Kabbalah and Gnosticism in Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre

(Markus Wessendorf, 1996)


For a long time the work of Richard Foreman, the founder of the New York based Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, has been mainly interpreted in terms of the avantgarde, theatre semiotics and postmodernism. Being unable to detect a coherent and closed information structure in Foreman's work, many critics have argued that his plays do not make any sense at all. They have either discarded or celebrated them as arbitrary formalist and structuralist performance experiments, acceding to them as much significance as to a Rorschach text. I want to demonstrate, however, that the impossibility of a coherent and unifying reading of any of Foreman's plays (i.e. their resistance to "closure") is partly related to his spiritual concerns.

Foreman is not only the artistic director of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, which has been a vibrant part of New York's Off-off Broadway ever since 1968, but also func­tions as its stage director, play­wright, set and sound designer and choreographer. Moreover, he has produced a considerable amount of theoretical writings in which he has explained his aesthetic concept. Deeply influenced by the New American Cinema, minimalism in music and the arts, and post-modern dance, Foreman reacted with his early Ontological-Hysteric Theatre to the flow- and body-centred, commu­ni­tarian and environ­mental theatre work of Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schech­ner, Peter Brook, Joseph Chaikin and the Living Theatre. Insisting on the separation of stage and audience space, he has always made use of the proscenium stage. At a time when many experimental theatre artists adhered to Norman O. Brown's "participation mystique," and therefore dismissed drama and the written text as the aesthetic manifestation of a repressive social apparatus based on the politics of representation, Foreman insisted on the importance of writing for his own produc­tions, even if his plays refused any traditional notion of ex­position, plot-line and character, and were later dubiously labeled "Theatre of Images." A production of the Ontologi­cal-Hysteric Theatre can still be recognized by several peculiar features: overlapping sound-loops, black-and-white dotted strings that are stretched horizontally across the stage, Foreman's own amplified voice commenting on the events on stage, blinding spotlights which are directed towards the audience, ear-shattering sounds which stop the flow of the action on stage, etc. As a result of Foreman's own references to Brecht, Stein, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger in interviews and essays many critics regard his work as a theatre machine that permanently reveals and reflects its own modus operandi of representation. Foreman himself has written in one of his early manifestos that the spectator should be made aware of his own gaze at each single moment of the performance.

The result of being awake (seeing): You are in two places at once (and ec­stat­ic) Duo-consciousness./ 1. /You see/ 2. You see yourself seeing [1]

Michael Kirby has maintained that Foreman makes use of a large associational contin­uum by presenting information in various intellectual modes. Kate Davy has claimed that structure in Foreman's plays is merely subjective. I would like to argue, however, that the information structure of Foreman's plays is neither arbitrary nor random, but that it is the consequence of his underlying motivation to create a theatre which could be read as a text that is not only "holy," but also full of "holes": opening an infinite potentiality of inter­pre­tation, denying any overall comprehen­sion, and indicating a transcendental Other (also in the sense of Jacques Lacan's terminology). 

In his book Unbalancing Acts, which was published in 1992, Foreman justifies his de­nial of traditional dramaturgies by the basic religious motivation of his theatre.  

I have always felt that I'm a closet religious writer – in spite of the aggressive, erotic, play­ful, and schizoid elements that decorate the surface of my plays – and it is be­cause of my essentially religious concerns that some critics have at­tacked my plays for not accurately representing what they refer to as "real peo­ple" with "real" inter­per­sonal, psychological, humanistic concerns.[2]

