Epilogue to The Stage as a Scene of Thinking: Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theatre [1998]

(Markus Wessendorf)


In the 1970s critics occasionally interpreted the stage productions of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre as theatrical tableaus the composite elements of which represented different facets of Foreman's own consciousness. Bonnie Marranca, for example, offered a key to the interpretation of Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation by attaching definite and fixed meanings to the characters and props on stage—overlooking, however, the play of constant displacement between the different theatrical sign systems.


The actors [...] are representatives of figures of his inner life [...]. The writer MAX [...] embodies Foreman, the creative artist. RHODA is the thematic representative of sexuality. Together they manifest the interplay of the intellectual and the sensual which dominates the play. [...] Toward the end of the production a man on a bicycle peddles furiously (he represents the energy force of Knowledge) [...].[1]

Scattered about in this world are fruit, an oversized horse and giant pencils, croquet balls, stuffed animals, a pistol, snake and bicycle—all of which have symbolic value in Foreman's psychodrama. These are the symbols of childhood, of violence, of power and fear, temptation and sensuality.[2]


James Leverett, on the other hand, defined Rhoda in Potatoland as an "allegory of all human consciousness,"[3] relating this characterization to the disjunctive structure of Foreman's plays.


The sense that Foreman's plays are allegorical—albeit disjointedly so, with no clear relationship to a hierarchy of ideas [...].[4]


            As I have tried to show throughout this book, the desire for a mental peak experience, a high presence of mind, is the basic motivation underlying Foreman's artistic productivity. This motivation can be regarded as a clear deviation from the motto of Foreman’s early work which he had stated in his first Ontological-Hysteric Manifesto in 1972, namely to produce machine-like artifacts that would no longer be “fueled” by desire.


FIND FUEL OTHER THAN DESIRE! Nervous energy? Basic hum of life? Vibration? (Desire kills vibration, gets too crude)[5] 


In The Audience, Herbert Blau describes his impression that, despite the use of all kinds of alienation effects and the emphasis on the representation of mental processes, "the materiality of personal emotion,"[6]—namely Foreman's own—could be sensed distinctly in the productions of the Ontological-Hysteric theatre already in the 1970s. Blau ironically comments upon the dialectic of desire that informs Foreman's early motto, a dialectic that affirmed and manifested itself in the paradoxical desire for "less desire" as well as for an art-machine that, no longer dependent on “supply” by the (Lacanian) Other, would operate like a perpetuum mobile.


Despite the devices of Alienation in his work, what Foreman wants is [...] a perpetual motion machine running on less and less fuel, which is to say, less desire and lack, though in recent work—on his texts and others—he seems to be desiring that somewhat less.[7]


In his oeuvre, Foreman relates the failure of his respective attempts to achieve a mental peak experience to concepts of an absent God, namely, to the negative theologies of Kabbala and Gnosticism. Foreman persistently refers to these religious concepts in his work, despite their fundamental resistance to scenic representation. Foreman’s intent to turn the theatre, as a Gesamtkunstwerk of the senses, into a space that would allow for the indication of the sublime and sacred ("VOICE: [...] to those jokers who don't even 'try' to indicate the holy, to them I say—bah!, also"[8]), opposes radically the implicit iconoclasm of any negative theology. Foreman's attempt to evoke divinity through a kind of negative dialectic—by staging, at least, its very absence—depends heavily on allegory as a privileged form of negative representation in Bettine Menke's sense.


'Negative' 'representation', such as allegory, insists that in representation no relationship between appearance and essence is given.[9]

[...] with negative representation in this sense a 'Negative Theology' seems not to be implied: the first will torpedo the latter, insofar as it is not a 'representation' of 'anything', but as re-presentation or staging it itself becomes the model or scheme of the non-(re)presented which it stages.[10]


            With reference to Craig Owen's essay from the 1980s, "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism," I want to elaborate several traits now which characterize Foreman's work as allegorical. The tendency of allegory, as described by Owens, to stipulate beforehand the direction of its own interpretation and exegesis,[11] can also be detected in Foreman's work. Above all, the voice from off-stage but also the display of individual words as part of the set design as well as slide projections of writing in the early productions of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, draw the spectator's attention to particular details of the mise en scŹne. Even if the frequently ironical use of these devices invites the spectator to approach the authority of—and behind—the diegetic gestus with a critical rather than compliant attitude, it is impossible to ignore this authority: the spectator is compelled to react to its suggestive power.




