Kabbalah and Gnosticism in Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre [1996]


(Markus Wessendorf)


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 avant-garde, 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-centered, 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 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 want 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 and Christian sects strongly influenced the development of Jewish mysticism. Lately, Scholem's theories about the interrelations between the Kabbalah and Gnosticism have been called in 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 want to point now to some basic motifs and themes of this so-called "Jewish Gnosticism" as they appear in interviews, theoretical writings and plays of Foreman. I also want 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 want to make some short remarks about the Gnostic disposition of Foreman's theatre metaphysics.

            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 worldly 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 seventies 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 spatial 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 that 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 that 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. Ed. by Peter Schäfer a. 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, 16f.

[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.


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

[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.


[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,



[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, 47f. (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.


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

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

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

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