I wanted two books. One was a hardcovered book on astronomy written for the layman or perhaps children. The glossy cover had a thrilling photo of the Milky Way. The other was an illustrated magazine of the Arabian Nights. An artist had rendered paradisiacal images of fruit, flowers, pirates, goblins, golden coins, and maidens with undulating tresses, a superb cover to my six-year-old sensibility. The mother said that I might have one book only. I would have to choose. But she quixotically changed her mind and said that I could have both books.
It was 1942 in Brooklyn. During the blackouts, the parents draped sheets over the windows and between the doors and floors to prevent the light from the sabbath candles streaking forth. It was a sin to extinguish the holy candles the mother had lit and said the blessing over. And the father and mother protected the light and the light was not seen. In the heaving darkness of the bedroom shared by the three children, I would lie in bed with my older sister and firmly hold her, my arm around her waist. The closeness soothed my nervous being. The furniture, alien and menacing forms, became less so. When I squinted my eyes at the light glowing from the street lamps outside the window, I saw Carol's gloriously shining gown. Carol was the beloved daughter of the sun and moon. In the morning I would have conversations with her.
I dreamed of a birdwoman. A fantastic creature with a human body and the head of a bird. She fed her young with chunks of flesh that she savagely tore out of her body with her beak. Always the flesh grew quickly back so that there was no loss or end of herself.
Thanksgiving the mother stayed home and cooked the family meal while the father took sister, little brother and me to the annual Macy's Day parade, a New York tradition. I went with the father to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I was intrigued with a painting titled "White on White." There was nothing there to look at but flat whiteness, and yet there was an important looking frame that held the nothingness to the wall. The title pleased me. White on White sounded right. I had become aware of the power of art to control and incorporate the dilemma of paradox and contradiction.
I was the second daughter of Maxwell Bass and his wife Molly, nèe Adler. The father was a post office clerk and the mother a housewife. Both parents were highly intense and remote. Their lower middle-class expectations and values conflicted with a naive longing for self-fulfillment and individuality. The mother's cousin was a photographer and film-maker, Morris Engle, who is married to Ruth Orkin, the photographer. He had once borrowed money from them to buy his first camera. The parents said that his need for artistic self-realization was peculiar and blame-worthy.
Oppression, tension, and intimidation were the conditions of my childhood. I suffered from asthma. I felt as if there were huge blocks of invisible concrete that one couldn't avoid smashing into.
I was supposed to have been the first-born son. The parents were disappointed. We children were frequently reminded by the mother that the father had wanted to be a lawyer or a merchant seaman but the Depression of 1929, marriage and family obligations had forced him to forsake these preferences. As a youth he had to support his brother and three sisters after the death of his parents.
In our family there was a story of a great-uncle who had left Russia, settled in Argentina, married a Spanish señorita, and became a rich gaucho. It seemed to me that the parents exulted in this tale. I was fascinated by their attitude. So a maverick could win admiration.
I was about four when I was given a blackboard. I remember the exhilarating focus of energy and control I felt as I drew perfectly round circles. The circles were the heads of the stick figures that children like to draw. Sequence, rhythm, balance, patterns of motion, light and dark shadow transfix me to this day. As a baby I marveled at the beauty of design in nature personified by trees. Art is imbedded in the human spirit. Christmas I was given a doll and doll clothes. They had been arranged on the top of a cedar chest. I was delighted with the pattern that the objects made resting on the surface. I was indifferent to the doll and clothes. The father bought a first edition of the poems of Eliza Cook. The book was bound in burnished cocoa leather and some of the pages were water-stained. The poems reveled in the certainty of moral virtue triumphing over an unjust and dangerous world. I responded to the poetry with fervor.
At ten I began ballet lessons at a neighborhood school. I kept an album of photos of ballet stars. I had a bit of a religious fixation on Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. I drew a halo with yellow crayon around the photographed head of the beautiful but quite mad little Vaslav. I hung the photo above my bed and it remained there for a few weeks until I read Romola Nijinsky's biography of her husband. She told of the many neurasthenic young people who had a need to worship Nijinsky as a saint. I had always thought that in order to qualify as neurasthenic one had to be a tall, very thin, waxy-pale young man with damp hands. I had read a bit of Kraft-Ebbing. I took the photo down. Later, I studied at another ballet school located in Brighton Beach. The teacher was a Russian who had danced in the famed St. Petersburg company, an eccentric who had once told us children that a wormy box of crackers was not necessarily to be scorned because the worms themselves were food. It was rumored that he was the lover of a woman who was the mother of the only boy in our class. There was something about the woman's eyes that reminded me of Peter Lorre. Some of the girls said that the little boy was the illegitimate heir of our ballet teacher. We knew that the woman never paid the tuition money. But our teacher, Eaffim Geersh, was generous and if we children didn't have the thirteen dollars a month for the three lessons a week, he instructed us anyway. In order to go to ballet school I had to take three subway trains. It was a difficult and frantic journey. But I loved it. The strict discipline of the ballet towards perfection was in harmony with my intense critical spirit. During the lesson an old phonograph played Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. The music exorcised my suppressed raging feelings. I worked hard but had neither the stamina nor the focus that was required for dancing. Often I would simply stand at the exercise bar and become absorbed in the sounds and rhythms of the French words designating the classical ballet movements. I loved to watch the best student perform: a red-haired girl with a severe jaw and strong feet garbed in white socks, a goddess of the hunt.
