Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Douglas Meserli | "A Very Long Walk" (on Maria Irene Fornes' Promenade)



a very long walk

María Irene Fornes Promenade, in Robert J. Schroeder, ed. The New Underground Theatre (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
María Irene Fornes Promenade / New York, Judson Poets’ Theatre, Judson Memorial Church, April 9, 1965; revived New York, Promenade Theatre, June 9, 1969.

Sometime when I was a Junior at the University of Wisconsin, I purchased a small collection of off-Broadway plays titled The New Underground Theatre, edited by Robert J. Schroeder. I bought a great many books in those days that, for one reason or another, I never read, and this was one of them. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in the plays in this book, but simply that I was preoccupied, not only with reading classroom texts—which this most definitely was not—but also with nightly trips to the Madison gay bar and other extracurricular activities.
     I’d read numerous contemporary plays in high school by Pinter, Genet, Albee, Ionesco and others (indeed for years, in my memory I thought I had had this little book on my basement room shelf even in those days), but these plays remained unread until last night, when something called out to me pick it up again, whereupon the read the first play in this volume, Promenade, by María Irene Fornes, with music by Al Carmines, the pastor at the Judson Memorial Church where it was first performed.
      I also published a play by Fornes, a much more traditional work, Abingdon Square, 32 years later in 2000 (in fact I’ve published plays by three of the eight writers represented in this tiny Bantam paperback anthology—beside Fornes, Murray Mednick and Ronald Tavel). But reading her play a more specific memory came to me as I suddenly recalled that in early 1969, the year Promenade was revived off-off Broadway (with actress Madeline Kahn in the role of the servant)—it first opened at Carmines’ Judson Poets’ Theatre in 1965*— I moved for several months to New York City. For a short period I lived in Greenwich Village, and I recall seeing posters for the play as I walked the streets, “promenading,” one is tempted to say.
     Something called out to me even then to see this play, but I couldn’t quite comprehend how to buy tickets, having never seen the Judson Theatre and not knowing where it even was. Living day to day as a temporary worker, I didn’t have enough money, moreover, to buy a ticket. I didn’t subscribe to a newspaper, had no telephone directory to look up the address. When a few weeks later I began working at a permanent job at Columbia University, the off-off Broadway theaters, which I later got to know quite well, seemed to be on another planet. When I did go to theater—three times during my New York stay—it was to Broadway productions (Dear World [which I describe in My Year 2005], Celebration by The Fantasticks creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, and, strangely, Peter Luke’s adaptation of Baron Corvo’s Hadrian the VII. The only off-Broadway play I saw was Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, at Theatre Four where I worked as an usher for a few nights.
      Perhaps, had I attended that 1969 performance of the Steinian–like Promenade, I would not have understood or even enjoyed it. I was so serious in those days. Fornes, on the other hand, whips up a quite fantastically absurd fable about two prisoners (105 and 106) who dig their way out of a penitentiary to take a spectacular promenade through the streets, a park, and fabulous parties, only to be returned to prison (with all the other party-goers) by the jailer. The prison warden, himself, throws a lavish party, threatening them with a return to the cell if they do not enjoy the event.
     Thrown back into the cell from which they’ve escaped, the two original prisoners merely leave once more through the hole, returning to a mother who throughout the play has claimed her children have gone missing. Asking them if they have “found evil,” she sings them to sleep, with lines such as:

                                                  I know everything.
                                                  Half of it I really know.
                                                  The rest I make up.
                                                  The rest I make up.

    In fact, the entire play reads as freshly as if it were being created, made-up like the plays of childhood imagination, spontaneously. But in the spirit of mid-1960 liberation, the play also has plenty of opportunities for nudity and scenes of sexual expression, including. at one banquet, several women who each want to be naked:

                                                    Only three.
                                                    Only three
                                                    Naked ladies.
                                                    All right, four
                                                    Four naked ladies.

In another undressing incident the prisoners strip to put their clothes upon a man who has been wounded in a hit-and-run driving event, and in so doing escape the jailer. At yet another moment a servant and chorus sing a hilarious linguistic romp about how clothes effect behavior:

                                                    Who can marry a gigolo?
                                                    Can you?
                                                    Can you?
                                                    I can’t.

With repeated choruses about “a businessman,” “a cop,” “a clown,” and “a priest,” concluding in:

                                                     You see, a costume
                                                     Can change your life.
                                                     Be one and all.
                                                     Be each and all.
                                                     Transvest
                                                     Impersonate
                                                    ‘Cause costumes
                                                     Change the course
                                                     Of life.

At the same moment, the jailer re-enters wearing the prisoner’s jackets, presumably having taken on both their identities.
     One might even describe Fornes’ work as a kind of Ovid-like parade of transformations, reflecting the world around her in 1965 and, particularly in 1969, when, a few days after I left New York, the transvestites of Stonewall (a bar I often passed on my way to other favored gay bars) took to the streets against the police, transforming the whole of gay society.
      Certainly, had I found my way to the Promenade advertised on the rows of small posters in 1969, I would never have known that this wonderful playwright, while writing this work, was living in a long-term relationship with Susan Sontag, with whom, I too later developed a friendship as a correspondent.
       So it has taken me 46 years to circle back to the play which had long ago called out to me as young man. It has been a very long walk.

Los Angeles, January 29, 2014
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2014).

*I should add that it took me a great deal of research to confirm my feeling that I had seen posters for the musical in 1969, since Fornes’ biographies all focus on the original 1965 production. Stubbornly, I checked Carmines’ biographies, where it was hinted to have been produced in 1969. I presumed that it was a revival until even further research in the Burns-Mantle Best Play books (I have little faith in Wikipedia) reconfirmed it. 
                                                                                                

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