In other recent writings and interviews Fore­man has stressed that "the world of Ju­daism resonates profoundly inside me. [...] A lot of plays I've done have had a hidden Jewish content."[3] Claiming not to be a believer himself, Foreman's religious interest is mainly esoteric and literary, as can also be inferred from his references to authors like Colin Wilson, Carlos Suares and Eli­phas Levi. Yet, the implicit references to the Kab­balah in his work mainly correspond to Ger­shom Scho­lem's writings, which Foreman, as he stated in a recent interview, has "obviously" [4] read. Scholem claimed that Gnostic movements from the East as well as Christian sects strongly influenced the development of Jewish mysticism. Lately, Scholem's theories about the interrelations between the Kabbalah and Gnosti­cism have been called into question. Moshe Idel, a professor of Kabbalah Studies in Jerusalem, challenges one of Scholem's basic assumptions of his phe­nome­nology of Jewish mysticism – the assumption that the medieval Kabbalah was basically Gnostic in character. Idel argues that Scholem overstated the impact of Eastern Gnostic ideas on the development of the Kabbalah, an impact which does not hold up to historical fact. He therefore coins Scho­lem's concept of the Kabbalah "Jew­ish Gnos­ti­cism,"[5] and only makes use of this term in quotation marks. 

I would now like to point out some basic motifs and themes of this so-called "Jewish Gnosti­cism" as they appear in interviews, theoretical writings and plays of Foreman. I also would like to show how they correspond intertextually to different concepts of the Kabbalah. Not unlike the Kabbala, Foreman has always privi­leged writing and the book over any other means of achieving a supposedly spontaneous act of creation. I therefore consider it appropriate to examine his continuing discourse with the Kabbalah by discussing his texts in a more detailed way than the other aspects of his productions. First, however, I would like to make some short remarks about the Gnostic disposition of Foreman's theatre meta-physics. 

In Foreman's essays, program notes and plays we frequently come across the Gnostic de­mand for a redemption of the soul from a fallen and alienated material world. Ac­cording to Gnostic mythology, the soul fell from the realm of light after violating the rules of that divine realm. Foreman writes in his program notes to My Head Was a Sledgehammer (1994):

[A]s I see it, the task of the contemporary artist is to pulverize this fallen world in such a way that the seeds of light, hidden within, can be released. But what is that 'light', that redemptive energy locked within the prison of the world? I postu­late it as the dis­cov­erable polarity in all things, and so –

My overall aesthetic procedure, is to set the characters to work culti­vat­ing that os­cillating ambiguity [which] I believe pulsates within each moment of mun­dane everyday life.[6]

The unsolvable dualism of an alienated material world and a true world of the spirit can be re­garded as a leitmotif of Foreman's plays. The professor in My Head Was a Sledgehammer explains to his students that "real life" is not identical to ordinary day-to-day life. Furthermore, he argues that to be alone wouldn't matter because it wouldn't be part of his life. 

Because life – that's not where it's happening, madam. You think it's happening in life: you're wrong, beautiful madam.[7]

In the stage production of Lava (1988) Foreman's voice remarks over a loudspeaker:

I'm just trying to live in a world... well, that isn't a fallen world, like this world.[8]

The voice from off-stage in Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 1 asks the main character to restrain from any involvement in worldy affairs, because this would result in a coming-down to the fallen material world.

Oh, Eddie. Sweeten the self, and do not act, which will sweet­en the self through not acting, not projecting the self into gross matter through the act, which falls into the real world that is not sweet.[9]

In the 1970s Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre became well known for its use of deafening buzzer sounds and blinding spot lights. These characteristic stage de­vices of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre cannot only be regarded as an aggres­sive attack against the audi­ence ("épater le bourgeois!"), but also as the attempt to erase ordinary sense perception and establish a higher state of aware­ness. In his book The Gnostic Religion the philosopher Hans Jonas has discussed the implicit ability of noise to di­vert attention from the material world towards the radically interior and exterior voice of a divine Other.[10] Jacques Attali, who has dedicated an entire book to noise, states that

the very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message, by unchanneling auditory sensations, frees the listener's imagi­nation. The absence of meaning is in this case the presence of all meanings, absolute ambiguity, a construction outside meaning. The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network.[11]