There was a romantic tinge to the mother's ambivalence and hostility. Once she referred to me as a "changeling." I was about thirty-five. Whose place was it that I had taken? I thought. She did not want to acknowledge any of my artistic or personal credentials. Once in her presence someone mentioned the fact of my having been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. She continued her revenge against me, turned her head away and said nothing. I bore her passive hatred and grieved over it. I was also mystified by it.
The mother had always been close and involved with my sister. I was "the outsider" and I was not to know any family secrets. For instance, I was never to know what my brother-in-law did to earn his living. He was always trying out new ventures. Once it was selling photographic services to poor rural people, another time he was in the roofing business, another occasion he was involved with greetings cards and records, still another had him trying for a big break as a movie producer. I knew that he had once defined himself as a composer and lyricist. Later I realized that one of the many reasons for the alienation of the mother from me was because I had achieved artistic recognition. They were vexed by my success. I was told by a cousin that the mother had an ax to grind against me. Needless to say, my own experience contradicts the generalization of the life-style of the Jewish family as being rich in ego-building.
The mother spent some of her time absorbed in the creation of ornamented articles from textiles which she gave away as gifts. She would have liked to have been a costume designer. She hand-sewed delicate, glistening, beautifully colored infant blankets, glamorous black and red satin lacy hostess aprons, pale blue garters embellished with satin and seed-pearl rosettes, the something blue that brides wear, and sumptuous decorative pillows. The numerous stored boxes of remnant fabrics, ribbons, sequins, beads, tassels, and lace were part of my childhood. She made me three costumes for the school plays that I appeared in. I had been cast as Miss Celery, Mrs. Santa Claus, and a ballet dancer. Years later, when I would occasionally visit Maria Irene Fornes, the playwright and costume designer, I'd be reminded of the mother because Maria Irene also kept boxes filled with glittering odds and ends of fabric. Yes, I think the mother would have enjoyed being a costume designer. In addition to sewing, she pencil-sketched the profiles of classical featured flappers with bobbed hair and cupid bow lips. Her sketches were done randomly and sometimes appeared on the inside covers of books. I have an old copy of an Encyclopaedia Britannica publication of Grimm's Fairy Tales. On the inside cover is a sketch of a pretty mouth drawn by the mother. My play Emma Instigated Me contains insight into my relationship with the mother. A short version was published in Performing Arts Journal. The complete version is unpublished. The play was produced as a work-in-progress at the American Place Theatre in 1976. The Village Voice critics Erika Munk and Michael Feingold participated in a panel discussion of the play. The overall reaction was that the work was radically innovative.
In the bookcase was a collection of The Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was said that the father had purchased it with savings that he had managed to glean from wages earned at the age of thirteen. Divine authority emanated form the sheer and fragile pages of fine print. There were, among others, a Wonderland of Knowledge set, the complete works of Charles Dickens, a leather-bound prayer book in Hebrew, an anthology of plays that included Mary Caroline Davies' The Slave with Two Faces, and The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill. My favorite uncle Sol had given us a remarkable book of photos, Weegies New York. I would spend hours looking at the unusual and dramatic images. Years later, at a party in Greenwich Village, I saw a fat man with a cigar. It was Weegie. He was wearing a dingy blue-striped, wrinkled shirt and lying flat on his back on a bed, a camera resting on his stomach. A young girl was sitting next to him. Weegie's hairy hand lay on her buttery forearm. At times there were forbidden books to be found in the home. Hidden in the recesses of a nightstand in the parental bedroom were a novel by Ben Hecht, Forever Amber, and a medical and sexual hygiene book published in the twenties. Between the bedspring and the mattress of my sister's bed The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan was tucked away. I had spent hours searching for that book. In an issue of Mercury Magazine I came across a story that I thought was very good. It was called "Woman in the Window" and included, I recall, a poem by Sappho. I discuss the medical and sexual hygiene book in the introduction to my second collection of plays, The Karl Marx Play and Others.
During the humid, pastel summer days, I played with my friends, Joanie, Miriam, Roslyn, and Carolee. They lived across the street in two-family brick homes, with the exception of Joanie, who lived in a larger and more prosperous private home.
Our childhood games were stories that we would act out, a mélange of gothic and romantic adventure. We shared our fierce secrets and unshakably believed like our parents in the infallibility of President Roosevelt. To us, Tom Dewey was a sinister Charlie McCarthy.
