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.

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.

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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