particularly liked mixed media in the theater. Foreman concurs: "I think it's going to be very hard for me. I'm not convinced that I can do it. And if I fall on my face, I feel, 'Well, God, I've made a lot of plays in my time and don't I have the right to fall on my face?' But I'm really looking to do this for more than just an eccentric variation for one year. I'm committed to this. The footage I shot in Australia really interests me."

In Pearls for Pigs, Foreman's 1997 meditation on the theater and the psyche, a self-dramatizing Maestro (played by David Patrick Kelly) longs for an ultimate release from the theatrum mundi of his own making. The Maestro envisions an enormous "destructive finale" involving all his dwarfs and circus clowns, but doubts if he can make it happen. "That was me, of course," the director now says with a sly smile. "I just haven't been able to figure out how to pull it off for many years."

The maestro at work
photo: Richard Mitchell
The maestro at work

The Gods Are Pounding My Head might satisfy Foreman's qualm-filled Maestro: Not only does Foreman's theatrical finale mark the close of an essential chapter in American theater, but it also portends the end of Western civilization as we know it. The Gods features two "lumberjack Messiahs" (Jay Smith and T. Ryder Smith) chopping down everything in sight and referring to their fading moment in the sun. For agents of destruction, though, these ax-swinging lummoxes are "quiet, lost, and not very effective," the director observes. "They're having about as much success being lumberjacks as a certain country is having bringing democracy to a certain other country out there."

Despite allusions to today's world situation, Foreman hopes the production will evoke a far larger decline. "More than any of my other plays, this one talks about exhaustion. I think it's an attempt to make an energizing evening out of exhaustion rather than bitterness and anger." It points not only to individual tiredness, but to an exhaustion of the West in general. "For many years I've felt that the rich language of Shakespeare, and even a lot of 20th-century dramatists, is no longer available to us. We no longer write letters, we do e-mail; we talk on the telephone, we use a reduced vocabulary, we talk in telegraphic style. The old culture with Goethe-like figures who had the whole world in their head and spoke with great eloquence and were wise—I don't think that operates anymore. I didn't expect the play to take any political overtones, but much to my surprise I think it does reflect the coming decline and fall of the West."

The Gods evokes a world now inhabited by what Foreman calls "pancake people." These are "people who are 'thin,' because instead of including all the history of Western knowledge inside our heads, and shaping a vertical castle out of that knowledge, we have it all at our fingertips with computers, and we don't have to keep it inside of ourselves. By following all these bits of information we become spread horizontally, like pancake people."

Rather than risk dwelling in a pancake world, Foreman will move on, drawing on the perspectives, landscapes, and energies he finds in journeys around the globe—which, after all, is not flat. He hopes his new projects will cultivate philosophical ambiguities between film and stage representations of life: "Film is a copy, theater is another kind of copy, and I'm interested in discovering something to exploit in that relationship." One possible theme for this decidedly un-flat venture involves people meditating on the sky in different countries. That would make a fitting new beginning for Foreman, who has sometimes described his work as an attempt to discover paradise through the theater. His old quest for "the unfathomable and unsayable" will continue, but with a parting nod to productions that gave us powerful glimpses of the ephemeral.

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