Remembrance of Obies Past

Judges from the last five decades pay homage to the productions and artists they'll never forget

Lifetime achiever: Joe Chaikin at work (1966)
photo: Fred McDarrah
Radical silences

In the mid '70s we gave what someone on the Obie committee labeled a Special 20-Year Obie citation. The awards went to a handful of disparate people. I remember the award to Judith Malina and Julian Beck, but there were other citations: to Ted Mann, Joseph Papp, and Ellen Stewart. I can't imagine Judith Malina and Joe Papp ever having had much of an exchange, or Judith and Ted Mann for that matter. In the eyes of the Living Theatre, Papp and Mann must have represented the Downtown establishment. I worked with Judith and Julian as a press representative for what we called the General Strike for Peace, a radical group of Peaceniks, and the Becks shut down their theater during Strike Week. Joe Papp was a shoot-from-the-hip presence who would take no guff from anyone, but it's hard to see him closing down his major operation for anything less than the 9-11 attack.

Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)
photo: Amnon Ben Nomis courtesy of the Ellen Stewart private collection
Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)

I recall Julian's manner of accepting the citation. He bowed in his courtly fashion but said—nothing. He was in fact too ill to speak. Some years earlier, when the Becks received an Obie, he did speak and said that the Living Theatre must have been doing something pretty awful, otherwise why would these straight-arrow Obie guys be so pleased with them?

Let me simply add that when Joe Chaikin received an Obie some years ago, he had already suffered his stroke and said nothing as Nancy Gabor went up to the podium with him. Joe and Julian had worked together and been close friends for years. Joe had sat on Julian's bed when Julian was hospitalized at Mount Sinai. Julian was still speaking then. They were radicals in the best sense of the word: They believed that theater ought to tunnel into the deepest part of oneself, into what Jung termed the collective unconscious where we come in contact with one another. One thinks of the work of Artaud and Grotowski in this context. Now one might say the two silent Americans were being called home, hopefully to heaven, to wait for the rest of us radicals so we could raise hell together, in joy and in silence. ARTHUR SAINER

Ritual visions

When I hear a director speaking glibly of serving the author, of letting a play speak for itself, my suspicions are aroused, because this is the hardest job of all. If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure its sound from it.

—Peter Brook

Greek tragedies in particular demand conjuration if they are to speak in the theater. These plays are the oldest we have, the farthest from us in time, and in other ways as well. There is tremendous power locked up in them—but it is power that only extreme methods can release. Perhaps that is why experimental directors have found them so fascinating. Fragments of a Trilogy, directed by Andrei Serban, with music by Elizabeth Swados, consisted of The Trojan Women and Medea by Euripides, and Electra by Sophocles, performed in repertory, employing magical modes developed by Brook and others. It was a tremendous act of conjuration.

The boldest choice was to perform all three plays in ancient Greek, mixed with Latin and other languages, none of them understood by the audience. We were forced to listen in a new way, to meaning created not by words as words, but by words as sheer sound—something, of course, that opera has been doing for centuries. (Of course opera was invented, accidentally, by Renaissance intellectuals who were trying to reinvent Greek tragedy.) The actors sang, chanted, keened, whispered, moaned, shouted: not at random, but with disciplined expressiveness. After 30 years I remember the chorus at the end of The Trojan Women, backs bent, singing their mournful anthem—"Tro-i-as"—as they marched into exile. I remember Priscilla Smith, magnificent as Medea, spitting hatred at Jason with sounds that perhaps never before came from a human throat.

Ritual theater was all the rage in the '70s, and produced a great deal of solemn nonsense. But Greek tragedy is genuine ritual theater, written for presentation at religious festivals. We no longer worship Dionysus, not literally anyhow. But within the vast and funky darkness of the La MaMa Annex, Serban and Swados and their dedicated actors conjured something hieratic and primal, and with it a sense of awe seldom found nowadays in the theater or anywhere else. JULIUS NOVICK

Politics as drag: Ron Vawter in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1992)
photo: Tom Brazil
Real presences

Joe Chaikin was mostly delighted to get the first Obie for Lifetime Achievement—but he had reservations. The problem wasn't his usual wariness of success and the "bribes" it brought. After all, the recognition came largely from the Off-Off community he had helped to create. And announcing the award, Ross Wetzsteon had described Chaikin not only as "the only imaginable choice" but as the "conscience of us all." Chaikin was moved by the tribute. The problem was the name: "It sounds like I'm already dead."

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