Review: WARHOLCAPOTE, Rob Roth

Published in The TLS on January 6, 2023

In 1948 a young Andy Warhol read Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and became obsessed with the writer. On moving to New York a few years later, he started sending fan letters to Capote, hanging around outside his house until they got talking, and after that phoned him every day. His first show in the city was called Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.

Not many stars have stalkers who become as famous as them – but of course, Warhol was to achieve the same renown as his idol. By 1978 the two were not only friends, but were even plotting to write a Broadway show together based on their taped conversations. It would be, to quote Capote, “Reality and art intertwined … A small play in which you see everything about a person. Every word of it true”. It’s of little surprise that such an idea appealed to both men, given their shared creative interest in the intertwining of reality and art – whether in Capote’s line-blurring “non-fiction novels” or in Warhol’s fascination with the intersections of fame, celebrity and image-making.

The play never materialized, but Warhol included a tantalizing reference to the project in his diaries (even recording his suggestion to Elizabeth Taylor that she should play Capote). It was in the diaries that the American director Rob Roth – best known for bringing Beauty and the Beast to the stage – read about the tapes, in 2007. A new obsession was born.

Things got off to a difficult start when Roth discovered that the Andy Warhol Foundation’s lawyers had put a fifty-year embargo on Warhol’s 3,000-odd cassettes – some had been recorded without consent, others were full of slander. Luckily the Capote tapes were made intentionally, so Roth was able to argue for access. Fifty-nine tapes labelled “Truman” were uncovered, featuring about 80 hours of chat.

Roth condensed and shaped verbatim transcripts of these recordings into a one-act play named WARHOLCAPOTE, as well as adding contextualizing snippets from other interviews in which the men talked about each other. But the bulk of the script – and its appeal – comes from these two self-mythologizing twentieth-century giants discussing celebrity, sex, art and addiction. They also give each other fashion advice and gossip shamelessly – about Elton John being fat, Marilyn Monroe’s tardiness, the size of Humphrey Bogart’s penis.

WARHOLCAPOTE was first seen at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard in 2017, receiving broadly positive reviews, and is now published in an elegant hardback volume not quite like your usual play text. Padded with unused bonus material from the tapes, a preface from the art critic Blake Gopnik and an essay on the show’s genesis by Roth, it’s as much an art-historical artefact for Capote and Warhol aficionados as a resource for theatre fans or potential new directors. This makes sense: the story around WARHOLCAPOTE is arguably as interesting as the play itself.

Roth has pulled the material into some shape by wrapping it around Capote’s visit to rehab for alcohol addiction. But there’s no hiding the fact that there’s little action, structure or narrative drive. This is as Warhol would’ve wanted: “I don’t think plot is important”, he breezily states when first floating the idea of a play. Audiences, or readers, may disagree.

Luckily for Roth, their dialogue is as zesty as you’d hope. There’s fun in the copious amount of celebrity name-dropping, catty judgements and eye-watering (apparent) frankness. Nonetheless, any sense of gaining unfiltered access to their “true” selves is surely incorrect. From Capote declaring them to be “two living legends” to an aside where Warhol acknowledges how people “perform” for his tapes, both appear well aware that they’re acting out their friendship for posterity.

These are public personas filtered through private conversation that was intended for public consumption – no wonder Warhol and Capote seem very much in role as the faux-naive, curious innocent and the cynical, hedonistic, storytelling older man. If this was invented dialogue, it would seem overdone; you wouldn’t write Warhol as this oh-gee gushing, or Capote as this monstrously egoistic (“I have one of the greatest creative imaginations that’s ever been”). WARHOLCAPOTE is a testament to the total artwork that both men made of their own lives.

Despite this, Rob Roth has clearly included as many softer moments as possible, and touches on the darkness that clouded both lives. Capote questioning if Warhol really will call him while he’s in rehab reveals a chink of frailty in his camp armour. And Warhol’s admission that he is scared, and finds it hard to trust people, after being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968 appears to reveal a genuine tender spot. In the end, WARHOLCAPOTE suggests that – however much they were performing – the affection between the two men was real, at least.


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