The girls took piano lessons and were rather serious about their musical development. I recall an incident that seemed odd to me at the time. One afternoon, while walking with Janice, who was not part of our group, we passed Roslyn's home. She was practicing and forcefully pounding the keys. Suddenly, Janice said, her voice tinged with scorn and fatalism, "She takes out all her frustrations on the piano." I believe that Janice was merely expressing already internalized sexist attitudes of the patriarchal culture about females who devote themselves to pursuits that are artistic, autonomous, and solitary. Would it have ever occurred to Janice to make a similar comment about a would-be Arthur Rubinstein?
In 1953 I graduated from Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. Among the graduates was the Hall of Fame baseball player, Sandy Koufax. Two years later I moved to Manhattan where I studied briefly at the New School with the poet Horace Gregory and at the Herbert Berghof School of Drama. Horace Gregory had severe palsy. He was a chain smoker and had terrible difficulty lighting up the succession of cigarettes. His body would be overwhelmed with violent spasmodic jerking. But he willed his mouth that gripped a cigarette to hold fast, and sooner or later the autonomous flying fist that clenched the shiny cigarette lighter would triumphantly strike home and ignite the seductive weed. I watched like a small child watches, absorbed and content at accomplishment. However, I dropped out of the course because of the assignment that he gave. Horace Gregory wanted us to memorize the first six stanzas of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." I remember his mobile and sly smile as he lit up another cigarette. I teach creative writing and know from experience that there is no value in memorizing long passages of literature.
I supported myself with low-paying clerical jobs and selling in department stores. I was writing poetry too. One day at work I showed a few poems to a woman who had expressed an interest in my writing. She told me that they were very good and that she could not give any critical advice but that she felt that I was a true poet. If I saw that woman today I would not know her. I never even knew her name. At that time in my life her kind appreciation and sensitivity were balm to my sense of self as a fledgling artist.
I shared a large apartment in an old Edwardian-style home that had been renovated into two separate living areas. I lived with three young fashion models who had come from small towns in Ohio. Our landlady was Italian and the widow of a doctor. She lived with her bachelor son, who I suspected had voyeuristic impulses. He always wore brown and resembled a dragonfly. He scampered up and down the stairs at odd hours throughout the day and night. He seemed to be looking for something. His mother gave the impression that she wanted her son to find a nice girl to marry. Quizzically she would look at each of her renters. During the day when we were at work our landlady would do her laundry in our bathtub. I had come home early from work and had seen her. We were very indignant, but we never confronted her. The landlady collected antiques and had had her kitchen linoleum designed with the family coat-of-arms dating from the fifteenth century. At Christmas she baked cookies.
Shortly before I left the parental home in Brooklyn, I had met a student of dentistry who was attending N.Y.U. I had spent the day at the beach in Coney Island. It was late afternoon and I was engrossed in reading The Golden Ass by Apuleuis, a marvelous tale. Suddenly, a shadow fell across the book page. I looked up, squinting in the sunlight, and was astonished to see a blond lifeguard tanned a glossy golden cocoa hue, a veritable Adonis who was fairly conspicuous among the largely Mediterranean-looking youth that populated the Coney Island beaches. We went to films and took walks during the cool evenings. He had once confided to me that at the age of fifteen he had had intimate relations with his mother. Now I had two things to be uneasy about, the first being his New York accent. I informed him that the book of Leviticus and all cultures, with the exception of the ancient Egyptians, forbade incest. I remembered his dewy, childish smile when he had first met the mother. She had liked him.
In 1965 I invited Danny, the former dental student, to attend the opening night of the premiere production of my first play, The String Game, at the famous Judson Poets' Theatre in New York City. He was married and the father of two little girls. He practiced dentistry in the suburbs and had gained twenty-five pounds since we had last seen each other. Once when I asked him if he had ever suffered emotional pain from his adolescent experience with his mother, his reply was, "No. No pain."
