1971 revisited – The Town Hall Affair

TownHallAffair10 January 2018: last night I saw ‘The Town Hall Affair’ at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, and it was the most engrossing performance that I have seen in a long time.

The play enacts sections from the documentary ‘Town Bloody Hall’, mashed up with segments from the film ‘Maidstone’, and words from other texts by the protagonists.

‘Town Bloody Hall’ documents a 1971 Theatre for Ideas debate entitled ‘A Dialogue on Woman’s Liberation’. The debate was held in New York, and featured Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling, and Norman Mailer. ‘Maidstone’, 1970, was directed by Norman Mailer and he stars in the picture as a film director running for President of the USA. You can google a lot more information about both these works.

For most of the play, the actors are speaking the recorded words of real people, and the video recording of the original event is playing simultaneously on a screen on stage. The effect is something like the alienation effect of Brechtian theatre: highly intellectually engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking. It is of course impossible to forget that the actors are acting — one is watching history being recreated. The artifice reminds one that the original events were themselves performances, and that the original sources were already selective representations of events. I found myself questioning at each stage what had been left out. It helped to make me aware of what I didn’t know.

What has been included is pretty amazing. Norman Mailer is shown mouthing antifeminist arguments that now seem breathtakingly stupid, but which he clearly thought were intellectually astute at the time. In comparison, Germaine Greer’s remarks on the nature of the male artist are beautifully expressed, and a reminder of how scarily intelligent she is. What she said then is still relevant today, but how she says it seems quite unlike anything that would be said now in public discourse. It shines a light on what has and has not changed since 1971. We have made a lot of progress on tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness, but without solving the problem of inequality; meanwhile, public discourse has become nastier, dumber and shorter.

Or is this a phony impression? — Discuss. The play opened up all sorts of questions about the progress or otherwise of society. I haven’t even touched on the role of Jill Johnston, whose raves about lesbian love, female identity, disruption and revolt are deliciously poetic and alien. We just don’t do radical lesbian separatism today like they did it in the ’70s. Are people today aware how much radicalism has burned out of western society over the past 40 years or so? A lot of battles have been won, but has the war been lost? — Discuss. (And for a different perspective on progress, see also my article on same-sex-marriage.)

There is more to say about this play and others have probably said it. I will close by mentioning one more thing I loved about it: its textuality. Each of the protagonists is a writer and their books are featured. The play invites the intellectually curious to read and explore further — in Greek tragedy, Freudian psychoanalysis and philosophical feminism.

Book notes:
Kate Millet: Sexual Politics — this is the book that goaded Mailer to write ‘The Prisoner of Sex’. Millet’s analysis of male writers, including Mailer, is partial but brilliant, and was a leading text in second-wave feminism. Millet refused to appear in the Town Hall debate, but her influence is all over it.
Norman Mailer: The Prisoner of Sex — I read it ages ago, and my memory is that it is quite nutty on the subject of sex. Mailer is the prisoner, although I think he seeks to say something quite different.
Germaine Greer: The Female Eunuch — one of the most important books for spreading new feminist thinking to the world at large. I suspect some of its concerns would seem quaint now.
Jill Johnston: Lesbian Nation — I haven’t read this book, but the excerpts quoted in the play made me think of Valerie Solanas’s ‘Scum Manifesto’, except that Johnston sounded much more cheerful, more joyous, more liberated.

Performance:
The Town Hall Affair. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Produced by the Wooster Group (USA). Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 7¬–13 January 2018.

©2018 Craig Bingham

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