Aside from the Gnostic motif of two unbridgeable worlds (as expressed, for instance, in Lava by the metaphor of a door which can only be opened from the "other" side), there are many allusions to the world of Judaism and Jewish mysticism in Foreman's work. The subheading of several of his plays of the early seventies was Sophia=Wisdom (part 1 to 4) – a reference not only to a mythic figure of Gnosticism, but also to the Kabbalistic concept of Hokhma as one of ten emanations of God. The title of two later plays (the two parts of Book of Splendors) refers to one of the major books of the Kabbalah: the Sefer ha-Zohar. In 1986 Foreman direct­ed H. Leivick's The Golem for the New York Shake­speare Festival, while in his recent onto­logical-hysteric productions the rabbi is a frequent character of disguise on stage (in Symphony of Rats, Lava, I've Got the Shakes). Sometimes the actors wear teffilin-like objects around their hands or fore­heads (in The Mind King, Lava, Samuel's Major Problems). With the set of Lava, for instance, Foreman wanted to invoke the impression of a Talmud school. Before starting rehearsals for a new show he frequently skips through pic­tures of old synagogues to look for architectural ideas. 

Gershom Scholem has written that "[f]or the Kabbalist [...] every existing thing is end­lessly correlated with the whole of creation; for him [...] everything mirrors every­thing else."[12] In his theoretical writings as well as in his plays Foreman has articu­lated a similar idea. In his essay "14 Things I Tell Myself" he demands that "ALL THEMES AND MEAN­INGS MUST BE PRESENT AT ALL MOMENTS,"[13] while he declares in Unbal­ancing Acts 

I've always believed that since I'm writing out of the center of my own spiri­tual quest, everything ultimately becomes relevant [...]. The point is that one page con­tains all other pages, therefore many possible combinations are valid. It's then my job as di­rec­tor to discover particular ways the various ma­terials of a play relate to each other, and so evoke that whole which is al­ways the same.[14]

In his play Lava three men and a woman are trying to achieve an ecstatic state called "category three," which the voice from off-stage defines as a "connective tissue that can­not be traced," laying "down the ground of the real being alive."[15] 

The creative process that leads up to a production of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre not only starts with writing (the script) – writing is also the generative model for each following step. Foreman wants to transcribe the original manuscript into a temporal and spacial performance text:

I have indicated that the staging is a series of problem-solving tasks which "re-con­creti­zes" the text. It's a matter of finding equivalencies for the densities and special "auras" established by the graphics – typological as well as drawn – of the original manuscript.[16]

The Kabbalistic concept of the ein-sof as the hidden, absent Divine that lies beyond any speculative or mystical comprehension, reverberates in Foreman's work. He de­fines his plays as a sacrifice for a hidden God inside us who needs to be fed for the sake of our mental and spiritual aliveness.[17] For Foreman the presence of hu­man spectators is not mandatory to make theatre: "When nobody seems to be watching, perhaps an invisible god has his eyes on the performance."[18] His plays express this nega­tive theology as well. The voice from off-stage in Lava ar­gues that something beyond our derisory culture can only be indicated "in a way that deserves our derision. Yet you're under an OBLIGATION to indicate it!"[19] The voice from off-stage also argues that language fails to match reality and therefore opens a gap "which is the void [...] and is the 'god' in that void."[20] In the play Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 1 a DEEP VOICE OVER LOUDSPEAKER proclaims:

The center was nothing
The edge was nothing
The bottom was nothing
The root was nothing
The depth was nothing
The extension was nothing

The kernel was nothing.[21]

Foreman has related his non-linear and abrasive writing style to Abraham Abulafia, a Spanish Kabbalist from the thirteenth century who was known for his tech­niques of letter combination and number mysticism.

