Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa revives Jean-Claude Van Italie 60s shocker
Some things you don’t forget. Jean-Claude Van Italie’s “Motel” was one of them. Still is.
It has been 39 years now since, in the “Motel” segment of Van Italie’s “America Hurrah” trilogy, those two gigantic dolls, a male and a female automaton—maneuvered from within by flesh-and-blood actors—began pornographically trashing and then ripping apart not just their rented motel room but the motel-keeper herself, another enormous rotating robot.
The two destroyers said not a word. The motel-keeper was a babbling river of banality, touting the glories of her establishment—i.e., 1960s middle America—in excruciating detail:
“The best stop on Route 66. Well, there might be others like it, but this is the best stop. You’ve arrived at the right place. This place. And a hooked rug. I don’t care what, but I’ve said no room is without a hooked rug…
“Ordered from the catalogue… bottles, bras, breakfasts, refrigerators, cast-iron gates, plastic posies… pickles, bayberry candles, South Dakota Kewpie dolls, fiberglass hair, polished milk, amiable grandpappies, colts, Galsworthy books, cribs, cabinets, teetertotters… “
Smash! Smash! The female desecrator smears lipstick on her own nipples. Her male companion scrawls obscenities on the wall. The female draws genitals on the walls. They dance. They embrace. They smash the TV, wreck the bed, crash the window, rip the walls, tear off the head and arms of the still gabbling motel-keeper. Sirens. Deafening music. Headlights into the face of the audience.
You left the theater shaking.
And Jean-Claude Van Italie was such a nice boy. Still is. Since “America Hurrah” set the keynote for a decade’s protest generation, he has translated Genet and Chekhov; opened other doors with “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and, for the late Joseph and his own personal history.
Ellen Stewart, who gave “America Hurrah” its first exposure 39 years ago and brought it back in 1981, is bringing it to La MaMa once again for four performances, October 7 through 10, as part of that emporium’s 2004 Puppet Series Festival—though these are pretty big puppets, maybe eight feet tall, originally designed by none other than a then unknown Robert Wilson.
“I wrote ‘Motel’ before I ever knew Ellen,” Van Italie said from his Massachusetts countryside retreat last week. “I saw a note on the door of the Caffe Cino”—Off Off Broadway’s 1950s seedbed—”that said: ‘If you like the Cino, you’ll love La MaMa.’
“So I went over there, it was then at 122 Second Avenue, and I met Ellen. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember what she said: ‘Honey, you’re home. Come do your play here.’ ”
Stewart’s still saying it to one and all, by the way—still spreading theater around the globe like Johnny Appleseed.
Jean-Claude Van Italie, born 1936 in Brussels, Belgium, was still in his twenties when “America Hurrah” burst into his head.
“I had been writing a fairly conventional three-act play called ‘Children on the Shore’ and getting polite rejection notes. I think ‘America Hurrah’ came out of anger. Personal anger. That I wasn’t being let in the door of Broadway theater. Angry at myself for trying.
“So I thought I’d write something that would not please anybody, and had no expectations of it ever being produced.”
It was not only produced, it ran for 640 performances in New York, first at La MaMa, then at the Pocket Theater, Third Avenue and 12th Street (subsequently a porno house). There followed banned but triumphant bookings in London and Sydney, Australia, and since then, everywhere.
Whatever happened to “Children on the Shore”?
The first director of “Motel” was Michael Kahn; then came Jacques Levy, then Tom O’Horgan. The voice of the motel-keeper was originally and crucially supplied by Ruth White, memorable Off-Broadway star of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” The director of La MaMa’s 2004 staging is George Ferencz.
Had playwright Van Italie, whose whole early life in 1940s Europe constituted a dark drama in itself, envisioned those dolls as gigantic and scary as all that?
“Yes, that was my point. I’d been reading [famed stage designer] Gordon Craig and [Theater of Cruelty playwright] Antonin Artaud. So that was the fun of it.”
Well, Jean-Claude, said this interviewer, all I can tell you is that I remember it vividly, and it really scared the shit out of me.
“Good, good,” Van Italie said gleefully, up there among the cows in Massachusetts. Asked about his original puppet designer, he continued, “Robert Wilson? A friend had called me, maybe a year or two before, to say there was this young guy who wanted to get into theater in New York, and could I help him? I was very flattered to be asked that about anybody.”
Wilson’s dolls are being re-created for the current production by Jane Catherine Shaw.
Van Italie remembered back to his early life in Europe.
“Remember the Holocaust? We were Jews. My father, a stockbroker, was in the Belgian army. He waded out at Dunkirk to one of the rescue ships. My mother drove us—me, her sister, her parents and my father’s parents, seven of us in one car—first from Brussels to the Belgian seashore, then all through France to Spain and then to Portugal.
“My father joined us in France, and his parents took a boat across the Channel to England. The boat hit a mine; they were killed. The rest of us were lucky enough to get visas to go to America—”
Just like “Casablanca”?
“Just about the same time.”
All of which somehow feeds in to the new play that Jean-Claude Van Italie finished a week or two ago.
“It’s called ‘Fear Itself, Secrets About the White House,’ and it’s somewhat related to [the Vietnam era’s] ‘America Hurrah.’ ”
The first two words of its title immediately summon up, of course, FDR’s invigorating “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but the we of today are participants in an inside-out New Deal of somewhat more ominous cast.
“The White House in this play,” said the man who wrote it, “is occupied by Emperor Bush and his wife Mommy, who are talking about their children, who are locked in the basement. Every time Emperor Bush does something dastardly, like bombing some place, it’s actually the kids who get it.”
Or as the motel-keeper says while her eight-foot-tall platform-shoed overnight guests set to disemboweling the premises: “All folks everywhere sitting in the very palm of God. Waiting, whither, whence?”