Obies 2009: Saying Goodbye to Tom O'Horgan, Paul Sills, and More

To recall some great theater artists gone this year means looking at why we make theater

They dimmed the lights of Broadway this year for Horton Foote, for Bea Arthur, even for super-agent Sam Cohn, but not for Tom O'Horgan, who once had four shows running simultaneously on that over-celebrated street. This didn't particularly surprise me: O'Horgan's fame and fortune were made on Broadway, but his glory lay elsewhere. He made the rock musical a viable form and, in so doing, permanently altered Broadway's idea of the musical theater. But I doubt that, if anyone had asked, O'Horgan would have called this his ultimate goal in life: What we achieve is never exactly what we meant to do when starting out.

They didn't dim the Broadway lights for Paul Sills, either, when he died last June, though his story-theater productions caused a great stir on Broadway in their time (he more or less invented the form), and the artists he nurtured through his decades of work with the Second City might be said to have created America's prevailing comic style. But such honors were probably not important to Sills, who, like O'Horgan, would have been startled, perhaps even annoyed, if anyone had referred to him as "a Broadway director." What both men had in common—what they shared with so many of the artists on the sadly long list of our necrology at the Obie Awards this year—was a passion for the spontaneity of theater, for the idea that we love it because it is ever-changing, always fresh, always open to surprise.

Within this rubric, O'Horgan and Sills couldn't have viewed their art more differently—though, in fact, one of O'Horgan's earliest jobs in New York was providing music for the New York branch of Sills's Second City troupe, in a club across from Washington Square. Sills basically saw theater as a narrative form, telling stories that, whether in sketch comedy or fairy tale, animated the myths we all carry around inside us. O'Horgan's idea of theater was visionary and poetic; he dreamed of creating, and nearly did create with La MaMa Troupe, a modern equivalent of the medieval bands of strolling players who, with infinite resource, could tackle any theatrical task that arose as they performed, and could vary the superficial details of a performance without damaging the substance of the work they were conveying.

A passion for spontaneity: La MaMa Troupe perform Rochelle Owens’s 
Futz, directed by 
Tom O’Horgan, 1967. Pictured are performers Seth Allen and Mari-Claire Charba.
Abisag Tüllmann/La MaMa Archives
A passion for spontaneity: La MaMa Troupe perform Rochelle Owens’s Futz, directed by Tom O’Horgan, 1967. Pictured are performers Seth Allen and Mari-Claire Charba.

In their differing ways, both O'Horgan and Sills cherished the theater's resilience, its gift for fluidity. Sills thought nothing of dropping into a show after it had been playing a few weeks and posting a new running order backstage; when the tech crew grumbled, he would explain that he didn't want the cast to get used to thinking of the show as a routine. Similarly, O'Horgan found ways to infuse the relatively mechanized structure of a Broadway musical like Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar with a free-form, kaleidoscopic quality that kept it constantly fresh. The debate that has flickered up recently over the extent of his contribution to Hair's success mostly misses the point: He never claimed to have written the show (though no doubt he gave its authors some significant hints), and he knew quite well that someone else (a commendable artist, Gerald Freedman) had directed a reasonably well-received production of it before he became involved. What he added was the free spirit that made the show so different from the musical theater's business as usual. Because the wider public needed that sense of liberation, just then, exactly as it needed Sills's return to a directness of narrative, what had seemed "experimental" and "downtown" suddenly made for success, and the directorial tactics involved entered into the mainstream vocabulary, though few have used them with O'Horgan's or Sills's degree of imagination.

Imagination, the force that sets the theater free, is the hardest of all qualities to preserve. Other art forms—novels, painting, film, composed music—may seem to embody it forever, but in each, the examples that still speak with their original power are notoriously few. Like the texts of plays that have ceased to interest the theater, they lie stored in archives, to be bypassed in favor of the rare items we return to time and again. Granted, unjustly neglected works exist—why else would there be archives at all?—but the justly neglected outnumber them by far.

The theater, in a sense, was set free of this archival weight at its very beginning, when Roman Empire scholiasts selected the few ancient tragedies—by only three out of a large number of playwrights—that they felt would make optimal teaching tools, and scraped the papyri clean of the rest for reuse. We have Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; whether our life would be immeasurably enhanced by having even one complete script by Agathon is anybody's guess. Menander, who served as the model for the great Roman comic playwrights and pretty much everyone thereafter from Molière to the TV sitcom, was known to the world only through a jumble of fragments until archaeologists found a complete text of the Dyskolos in 1958; it hasn't noticeably raised his status.

Performances disappear from the world's memory even more rapidly than plays, notwithstanding the innumerable electronic devices our time has invented to preserve them. Yes, it would be nice to have some of the great occasions of the past downloadable or on DVD. I'm sure I'm not the only theater lover who's wished himself, with a time machine and a camcorder, back in the Globe Theatre—I mean the one the Burbage brothers built—at the world premiere of Hamlet, or even further back, in that Athenian amphitheater at the first performance of the Oresteia. Who wouldn't want the YouTube clips of Molière as Arnolphe and Orgon, Duse in The Lady From the Sea, or Pauline Lord in the first act of Anna Christie? Sorry, no can have. Archival material, especially with more recent events, can supply a lot of detail, but the essence will be absent. Even the most sophisticated archival videos, of which I've watched many, never feel like more than approximate indications of what occurred. You had to be there, as they say.

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