The Connection
at The Living Theatre


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.

The Connection (The Living Theatre)
Review by Jim Feast

(Directed by Judith Malina; Music by Rene Mclean;
Director of Production, Gary Brackett; Stage Manager, Erin Downhour.
December 31 to February 13)

Certainly anything Piscator staged would have the same unifying thread in that one set of illustrative usages would be prominent. A character, say, Nora Helmer, was herself but she would also be a congery of class attributes, displayed in her personality, relationship patterns and actions, such as her break with her husband. According to this German director, what Nora did served as an exemplar of social forces (such as the Norwegian suffragette movement), not personal choice. In an interview, Judith Malina put it like this this: “Piscator felt that the actor was duty bound to make his or her performance an explanation of this character's position in the social structure [and the characterization of that structure] always has to have a Marxist base.” She added, somewhat wryly, “If I have a play about pretty chorus girls kicking their legs that's also about the social structure, because who the hell are they and why are they kicking their legs like that?”

One has to ask, though, does the Living Theatre, which broke from Piscator’s teaching in order to define a less mechanistic, more anarchist dramatic practice, show the same sort of consistency? The question is not meant to begin to reproach the group, that is, if it were claimed they were not consistent, since thematic consistency across a string of productions is hardly a major virtue, but rather in light of the diversity of the theater’s projects over the years, going from reworked classics (such as Antigone) to collectively played, audience-participatory spectacles (Mysteries) to rigidly choreographed, dance-like pieces (The Brig), to highly literate, scripted performances (the current production, The Connection). I bring this up because I believe the triumphal new staging of the Gelber play reveals that there is a deep continuity woven through their drama.

But before getting to that, let me note the knotty complexity of this current work, which, understandably, confused the Times reviewer Charles Isherwood. He does note the contradiction that appears early on in the drama when the “writer,” Jaybird, comes on stage to say, “I am interested in improvised theater,” claiming the addicts who are sitting around the set are simply riffing as they would in everyday life, but then he later begins yelling at these same actors, telling them, “You are murdering the play … you’re [supposed] to give the whole plot in the first act.” Doesn’t’ seem very improvisatory if what they say is dictated by the author.

While Isherwood grasps this, he then comments, “We are not in the realm of strict naturalism, clearly. The actors … mostly perform in a realistic style, but they break into languid or fervent confessional monologues.” But, for him to say these monologues break with realism is to overlook the fact that (supposedly) these are addicts who are being paid to appear before an audience. They are expected to give viewers their money’s worth, which realistically entails they bare their souls. They wouldn’t do this if they weren’t appearing in a play, perhaps, but the premise is that they are.

This is no side issue for the very crux of the play is to contrast two ways of being artistically creative, either through playwrighting/filmmaking or musicianship. As I see it, the acute contradictions in Jaybird’s conceptualization of this project do not arise from his own naiveté and immaturity (which are considerable), but because of the hollow heart of American drama (then and now) that has proven incapable of capturing reality in any fundamental depth.

(Of course, this position is taken in a play, but I would imagine Gelber would exclude experimental theater from his critique.)

Simply look at the presumption of the producer and writer. The producer, played with harried grace by Tom Walker the night I attended, tells us, “Jaybird has spent some months living among drug addicts.” With this background, he is now apparently knowledgeable enough to cut us a slice of life. Yet, a little bit later, Jaybird (in a fine rendering by Eric Olson), explains to us, “Remember: for one night this [drug addict] scene swings. But as life it’s a damn bore.”

Okay, but that means we are not getting a real depiction of the addict lifestyle, which would be tedious, but a neophyte’s manipulated version. Moreover, this manipulation extends rather far. Later, Jaybird explains to the viewers, “Some of you will leave the theater with the notion that jazz and narcotics are inexorably connected. That is your connection, not –” Okay, Jaybird, but every player you picked for the combo that plays in the performance is a known user. Wouldn’t it seem this selection stacked the deck so the audience would be led to this “connection”?