In Greenwich Village there was a café called Pandora's Box. It had an atmosphere that classified it as an appropriate hangout for college students and artists. The walls were hung with posters of European landscapes, the light filtered through a beaded curtain towards the back, the candles dripped Jackson Pollack like configurations on the straw Chianti wine bottle-holders and the pastries were very good. Like its straw wine bottle-holders. The café no longer exists. The year was 1955. I was taking acting lessons. Rather than dress "shoe," the term for the preppy look then, I realized, like Joan of Arc, that an androgynous style was more compatible with the idea of spiritual achievement. I wore a black turtleneck sweater, black slacks, and a white man-tailored shirt. I knew that Ivy league male students who wrote poetry chose to dress in such attire, which often included an expensive Harris tweed jacket. Sometimes they wore a rugged Irish fisherman's sweater. I did not personally know of any young women who wrote poetry then. When I stepped out of the subway and headed towards Christopher Street, I imagined myself as a poet. I felt adventurous and idealistic. A few years ago it occurred to me that during that period of my life I hadn't been aware of the value of money. I think it's a little strange. I was after all simply a poor working girl who was not even a graduate of Brooklyn college or C.C.N.Y. I did not have the luxury of having prosperous parents give me an allowance while I played out the role of being a poet searching for "authentic experience" while receiving an education at an expensive institution of higher learning. I did clerical work for a living and was innocently blind to the added disadvantages of being poor and female. Naively, I committed myself to art as ideology. It was in Pandora's Box that my glance first rested on the animated face of David Owens. He had noticed me while he was engaged in conversation with a young painter by the name of AI Held, who has since become very successful. David was good-looking in a romantic English way. His personality was mercurial and seductive. He feigned an English accent and loved punctuating his obsessive speech with a French expression, raison d'etre, while railing against "bourgeois values." He considered himself an artist while working as a salesman and doing carpentry. At the Peacock Café, The Lime-light, and the Cedar Bar, we met our friends and acquaintances who were painters, sculptors, photographers, poets and musicians. I came to know some of the leading personalities whose creative contributions have shaped avant-garde theatre, literature, and art in America during the last twenty-five years: Alexander Calder, Jack Gelber, Judith Malina, Julian Beck, Lee Strasberg, Ronald Bladen, Rod Steiger, Leo Castelli, and Tambimuttu.
David's charisma and style impressed all. He resembled Richard Burton and was society's ideal version of an angry young man, whose baritone voice skittered through the air and banged against the walls like giant hornets. He reveled in certain names and periods of history like, "Malraux's Man's Fate, the Renaissance, the French Impressionists, Franz Kline, abstract expressionism." Etc.
I was perceived as an attractive and a bit zany girl who sometimes laughed hysterically. My background and upbringing had left me anxious and nervous. At times I imagined myself to be in disguise. On other occasions I felt like an irrepressible poet-philosopher. One evening after reading some of my poems, Peter Ritner, a former editor at Macmillan, bombastically stated that a mere girl should not have it in her to write such rich and cerebral work. He screamed that I must be a freak. "What experience could you ever have had! You're just a goldfish swimming around in a bowl." He died a suicide years ago. He invited David and me to dinner a few times, and I recall that he always prepared delicious mashed potatoes with lots of butter and garlic.
In the winter of 1955 David and I discovered old New York together. We visited the financial district; the buildings were strange and wonderful. We were the observers of an environment. Although we had no hope in its very structure, we saw our appreciation of the line, form, and color of the area as an act of faith in our ability to draw beautiful observations in a disintegrating time and an unbearable society. It was America during the Eisenhower years. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit hung suspended over the rapidly growing artistic and political consciousness of the young like a bloated advertising zeppelin ready to explode.
It was the beginning of radical artistic experimentation. The poets, playwrights, film-makers, painters, sculptors, and performing artists were inventing, finding, producing, gathering, analyzing, and selecting the groundwork for those who came later, including the pop culture heroes of the billion dollar rock music business. The place to be was in New York or San Francisco. Later I would meet playwrights Adrienne Kennedy, Megan Terry, Roslyn Drexler, Sam Shepard, Ken Bernard, and Leonard Melfi.
In March, two days before my twentieth birthday, I was married to David. We moved into a small apartment on the upper west side. I was working for the Poetry Society of America and became a member after submitting some poems to the committee of jurors. The poems were very experimental and reflected even then an important concern of mine, a response to the need for the dynamism of the word, a dynamic charged with evolution and change-those basics to living form. Language, image, movement shape themselves according to the multifaceted structure of the world.
The following excerpt is from one of my first published poems.
Salt, Core, Nucleus and Heart
Can I in sin on august green
Black-judge the beak I worship
For anatomy and obscenity (nebulous)
Powwow are skilled up like
Salt, core, nucleus and heart.
Published in Simbolica
One of my earliest friends had been the young poet and playwright LeRoi Jones who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Jones published a poetry magazine called Yugen; I remember how happy I was to be included among the contributors: Charles Olson, Tristan Tzara, Daisy Aldan, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, and Paul Blackburn, who later became a good friend. In 1962 Jones published a group of my poems in an anthology titled Four Young Lady Poets. It was not surprising that when I edited an anthology of plays ten years later called Spontaneous Combustion, a play of LeRoi's was included.
During the period of the marriage my poetry first began to appear in several little magazines. I wrote constantly and assumed that my life would always be a battle of sorts but at least I would have produced a body of work. Being suspended in the landscape of mental concentration when writing a poem or play has been and is one of the most exquisite clarifications of my existence.
