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

If it disappears so fast, if even preservation is only approximation, why make theater at all? Some will say they do it to gain fame and money in their own time. We know what their work looks like; we saw a lot of it during the era of unbridled capitalist frenzy that's just gone by, when all of civilization seemed to center on big deals and celebrity gossip. That bubble having burst, our lives and our theater may now find themselves differently centered, looking for the meaning that lasts, living in the non-material joy—the joy that artists like Sills and O'Horgan addressed—of the moment that will vanish, leaving behind only what we make of its meaning.

Fame and wealth are lovely things; I'd like some, and I'm sure so would every other working artist I know. But they aren't what keeps us at our work. Surely it wasn't greed for fame that kept the late Horton Foote, at 90-plus, sitting in relatively uncomfortable Off-Broadway theaters taking notes during previews when he could have been relaxing in the comfort of his own. And surely it wasn't a desperate craving for wealth that led the late Eartha Kitt, at a similarly ripe age, to stand her ground like a trooper in the cramping Off-Broadway circumstances of a disaster called Mimi le Duck. No, the theater is something else. Fame and money are fine. But the vividness of the moment, and the meaning the moment embodies, are rather better.

They're better, too, for the health of the world, if you'll pardon my playing aesthetic nutritionist for a moment. Thinking about people who've gone from us, and about their faith in the vanishing moment, I found I couldn't keep my mind from wandering—especially when I scanned the news headlines—to a different sort of vanishing act: the one staged by big financial crooks like Bernard Madoff. Until the Bush-era bubble burst, Madoff and his ilk were celebrities of a sort, financial wizards who made huge sums appear magically in the accounts of the well-connected, displaying the glamorous fruits of their wizardry in their lavish lifestyles, showing their magus-like benevolence in their equally lavish gifts to foundations and other good causes, including theaters. Their magical moment, and the witchcrafted money that came with it, have vanished as irrevocably as David Garrick's performance of Hamlet, though history will probably not view them in the admiring terms it usually accords to Garrick.

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.

The theater, dealing openly in a product that disappears as it goes on, never to be recaptured exactly, must be a more honest place than the financial market, as well as a more exciting one. In the wake of our fiscal collapse, according to a recent news story, the small-town banks that remain among our more stable financial institutions are now busily promoting the idea that it's good for the banking business to be thought of as dull. It's when the theater is dull and the financial markets turn flamboyant, you might say, that our system gets into trouble.

One of the artists on this year's memorial list whom I find myself missing most was also one of the most flamboyant, the playwright Ronald Tavel, who, to my mind, ranks high on the roster of the unjustly neglected, though one can see where his outrageousness would prove a problem to the mainstream. (He was, for example, the kind of writer who would name a gay activist character in a political play "Rob Kuntz.") Tavel's plays, bawdy and fleshly, had a paradoxically metaphysical aspect: Their cheerful coarseness always turned out to be a gateway to the intangible. I once invited him, as my guest, to a Broadway show I was reviewing, which I had seen previously in a regional theater, and the blunt brashness of which I thought the author of Gorilla Queen and Boy on the Straight-Back Chair might enjoy. To my surprise, its raucousness left him deeply dismayed, even saddened. "But isn't the theater," I asked him, "supposed to give the spirit a physical embodiment?" "I always thought it was the other way around," Ron replied. "It's about transcendence—turning the flesh into spirit."

I'm uncertain as to whether he was right or not. I know that our neo-Ponzi schemers were able to work their ultimately catastrophic magic because of the giant change that came into the world, over this past decade, hand in hand with capitalism's unrestrained dementia. The Internet and its attendant activities—e-mailing, Googling, Twittering, social networking, chatting, IM-ing, downloading-on-demand—have changed and are changing every aspect of human relations. Our civilization has become "virtual." The majority of our one-on-one contacts are now computerized, carried on in the absence of each other's bodies, faces, and often even voices. The theater—a place of three-dimensional solidity that, by its transience, links us to the spirit's invisible world—has to be both more than virtual and less. It has to build, each night, a context in which an audience wants to live for a time, and it has to fit that context into some larger sense of aliveness that all the virtual contacts and all the downloadable data on the Web can somehow never supply. Its immediacy, its defiant reality, the ultimate invisibility that makes it mysterious—taken together, they make the reason we do it, the reason we remember those who did it well, the reason we so look forward to those who will come to amaze us next, by the way they give meaning to the vanishing moment.

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