Feminists face off against Norman Mailer in the Wooster Group's reenactment of the notorious '71 Town Hall debate
There is a dick on stage and someone has given him a microphone. He is flanked by a small battalion of feminists. He taunts and condescends through a tight half-smile. The dick is delighted to be here—he’s even hired a camera crew to document the event. The feminists regard him with a mixture of amused detachment and outrage—they resent his vaunted position in the culture and his repeated efforts to prove their intellectual (and biologic) inferiority. They admonish him as they would a bad child and he retaliates by calling them “cunty.” The dick, after all, belongs to that special breed of chest-beating chauvinists with whom we've recently become reacquainted—though, in this dick’s case, a formidable intellect speciously lends credibility to his misogyny. Outside the venue, scores of women protest. Inside, the audience brims with a volatile mix of supporters and detractors. There is little room for the undecided.
This is Town Hall, Manhattan, April 30, 1971—the scene of the gender donnybrook “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” a Theater for Ideas debate, which pitted provocateur-pugilist Norman Mailer against an auditorium of feminist thinkers and writers. This is also the Performing Garage, Manhattan, February 4, 2017—the site of the Wooster Group’s newest performance, The Town Hall Affair, a daring and timely reenactment of the night a group of women drove old Mailer down. Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster actors awaken the sleeping giants of second-wave feminism and offer up their arguments for renewed consideration.
Context counts in understanding the Wooster Group’s reprisal. The now infamous ’71 Town Hall debate occurred less than a year after activists in the national Women’s Strike for Equality marched on Washington D.C. and Kate Millet’s radical feminist text Sexual Politics seeped menstrual blood into the American consciousness. It was a period of revolutionary engagement for women, and it seems Shirley Broughton of the Theater for Ideas thought it would be a gas (and fundraising genius) to have Mailer moderate a panel of the leading (white) feminists—Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of NOW; Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch; Jill Johnston, columnist for the Village Voice and the only lesbian speaker on the panel; and the literary critic Diana Trilling. Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag were also in attendance, and D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus filmed the exchange for the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall. The Wooster project sources footage from the documentary and layers it together with excerpts from Jill Johnston’s 1973 Lesbian Nation and scenes from Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone.
In The Town Hall Affair, as in most of the productions in the Wooster Group’s storied forty-year history, the imitative and naturalistic aims of conventional theater are sidelined in favor of a contemporary, multimodal approach to structure and temporality, pursued through the sophisticated interweaving of technology, text, and experimental performance. Under the skilled ministrations of a two-person onstage audio-visual team, Town Hall integrates film, video, sound, music, TV, laptops, microphones, headsets, and prerecorded projections with the bodies of the actors. When these materials are in play—when the film voices of Greer and Mailer fill the headsets of Tierney and Fliakos, and the actors’ own actions and words mirror those in the video playing behind them—the work transcends narrative, and confronts its audience with a complex critique of tech-mediated communication.
While these formal experiments satisfy intellectually, it is the humanness of the Wooster ensemble that speaks to our spirit and summons a feeling of collectivity. The choice by the group to privilege Jill Johnston’s voice above the others finds its truest validation in Kate Valk’s portrayal (or “channeling,” as they say in the Wooster) of the young lesbian writer. Sporting long hippie hair and her best faded jeans, Valk has cultivated a physicality that communicates the interior life of the brash and brilliant Johnston almost as well as her writing. Similarly, the two-headed Mailer (played by Wooster heavyweights Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd) is a surprising and worthwhile conceit that allows for a deeper exploration of Mailer’s twin aspects—the intellectual and the bestial. Greg Mehrten and Maura Tierney round out the panel as the sometimes-warring goddesses, Trilling and Greer. The Wooster Group’s reenactment is remarkably precise—the actors’ mannerisms, costumes, and vocal projections are so well-executed that the line between the 1979 documentary and the 2017 performance is rendered nearly invisible.
The historic 1971 debate, an evening of high-level discourse, would be almost inconceivable in today’s poisonous political milieu. Sure, the giants ran amok, but they did so with style and linguistic mastery. A recap of the highlights: Ceballos proposed paid vacation and retirement benefits for housewives; Greer called the masculine artist “a killer” and questioned whether any single work of art should cost more than the annual income of one thousand families; Mailer offered to put his penis on the table for the women to spit at; and the regal Trilling insisted that the vaginal orgasm does indeed exist. Due to her outsider status, Johnston caught the most shit from the press and the mainstream feminist movement for her intentional disruption of the panel, which took the form of an onstage make-out session with a few of her girlfriends while Mailer disapproved from his podium.
Happily, in the Wooster Group’s excavation of the second wave, it is Johnston, not Mailer, who delivers the closing remarks. “Dream the myth onwards,” she urges her sisters, “Rewrite the stories.” As Valk reads these tender missives from Lesbian Nation we are left to consider the possibility that, during the turbulent sexual upheaval of the ’70s, it was Johnston who best envisioned the future of women’s liberation—a milk-and-honey place of womanly love, wit, activism, and true equality. You know…a place without dick.
The Town Hall Affair runs at the Performing Garage through March 4, 2017. It will play in Los Angeles at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater March 22–April 1, 2017, and in San Francisco at Z Space, April 6–16, 2017.
Amber Power is an arts writer and BOMB’s development associate.