“WHAT GOOD IS A PLAY that doesn’t even carry us beyond all plays?” Kenneth Koch asks in “The End,” one of his very brief, thoroughly sui generis works for the theater. Over the course of a lifetime of writing for the stage, Koch tried to answer this question — essentially the same one he asked about poetry — with tireless invention and gusto. From hilarious and bizarre plays so short and minimalist they barely fill half a page to three-act mock epic extravaganzas, Koch’s wildly playful and imaginative plays experiment with the limits and promise of the theater and its first principles, raising an array of questions about the relationship between theater and poetry along the way.
Although Koch, who passed away in 2002, wrote plays throughout his long, distinguished career, he is still much better known as a poet, one of the founding members of the New York School of poetry alongside his close friends John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler. But now that Koch’s complete body of work for theater has been gathered and published in a new collection entitled The Banquet, the astonishing breadth and quality of his achievement in a medium not thought of as his “main” one is readily apparent. At over 600 pages, this is a big book, stuffed with pleasures and surprises. Koch once told an interviewer that he thought of his plays as being “like parties I give,” and, as its apt title prods us to acknowledge, this book can be seen as a celebratory occasion, an invitation to a feast of imagination and fun. It is also wonderfully and lovingly edited (by his widow, Karen Koch, and the poets Ron Padgett and Jordan Davis), and complete with helpful and well-conceived ancillary material: there are detailed production notes, two essays by avant-garde playwrights that help situate the work (a stirring preface by the well-known experimental dramatist Mac Wellman and an excellent, lucid introduction by playwright Amber Reed), and a welcome set of photographs of productions and various other images and memorabilia related to the plays.
But, more broadly, The Banquet gives one the opportunity to ponder, and perhaps lament, the fate of what was once known as “Poets Theater”: the long, hallowed tradition of poets writing for the stage, that stretches from Shakespeare and Jonson to Shelley, Byron, and other Romantics, to Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and beyond. The period following World War II saw a resurgence of interest in experimental poetic drama, a development in which the New York School and other avant-garde poets of their time were deeply involved. Poets worked closely with a number of small theater troupes that were devoted to the cause, especially the Poets’ Theater (an offshoot of the Harvard literary scene in Cambridge, founded in 1951), the Living Theatre in New York (a bastion of radical theater established by Julian Beck and Judith Malina in 1948), and the Artists’ Theatre (founded by John Bernard Myers and Herbert Machiz in New York in 1953). (An excellent recent introduction to, and selection of, American poets theater after World War II can be found in The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985, edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil.)
Such ventures suggest the heady atmosphere of postwar American art and letters, in which poets created for the stage, wrote libretti for famous composers, and asked leading artists to create sets for their productions. They also testify to Koch’s ability to gather about him an amazing constellation of talent. Consider, for example, The Construction of Boston (1962), a renowned “Happening” that Koch created in tandem with artists Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, and Niki de Saint Phalle, and that Merce Cunningham directed; or Bertha (1953), a play featuring music by Virgil Thompson that Koch re-cast as an opera in 1972 with music by Ned Rorem; or The Red Robins (1977), which featured sets designed by Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz, Red Grooms, and Jane Freilicher.
This exhilarating moment, however, did not last. As Wellman notes in his preface, “the ghetto of Poets Theater, however splendid in its own terms, remains a ghetto.” He points out that it was not always thus: until a half century ago, the vital, symbiotic relationship between poetry and theater — “the rich interplay between the two arts over the centuries” — was going fairly strong: “Indeed, one could say that it is only quite recently — since the end of World War II — that poetry and theater have, in our country at least, become totally distinct.” Koch’s work is a shining example of the vibrant conversation between poetry and theater that runs from the Renaissance to Yeats, Gertrude Stein, and Amiri Baraka — and that alone is a good reason to return to these plays, find ways to produce them, and keep them alive.