In 1959 David and I separated and the marriage was annulled. I had finally recognized that he was too unstable and self-absorbed to alleviate my own dissatisfaction. For further insights into my relationship with David I would suggest reading the introduction to my collection of plays, The Karl Marx Play and Others. I decided to retain the name Owens because I had already been published under it. I wrote about David in my play Chucky's Hunch. It was produced by George Bartinieff and Crystal Field at the Theatre for the New City in 1981 and by Jack Garfein at the Harold Clurman Theatre in 1982. The play won a Village Voice Obie and The Villager Award. The critical response was excellent, the New York Times describing it as "Hilarious! Wonderful!" The Village Voice said, "A triumph of verbal fireworks! Not to be missed." Clive Barnes of the New York Post stated, "Rochelle Owens' comic flame has never burnt so bright, but like the eye of the tiger, it is savage." The play is published in an anthology, Wordplays 2, and is included in the Samuel French catalogue. Years ago, George Bartinieff and Crystal Field had appeared in the premiere production of my plays Beclch and Istanboul. I knew them both in the early period of off-off-Broadway.
In 1959, I wrote my first play, Futz. I had been working as a clerk in the accounting department at Sotheby-Parke Bernet Galleries. Among the customers were Greta Garbo, Ali Khan, and Katharine Hepburn. The early drafts of the play were typed on lot statements and sheets torn from the daily calendar. Between sales, during the slow periods I would write, secretly, on my play. In the evenings at home I'd eagerly work for hours, transcending every-day reality with the surprise, discovery, and fulfillment of artistic creativity.
Because of the success of The String Game and Instanboul, which had garnered a Village Voice Obie, I acquired an agent, and in 1965 Futz was produced as a work-in-progress under the auspices of the Office of Advanced Drama Research at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre and the University of Minnesota. Two years earlier, the Living Theatre had planned it for production. The project was cancelled because of tax difficulties the company encountered.
In 1967 Futz was produced by Ellen Stewart at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. It won the three top Village Voice Obie Awards: Best Play, Best Director, and Best Actor. It became an international success and the hit of the famed Edinburgh festival. During its long New York run, a performance was cancelled when Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
The London Observer described Futz as "The most exciting American theatre since Miller, Williams, and Albee." Ironically, from the political perspective gained from the consciousness of the feminist movement, I know that as a woman playwright, I have been largely ignored, unlike those princes of the patriarchal culture, who even when they fail always fail upwards. The Village Voice stated that "Futz is a blazing statement, uncommonly thrilling." The New York Times described it as "Great. . .careens across the stage in joyous surges of energy." And the Saturday Review said, "Futz is one of the most original and uninhibited pieces of dramatic poetry ever written." In 1969 the film version premiered in New York City. The film was faithful to the text of the play and I wrote some additional dialogue; as always Tom O'Horgan, the director, and I worked well together. A party feted Tom and me in New York City and among the guests were Jennifer Jones, David Rockefeller, and Andy Warhol. Andy loved the artichokes and Czech dumplings prepared especially for him. The play was published in several anthologies and had been translated into German, French, and Swedish. When Random House published Futz and What Came After, my editor, Nan Talese, and her husband Gay held a champagne party in their east side townhouse.
Earlier, in 1962, a mimeographed limited edition of the play was published by Jerome Rothenberg's Hawk's Well Press. It was Jerry who wrote the introduction to Futz and What Came After a few years later. I recall the first reading of Futz took place one summer evening in 1960, in the lower east side apartment of Le Roi Jones and his wife, Hettie; a group of us sat around and read it aloud. Among us was Paul Blackburn, Hubert Selby, Jr., Jackson MacLow, and a poet, George Economou.
When I met Economou he was studying for a Ph.D. in medieval literature at Columbia University. He was attractive and dark-eyed, wearing clothes that appeared a little too large, with a voice that would have been an asset if he had chosen a career in the theatre. Beginning in 1960 Economou co-edited an avant-garde poetry magazine called Trobar. He excelled in his evaluations of contemporary poetry as well as literature of the Middle Ages. We first met at a cocktail party where I also met Sylvia Plath, Ursule Molinaro (who had black-lacquered fingernails), Eleanor and David Antin, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Reznikoff. The sixties was a great decade for poetry readings and Economou and I originated and participated in many reading series such as Les Deux Megots and St. Mark's Poetry Project, which included poets like Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima, Gil Sorrentino, Barbara Guest, Toby Olson, Barbara Holland, Ed Sanders, Clayton Eshleman, and Diane Wakoski. In 1961 Trobar published my first collection of poems titled Not be Essence That Cannot Be and a new book of Paul Blackburn's. Countless friends used to collect in our and Jerry and Diane Rothenberg's apartments on the upper west side to collate and bind our little reviews and books. Afterwards, we usually feasted on French pastry and dessert wine.
In the summer of 1962 George and I were married in his hometown, Great Falls, Montana. He had recently become an assistant professor of English at Long Island University. We lived on the upper west side near Columbia University. In the building next to ours lived the editor and reviewer Nona Balakian, a vivacious woman who held superb parties and is a fine cook. How I miss Nona's parties and Armenian delicacies here in Oklahoma where we now live. Although our apartment was pleasant enough, we had the inconvenience of having to share a small, dark, cramped study filled with hundred of books and journals that multiplied as relentlessly as gerbils. We would have to take turns at our one electric typewriter and the use of the study. There was a part of me that was depressingly and apprehensively aware that if we had had a child it would not have been possible for me to pursue my literary and theatrical activities with as much energy as I did in those early years of our marriage. Nature proved herself remarkably understanding for we never had a child.
