The Scene of Foreplay: Theater, Labor, and Leisure in 1960s New York

The Scene of Foreplay: Theater, Labor, and Leisure in 1960s New York

by Giulia Palladini


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810135222
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 07/15/2017
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Giulia Palladini is a researcher in performance studies based in Berlin. An Alexander von Humboldt fellow (2012-14), she currently teaches at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee.

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The Scene of Foreplay

Theater, Labor, and Leisure in 1960s New York

By Giulia Palladini

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3522-2


There Is No Idleness Like Show-Idleness

On Preliminaries, Amateurism, and Work in the 1960s

We all loved Joe, and, mostly and intermittently, each other. No one questioned the validity of what we were doing: Theatre. We workshopped nothing.

— Phoebe Wray on the Caffe Cino

I do no more care to be called an artist, except by my friends and by the people who love me, than I would care to be called a lover, publicly.

— Stan Brakhage, "In Defense of Amateur"

Once Upon a Time in Coney Island

There is a woman who every payday, after finishing work, takes a train to Coney Island, reaches the amusement park, and positions herself on a breeze-hole, in the fun-wax house. She wears a skirt, which fans out around her legs as it is blown by the air coming from below. Her name is Hanna, and she devotes her leisure time to the breeze-hole, partly playing for herself the famous skirt-blowing scene from Billy Wilder's film The Seven Year Itch, partly just enjoying the feeling of the breeze on her naked legs. This is her pastime.

Not far from her, in the fun house, there is a young, muscular boy whose name is Arizona. He also goes to Coney Island in his spare time. His pastime is positioning himself in front of the mirror maze and seeing his own image reproduced time and again on the mirroring walls as a narcissistic hallucination. Hanna and Arizona are alone, alongside each other, in their solitary pastimes, although accidentally exposed to each other's sight — to someone else's amusement. They occupy a precarious space in the funhouse, which is conceived as a place to walk through, and in which, in fact, they loiter and overstay, with no purpose other than their own enjoyment, the physical pleasure of the activity itself, along with the pleasure of imagining their own picture in the scene they set up for themselves. During these moments of pleasure, they are spectators and actors of each other's phantasmagorias. They are producers and consumers of their own performance labor.

The enjoyment of their pastimes somehow defines this space as temporarily theirs, even though there is no thought of property in this inhabiting: they own no space in the amusement park other than the time of their childish enjoyment. It is an enjoyment which, however, might well be considered a spectacle, from the outside. Not surprisingly, at the end of the day the voice of the barker, advertising the many attractions of the amusement park for a paying audience, announces among its attractions Hannah's and Arizona's pastimes:

VOICE OF THE BARKER: See "How Rome Burned While Nero Played," see "Lovely Marie Antoinette at the Guillotine," see "Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down" ... And see our new attraction, "Smiley, The Smiling Narcissistic Wonder, Trapped in the Mirror Maze."

We are in 1965. The scene I have just described is the one around which pivots the play Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down, written and directed by Tom Eyen at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and constituting to this day one of the plays most affectionately attached to the history of La MaMa, as well as to the legendary narrative of the Off-Off Broadway scene. Eyen's characters, performing for themselves and for others, along with the specific temporality of their scenes, offer an interesting allegory of the mode of performance I call foreplay: a playful praxis sustained by the pleasure of being enacted, rather than by an outside evaluation in professional or economic terms. (See figure 1.)

The two characters of Eyen's play perform their scenes without wages: they are neither employed as attractions in the amusement park, nor do they behave as workers in show business. Their scenes are performed in the characters' spare time as part and parcel of a private pleasure of attending the amusement park, a space which — or so we may guess — they accessed by purchasing a ticket. Rather than work (the day job that presumably secures the income Hanna and Arizona spend in their leisure time), their labor of desire is self-accomplishing in its promise of entertainment, and is self-consummating. They do not play for someone, although they might happen to be seen by someone while they are playing. Hanna and Arizona are each other's spectator: each of the two leisurely performers sees and recognizes the other's presence and theatrical attitude, and on this basis, in Eyen's play, a queer intimacy develops between them, which allows the narrative of the play to be enacted. In cinematographic fashion, Eyen constructs the dialogue between the two characters as the frame to a sequence of flashbacks on Hanna's and Arizona's life stories, during which each of them takes the other's lines and plays characters in the other's life story, returning to their own character afterwards, to be each other's spectator in the present. As Michael Feingold remarks, "Eyen's characters are stuck in time — in their past, in their futurelessness, in their involvement with each other — but Time itself is fluid, so that neither Eyen nor his audience are trapped with them."

