The evening of 30 April, 1971 and New York’s Town Hall is electrified. A debate is being staged between Norman Mailer and several prominent feminists: literary critic Diana Trilling, Village Voice writer Jill Johnston, president of the National Organisation of Women (NOW) Jacqueline Ceballos, and a fox fur-draped Germaine Greer, at the height of her fame following the publication of The Female Eunuch. They speak on the politics of the vaginal orgasm, equal pay, the myth of male genius.
The hall is packed and restless. Before the event, protesters call out the speakers for “betraying” the poor; during it, there are heckles, walk-outs and even an amorous stage invasion… not to mention the gratifying sight of the urbane Mailer getting unexpectedly riled and ruffled.
All of this we know, because the event was caught on camera by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker. This documentary footage was released as Town Bloody Hall – a name that captures both the cheerful profanities flung about and, perhaps, some genuine underlying violence.
And now, the debate has a further afterlife: experimental American theatre company The Wooster Group have adapted it for the stage. They began working on The Town Hall Affair four years ago, and the production has only come to seem more pertinent. It arrives in the UK this week, part of The Art of Change season at the Barbican.
“It’s one of the most topical things we’ve done,” agrees director Elizabeth LeCompte.
The structure of the play is standard for The Wooster Group, but experimental compared to your average show. They project original footage from Town Bloody Hall, spliced with scenes from Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone, in which he plays a writer running for president.
Simultaneously, members of The Wooster Group perform those scenes and characters live. At one point, the two versions of Mailer fight, delivering the droll vision of this conflicted man literally wrestling with himself. (They also dropped Ceballos entirely, as there wasn’t anyone in the company right to play her: “I’m not rigid, I just left her out,” says LeCompte breezily).
“We work in collage, bricolage, call it what you will,” says Kate Valk, who plays Jill Johnston. “We’re taking all these materials, and you rip it up, like a Rosenquist.” “More like a Rauschenberg,” interjects LeCompte. “We do a lot of foraging. It’s not really too academic. It’s just what anybody remembers, what they’ve seen or read.”
From the collaged sources, a new work emerges. And in The Town Hall Affair, some of the additional material comes from the later writings of the female speakers – particularly Johnston. She later argued that the whole event was “a disaster for women”: even to stage a “debate” about women’s liberation was misguided, as it implied that the matter was even up for debate.
Watching the original footage, it’s clear why she appealed as a “way in”. Johnston destabilises the event. She is “a jester” – and refuses to play Mailer’s cat-and-mouse game. “She wasn’t polite; she believed good citizenry including showing up and f**king up,” says LeCompte. “He was totally rattled by that. And he was made very nervous by Jill’s un-interest in him, sexually.”
A radical lesbian, her speech – in contrast to the cutting yet witty and well-crafted arguments of her fellow panellists – is a wild, free-associative poem about how all women are lesbians really, and how we’ll never get true equality until women love other women.
Mailer seeks to re-establish control by petulantly cutting her off when she runs over her 10-minute slot. She responds by rolling around on the floor with a couple of women who leap on stage in solidarity… But you can also see Mailer’s genuine confusion: he doesn’t know how to deal with this unbounded feminine discourse. Because form, here, is gendered: he wanted cool, clever masculine debate where he got to arch an eyebrow at women getting hot and bothered at his needling provocations; he got a young woman who stood up and spoke on her own terms.
That said, doesn’t that “all women are lesbians stuff” seem rather dated now? “Hell no,” replies LeCompte. “It’s huge. Think about it on a metaphysical level – it’s a questioning of making another woman your adversary. Until all women love each other, there will be no true political revolution.”
While in many ways the debate is very much of its early-Seventies moment, in many others it resonates. Accusations of feminism being the preserve of the privileged still throttle the movement, for instance. And this was, in fact, what put LeCompte off attending the debate in 1971. “I was already beyond it. I felt it was too [much for] upper-class women. I didn’t think they were including enough people. But for a lot of regular women, it was a galvanising thing.”
It’s certainly a spirited event – you don’t see that level of furious engagement at a TED talk. Have we become too polite in our political debate? “Polite? I wouldn’t call it polite,” responds LeCompte. “I would say inarticulate.” “But we don’t do it in public anymore,” adds Valk. “We do it online, so people can be really, really mean in a really, really un-articulated way.”
Still, while anonymised online debate may be corrosive, the internet has also provided a new way for women to build communities. And it is, by its very nature, more inclusive, Valk and LeCompte enthuse, pointing to movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
“Women who could never get together before can get together. Maybe they didn’t go to fancy Ivy League schools, but they can connect,” suggests Valk.
On a more personal level, the internet has had a big impact on The Wooster Group’s work – and not always a good one. In recent years, getting the rights for material they want to work with has proved trickier.
“You’re a small, not-for-profit, artist-driven experimental theatre downtown, and you use part of this text and that, and nobody cared because they didn’t hear about you and you weren’t making any money anyway,” recalls Valk. “But now the internet knows everything you do. We’ve learned to just secure the rights right away.”
“But even then, sometimes they’ll take them away, for reasons they don’t even need to explain,” adds LeCompte. “It has happened, and it’s happened recently.”
That was one more reason why Town Bloody Hall appealed – they’re friends with the filmmakers, who were delighted by the project. “It brought the documentary into consciousness again,” says Valk.
The Wooster Group has been producing work since 1975, with LeCompte there from the start. How has the creative process changed? “The process hasn’t changed so much, it’s just much more difficult to do it – to just be a child, not thinking about where it fits in and what it’s about,” she says. Previously, she would take up a text like a child takes a toy, “and say ‘ah! I want to play with this!’ I can’t do that anymore; I’m a lot more careful”.
“I don’t take as many risks as I did when I knew nobody was looking.”
‘The Town Hall Affair’ is at the Barbican, London, from tomorrow until Sunday (020 7638 8891)