Theses Doctoral

Exiting Eden: U.S. Avant-Garde Theatre’s Humanist Controversy 1965-70

Fitzgerald, Jason Thomas

This dissertation examines the vexed relationship between humanism and the New Left counterculture through close examination of four U.S. avant-garde theatre works from the late 1960s. From new interpretations of these plays emerges a new appreciation for U.S. avant-garde theatre’s active role within contemporary philosophical debates, as the theatre artists included here are shown to have intervened in the reassessment of universal assumptions about the human species, salvaging what they could from the legacy of humanism even as it fell under increased attack. Inspired by European existentialism and by the diagnosis of human alienation inherited from the early Karl Marx, these artists inherited the New Left’s framing of political projects in the universalist terms of “the” human, a figure thought to be suppressed and contorted by modern society.

Along with this humanist framework came a sense of responsibility for the world created by human hands. Rather than deferring to Western liberalism’s providential notion of historical progress, New Left humanism argued that history was humanity’s doing, and that building a free and equal future was its responsibility. As the decade progressed and claims for membership in “the” human as historical agent were made by Black Power, feminist, queer, and other liberation movements, this stable humanist vision came under intense pressure. The increasing visibility of state and non-state violence from the streets of Watts to Vietnam to the assassinations of 1968 only intensified these difficulties as the new social movements met the limits of their short-term effectiveness. “Exiting Eden” greets the avant-garde theatre at this moment of crisis. The dissertation’s argument is that the formal and thematic choices of the late 1960s U.S avant-garde theatre were shaped by the question of whether political radicalism built on a humanist foundation could be viable.

The chapters are organized on a spectrum from an optimistic if self-aware humanist framework to a more fundamental critique that anticipates the anti-humanisms of the next decade’s “theory” revolution. Through sustained close readings, I show that each of these plays is not simply a symptom of a period that was deeply interested in humanism but, rather, that they are all acts of theoretical intervention in their own right. The title of each chapter names a figure or a relation, drawn from each play, that suggests each artist’s orientation toward the figure of “the” human. Because even the most radical notions of “the” human threaten ontological claims of a human “essence,” Eden—the mythical space where “the” human existed before being corrupted by falling into society and history—functions as setting and/or trope in each play, as do representations of the border between human and animal or human and monster. In the hands of these avant-garde artists, such tropes become strategies for turning the stage into a laboratory with which to test the limits of humanist radicalism. “Exiting Eden” therefore rewrites existing understandings of the U.S. avant-garde’s engagement with contemporary social movements while complicating the assumption that the confrontation with European forms was the primary motive behind the experimental turn among U.S. theatremakers. At least in the theatre, the United States did not need France in order to critique and reimagine the most basic humanist principles.

Chapter One examines the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now, the over four-hours-long, interactive theatre piece that was created in Europe in early 1968 and toured the United States through 1969. The plot of Paradise Now, represented in performance by an elaborate chart representing a journey to “permanent revolution,” and accompanied in the published script by multiple references to philosophical and mystical ideas embraced by the counterculture, is a textbook for the countercultural adaptation of humanism for radical purposes. Rather than dismiss the play as an aesthetic and political failure, as many critics have done, my interpretation emphasizes the degree to which it takes humanity’s agency over its collective future to be the play’s subject rather than its uncritical premise. In their published writings, as in Paradise Now itself, auteurs Judith Malina and Julian Beck model a political orientation that bravely acknowledges failure, indeed demands an unceasing assessment of failure, in order not to confuse consciousness with worldmaking, and idealism with concrete revolution. I argue that by presenting a play that seems, on the surface, to aim to be efficacious, the Living Theatre manages to investigate the place of efficacy in a radical politics. This achievement relies on a series of meta-theatrical techniques, in particular a sharp contrast between the theatre and the streets, to map out the limits of messianic politics.

Chapter Two examines LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s A Black Mass, which was written three years before Paradise Now but not performed until 1969. Of all the artists in this study, it is Baraka who uses the term “humanism” most frequently, and just as often positively as negatively. What Kimberly Benston has called “black humanism” becomes, for Baraka, a tool for correcting the failures of bourgeois (white) humanism, which he blames for the twin violence of colonialism and racism. These failures follow from an idealism that frames humanism as a transcendental set of assumptions rather than as a construct produced by a group of people in particular historical circumstances. I argue that reconceptualizing humanism as the poetic act of a people, made from the stuff of history, is Baraka’s goal in his writings and in his art. I argue that A Black Mass is a theatrical critique of the Nation of Islam (from which Baraka borrows his plot) as a form of black nationalism that dangerously recapitulates “white” humanism’s idealism. A brief look at Baraka’s play Slave Ship helps to draw out this distinction between an idealist and a materialist black humanism.

Chapter Three centers on The Serpent, directed by Joseph Chaikin and written by Jean-Claude van Itallie in collaboration with the company of the Open Theater. I show that the play, along with Chaikin’s writings on theatre, assumes that whether or not human nature exists, it is fundamentally unknowable. As a result, the foundations of both humanist liberalism and the anarchism of Beck and Malina, Chaikin’s friends and mentors, must be re-examined. But rather than propose an alternative framework, Chaikin and his company choose a critical approach, what he calls the “impossible study,” that is self-reflective about the value of the search for human nature. In The Serpent, the apparently humanist discourse of science becomes the source of a critique of humanism. The attempt to discover, as though with the surgical certainty of medicine, the nature of the human deconstructs itself over the course of the play. What emerges, through a devastating representation of the murder of Abel, is a diagnosis of humanism as humanity’s curse, the yearning for total knowledge of “the” human and its world as a Sisyphean project that can be neither sated nor abandoned.

Chapter Four examines Ronald Tavel’s Gorilla Queen, produced at the Judson Poets’ Theatre in 1967. Gorilla Queen, the only full-length example of what Tavel called his “Theatre of the Ridiculous,” is also the only play in this study whose orientation could be called anti-humanist. Its anti-humanism is nonetheless interested in universal human experience, as my reading shows. Writing from the perspective of the queer urban underground, Tavel uses stereotypes drawn from Hollywood B-movies of the 1930s to satirize humanism’s complicity with imperialism and racism. He further draws out the ways in which appeals to “the” human limit opportunities to embrace the full range of sensuous experience available to the human animal. From his anti-homophobic politics of pleasure, Tavel uses the de-sacralizing aesthetics of camp to suggest that humanism is, simply, not that much fun, and that true human liberation must be found outside the universalizing boundaries of “the” human.

Collectively, these plays present four varieties of ambivalence about humanism as a philosophical concept and as a basis for political action. The epilogue recapitulates the argument, considers further avenues of research, and briefly reflects on the place of humanism in present-day political struggles.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Worthen, W.B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 24, 2017