This is not to say that a documentary depiction that really depicted a junkie hangout would make good theater, but rather to note that Jaybird comes to the scene with a built-in agenda.

And believe me, Gelber’s criticism goes considerably deeper into its indictment of American drama. Kenneth Tynan, in his introduction to the original Grove Press edition of this play, compares The Connection to Gorky’s Lower Depths. I wonder if it would have been more apropos if he had mentioned the American drama, the one the author said he had modeled on the Russian play, namely, The Iceman Cometh.

Now, there’s a curious addict Ernie. One of the other characters says about him, “He hasn’t played that rotten horn for five years now. And him coming on like he was the great artist or something.” It’s curious because such a labeling (and the suggestion that Ernie gets high to hide from himself the fact that he is no longer a musician), is not applied to any of the other drug fiends, whose reasons for their addiction is never explained.

In Iceman – and remember that O’Neill did not spend “some months” observing the denizens of a low-class haunt, but was himself a sponging bum in a Manhattan gin mill in a waterfront tavern off the Hudson River – every single character, all drunks, is consumed with such illusions, all thinking he or she will soon get back on track. O’Neill terms it “puffing on the [opium] pipe of the past,” while, perhaps coincidentally, Ernie, the only Iceman-like personage on view, is always blowing on his mouthpiece, as if in homage to that play. But the very fact that only one character is given this background, which, on top of that, is not necessarily believable, given the untrustworthy character who makes the comment about Ernie, to me suggests that O’Neill’s way of depicting the down-and-out has been found wanting. There’s the hint that O’Neill, like Jaybird, has hoisted his own agenda on the riff raff, making them resemble the illusion-haunted people in his own family, as depicted in Long Day’s Journey.

And there’s another thing. Consider The Connection’s central plot pivot. The addicts are waiting for the man, Cowboy, to bring their drugs. In Iceman, everyone is waiting for fast-talking Hickey, who has always delivered (on his yearly visits) a big helping of hope, but who, this time, is undercut and exposed as a fraud by one malcontent. Here, O’Neill follows Gorky to a degree, in whose play a religious visionary, Luka, delivers the same hope, but when he leaves everyone falls back into despair. In the Gelber play, it seems facsimiles of both of these characters show up: the visionary (Sister Salvation) and the hope deliverer (Cowboy) waltzing through the door together. And this doubling is not the only way the play departs from the line of the earlier works. There is never any faith placed in the religious zealot, who is not heeded, while the hope feeder does bring the expected relief, the dose, and, in a significant turn, is shown not to be an intruder from outside but a user himself.

It’s hard not to think that Gelber made these changes as an implicit criticism of the earlier writers. It would seem Gelber is hinting that in the improvisatory sections of the play, despite the strictures of Jaybird, something real about the addicts life has been captured that the moralism of O’Neill and Gorky, who want to emphasize the wretchedness of the lumpen proletarian, misses. What the first two authors overlook is that the addictive substance (alcohol in the earlier plays) does offer a substantial release. In other words, as a self medication, even if the end result is self destruction, heroin is real.

This is shown, in many places through subtle staging, for example, by having the characters in the Second Act, after they’ve fixed, act and talk more coherently. Sam, played by Eno Edet, in a magisterial performance, complete with a tic of clearing his nose that adds a spooky rhythm to his speech, tells a fascinating story, that more than fulfills the promise of the previous act, where he said, without proving it, “I have quite a rep … repi … quite a lot of stories that would tickle the hairs of your ass. But I’m kinda sick right now.” And the musicians, now high, though they don’t play better, show both a greater interplay (particularly in an intimate interchange of Rene Mclean’s noble sax and Alan J. Palmer’s snappy piano) and a greater willingness to let players follow their muse. This last is shown, when Andy McCloud is playing a pounding bass solo and the pianist and sax player, at different moments, seem about to jump in, but then back off, allowing McCloud to continue the flow.