Anyone familiar with Koch’s poetry will not be surprised to learn that his plays are extremely funny, playful, and diverse. Driven by delight in the play of language and the creation of surprising, odd situations, the plays exude the same boundless, manic creativity one finds in his poems, as well as the same childlike wonder, campy humor, inspired silliness, and unexpected moments of pathos. In fact, one of the pleasures of these plays is having the unusual opportunity to see key elements of Koch’s poetry, and poetry of the New York School more broadly, lifted off the page, set in motion, and turned into 3D spectacle.
In a 1995 interview, Koch recalled that in college at Harvard he devoured “every verse drama I could find — Lorca, Eliot (especially Sweeney Agonistes, I didn’t like the later ones), Yeats, Auden, Delmore Schwartz, even William Vaughan Moody,” along with “Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and the Romantic verse plays.” He was searching for “the secret way to write a play ‘in poetry’: it seemed like a delicious mystery, that Shakespeare could do it, so perfectly, and that there was no way to do it now.” He soon found that avant-garde theater offered a possible solution to this problem — once he’d read Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, he said, “everything was turned upside down.” He drank in everything from medieval mystery plays to Japanese Noh, plays by the Italian Futurists, Luigi Pirandello, and the theater of the absurd associated with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, “anything that got me away from the dreary Broadway-type plays I’d been taken to see in Cincinnati and was still menaced by in the pages of the Sunday Times, artificial and stilted arrangements of stale persons and staler ideas; people who carped at one another, discussed issues, were false, were true. Who would ever want to write plays?” This antipathy led Koch to write plays that challenged every aspect of commercial and conventional drama, especially “realist,” mainstream plays, where people in realistically-furnished living rooms sat on sofas and discussed their problems and family woes. As Wellman says, “plays like Koch’s are the classic antidote to all this sofa business!”
From the first, Koch was drawn to the “incomprehensible mystery and grandeur of the theater” which he tried to conjure in a wide variety of ways. To that end, he began to test out the possibilities of drama itself, expanding the limits of what a play might be in every direction. How outlandish could a play’s characters be? How accessibly and “realistically” must they speak? Could a play, for example, feature a character wearing a mouse head and playing a guitar who declares
America is like an elephant whose baseballs
Of sunlight. This is peppermint,
That billiard shore
as Koch’s early play Guinevere, or The Death of the Kangaroo (1961) does? By the same token, are there limits to a play’s staging and setting? Perhaps a play could include impossible-to-perform stage directions, like this:
The plaza splits in two like an orange. WEISSER ELEFANT eats one half of it. On the other half, GUINEVERE is playing a guitar to the KANGAROO, and playing cards are falling from his pocket. In the slight breeze one can just make out the chorus of neckties. It seems as if the Old World had become the New.
Or maybe a play could feature a character named Santa Claus who appears in the sky and says “I am Night. I am Death. / I am the place where no one can follow.” Can a play be as surprising, disjunctive, and linguistically driven, as starkly beautiful and enigmatic, as a poem? Why not?
“I like plays that are astounding in some way,” Koch told an interviewer, “that make convincing what is unusual and even, seemingly, impossible.” This spirit fuels every play in The Banquet. A number of the earlier plays echo the highly disjunctive, surrealist poetry Koch was writing at the time, especially in his most radical long poem, When the Sun Tries to Go On (1953), which opens with the words “And, with a shout, collecting coat-hangers / Dour rebus, conch, hip, / Ham, the autumn day, oh how genuine! / Literary frog, catch-all boxer, O / Real!” and doesn’t let up for 100 24-line stanzas. But in plays like Guinevere and Pericles (1953), Koch takes the zany linguistic anarchy of his poetry and transforms it into dialogue and action, which creates quite a different aesthetic experience. As Reed observes, “this is theater in which each sentence is a small occasion,” where language “takes on a shining, almost tactile quality.” Characters give speeches that seem to brush up against nonsense but still tremble with possible meanings: “there’s no midnight mystery / and no coconuts here to see, / nothing but the ocean’s sea / which will wash history’s tattoos from me.” In Pericles, the title character sums up the general mood when he exclaims, “Here is freshness and the shore’s timeless teeth!”