            Another notable characteristic of allegory that applies to Foreman's attempt to document his multi-layered mental processes in writing and subsequent staging as well as to Stein's landscape-concept consists in the projection of a complex spatial and/or temporal structure onto a linear sequence.


[T]he result, however, is not dynamic, but static, ritualistic, repetitive. It is thus the epitome of counter-narrative, for it arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events.[13]


Roman Jakobson has described the transfer of the paradigmatic onto the syntagmatic level (which can be compared to the projection of the metaphorical axis of language onto its metonymic dimension) as the "poetic function" of language, clearly distinguishing it  from prose, realism, and (by implication) corresponding forms of drama.[14] The interconnectedness of all themes, motifs and levels of signification in Foreman's play- and performance texts can therefore be described as poetic, as a structure that excludes any narrative order.

            Other aspects of allegory, its imperfection and tendency towards accumulation, can also be discerned in Foreman's work. On one hand, there is no closure of representation— neither in Foreman's texts nor in his stage productions—that would obliterate the material traces of the original creative process. On the other hand, the plays can be considered an accretion of fragments, of splintered words and sentences, while the set design in its superabundance of props and objects frequently evokes the impression of a theatre storage space of colliding historical eras. The pictographic quality of Foreman's stage productions also adds to their allegorical character.


In allegory, the image is a hieroglyph; an allegory is a rebus—writing composed of concrete images.[15]


Frequently, Foreman makes use of words and letters (for example, Hebrew letters) as primarily visual objects in his set designs, while pictures appear as pieces of writing that need to be deciphered. Literality as allegory's mode of expression also dominates all stages of the creative process leading to an Ontological-Hysteric Theatre production.

            While Benjamin considers ruins the allegorical emblem par excellence,[16] this function is attributed to writing as a form of corporeal abjection in Foreman's work. Foreman compares his own writing to a trace of blood on paper ("and that effort sometimes bleeds onto the page on which I am writing as a little injunction or reminder to myself"[17]), justifying the use of Hebrew letters in his stage sets by their excremental shape.


I really think the Hebrew lettering for me has psychosexual associations, almost. [...] [T]he letters themselves are so sensual, and the shapes themselves, almost seem still, almost erotic, in the way that they curve and swirl, and yet not with that flow of Arab writing, but are sort of these, well, I don't want to be disgusting, but it flew into my mind, these pieces of shit. These entrails, almost. But I really think that's the power behind these letters that I see on the wall.[18]


            According to Paul de Man, the "allegory of reading" as an irreducible part of any text" can only tell of the "impossibility of reading."[19] Foreman's stage productions, however, can be read as allegories of a permanently frustrated metaphysical desire, a craving for presence, meaning, completion, and transcendence of earthly existence, which can never be fulfilled. This failure is a frequent motif of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre as much on a semantic as on a formal level. Semantically, the plays often deal with the desire of one or more characters (for example, Rhoda, Madeline X, Samuel, Eddie, the men in Lava, etc.) for a transcendental experience, which is also referred to as "mountain climbing," "Poetry City," "category three," "paradise," etc. On a formal level, though, this topic will be expressed allegorically on all levels of signification of the performance text, so that the spectator has to undergo an effort comparable to that of one of the characters to integrate the offered information into a closed picture. The inevitable failure of this effort, however, is integral to Foreman's theatre from the very outset.

            The failure of the metaphysical desire is already explicit in the conflict between symbol and allegory on the level of the initial writing process itself. In this process the most direct writing-down of a dictation from the Other is supposed not to lead to an arbitrary, but to a motivated sign. Foreman's work results from the attempt to turn writing into an experience of the symbolic, where the measure of time would be Walter Benjamin's "mystical now," and "where the symbol would absorb sense into its hidden and, if you could say so, woody interior."[20] This attempt, however, even on the most basic level of Foreman's writing and staging process, does not (despite occasional peak experiences  of the writer) produce transcendental symbols but,  merely, traces of writing on paper: allegoresis and waste. What the gestus of Foreman’s handwriting mimetically documents is the seismography of his unconscious drives, the semiosis of the unconscious. To translate them into the mise en scŹne is of high importance to Foreman, even if the signified of the text may get distorted in the process.