I'm trying to write by skimming just as Abraham Abulafia combined the letters of God's name, skim­ming through sec­tions of the Bible to achieve ecstasy. The aim is to disco­ver just those sensitive tips of language that point toward par­adise: that's why a lot of stuff is left out.[22]

The quest for a paradise, one that can only be experienced through language, not only inspires Foreman's writing, but is also the primary aim of several of his post-dramatic characters. The protagonist of Eddie Goes to Poetry City is searching for Poetry City where "noth­ing [...] fulfills itself,"[23] while the off-stage voice in Lava dreams of a "City of materials,"[24] where words like “iron, wood, tin, paper, gold”[25] "don't function like words"[26]—"a whole world that has its own secret name, and the name is... itself. [...] Itself? You recognize that name."[27] 

In his book Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, David Bakan considers Abulafia's technique of achieving meditation by the combination of letters to be a precursor of Freud's "free play of association." Bakan quotes Scholem to explain Abulafia's technique (dillug and kefitsah ) of inducing a meditative state, in which "jumps" from one association to the other enlarge the "playing field" of the mind.

Every "jump" opens a new sphere, defined by certain formal, not material, char­acteristics. With­in this sphere, the mind may freely associate. The "jump­ing" unites, there­fore, elements of free and guided association and is said to assure quite extra­ordinary results as far as the "widening of consciousness" of the ini­tiate is con­cerned. The "jumping" brings to light hidden processes of the mind [...].[28]

Foreman likes to play with letter combinations (anagrams, misspellings, etc.) to estab­lish interrelations between different texts and to open new games of mental connec­tion: The word "ediface," which in one of Foreman's essays designates a state of blocked dynamics, can be understood as the condensation of the words facade and edifice, which he uses in another context to express his desire to escape from the idea of the masterpiece. 

I find myself [...] imprisoned, hypnotized, fooled whenever [...] I am [...] con­vinc­ing in my mastery. Because at that point I sense I am [...] hiding from truth be­hind the facade of the well built artistic edi­fice.[29]

The play Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 2 starts with the line: "Oh, Eddie, you're less conventional than you believe."[30] The first two words contracted to a single word hint at one of the themes of the play: Eddie's oedipal complex and his difficulties with the two female characters. In a later scene of the play the word "edible" does not only refer to an apple which cannot be eaten, but also invokes the association of the word "oedipal," which is almost a homophone to "edible."   

Likewise, the etymology of names in Foreman's plays should not be overlooked. His theatre production of Samuel's Major Problems (1993) refers on different levels to the mean­ing of the name Samuel. After his birthday party Samuel is visited by two persons who indicate that they are angels of death. Later in the play the female angel offers Samuel a birthday cake, but she sug­gests that the cake is "not poison, but a kind of emotional poison."[31] The play ends with Samuel dying, suffocating from the smell of a white rose which he keeps pressed to his face, while the two angels dance across the stage. In this context, the name Samuel can be read as a variation of the name Samael.   

In rabbinic literature, Sama­el is chief of the Satans and the angel of death.[32]

The scene with the emotionally poisoned cake can also be interpreted as a mise-en-scène of the etymology of the name Samuel (or Samael): "sam" meaning poison and "el" meaning angel.[33] The name's implication, however, cannot be attributed to Samuel himself, but to his opponents. At the end of the play the characters repeatedly talk about Samuel's "howling," although he doesn't produce any such sound.

When an angel appears, and demands of me the ultimate sacri­fice – I howl with rage.[34]
My own howling frightens me, yes. [...] But knowing I am serving the uni­verse's purposes, my howl is in fact... music.[35]

You know, making that special music of yours, Samuel. That spe­cial... HOWL. You said it was rage. Maybe it was something else. No mat­ter.[36]

Samuel's mysterious howl refers, intertextually, to the seventh scene of a miracle play called The Nativity, which is part of Longfellow's poem The Golden Legend. The scene is set in a village school where a rabbi teaches Judas Iskariot and Jesus. The rabbi, who is "Learned in things divine;/ The Cabala and Talmud [...],"[37] asks Judas: "Why howl the dogs at night?" Judas replies: "In the Rabbinical book, it saith/ The dogs howl, when, with icy breath/ Great Sammael, the Angel of Death,/ Takes through the town his flight!"[38] 

