The complete script of The Gods Are Pounding My Head! is published in the April 2005 print issue. Written, directed and designed by Richard Foreman for his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in spring 2005, The Gods finds two bizarre and bumbling lumberjacks at the edge of a psychic abyss, though they eagerly anticipate the good news that seems hidden in sweet drops of honey left by busy bees. As with all Foreman landscapes, however, there is dread hidden inside imagined pleasures, as they encounter a beautiful, irreverent princess who taunts them with the mysteries of sex, death and desire.
New York City native Richard Foreman founded the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in 1968. He has written, directed and designed dozens of his own plays both in the United States and abroad. His many awards include a lifetime achievement honor from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Master Dramatist Award and a MacArthur “Genius” grant. An anthology of his work, Bad Boy Nietzsche! and Other Plays, was published by Theatre Communications Group in 2005, and his new collection The Manifestos and Essays is forthcoming from TCG in 2013. He is also the subject of a wide-ranging anthology of plays, interviews and criticism available from PAJ Publications.
Young Jean Lee: What is your process?
Richard Foreman: The way that I work is by collaging different things from this vast file of material that I have. After I’ve seen where it seems to be going, I will write more material, and then I will do eight rewrites of that material before we go into rehearsals. A lot of the text for my shows has been written in rehearsal. I start out with some aphorisms recorded on tape, a lot of which we don’t use, and some dialogue scenes, all of which are changed. On the first day of rehearsal for this play we had a 30-page script, but 50 percent of that has changed.
This play seems to mourn for a lost world that has been replaced by a world of people who are “thin, somehow, just surface only.”
That whole feeling came in pretty late in the game. I expected the play to be much more totally metaphysical, religious, what have you, and then found myself drawn more and more to talking about this world as it is, which is quite the contrary to that. For quite a while I have been obsessed with the feeling that the world I grew up in is vanishing. I miss the continuing discourse of a kind of European tradition of philosophical thought: existentialism through structuralism through phenomenology through postmodern thought and psychoanalysis, and the attempts to use all those theoretical tools to bring to fruition the complex multi-layered individual, who carries inside of himself a castle of culture that each individual of that sort has built. And I miss the arena in which those kinds of individuals talk to each other and circulate and create landscapes in which one lives.
How does this change affect you as a writer?
I don’t know. I’m a language-based person. I’ve always thought of myself specifically as a writer, but I’m finding it harder and harder to feel the justification of writing. I increasingly have the feeling that I’m being pressed tighter and tighter against some big wall, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to break through to the other side. That’s why I announced that I was going to stop making the old kinds of plays I’ve been making and do something else. Whether I will really do that 100 percent, who’s to say, but it indicates my desire finally to get through that wall. Maybe that’s what’s interesting about me—that I’m banging my head against this wall that I’ll never get through. If I break through that wall I may completely deteriorate as an artist and be totally non-interesting to anybody.
Why did you choose to make theatre for all these years instead of some other art form?
I got into theatre when I was a kid. It was a pretend world. I’ve stayed with theatre because I grew up with it and it’s in my bones. As much as I hate most theatre, I have to admit I’m a man of the theatre, and I think in terms of moving live people around on stage in front of me. It’s the concrete three-dimensional aspect of it in a very sensual way that I think I’ve related to all these years. When I began I was very lucky. I started back in the middle ’60s when we were very used to people walking out and hating what was happening. We all thought, “That proves you’re doing good stuff.” At my first plays everybody walked out. But I was surrounded by enough friends who made me believe that that doesn’t matter.
What drove you away from writing more traditional plays?
With a lot of traditional plays, you sit there, and say, “Oh, this is where the husband says, ‘I’m going to leave you because I’m in love with Marie.’” It starts, and you know it’s going to last too long, that it’s going to be over-clarified. You see this desire to make what they want to say be clearer and more convincing, and to me that’s totally boring. You get it in two seconds. I think that those people who are willing to go along with me don’t need all the clarification provided. I want my plays to be the spark jumping around, the spark of consciousness, jumping from level to level—and I think that that is an experience that we all share.
Some people might think your work doesn’t make any sense.
Maybe it doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I’m totally perverse and crazy. I see a lot of so-called experimental stuff where people are just wallowing around and throwing everything in and, no, it makes no sense. You can just sense it in your gut when there is a controlling vision—when things are tuned, like a piece of music—and when there is not.
Your characters struggle with unhappiness, but you don’t encourage identification with their sufferings in the traditional sense.
My plays are about using unhappiness in a different way. My characters are interplaying, and their petty problems are swept away by the formal aesthetic considerations, the composition, the music of the play. It’s as if you stub your foot on a black rock, and you say, “Oh, this rock, it keeps following me, I keep tripping over it.” But take that rock, chip it properly, it becomes a diamond. That’s my task, to take the unhappiness of those characters, to restructure it, break it up, so somehow it’s helping to reveal the light that is coming in.
Young Jean Lee is a playwright and director.