            The "ontology" of Foreman's theatre aims less for a scenic representation and interrogation of the “thingness” of objects and bodies as for a (mis-)representation of the Lacanian Other as a location of signification as well as the foundation of language, thinking and the subject. The Other, traditionally comprising presence, logos and phoné, is characterized as absent (the ringing telephone, which no one ever picks up) as well as mismatched by representation:  as off-stage voice, partner on the telephone, photography or film still of the author, empty letter or godly icon (figure, mask or picture). Frequently, Foreman also makes use of utterances that are supposed to capture the precarious and ideal moment of presence linguistically: the "Ah!"(-leph) of recognition, the preparation for speech immediately preceding articulation (wide opened mouth), etc.

            Marranca's association of Foreman's work with a post-literary "Theatre of Mixed Means," as proposed by Richard Kostelanetz at the end of the 1960s, needs further explanation. The stage productions of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre certainly break with those kinds of theatre that can be characterized by a linear plot, psychologically motivated characters and conventions of realist representation. (However, this break with convention occurs on a purely aesthetic level without automatically implying a questioning of the hierarchical structures of traditional theatre production.) Though Foreman's theatre might seem primarily to be an adequate reflection of changed ways of perception in a technological age, it is really an attempt to expand the notion of reading by turning it into a multi-sensory experience: as an extension of the book into the four-dimensional. Someone who has little practice reading polysemantic texts will struggle to find access to the aesthetics of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. A recipient lacking the desire to co-produce the meaning of a (performance) text will probably perceive Foreman's theatre as a variegated, but arbitrary sequence of tableaus. That person will be shut off from the “experience of ecstasy” that results from a rapid skimming through texts (in the sense of Abraham Abulafia). Foreman still conceives of thinking as based on alphabetization, not on the post-literary immateriality of computer images. Space, sound, light, bodies, and letters should be experienced in their material weight, and the visual field as a densely textured, almost tactile object. Against this background Foreman's theatre is clearly more aligned with the traditional Gutenberg Galaxy than with the new age of Virtual Reality.

            Frequently, Foreman's work has been associated with postmodernism. For example, in his book Postmodernism and Performance, Nick Kaye elaborates a concept of postmodernism that, in Heidegger's sense, is not an overturning (Überwindung) but a "turning in to itself" (Verwindung) of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried’s theories of Minimalism that were very influential in the 1960s. According to these critics, the task of Modern Art was not only to lay bare its own legitimating foundation (i. e., the terms and values on which it was based) in the work itself but also to become in this articulation of artistic essence the latter’s authentic expression. To Kaye, who bases his argument on the theories of Jean-Franćois Lyotard and Giorgio Vattimo, postmodernism occurs as a movement which is directed against any kind of categorization and fixation, and, therewith, against the attempted fundamental legitimization of art. Kaye regards postmodernism as a phenomenon that equally uses and abuses, integrates and undercuts the concepts that it explores.


The postmodern in art and performance, here, occurs as a making visible of contingencies or instabilities, as a fostering of differences and disagreements, as transgressions of that upon which the promise of the work itself depends and so a disruption of the move toward containment and stability.[21]


Foreman's work can be considered postmodern insofar as it "turns" its own origin in Minimalism "in to itself" by theatricalizing the permanent failure of any concept that aims at the revelation of essence. This failure is not affirmed, though, but accepted as a tragic necessity turned grotesque. Altogether, the underlying impulse of Foreman's aesthetics as a project dedicated to the experience of the spiritual in art is still more closely linked to the modernist tradition than to postmodernism.

            In the context of Kaye's discussion of postmodernism, he describes Foreman's stage production of Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation as a sequence of elements which, at first, seems to suggest a more traditional plot-structure, but which finally turns out to be a mere succession of fragments, false starts, new beginnings and jumps between different logical orders. Although the production playfully alludes to different characters, narratives, symbols and discourses, in Kaye's opinion it really combines divergent elements into a collage that prevents any possible dramaturgical closure.


