Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - June 2, 2008) Nineteen sixty-eight was, as we all know, a watermark year -- violent, explosive, portentous, outrageous. Vietnam raged, Apollo 5 was launched, the Beatles discovered transcendental meditation, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" won a Grammy, My Lai revealed that 450 innocent villagers had been massacred, Martin Luther King was assassinated, followed shortly thereafter by the shooting of Robert Kennedy, General de Gaulle disbanded the French parliament, theatre censorship ended in England, Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, Hair opened in London, and on campuses throughout America, student demonstrations roiled the nation. The list is both hemorrhaging and endless.
From a more personal standpoint, 1968 was also the year The Open Space Theatre was born, created by myself and Thelma Holt. It became, in the words of The Sunday Times, "the leading experimental theatre" and, as The Evening Standard wrote, "one of the liveliest Fringe theatres in England." And in keeping with its policy of provoking the theatergoing public (which, truth to tell, was already heavily provoked by dissension about Vietnam and class-ridden Tory rule at home), we mounted a production of The Chicago Conspiracy that recreated the farrago of what had just taken place at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
As Irving Wardle explains: it was cast with expatriate Americans who had run afoul of the authorities and were now living and working in London. These included Carl Foreman, the screenwriter ("Guns of Navarone," etc.), Larry Adler (the virtuoso harmonica player), Donald Ogden Stewart (playwright, "The Philadelphia Story"), Larry Gelbart (stage, screen, and TV writer, M*A*S*H, etc.).
In the role of the petulant Judge Julius Hoffman, I cast William S. Burroughs, who had been a libertarian as long as he had been a drug addict. Burroughs was an excellent cast member who approached the entire project with a diligent austerity. He was an eerie and imperturbable presence throughout rehearsals and I found the actor-defendants as intimidated by him as if he had been the icy-hearted presiding judge himself, but in his case it was the literary reputation that was so awesome. In fact, Burroughs was gentle and unassuming; he submerged the character with a dry wit which was simultaneously spooky and hilarious. Having been a defendant himself when embroiled in his own trial for accidentally shooting and killing his common-law wife Joan Vollmer, Burroughs understood instinctively the ambivalence that engulfed a federal prosecution.
As audience members entered the theatre, they were brusquely frisked by actors dressed as US policemen, and every manifestation of contempt or support was firmly gaveled down by the upright judge. As the defendants repeated the testimonies of those arraigned on the charge of conspiracy, the ludicrousness of the proceedings became more and more apparent. Being a travesty of justice, it inspired what most travesties do: peals of derisive laughter.
What the recreation of the Chicago demonstration did quite conclusively was to define the generational divide between those Americans who survived the Depression and World War Two, coming to maturity in the starchy, conformist 1950s, and the whimsical and rebellious generation that followed in the '60s -- young men and women who vociferously rejected the mores and values of their parents and had the chutzpah to assail a world driven entirely by materialism. They were, in the main, kids who felt that spiritual values were of a higher order than the fluctuations of Dow Jones. Hair was the theatrical harbinger of that change, and shows like "Chicago Conspiracy" one of its many offspring.
In l974, the play was published by Penguin Books in a collection which I edited entitled Open Space Plays. Nine years after its premiere at The Open Space, the "Chicago Conspiracy Trial" was presented at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles and the play has subsequently been produced in dozens of little theatres throughout America. It was written by John Burgess and myself based on an original treatment by Jonathan Cross -- but it was essentially written by the eight mavericks that were hauled before the court. It was the kind of "Living Newspaper" that depended almost entirely on transferring and recreating the events and words of the defendants in the outrageous trial that took place in Judge Hoffman's courtroom. It was also a piece of immediate history which, like those early Russian Revolution productions of Vsevolod Meyerhold, simply transferred the political climate on to the stage in order to make it more stark for those who were undergoing it. It was also, in a sense, a lesson in political theatre and one that would soon be repeated when the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee would be placed on stage in Eric Bentley's l972 documentary entitled Are You Now or Have You Ever Been and similar to David Hare's recent work Stuff Happens that critically examined the lead-up to the Iraqi War using the words of its own architects.
It is one thing to rouse an audience of eight or nine hundred sequestered safely in a Broadway or West End theatre, but quite another to rally hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C. to protest the evils and ignorance of a foreign policy which is massacring our youth and trampling our Constitution. Yes, every so often, the theatre can send up a few flares to lead people to where the trouble spots are -- but that must not be confused with a genuine rebellion which, because it is angry and indomitable, can begin to remedy the ills that beset a nation.
To a large extent, political plays -- even one like The Chicago Conspiracy and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been -- simply reiterate and reinforce certain moral beliefs that a relatively small group of dissenters holds dear. If the theatre is truly to be an efficacious tool in times of peril and turbulence, it must be conducted in the plazas and pavilions where dictatorial leaders are made to tremble for their lives. The power of the people does not lie in dramaturgy but in irrepressible collective action. The truly great drama is not something scripted in a penthouse or an ivory tower but something that combusts in a city square filled with tear gas, rifle fire, and grenades. Anything less is merely "show." When Abbie Hoffman (one of the Chicago 8 "conspirators") climbed into the galleries of the New York Stock Exchange and tossed down hundreds of one-dollar bills that had rapacious brokers falling over one another to retrieve them, we experienced a piece of theatre which was fifty times more telling than a reconstruction of the Chicago conspiracy trial. When the power of theatre escapes its traditional environment and invades the Real World, one registers the profound difference between simulation and reality.
Little chance of anything like that happening today.
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