Reality Theater in Chicago

By Wildman, Eugene | Chicago Review, Summer-Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Reality Theater in Chicago


Wildman, Eugene, Chicago Review


As argument over the Vietnam War intensified on campuses during the late 1960s, Chicago Review began to take a broader interest in the public life of artistic culture. Eugene Wildman, who had edited the magazine in the mid-1960s, contributed the following piece on "Reality Theater in Chicago" for the Summer 1968 issue. WlLDMAN, now a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of two experimental novels, recently discussed this moment in the Review's history:

I was at the Review during a turbulent period: escalating war in Vietnam, Civil Rights struggle at home. The country forced to examine its soul. Hippies, heads, sit-ins, demonstrations; JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy assassinated. The city hosted the Democratic Convention, the police rioted, Nixon became president.

Of course, this upheaval was reflected in the arts, music notably, with the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes, Aretha, Dylan, Hendrix, Morrison, Janis. In writing there was radical experimentation with voice and genre and narrative form. Change was the order of the day. I remember (with dismay now) sending back a smoothly crafted story with the comment, "No more well-wrought urns." It was a call to arms. At the opposite pole, a certain professor of conservative bent, contemplating the new breed of student, was heard to remark, "A university is no place for creativity."

The old usages seemed exhausted, inadequate. We wanted words to explode off the page, leap into consciousness and actuality. Expression had to be integral to life, embedded in experience and not merely descriptive of it. That was the motivation behind the Concretism issue, and forays into guerilla theater: to shatter the separation between art and life.

Street Theater would also be explored in the Summer 1971 issue. In Jeriann Badanes's "Burning City Street Theater - An Analysis of a Theater Commune," she notes the ground swell of interest in this form of political resistance: "And we are not alone. We are part of a vast net-work of life inciters, whose energy spectrum extends from the heavy, slow beat of survival to the quicker beat of revivals to the light, almost inaudible flutter of ecstasy. Its called hippy-political-tribal-communal-women's liberational-people's liberational-street theater." We present here one of the scripts that accompanied Wildman's piece along with most of his discussion of his group's activities.

A true theater is a fix, a mainline shot that infuses itself into reality, turning reality upside down, producing alterations in the structure and in the elements of the real. A grandiose claim. But is this not precisely what we have always been assured was the case in the Theater of Dionysus and in Shakespeare's Elizabethan theater? Is it disturbing that our authorities have inadvertently taught us the truth? Perhaps all real theater, and any real art, can only be revolutionary. Whatever is new ultimately must be a metaphysical argument. The Reality Theater that is evolving today cannot be stopped. It cannot be stopped because Mayor Daley exists on the same plane as all impersonations and fictions. The city of Chicago itself is in its way only a kind of ontological rhetoric, a hyperbole, a form of make-believe. If this statement seems far-fetched, it is only because we have chosen to believe in the metaphors of our rhetoric. Which is not to say that Mayor Daley and Chicago are not real - they are all too real, but it is the nature of that reality which needs examining.

A Real theater can be achieved. It was the vision of this which turned Yeats to the ritualized forms of the Japanese Noh plays; and in the failure to translate successfully from the images in his mind to the concrete space of the stage lies, perhaps, a negative verification that the metaphor behind the vision was at least always true. Artaud was certainly right to this extent: a real theater must be a dangerous place, or else it is a meaningless one. …

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