My aesthetic concerns began to branch out to include the domain of the oral poetries of non-technological cultures such as the Inuit and American Indian. Folkways recorded some of my adaptations of ethnic poetries. After having written several one-act plays-Homo, Istanboul, The Queen of Greece, and The String Game ( Homo had toured Europe with the LaMama Theatre company and Istanboul had already had a Paris production and been awarded two Village Voice Obies)-I completed my first full-length play, Beclch. In 1966 it was produced at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia, directed by Andre Gregory. Although there had been much controversy, the reviews were mostly favorable. The play received national coverage, scenes from the production were televised. Time magazine's baldly chauvinistic reviewer described me as "a thirty-year-old housewife who writes plays." Imagine characterizing Harold Pinter or Arthur Miller as a breadwinner who writes plays! However, Ross Wetzsteon of the Village Voice appraised my first collection, Futz and What Came After, saying: "The genius of Owens' work lies not in ideological commitments but in her access to the subconscious," and "perhaps the most profound tragic playwright in the American theatre . . . one of our most courageous and insightful artists." The venerable Harold Clurman stated, "Owens' work is the product of a complex imagination in which deep layers of the author's subconscious emerge in wild gusts of stage imagery. I know of no contemporary playwright like Rochelle Owens."
Within two years I published a second book of poems, Salt and Core, with the now famous Black Sparrow Press, having corresponded with the publisher John Martin since the beginning of his interest in avant-garde poetry. I wrote two full-length plays, He Wants Shih and Kontraption, and received a Yale fellowship for film. Traveling to New Haven with Lanford Wilson and Sally Ordway, we would eat an enormous breakfast in the dining car and imitate the various regional accents of America. Lanford's imitation of a repressed Wisconsin soda jerk was perfect.
In 1969 and 1971 I went to London and Stockholm to attend productions of Homo and Futz. Two years later, in March of 1973, The Karl Marx Play premiered at the American Place Theatre in New York City. The director was Mel Shapiro and the composer was Galt MacDermot, who had written the music for Hair. The reviews of The Karl Marx Play, with few exceptions, were very favorable, and the play received an Obie Award nomination for Best Play and honors from the New York Drama Critics Circle. Newsweek stated, "A true theatre poet." In alliance with the French government and the American Place Theatre, through the efforts of the artistic director Wynn Handman, a European tour was sponsored in the fall. The play was presented at the Berlin Festival, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Zurich. I arrived in Berlin on Yom Kippur eve, a day before the company in order to participate in the services at the reconstructed community center built from portions of the Nazi-demolished old synagogue. A few hours later, the mid-East War broke out, and throughout the tour the levels of our experience were grimly intensified by the cruel actuality of the terrible war. The news reports came sporadically over the BBC in English but mostly we heard it in German or French and understood very little. The European audiences and press were generally positive in their reception of the play and production. They were amazed at what they considered to be a highly unusual theatrical conception of their remote and abstracted historical wonder-father, Karl Marx. To emboss the myth of the giant Marx with the texture of living humanity and an American musical theatre sensibility was totally new. When we were first attempting to gather a cast, we found it impossible to find the right actor to play Karl Marx. The people we thought of were either making movies in Hollywood or had fears that they would be blackballed as subversives by the establishment, and a few believed the demanding role would interfere with the healing process of their psychoanalysis. Yes, one must acknowledge the fact that some American actors often grip their shrinks with unyielding ardor in terms of emotional dependency and would rather relinquish a juicy part because it's "heavy and too painful," and thus disruptive to the relationship with the analyst. Incredibly, circumstances and good luck gave us a fine actor, Leonard Jackson, to play Marx. Finally we gathered a wonderful cast that included Katherine Helmond and the success of the play was a fact after the excellent New York reviews. Three critics, Martin Gottfried, Michael Smith, and Gordon Tretick, acclaimed it as an unqualified "hit".
Despite all of the essential good that attended the production of my play, there were a couple of incidents that I know are emblematic and clarify a prevailing attitude towards women playwrights. An example was the appearance of the actress, Phyllis Newman, on the "Tonight Show". Phyllis had been on tour with my play in Europe. In the course of her banter with Johnny Carson, Phyllis identified herself as a feminist. She began to chat about the play, mentioning the male director's name and the name of the male composer and, ironically, neglecting to give the female author's name-mine. After my initial feeling of exasperation, the matter struck me as just another aspect of the damage our sexist culture inflicts on women; sexism wills and condemns women to be invisible and alienated from each other. What disappointed me most about Phyllis's attitude was its obliteration of the professional and artistic rapport we had shared.