Hanna's and Arizona's performances, however, might also be seen by the visitors to the amusement park, as becomes clear when the barker announces their scenes as part of the amusement on offer, at the end of the play. Crucially, their performances take place without a horizon of reception granted in advance, outside of the expectation of their performance being an event. By virtue of their being exposed, their performances may be recognized as "entertainment." Hence their behavior may enter a system of evaluation in which it is detached from everyday life and perceived, instead, as something worthy of attention, or else — employing an expression especially suited to the history of Coney Island — as an attraction.

In the last scene of the play, after the two characters realize that they are in the process of being incorporated into the spectacle of Coney Island, Hanna says to Arizona:

Look, sonny, you're new here so I'll give you a few complimentary tips of advice. When the gate out there opens and those stupid people pay their greasy dimes, they want what they're told they'd see. Thy want you to smile. They want Hanna's skirt up at all times. They want Rome to burn. They don't want to know why; they don't give a damn about your confused childhood. They won't even notice that Hanna's skirt is nothing but shreds now. They want their illusions. So be a good kid and you'll go far. They might even send you to the big time — the London, Paris houses. I hear they get as much as fifty cents admission over there. And all you have to do is keep your mouth shut and smile.

While she delivers this speech, however, Hanna starts "freezing slowly" and Arizona, while trying to resist incorporation into the barker's carousel, starts freezing too, until they are both left, at the end of the play, as "frozen, wax figures, human impostors," with the barker sweeping the floor around them, cleaning the dust encrusted on their long-exposed bodies. In a sense, the end of Eyen's play suggests a bitter ending to Hanna and Arizona's fantasy of leisure and pleasure, as if the destiny of incorporation offered in fact no possibility of escape: as if there were a progressive course according to which, in the end, work and pleasure have to counter each other in order for the performer to survive.

However, looking closely at Eyen's script, we might imagine another reading. We may notice that the author indicates, as the time setting of the play, "Five minutes to seven. Yesterday, today, but hopefully not tomorrow." According to the play's stage directions, Hanna's and Arizona's acts are already advertised on large posters which are meant to be part of the scene from the beginning: hence, their incorporation might already have taken place, before they start telling us their stories of pleasure, before they start enjoying their love's labor for the time being. Their incorporation might happen again, today, Eyen suggests, "but hopefully not tomorrow." Most of the stage directions of Eyen's plays are characterized by camp irony of this sort which functions in a sense as a utopian drive (echoing José Muñoz's use of the term "utopian") hinting at a tactical escape from the logic of incorporation as attraction. That is: the scenes of pleasure that we witness at the beginning of the play appear as pure free time, although they are in fact co-opted by the economic dynamic regulating spectacle in the amusement park, where everything is potentially an attraction, as long as a paying audience considers it such.

However, from within the productive economy in which, more or less voluntarily, they are exploited, Hanna and Arizona are also able to write their own narrative, to broaden the space-time of their pleasure. Not by chance, the two tell their stories "as if" they were not working as frozen figures, and while enjoying their performances they also experiment with an intimacy exceeding the value of their act as attraction. Such intimacy, it seems, constitutes the base for the daily renewal of their encounter in the play.

Although Hanna and Arizona are two fictional characters, I am interested in the image of their pastimes as an insight into the social and artistic context in which this show took place in 1965 New York — a context in which leisurely performances such as those of Hanna and Arizona inhabited a state of "preliminarity." The theater production of Off-Off Broadway can be considered a (however accidental) preliminary phase of a career, and of a posthumous course of valorization. The ambivalent position of Hanna's and Arizona's pastimes in the Coney Island fun house points to this scenario, but it also adds to the picture two more crucial features, which will be the focus of this chapter.

The first feature is the fact that — as for Hanna and Arizona — performance labor developed in places like the Caffe Cino or Café La MaMa mostly outside of any course of training or education, and it also happened outside of a horizon of work, not only in terms of wages but also in terms of any ethics and organization of time and space according to the development of a craft. Hanna and Arizona's self-learned performance numbers, their capacity to transform their private pleasure in an activity of public interest, is not a "work" in any sense of the word. Hanna and Arizona stand for a performance praxis developed almost accidentally, in accordance with leisure rather than with work rhythms. Their performance-making is not a professional performance work, but amateur labor.

The second feature is the fact that performances are not "events." As in Hanna and Arizona's case, the pleasure of performing does not depend on the encounter with spectators as a measure of achievement. Their performancesdo not crystallize in a single encounter, and are not so much centered in "presence" as in memory and potentiality: the memory of previous times in which the two of them lingered in their performances of pleasure, and the future in which they might do so again. Their pleasure of performing loiters in the extended time of their leisure, continuously deferring the moment in which it could be actualized (and appropriated and marketed) as an event worth attending.

