It was the social event of 1971, according to Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston: an infamous gathering at midtown’s Town Hall to debate women’s liberation. Feminist writers and provocateurs like Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and Johnston herself confronted the event’s moderator, Norman Mailer, whose notorious Harper’s article “The Prisoner of Sex” had deeply offended feminists of all stripes. Luminaries like Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan attended. But the event was also a disaster for women, Johnston later declared: Simply by agreeing to debate, the feminist speakers had conceded that women’s right to liberation could be challenged at all.
Now that spectacularly contentious evening — as filtered through D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall — is a smart, understated performance piece, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte and staged by the Wooster Group. Venerable company members take on the historic roles: Kate Valk plays Johnston, while Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd embody side-by-side Mailers. The thought-provoking result, entitled The Town Hall Affair, draws on the company’s virtuosic ability to bring historical scenes to contemporary life.
Onstage, the Group’s trademark scenography — a long table, props arrayed in careful disorder — gestures toward the original Town Hall stage. Greer (Maura Tierney), Trilling (Greg Mehrten), and the Mailers await their turn at the podium. Behind them, a TV runs the documentary film, and for most of the hour-long piece, the actors restage, with uncanny precision, judiciously chosen selections from the footage.
This fidelity to the original event — buoyed by the company’s expert performances — captures the debate’s strange theatricality and allows it to throw the sexual politics of our own moment into stark relief. Tierney’s Greer is elegant and wry. Johnston, whose writings form a prologue and epilogue to the performance, represents feminism’s radical edge, delivering a wild ode to lesbianism as liberation (and gleefully groping other women onstage). Fliakos and Shepherd play up Mailer’s condescension toward the other panelists. “I know you’re dying to answer immediately, but you’ve gotta hold it and think about it,” Mailer admonishes the women, after lobbing a particularly insulting question in their direction.
Early in the performance, the pair pause mid-sentence to glare into the audience, as if we were misbehaving, objecting, shouting Mailer down, the way the filmed spectators of decades ago did. We weren’t — but if only we had been. It’s a poignant illustration of how The Town Hall Affair quietly measures our distance from that early-1970s moment, both a nauseating reminder of how little has changed for women and an almost nostalgic glimpse at the kind of intellectually raucous debate that’s hard to come by these days. Despite Mailer’s vitriol, the discourse at Town Hall was sharper, the radicalism wilder, the audience more riotous, than in so much public dialogue today. We could stand to follow suit.
The Town Hall Affair
By the Wooster Group
The Performing Garage
33 Wooster Street
Through March 4