Sincc 1866 The Place in Austin GOOD FOOD GOOD BEER 1607 San Jacinto GR 7-4171 An Outraged View of Houston Theater Houston Houston theater is a long way from New Yorka millenium more than the three hours by jetbut in one sense there are parallels, outrageous ones, and my view is an outraged one. There is at work in both cities the same curious indifference. We must infer that good theater, like soapflakes, may come in only one size, neatly packaged in the guise of middle-class respectability. Consider the separate yet strangely linked cases of the Living Theater of Greenwich Village, N.Y., and the Hamlet Theater of Houston, Texas. Because of a run-in with the law, the Living Theater and its unusual proprietors, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, have been given more notice than the Hamlet and its entrepreneur, Ned Bobkoff. Crime news always takes precedence over the theater in the daily press. The Living Theater was a dingy place. To get there one labored up steep stairs to the second floor of an ancient building in Manhattan’s garment district. The seats were uncomfortable, the floor seldom swept. But in that incongruous setting Beck and his wife explored the farthest frontiers of American drama: “Avant garde,” it was called, but the surprising thing was that amid a welter of experiment, non-theater, and just plain groping, the Becks fashioned a truly living theater. If they had produced nothing else, “The Connection,” a searing tableau of dope addiction, would be enough. Their last play “The Brig,” was appropriately named. During its run the Internal Revenue Service chose to shut down the Living Theater. The occasion, sadly, was not obscenity or subversion, but non-payment of federal taxes. Even after their theater was padlocked, the Becksshowmen to the endstaged one last illicit performance of “The Brig.” To get in patrons had to scramble across rooftops and through second-story windows. Recently the Becks, who in their checkered careers have led peace marches and have demonstrated fOr civil rights, staged and staged is precisely the wordtheir own defense in a federal courtroom. They were, of course, convicted. When “guilty” was pronounced, Miss Malina shouted “innocent” and was nearly held in contempt. I have no doubt they were guilty within the letter of the law, but in the press coverage of the trial, little was said about the spirit of the law. One cannot imagine this Ron Bailey is not only, as we noted June 12 in publishing his account of “The Day We Lost Precinct 235,” a reporter for a national magazine in Houston, he is also a long-time theater buff. Delivering us this latest article, he said, “Outrage has all but disappeared from. American journalism, and it’s a pity.” Ron Bailey happening to the “respectable” producers of musical comedy on Broadway. There is a further irony. The American theater, it is often said these days, is dying. What it needs, it is also said, is a healthy injection of government subsidies to pump life into its moribund body. Various proposals to this end were under scrutiny in the Kennedy Administration ; doubtless they will be revived when Lyndon Johnson has safely nailed down a second term. We will be faced then with the prospect of a society that pumps money in with one hand while murdering the Living Theater with the other. NOW WHAT OF HOUSTON and the Hamlet? If you read what passes for theater criticism in the Houston newspapers, you will know that all’s well in this best possible of all theatrical worlds. We have the Alley, of course. Repertory theater is a national rage now, and the Alley is featured in the national press and fed by the Ford Foundation. Indeed the newcomer may hear about the Alley before he hears about the Domed Stadium. But after suffering through a year’s ordeal of second-rate fare”Bernadine,” teen-age comedy ; “The Queen and the Rebel,” mediocre theater, and “The Three Sisters,” poorly produced, and passing up, thank you, the mossbacked “Harvey,” this outsider is not convinced. As for Theater, Inc., and the Houston Theater Center, they do pleasant enough musicals, but they are not serious or vital theater. No, the best theater I’ve seen in Houston was in the plain and dimly live cabaret Hamlet on Richmond Road. The first time I went there I had the feeling I had been there before, perhaps in Greenwich Village. A lady behind us reinforced that notion when she told her husband in wide-eyed wonderment: “Just think, right here in Houston. It’s just like Greenwich Village.” The comparison was surprisingly apt. Beneath Greenwich Village’s beard-and-beat trappings seethes some of our most creative theater. Few Houstonians knew it, but something similar was happening at the Hamlet. Bobkoff, a mercurial and perpetually angry young man with burning brown eyes under an unruly shock of black hair, started the Hamlet on $50, ran it on kinetic energy, and wound up with nothing but bitterness. He was director, producer, business manager, and actor, and he swept the floor. Alas, he was also the Hamlet’s public relations man. He has little or no tact, and he has a director’s innate intensity that boiled over into fights with his actors quickly kissed and made upand feuds with the drama critics, wounds that never healed. In this age the projected image is always larger than the true, reflected one, and it was probably the projected image of the Hamlet that was the cause of its demise. “We’re doing good theater,” he often remarked. “Why should I butter up those people? They don’t know a good .show from a bad one.” From this and perhaps from indifference, the Hamlet’s productionsbiting satirical reviews and stark contemporary dramagot short shrift on the -town’s amusements pages. Bobkoff burned a lot of fingers, particularly with the reviews he and the actors wrote. Inexperience and haste dulled their cutting edge: they were more like a sawtoothed blade than the finely honed satire turned out by Chicago’s famed Second City. But they cut, and sometimes they left jagged wounds. The Hamlet slashed at the John Birch Society, motherhood, Billy Graham and segregation with equal abandon. The language was not always pleasing to the genteel or the self righteous. On one occasion a wily Birch sympathizer showed up with a concealed tape recorder. Another time, during an electrically realistic staging of “The Connection”intended to “involve” the audiencea customer started a fist fight with an actor. It was perhaps the Hamlet’s blows at segregation and bigotry that were most cutting and courageous. The Hamlet regularly employed Negro actors and used them in its segregation skits. The most telling jab at police brutality I’ve ever seen was delivered on the Hamlet stage. A Southern white cop restlessly circles a dejected Negro mounted on a stool. “You really like beating up people don’t you boy?” “Yassuh.” “You really get you jollies that way, don’t you?” “Yassuh.” “You beat up your mother and your sister, didn’t you?” “Yassuh.” At length, the cop smiles, puts his policeman’s cap on the Negro and says: “Okay, boy, you’re hired.” With a sneer at the imported talent used at other Houston theaters, Bobkoff culti July 10, 1964 11
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