Curiously, the narrative of Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down seems to presage the trajectory of Tom Eyen's own career. While participating in the downtown artistic scene (he was especially active at Caffe Cino and La MaMa), in the 1960s Eyen made his living working as a sketch-writer for the revue Upstairs at the Downstairs, located in midtown on West 56th Street. In 1970, with the show The Dirtiest Show in Town (with parodic reference not only to air pollution but also to the pollution of American politics, as well as to the contemporary theater's triggering of audiences with ad hoc sexual provocations) Eyen's work moved Off Broadway, to the Astor Place Theatre, where it received great public acclaim, and later transferred to London's West End. The same year Eyen's company received an $8,000 grant from the Guggenheim. It was only in 1981, however, that Eyen became a mainstream star of American theater, with the musical Dreamgirls (written in collaboration with the lyricist Henry Krieger), which was produced on Broadway and won six Tony Awards, one of which — Best Book — was specifically Eyen's. In the twenty years before Dreamgirls Eyen did a great deal of work, often not recognized as such. As Richard Eyen recalls, in a recent text about the beginning of his brother's career collected in Return to Caffe Cino, the budget of an early Eyen production could be a mere fifteen dollars. Clearly, a great amount of love's labor supported Eyen's experimental theater activity downtown, which may well be the prime reason for the deferral of Eyen's entrance into Broadway's realm. In other words, instead of making his way into mainstream theatre by crafting his abilities as sketch-writer to comply with the standards of Broadway entertainment, to a certain extent Eyen allowed himself to linger in the interim space of OffOff Broadway — a space which was itself embedded in theater production while also, in a sense, challenging its logic.

In the pages that follow I argue that the interval of amateurism, a sort of overstaying on the way to a professional career, which characterizes the engagement with theater in the 1960s Off-Off Broadway scene of artists like Tom Eyen, overturned (or at least played with overturning) the logic of capitalist temporality and professionalism. I shall suggest that a playful subversion of theater temporality was key to experiments of the time with a kind of performance work nourished by pleasure rather than achievement. This made it possible for events to endure beyond the actualization of amateur labor as professional success, or even as artistic event, although such actualization always and already haunts any experiment done for free.

The Scene of Foreplay as "Stylized Amateurism"

Looking at photos and video recordings from Tom Eyen's 1960s shows such as Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down, or Miss Nefertiti Regrets, kept today in the La MaMa Archive, the most immediate reference that comes to mind is neither to the aesthetics of the best-known 1960s experimental theater, nor to traditional drama: it is to the artificiality, imprecision, lack of theatre technique, and cheap scenic devices of amateur theater. Likewise, many reviews of the Play-House of the Ridiculous (including very enthusiastic ones) refer to "high-school pageantry," "amateur theatricals," and "fraternity skits," commenting repeatedly on the Play-House of the Ridiculous's bad acting, dilettantism, lack of technique, juvenile playfulness, and its approach to performance-making as an unseasoned "put-on." The same could be said for the 1960s "home movies" of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith (and for the performance work of the latter) featuring not only almost exclusively amateur performers but also an explicit aura of dilettantism, amounting to a seeming lack of seriousness and expertise, or craftsmanship and preparation.

Furthermore, the films of Warhol and Smith were themselves inscribed in a tradition of New York self-produced, self-organized independent filmmaking (including, among others, Robert Frank, Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Maya Deren) that since the late 1950s had explicitly invoked amateurism as a distinctive trait of its film praxis. In a famous 1959 essay, significantly entitled "Amateurs Versus Professionals," Maya Deren had defined how the concept of amateur was understood in this artistic context:

The very classification "amateur" has an apologetic ring. But that very word — from the Latin "amateur" — "lover" — means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity.

In 1971 Stan Brakhage wrote illuminating notes in defense of amateurism, reviewing in the light of this notion his fifteen-years-long career in film and staking out with pride the disparagement that had been cast upon activities done during leisure rather than as work by the "professional." The latter is described with contempt by Brakhage as

always much admired in the public life of any time. He is the Don Juan whose techniques (of sex or whatever), whose conquests in terms of number, speed, duration or mathematical whatever, whose stance of perfection (whatever can be intellectually measured to determine a competitional winner) does dazzle any man at any time he relates to the mass of people. ... He may even come to be Don Juan himself, forever in the "hell" of admiration of other people's public life.


Excerpted from The Scene of Foreplay by Giulia Palladini. Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

The Scene of Foreplay: Introduction
Interlude I
Paying Homage to the ‘Underground’: Foreplay and What Came After
Chapter I
There is no Idleness like Show-Idleness: on Preliminaries, Amateurism and Work in the 1960s
Chapter II
A Coney Island of the Mind: Toward a Genealogy of Leisure PerformanceInterlude
Longing Lasts Longer : Penny Arcade and the radical value of pleasure
Chapter III
The Bride, the Mother and the Star. Queer Kinship and Memorability in Jackie Curtis’ and Ellen Stewart’s Life and Legend
Chapter IV
Larger than Life: Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, and the Distracted Potentiality of Performance

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