How Ilene and I Co-Created
The World's Very First "Happenings"
As Published in Encore, London, Jan. 1964
As remarkable as the preceding claim may sound, there is more than a grain of truth to it, as the following piece will surely bear witness. Written in late 1963, only a few years after the events described, it appeared as a letter to the editor in London's avant-garde theatre magazine Encore as a response to two pieces about Happenings in the preceding issue.
To the Editors,
I am much indebted to your Happenings article in your last number for making two things clear to me that had hitherto been obscure. I had no idea, first of all, that Mr. Kaprow "favours ritual happenings in which members of the audience participate in communal actions." My own experience had led me, no doubt mistakenly, to an entirely opposite conclusion.
What I am about to describe happened at one of the very first Happeningsindeed, quite possibly the first one in New Yorkheld in a gallery above a Fourth Avenue bookstore on a hot summer evening of 1959. My wife and I had been delighted by the invitation to the thinga masterpiece of dada in depth itself. It seemed not only to épater les bourgeois but to épater everyone and everything else in sight. What else could it be but a splendid intellectual joke, a joyous invitation to unlimited symbology?
Consequently we dressed for the occasion, myself all in white with a topee and black umbrella, the White Man's Burden of the Bowery. My wife wore a bright red serape, the rest of her in severest black except for a gargantuan necklace of pseudo-Indian ilkan ultra-Village apparition.
During those parts of the Happening when action and audience attention flaggedand there were severalI rose solemnly from my seat, pushed the button on my automatic umbrella, and then closed it again. On one occasion when a great deal of orange juice had been produced from several oranges, my wife left her seat, went over to the orange juice, and brought it back for us to drink. Other members of the audience also took a sip. Both we and they felt we were getting very much into the spirit of things. Some other members of the audience were very solemn about everything, including our umbrella and orange juice nonsense.
Imagine our surprise when Mr. Kaprow and several performers suddenly appeared in mid-performance before our seats and asked us to leave. I apologised profusely, and we were told we could stay. I could not help asking him what else he expected, and immediately things were tense again. I apologised once more, and we were left in peace.
I wonder if any of the other spectators knew this was not in the script. I am certain we were not in itthere was no feeling of "communal ritual" at all. Mr. K.et al. were genuinely mad in the way that one can get mad on a hot summer night in New York. I see now that Mr. Kaprow has learned from us, and others like us, and I feel humbly grateful that we have been of some small use to him in the evolution of his new art form.
The second thing that your articles made me understand is that a Happening, or at any rate the Happening in Edinburgh, is or can be a denunciation of the ego, or to quote Mr. Marowitz slightly out of context, "a comment on...vaunting egotism". I had not realised this was the case. I suppose I had just been going on in my sloppy, erroneous way and assuming that a theatre was no place for making peace with one's ego, for that matter, no place for non-egotists. It seemed to me that the battle with one's ego was one best fought at homepeople with less taste might fight it out with their families, friends, lovers, business associates, or in intellectual argumentbut it seemed to me it was something that had to be done alone.
There are no more egotistical folk than those of the theatre, and that applies equally to critics and audiences. And of audiences I have seen few more egotistical than a New York Happening audience. They sit there stolid like proud possessors, for only they possess the key, only they are aware of taking part in The Play of the Future, only they in all of America, in the entire world, realise how IMPORTANT this is to the Future of the Theatre, only they can feel the wounds and see the blood. They sit there with that high dreadful seriousness that is a blend of a Puritanism fully as dull as your Scots Presbyters together with the last declining gasp of the Romantic Movement. Has not an Art truly come to an end that continually uses the present to make lavish predictions about the future? Not Art, I say, but an Art. I hope I have made myself clear.
If art is to take the place of religion, as people keep insisting, we would do well to see that the art is superior in quality to the religion it is replacing. Can such a claim be made for Happenings? Are they any clearer than our poor old religions? Have they more meaning? More content (with the accent on either syllable)? There is certainly no shortage of applicants to take on the mantles of St. Vincent (Van Gogh), St. James (Joyce), or St. Alban (Berg). How exciting it makes life, how meaningful, to be involved in The Wave of the Future, or the Theatre of the Future, or The Anything of the Future. How delightful to be pelted by the masses only to triumph in the end. But is persecution enough?think of all the martyrs who have perished for religions that have vanished from the earth. Intelligent martyrs will make sure their cause is the right one before ascending the pyre.
Despite your excellent articles, I am afraid I still have a number of reservations about Happenings. They read well, as you describe them, and I would really like to think that they perform as well as your description. But even under the best of circumstances, given the most perfect future one could desire, I wonder if Happenings can ever become anything more than a sort of crude, semi-dramatic form of shock therapy. Shock therapy, even in its relatively codified physical form, is an extremely haphazard toolsome patients respond to it, some not at all, others are actually made worse by it. It is not surprising that, like your Happenings, it is surrounded with controversy. Even less is understood about the effect of a Happening on an audience, even on a single member of it, than about the results of electrical current on the brain. Perhaps members of a Happening audience should be chosen only after prolonged psychological testing and upon recommendation of an analyst. Certain patientsby then all people will be known as "patients"would be allowed to go to certain Happenings but not to others. This might, just barely, work as therapy. But will it be theatre, even The Theatre of the Future?
34 Courtfield Gardens, London, S.W.5.
This article is Copyright © 1964
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
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