Even if Foreman has always rejected the theatre of the sixties on account of its belief in the unmedi­ated presence of the actor's body and the collective subcon­scious, he is thirsting for presence himself – but understood as an intensity of read­ing, as the real­ization of the total potentiality of meaning of every single moment. In his essay "Notes on the Process of Making It: Which Is Also the Object" Foreman writes that he wants to stay at the verge of the creative momentum, at that "elusive place where sig­nification makes its choices."[39] He wants to make his "writ­ing the preparation for writ­ing."[40] The dream of being always in synchronization with the act of creation just before it mate­rial­izes in the real world can be re­lated to the Kabbalistic notion of the Hebrew letter aleph. Scholem tells us that, according to one Kab­balistic school, the aleph was God's only reve­lation to his people, but it was so saturated with meaning that Moses could derive the Torah from it by exegesis. Scholem:

Everything which was revealed to them, which Israel was able to hear, was noth­ing more than the aleph [...]. [...] That is to say, the consonant aleph doesn't represent anything else in Hebrew than the laryngeal striking up of the voice [...], which precedes a vowel at the beginning of a word. [...] To hear the aleph amounts to nothing, since it represents the transition to all compre­hensible speech [...]. With his audacious statement that the real revelation to Israel was the aleph Rabbi Mendel reduced this revelation to a mystical one, which means to a revelation which was infinitely sensible, but without any specific sense.[41]

During a scene of Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation (1975), where the characters talk about the initiation into a knowledge society, the voice from off-stage defines the interjection "ah" as the "'Ahhh!' of recognition."[42] Moreover, if we read this inter­jec­tion as a logogram or cipher of the letter aleph (which cannot be vocalized and therefore doesn't resemble the phoneme "a"), then the following phrases from Foreman's essays can be interpreted as referring to the religious as­pect of creation and the abstract locus of signification. 

Ah – to talk about it is to first catch it, so that it can be 'displayed' (talked about in the­atrical language). To catch it, to make it hold still, you have to kill it. [...] I don't want to 'kill' what I really want to talk about (utopia) [...].[43]

Ahh – but everything in this collection of notes is really speaking to that pri­mary end, dealing with that primary problem.[44]

One passage in Foreman's play The Mind King (1992), where Paul and the angel talk about a letter, can also be interpreted as a hint to the Kab­balistic notion of the aleph, if the dou­ble meaning of the word "letter" is taken into account: 

THE ANGEL: Hey, whaddaya say; you and me; let's team up.
PAUL: First! Hand me a letter!

THE ANGEL: Ah! A story is being written. Somebody opens a letter. It's empty – an empty envelope. [...] The envelope wasn't empty after all. There was a blank piece of paper.[45]

Here, the interjection "ah" can be read as the angel's appropriate answer to Paul's demand to hand him a letter. Although this "letter" is supposed to have already initiated the process of signification, it can only maintain its infinite potentiality of mean­ing as long as nothing specific is signified by it at all.

The Kabbalistic book bahir relates the image of a mouth which has just started to ar­ticulate the aleph to the idea of an infinite capacity of the human mind. Scholem: 

[...] the 'alef is the necessary condition for the existence of all the letters, and the 'alef is an image of the brain [the seat of thought]: just as when one pronounces the 'alef one opens only the mouth [and does not produce any audible sound, which would already be something definite], so the thought goes without an end and a conclusion.[46] 

In Foreman's plays the motif of the open mouth which has not yet started to speak, and which therefore represents the ideal moment of signification, appears in many variations. The professor in My Head Was a Sledgehammer says about himself:

I turn into somebody who opens his mouth, and whatever comes out travels in desirable directions only! [...] Automatic truths, madam.[47]

At the end of Lava the voice from off-stage tells a childhood story about a big guy who roams through the neighborhood. 