In 1972 Kulchur Press published my third collection of poetry, I Am the Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter. Lita Hornick, the editor, arranged for the publication party to be held at the famed Gotham Bookstore. Among the guests who attended were the Nobel prize winning poet Odysseus Elytis. Later, during dinner, the Greek poet wittily and vividly described the hazards of air-conditioned restaurants and the dangers of ingesting corn-on-the-cob.
During the years I've given many poetry performance events as well as readings and lectures throughout the United States and Europe. Appearances at the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, King's College in London, and the American College in Paris, among others, were memorable experiences.
In 1976 I went to France to see the French premiere of Futz that was being performed at the Festival d'Avignon. I had had a correspondence with the artistic director, Richard Caron. During the visit I traveled with my friend Elaine Shragge, who at the time was writing a dissertation on my work, the first comprehensive study of my plays and history of my career from 1958 to 1981. Shragge's dissertation is on deposit at the University of California at Davis. There have been numerous articles and essays published on my work as a playwright and a poet. My poetry has not received nearly as much critical attention as my plays. This reflects the attitude of the artistic establishment, I suppose. For anyone interested, I recommend the following comprehensive treatments: American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, edited by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam DasGupta, Drama Book Specialists Publishers, 1981; Margins 9-11 (Autumn 1975), that contained a symposium on my plays and poetry; A Century of Innovation, 1973; and The World 29 (April 1974), St. Mark's Poetry Project.
The years 1975 and 1978 brought two premieres of my full-length plays He Wants Shih and Kontraption. I finished writing the latter when I returned from a European voyage in 1971. Kontraption, He Wants Shih, and The Karl Marx Play achieve the artistic vision of which I am most proud. Only He Wants Shih was reviewed by both the New York Times and the Village Voice. Feingold of the Village Voice was, as usual, positive about the play but generally dissatisfied about the production. Kontraption received minimal critical attention. The producing organization, the New York Theatre Strategy, of which I was a founding member, was a playwrights' collective and was never meant to function as a showcase for prospective commercial producers. With the exception of the Village Voice, critics normally did not attend.
Throughout the sixties and seventies the Village Voice published many of my letters to the editor. I enjoyed exposing and arguing against the radical-chic viewpoints of several journalists.
Over the years I've taken courses in French literature and language. I attended the Alliance Francaise in New York and Paris. In 1978 I again met Richard Caron, the French director who had premiered Futz at the Festival d'Avignon. During that time I had been impressed with his directorial concept and was interested in his translating a new play of mine into French and staging it at his café-theatre in Paris. During my visit I saw a rehearsal of the play Who Do You Want, Peire Vidal?, and admired the actors and the translation very much. Unfortunately Caron ran into financial difficulties and the project was abandoned. The production never materialized and the translation of the script was apparently lost. In 1982 the play premiered in New York City at the Theatre for the New City. Although the production circumstances were far from ideal and the response of the critics with the exception of the Village Voice was not favorable, I liked the staging and thought the actors were quite good. The play's reception by the critics contrasted with the triumph of Chucky's Hunch during that same theatrical season.
In addition to writing plays and poetry I have been active in a specific area of contemporary experimentation; poetry performance both as "reading" and as "happening." In the spring of 1980, my eighth book of poetry was published, and during that time I was engaged in a series of readings in different cities. I was invited to Toronto to do a poetry performance and conduct a playwriting workshop at a new arts center. While my visit there was typical, there were some unusual circumstances that made it especially memorable. I had been there ten years before in order to attend the court trial of Futz. This particular production of the play had caused a controversy and had created a problem for the censors, who made an effort to close the Toronto production on grounds of obscenity. The trial focused on the play's sexual aspects and never on its aesthetic, political, and moral complexities. The New York production had been acclaimed and reviewed nationally several years before its production in Toronto, and there had already been numerous productions around the world, including New Zealand. My point of view at the time was that the Canadian reaction was a bit like the proverbial tempest-in-the-teapot. However, the outcome was that the play won its case in court and continued its successful run.
Toronto had changed considerably in ten years. It had always had a crisp, light, airy cleanliness, a lowkeyed spaciousness with Edwardian-style architectural touches. It was an unfrenetic city and I had always been conscious of the people sounding just like Americans except in the pronunciation of three words: house, about, and out, which they articulated like the Scots. The differences that had occurred were predictable and in tune with a growing modern city: shopping malls, new restaurants featuring diverse national cuisine-Japanese, French, Greek, among others-art galleries, new museums, theatres, boutiques displaying the important European designers, and the ubiquitous ugly areas of porno-sleaze found throughout most of the world's cities. An influx of new arrivals from various parts of the globe had given Toronto some flair and elan that was lacking on my first visit.