Not only the structure, but the design, set construction, performance style, as well as the self-reflexive nature of the moment-to-moment progression of the piece, all serve to put the conventional function of its elements into question.[22]


From the discovery that Foreman's productions, as opposed to traditional theatre stagings, shun the closure of representation and refuse to exhibit a homogenous semantic and formal structure, Kaye implies that the interrelation between different levels of signification and segments is not based on any specific syntactic code and that, therefore, Foreman's performance texts deny any readability at all. As other critics before him,[23] Kaye does not see any semantic or formal level in Foreman's work that would be worth being analyzed. This is one of the main reasons why the vast differences among the performances of Foreman, Michael Kirby and Robert Wilson, which Kaye compares in his book, never become even slightly evident. Instead, Foreman's theatre is reduced to the aim of confronting the spectator on a merely formalistic and structural level, leaving the spectator to interpret the performance through his own effort. Kaye infers from the impossibility of an unanimous explanation of Foreman's productions the general absence of any further-reaching semantic references. This does not merely imply that the spectator would quickly give up all attempts at reading the performance (because the futility of such an effort would be evident after a short time); it is also a very uncritical acceptance of Foreman's own ideas as put forth, rather polemically, in his "Ontological-Hysteric Manifestoes." In his early writings, in which he explains the intended aesthetics of reception of his productions, Foreman presupposes a model spectator of his theatre, one who is not familiar with the concepts as elucidated in these writings, who watches a performance of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre for the first time, and who experiences its style as a kind of aesthetic shock, which leads to a radical break with his hitherto existing way of reception. Practically, though, the dialectic of performance and reception of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre proves to be more complex. Spectators who expect Broadway entertainment or stage realism are not likely to lose their way and end up in Foreman's theatre—and even less likely will they be "converted" to the "better" (theatre). Most spectators seeing a Foreman production for the first time have some vague pre-information about what to expect. Others, though, have dealt with Foreman's theatre conception more closely and watch the performance with the expectation of judging the relevance of this conception by its theatrical realization. The spectator, again, who attends performances of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre regularly will probably respond to a texture of recurrent formal features and semantic motifs. As I have tried to demonstrate, Foreman suggests numerous ways of interpretation to the spectator that neither enable a totalizing decoding of his work nor invite fully disjointed or arbitrary readings, but can rather be understood as linguistic variations and scenic masquerades of the ideas and concepts tying his work together—establishing a textual structure that works against the disjunctive formal elements of his plays and stage productions.

            Richard Schechner's reproof of the artists of the American theatre avant-garde in the early eighties, that they were apathetic about passing on their experiences and techniques to subsequent generations,[24] would not apply to Foreman nowadays. Since he moved to the 300-year-old St. Mark's Church in 1991, the Ontological, a stage which can be reached by a side entrance and is located on the first floor behind the apse, is open to young newcomers in directing (up to now Sophie Haviland, Kevin Cunningham, David Herskovits, Robert Cucuzza, to name but a few, have directed their own productions there). Foreman, who now has his own stage again after working as an itinerant director for ten years, will probably not give up Saint Mark's Church any time soon. His retreat to the attic of the oldest church in Manhattan, which has continuously been in use as a religious meeting place,[25]  is of peculiar interest wit regard to a semiotic theory of performance places (in Marvin Carlson's sense[26]). Foreman, who in the sixties started his work in the artist-and-gallery quarter SoHo and initially positioned himself aesthetically in this context, has, with his move to St. Mark's Church, transferred his theatrical activities to the East Village, which has always been the location of most Off-off Broadway theatres in New York (P.S. 122, La Mama, The Living Theatre). For a long time St. Mark's Church has been designated as a "historical" location of experimental American theatre: "Theatre Genesis," whose founding members included Sam Shepard, already worked here in the early sixties. A major part of the New York art scene has slowly shifted location from boutique- crammed SoHo to the Lower East Side and the East Village, which, on account of its heterogenous proliferation of "art galleries, dance clubs and studios," its mosaic of "Polish, Puerto Rican, Ukrainian and black working class, yuppies and punk culture" and the "intense socialist, communist and anarchist activities"[27] at the beginning of the twentieth century, has always been considered as a site of alternative culture and an impoverished bohemian life-style. The change of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre's performance spaces from art lofts in the seventies to the attic of a church in the East Village in the nineties, in this context reflects not only the change in Foreman's economic situation (his production of the Threepenny Opera in 1976 was a commercial success never since repeated), but also the change of his aesthetics from a more phenomenological and minimalist interrogation of things to a metaphysical desire articulating itself on all semiotic levels of the performance text. As the church, the gothic cathedral in particular, was the major space for the performance of liturgical drama in the European medieval city,[28] so the Ontological in neo-gothic St. Mark's Church resembles a chamber theatre, whose director presents stage productions of his private Mystery Plays to an exclusive audience. In this role Foreman reminds one of the character Carhaix in Joris K. Huysman's novel Down There (Lą-Bas) from 1891, who in his belfry from time to time receives a small group of close confidants for talks about mysticism, occultism, and the black mass.[29] 


