Theater archives

Thus Spake Foreman


Like all of Richard Foreman’s recent pieces, Bad Boy Nietzsche! has an innovative aspect: Unless you count Sophia, goddess of wisdom, no Foreman play has ever centered on the life of a historical personage. The result is as startling as if, say, Agatha Christie had suddenly published a book about U.S. presidential campaigns. At the same time, more change simply means the same thing: If Christie had written such a book, you know damn well that somebody’s head speechwriter would have been found stabbed through the heart in a New Hampshire motel. And a Richard Foreman play, even with a character named “Friedrich Nietzsche” in it, is inescapably a Richard Foreman play, no more, no less. Where a more conventional playwright would try to convey the facts of Nietzsche’s life, or spell out his important ideas by dramatizing their evolution, Foreman refracts Nietzsche’s experience and thought through the prism of Foremanism. His is the aesthetic matrix, his the language, the visual imagery, and the frenetic, farcical tone.

The surprising part, probably, is the extent to which all of these are informed by Nietzsche’s life and ideas. I say “probably” because I’m unqualified to speak on the matter. Like Cicely Cardew, I know that I look quite plain after my German Philosophy lesson, and consequently avoid Nietzsche as I do all abstract tomes originally written in the language of the Goths. The only work of his I have actually read is The Birth of Tragedy, to which Foreman regrettably does not allude, though as always he uses a good deal of music, which Nietzsche claimed was tragedy’s spiritual source. Beyond that, I know about Nietzsche only that he inspired a tone poem by Richard Strauss, that he composed mildly attractive post-Schubert songs, and that he first admired Wagner but later became a notorious anti-Wagnerian. I also know that he was confined for a time in a madhouse, but since I equate German philosophy with lunacy anyway, this just seems like business as usual.

In any case, Foreman’s event, for all its distinctive Foremania, is suffused with an awareness of Nietzsche that seems all the more authentic for not being rational and literal. A writer who tried to encapsulate Nietzsche’s thought in a more orderly way would undoubtedly have ended up with something either sententious or oversimplified, and possibly both. But Foreman, though the most mental-centered theater artist who ever lived, is also one of the least cerebral, a fact of which I’ve spent decades trying to convince people who won’t go to his work because they’re afraid they’ll be lectured to, or that they won’t “understand” what’s going on. Narratively, they won’t, because Foreman’s plays offer a narrative dynamic with the conventional substance removed. But understanding is always less important than experiencing. Foreman’s is a theater of pleasure and event—it’s the popular theater of a century ago: the Feydeau farce, the vaudeville sketch, the hairsbreadth escapes of melodrama, the spectacle, the magic act, the forbidden allure of burlesque in the old sense of the word. The idea that, bombarded with such pleasures, people still feel the need to ask what the end result “means” has always seemed faintly comic to me; they would never think of asking it at a concert or a county fair. That Foreman’s county fairs take place in his brain, and that not everybody wants to spend 70 action-packed minutes inside Richard Foreman’s brain, is understandable; there are people who feel the same way about Tintoretto or Kundera or Charles Ives. In terms of emotional response, art is always a crapshoot, and—take note, ye college-bred generations—emotional response, not theoretical understanding, is what art is about in the first place. “Purgation by pity and terror” is not a rational concept; if it were, tragedy would have been born out of the spirit of legal ethics instead of music.

Which brings us back to Nietzsche, who’s been having a hard time making his way into this review. But that’s because he has an equally hard time making his way through Foreman’s event. At the start, as he inky-dinks jovially onstage, you might think he hasn’t got a care in the world. Then an astute child asks him if, just possibly, he isn’t the real Nietzsche, and all that self-content crumbles instantly. Besides that preternatural child, there’s one of Foreman’s recurrent hostile interrogatory figures, identified here as The Cruel Man, and, in due course, there’s a throaty-voiced seductress, billed in the program as The Beautiful Lady. Add a quartet of invasive silent figures, costumed as a blend of Orthodox priests and Hasidic scholars, and Foreman’s cast is complete.

In Turin, Nietzsche apparently experienced some kind of revelation on seeing a carter whip his horse; consequently, there’s much play with a variety of prop horses and an elaborate cat-o’-nine-tails, along with more usual Foreman props like cakes, knives, and skulls. For some reason, maybe the Nietzschean concept of the Superman, there are a great many giant cutouts that suddenly appear and disappear, always linked to the concept of shipwreck, perhaps a metaphor for Nietzsche’s mental breakdown. In any case, there are giant clothed legs that stride on, and giant bare legs that seem to be drowning, with a giant fish leaping in between them.

Since Nietzsche’s theories went into the can of mixed nuts that served as Hitler’s brain, there is some byplay with a prop loaf of “holy bread” that our hero says contains “jewels,” which The Beautiful Lady mishears as “Jews,” triggering a discussion about whether it’s permissible to eat bread containing Jews or not; the silent scholars reappear at one point during this wearing ostentatious yellow stars. What with Jörg Haider making headlines every day, the sight gives the piece a topical chill unusual for Foreman. But to call Bad Boy Nietzsche! a “political” piece would be no more accurate than to call it a philosophic drama or a biography. It’s just what happened to Richard Foreman’s inner awareness while thinking about Nietzsche. If Foreman sees himself, or Nietzsche, as a “bad boy” for straying from the point, or for having highly theatrical fantasies of sex and violence (and the punishment that inevitably follows) when he ought to be thinking sequentially—well, Nietzsche strove to get beyond exactly those categories of good and bad. Failing, he sank into insanity, the pathos and horror of which Foreman’s surreal variety stage optimally conveys. The evening’s real triumph is not that it informs you about Nietzsche, but that it makes you want to inform yourself. As a result of my seeing it, I probably will read some Nietzsche. And I will almost certainly think, while doing so, about the strange bedlam of noises and visions, of lust and pain and frenzy, that Foreman has perpetrated in his name. His performers, eager and precise as always, make up an exceptionally solid and appealing ensemble this time around: Gary Wilmes, Sarah Louise Lilley, Kevin Hurley, and Juliana Francis, with Hurley’s acidic deadpan adding a fresh flavor to the proceedings.