Who's the big guy? I don't know, you don't know, he don't know him­self. But that isn't a negation. All he does is open his big mouth wide, and without saying it, I know I'm home free! I'm home free![48]


[1] Richard Foreman. "Ontological-Hysteric Manifesto II," in: Plays and Manifestos. New York University Press, 1976, 143.

[2] Foreman. Unbalancing Acts. Foundations for a Theater. New York: Pantheon, 1992, 5.

[3] Charles Bernstein. "A Conversation with Richard Foreman," in: The Drama Review (T 135), fall 1992, 126.

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

[5] Moshe Idel. "Subversive Katalysatoren: Gnosis und Messianismus in Gershom Scholems Verständnis der jüdischen Mystik," in: Gershom Scholem. Zwischen den Disziplinen. Eds. Peter Schäfer and Gary Smith. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1995, 81 (translation by M.W.). 

[6] Quoted from the program notes of Foreman's production My Head Was a Sledgehammer, 1994.

[7] Foreman. "My Head Was a Sledgehammer," in: My Head Was a Sledgehammer. Six Plays. New York: The Overlook  Press, 1995, 235.

[8] Foreman. "Lava," in: 1992, 332.

[9] Foreman. "Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 1," in: 1995, 29.

[10] Hans Jonas. The Gnostic Religion. The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. 2nd printing. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963/1991, 74.

[11] Jacques Attali. Noise. The Political Economy of Music. 2nd printing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 33. 

[12] Gershom Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Jerusalem: Schocken Publishing House, 1941, 28.

[13] Ibid., 209.

[14] Foreman 1992, 16-7.

[15] Foreman. "Lava," in: 1992, 335. 

[16] Foreman. "How I Write My (Plays: Self)," in: Reverberation Machines. The Later Plays and Essays. Barrytown: Station Hill, 1985, 237.

[17] See Foreman. "14 Things I Tell Myself," in: 1985, 207.

[18] Foreman 1992, 10.

[19] Foreman. "Lava," in: 1992, 321.

[20] Ibid., 321.

[21] Foreman. "Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 1," in: 1995, 4.

[22] Bernstein 1992, 119.

[23] Foreman. "Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 1," in: 1995, 27.

[24] Foreman. "Lava," in: 1992, 354.

[25] Ibid., 353.

[26] Ibid., 356.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 135-6.

[29] Foreman. "How Truth... Leaps (Stumbles) Across Stage," in: 1985, 199 (italics by M.W.).

[30] Foreman. "Eddie Goes to Poetry City: Part 2," in: 1995, 47.

[31] Foreman. "Samuel's Major Problems," in: 1995, 159.

[32] Gustav Davidson. A Dictionary of Angels. New York/London: The Free Press, 1967, 255. 

[33] Ibid. 

[34] Foreman. "Samuel's Major Problems," in: 1995, 187.

[35] Ibid., 188.

[36] Ibid., 189.

[37] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poetical Works. Reprint. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, 491.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Foreman. "Notes on the Process of Making It: Which Is Also the Object," in: 1985, 191.

[40] Ibid., 195.

[41] Scholem. Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1973, 47-8 (translation by M.W.).

[42] Foreman. "Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation," in: The Theatre of Images. Ed. by Bonnie Marranca. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977,  24.

[43] Foreman. "The Carrot and the Stick," in: 1985, 219.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Foreman. "The Mind King," in: 1995, 138-9. 

[46] Qtd in: Gershom Scholem. Origins of the Kabbalah. Ed. by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky. Trans.  Allan Arkush. The Jewish Publication Society: Princeton University Press, 1987, 128.

[47] Foreman. "My Head Was a Sledgehammer," in: 1995, 215-6.

[48] Foreman. "Lava," in: 1992, 362.