These players’ aborted moves to enter the music are not broadcast in an obvious way. They don’t strike a few notes and then stop, but suggest their intentions only by shifts in posture. And this articulate but under-stressed acting is evident in all aspects of the performance. Most significantly, as one addict steps forward to “testify” while all around him other addicts are nodding out, it might seem these stoned characters would have little to do. But, occasionally glancing around, I noted that each character, without distracting from the main feature, was doing something (or not doing something) in a way that added to his portrayal. For example, when Solly (Anthony Sisco), one of the greatest jazz aficionados in the flat, who runs over and crouches beside the piano every time the quartet plays a number, gets his shot, he becomes so entranced with fixing his shoelaces, that he forgets to listen to the music.

Of course, Malina, playing Sister Salvation, is past master of such artistry, which is taken to heights in her illumination of this role. As each person speaks, she registers on her face a tortured mix of fear, fascination and, when she seems to spy a soul ripe for saving, excitement. She accompanies whoever is talking with a facial and bodily awareness as steady as that of the combo’s fine drummer (Emanual Harrold) backing the instruments.

But, I’ve said Gelber is using the play to compare two forms of creativity, the second being music. To get to this art’s presence, let me go to the play’s high point. It’s one of the greatest moments I’ve ever seen in the theater, and it’s not even a moment but a transition. In the Second Act, as has happened throughout the night, a jazzl interlude suspends the action. However, in each previous case, the playing has taken off at a juncture or break in the action, perhaps after a minor denouncement. This time, just as an addict finishes speaking, the music spreads out, as if it were a response to what he has said. I don’t know if I can convey this, but it’s as if the characters’ hopes, blues, rivalries and contretemps are being replaced by a mold of sound. And, further, it’s as if we now see that, yes, there is a connection between jazz and the addicts’ world. The link is that this music – at least when played with the virtuosity of Maclean’s group – can capture the effervescent skein of feelings and dynamics in this world, ones that, as we saw, in the face of which (establishment) film and theater are bankrupt. The whole play turns on providing this contrast between jazz, that can make the scene, and film/writing that can’t.

It may not seem so, but now we’re back at the beginning. For what I can now say is that, thought with radically different politics, the Living Theatre has been guided as if by a kind of organic Piscator.

How do I mean this? Anarchism has had an eye to unmask a much greater range of authoritarianism’s guises than has been possible in a Marxism (like Piscator’s) that is simply focused on the class struggle. Yet both theaters are concerned with this unmasking. The Living Theater looks at different forms of oppression, whether those channeled by the state (Antigone), the military (The Brig), the media (Anarchia), the economy (Capitalism Changes), patriarchy or controlling forms of art (The Connection). And each examination has included a tremor of hope. So, in The Connection, over and above the oppressions of poverty and conformity, which seem to draw the men into addiction – there are no women addicts in the play – and beyond the compromised and know-it-all practices of writing and filmmaking, which would depict a world these arts have already prejudged and pre-condemned, there is the tremor provided by jazz. This music can fight past the limitations of the milieu and crystallize its feelings in lively, lovely forms.

Even when it seems so, as it might in The Connection, the Living Theatre’s message is not rendered in personal terms, and this another reason why its dramatic thrust links it back to Piscator. It’s true that characters are rendered with unsurpassed insight. Think of the suavity of Cowboy (Jeff Nash), which suddenly plummets when he removes his shades and thinks of his past. Recall also the harbored, maternal surliness of Leach (John Kohan) or the coiled vigilance of Ernie (Brad Burgess). These are all well etched, unforgettable people, and yet the final impression one comes away with is the different modes of groups: the addicts as ground, the filmmakers/writer, who are the authority figures (yelling at and ordering the addicts around, since they are paying them), and the musicians, also hired hands, but ones who, at times, can anarchistically break bounds by suddenly wailing in the night.

That is the vision.

(Originally published at A Gathering of the Tribes.)