The people that I met, then and now, working in the various arts had a strong need to compare themselves with American artists. And in a curious way some of them seemed to identify with Europeans. However, it was mainly the Americans who somehow, for complex reasons, made them feel insignificant, or even (and this was never overtly expressed but it was often implied) second rate. Whenever they talked about their activity as artists, it was with a sense of false self effacement or defensiveness because sooner or later the topic would turn to what the Americans were up to. In the fifteenth century it's very likely that artists in the distant peripheral areas of western Europe were also touchy about their sense of national prestige, dismayed by the triumph of artistic expression abounding in Renaissance Italy. Those artists might have thought that they just possibly could have been living in the wrong geographical region. I remember a symposium that I had participated in at a writers conference; a Czech poet and a Ukrainian one admitted that they wished they wrote in German, French, or English so that their work could have a larger audience. However, Canadians write in English and French and so that is really not the problem. The fact of the matter is that from the Canadian artist's perspective, American culture looms over the whole world very much like a fulsome, rich, and successful brother-in-law who, wherever he goes, soaks up the human attention span like a thick paper towel. Also, in a curious way they don't reveal the sexist attitude that you're still "only a woman" if you're a writer. According to them, you're first and foremost an American writer and they as Canadian writers, artists, or whatever, feel themselves to be "invisibilized" by the American identity. Needless to say, they also resent the fact that Americans know little if anything about Canadian history. For better or worse, America has center stage and the brightest lights focus on her.
The evening of the reading I was invited to dinner at the home of a young couple, a painter and a filmmaker. We watched an unusual film that he had written and directed about a Canadian Inuit ceremony. The ritualized event took place in darkness; the participants chanted, rattled gourds, and played drums- a total mystical experience that is part of the full range of human culture and its practice. The symbolic movements certainly would have won the approval of Grotowski and the Living Theatre. As I watched the film I was reminded of the European mystery and miracle plays that were performed in churches during the Middle Ages. The congregation or audience were present not to discover what happened in the play, they already knew the story, but to bear witness as the events unfolded. Later, we discussed the extraordinary nature and effect of the participation and interchange between the members of the group, the mood of ritualism and awe, of timelessness.
The auditorium that I performed in was filled almost to capacity with about 400 attentive and receptive individuals. The event lasted about an hour and twenty minutes, during which a young woman accompanied my reading on the mountain dulcimer. Our communication with each other was rehearsed for only about an hour. As an integral part of performance poetry, music accentuates rhythms in the line and human voice. I ought to explain that the dynamics of a poet performing her or his own work are vastly different from an actor playing a role. When the poet performs the work it becomes a present event of experience through language and sound. The poet is and of the poem itself. The poet is the maker, the shaman, the visionary. There is an immediacy that is rendered fundamentally different from that caused by the professional actor. The exception, of course, is when the actor writes her or his own poems.
Later that same evening while I was having a drink with some friends in a rustic literary bar, a Canadian policeman tall enough to play professional basketball approached our table and asked me to autograph several of my recent and also some very early first edition books of plays and poetry dating to 1961. They were part of his excellent and extensive collection. He also wrote plays. Needless to say, I was both surprised and delighted because as far as I know there aren't many policemen around who collect limited editions of avant-garde poetry.
Recently, after having viewed the film Futz based on my play and after re-reading the text of the play, I became strongly aware of the proto-feminist nature of the work. During the panel discussion afterwards held at the University of Oklahoma in April 1984, some of the audience remarked that the cruel truths of the women's lives were fixed in an extraordinary way; feminist criticism would add a new dimension to the complexities of my dramatic literature.
I am interested by what has previously been ignored or neglected in my plays except by one writer, Joan Goulianos in the Village Voice. February 4, 1971, in an interview called "Getting Rid of Thou Shalt Not." Even the more efficient and astute critics have been perhaps more narrow or rigid than they ever suspected when it came to the revelation of a world of outraged and angry female protagonists that fill the landscapes of some of my plays. A feminist perspective would enrich the aesthetic and multifaceted interpretations of my work.
After I had lived in New York City for most of my life, George and I moved in the summer of 1983 to Norman, Oklahoma, where he is the chair of the department of English at the University of Oklahoma. We have been a mutually supportive force to each other personally and professionally for over twenty years.
I've published nine books of poetry and three collections of plays. I'm currently creating video art, preparing a new collection of poems titled Constructs, and seeking production of my new play Three Front. I host a weekly radio interview program called "The Writers Mind" and am an adjunct professor of creative writing at the University of Oklahoma. I was a visiting lecturer at the University of California at San Diego in the fall of 1982. I spend summers in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
A few months after our arrival in Oklahoma, to my surprise and delight, I received a copy of an exquisitely produced anthology titled Whales: A Celebration, edited by Greg Gatenby. A poem that I wrote specifically for the book is included with photographs of fourth- and sixth-century Ravenna mosaics.
Every time I immerse myself in the activity of writing, I become more and more acutely aware of the right causes and conditions that are necessary to the needs of my work as well as to the various processes and effects of my own self and identity. I know that the only tradition that interests me as a writer is the tradition of breaking away from the fixed and familiar patterns to living new structures and the creation of new forms, with all its risks and manifold facets.