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[1]Bonnie Marranca. The Theatre of Images. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977, 4.

[2]Ibid., 11.

[3]see James Leverett. "Old Forms Enter the New American Theater: Shepard, Foreman, Kirby and Ludlam," in:  Melodrama. Ed. Daniel Gerould. New York Literary Forum, 1980, 115.

[4]Ibid., 116.

[5]Richard Foreman. "Ontological-Manifesto I," in: Plays and Manifestos. Ed. Kate Dayy. New York: New York  University Press, 1976, 75.

[6]Herbert Blau. The Audience. Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 318: "[...] it's possible to  feel not only the fluctuating content of thought in his plays but the materiality of personal emotion [...]."


[8]Richard Foreman. "Lava," in: Unbalancing Acts. Foundations for a Theater. Ed. Ken Jordan. New York: Pantheon,  1992, 321.

[9]Bettine Menke. Sprachfiguren: Name, Allegorie, Bild nach Benjamin. Munich: Fink, 1991, 18. (Translation—MW)

[10]Ibid. (Translation—MW)

[11]Craig Owens. "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism," in: Beyond Recognition. Repre­ sentation, Power and Culture. Berkeley; Los Angeles; Oxford: University of California Press, 1992, 53.

[12]Richard Foreman. "Sophia=(Wisdom) Part 3: The Cliffs," in: Plays and Manifestos, 115.

[13]Owens, "The Allegorical Impulse," 57.

[14]see Roman Jakobson. "Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement," in: Style in Language. Ed. Thomas Sebeok,  1960.

[15]Owens, "The Allegorical Impulse," 57.

[16]see Walter Benjamin. "Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels," in: Gesammelte Schriften I, 354: "Allegory is in the  realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things."

[17]Richard Foreman. "How I Write My (Plays: Self)," in: Reverberation Machines. The Later Plays and Essays.  Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1985, 235.

[18]Elinor Fuchs. "Today I am a Fountain Pen: An Interview with Richard Foreman," in: Theater. Vol. 25, No. 1,  spring/summer 1994, 84.

[19]Paul de Man. Allegories of Reading. Yale University Press, 1979.

[20]Benjamin. "Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels," 342. (Translation—MW)

[21]Nick Kaye. "Looking Beyond Form: Foreman, Kirby, Wilson," in: Postmodernism and Performance. New York: St.  Martin's Press, 1994, 23.

[22]Ibid., 49.

[23]For example Michael Kirby. "Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater," in: The Drama Review, No. 58, June  1973, 5-32 and Kate Davy. Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. Ann Arbor/Michigan: UMI  Research Press, 1981.

[24]see Richard Schechner. "The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-garde," in: The Performing Arts Journal, No.  14 and 15, 1981.

[25]On the cemetery of St. Mark's Church, which theatre-goers have to pass on their way to the Ontological, Peter  Stuyvesant and Commodore Perry are buried.

[26]see Marvin Carlson. "Introduction: How Do Theatres Mean?," in: Places of Performance. The Semiotics of Theatre  Architecture. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1989, 1-13.

[27]Neil Smith. "Gentrification in New York," in: New York. Strukturen einer Metropole. Ed. H. Häussermann and W.  Siebel. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1993, 198f. (Translation—MW)

[28]see Carlson. Places of Performance, 14-19.

[29]Joris K. Huysmans. Lą-bas (Down There). New York: Dover, 1972.