As his poetry became less abstract and turned towards the flat, naïve, childlike narration of poems like “The Circus,” “Geography,” and Ko, or A Season on Earth, Koch began to write plays that experimented with epic and history. In comic, absurdist plays like Bertha and George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1962), Koch created what he called “parodies of heroic drama” (though he added that “I don’t mean them mainly as parodies”). Aficionados of the New York School will recognize the Washington play as a work with intriguing connections to the broader movement. It was inspired by the famous and controversial 1953 painting of the same title by Koch’s close friend, Larry Rivers, which in turn also provoked O’Hara’s poem, “On Seeing Larry Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art.” All three works gleefully dismantle patriotic clichés and platitudes. In Koch’s play, Washington is more demigod than human, so over-the-top perfect that he provokes his enemy, the British General Cornwallis, to exclaim:
There goes the greatest man who will ever live in America! If only he could come over to the English side, I could bring myself to give up my command to him. He is the perfect gentleman, excelling in manners as in speech. His dress is perfect, his buttoning neat, and his shoes of a high polish … What task, indeed, could ever challenge that general of the Revolutionary Army? He rides as he walks, with perfect grace; and when he reclines, one imagines one sees the stately bison taking its rest among the vast unexplored plains of this country, America …
Even the grunts in Washington’s rebel army extol the virtues of American democracy and equality to an absurd degree: “Each and every man in the Revolutionary Army shares in the secrets of the High Command, and every man knows exactly why he is fighting,” one says. Another responds, “This is democracy in action, actually being practiced in a military situation.” In historical terms, Koch’s play stands as a compelling example of the oppositional “New American” writing and art of the 1950s, in its irreverent satire of the chest-thumping patriotic cant at the heart of Cold War culture. But beyond that, the play’s parody of American exceptionalism and nationalism remains relevant and trenchant.
As this description of the play suggests, a rather surprising trend emerges from reading The Banquet: Koch’s plays tend to be more overtly politically conscious, more invested in subversive humor and cultural critique than his poetry. This can be seen in Koch’s Bertha, which portrays a capricious, brutal, and insane tyrant in order to skewer the excesses of state power and hypernationalism, and in a weird and amusing piece called The Election (1960), written upon the occasion of the 1960 battle between Kennedy and Nixon. The latter play mocks everything from the fashionable Beat lingo of the day — a character named “the Author” says “man, are you flipped?,” JFK asks “like whose pad is this?” and Nixon says “Oh man, cool it, cool it!” — to the Republican candidate himself. In fact, the Author shoots himself in the head when it appears Nixon has won the election. And then there’s The Moon Balloon (1969), a play commissioned, strangely enough, by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and staged in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1969. The play itemizes and wishes away all the ills of 1960s American culture (like pollution, vapid television, and urban crime), derisively mocks Nixon and the conservatives in power, and closes with a character called “the 1970s” promising to bring brighter days to New York and the world (rather ironic, in hindsight).
In many ways, Koch’s plays anticipate trends and developments that would soon occur in poetry, theater, and across the arts. For example, The Construction of Boston, which coincided with the vogue for “Happenings,” prefigures the rise of performance art and multimedia spectacle. An elaborate collaboration Koch undertook with Rauschenberg, Tinguely, and Saint Phalle, the play was performed only once, on May 4, 1962. While Koch’s text chronicles in mock-heroic fashion the building of Boston, each artist was free to choose what he or she wanted to contribute to the performance. In Amber Reed’s words, “Rauschenberg chose to bring people and weather, in the form of a couple extras and a rain machine; Tinguely was responsible for the architecture, building a wall of sandstone bricks, that by the end of the performance, completely obstructed the audience’s view of the stage; and Saint Phalle provided the art, entering from the audience with three soldiers and shooting a rifle at a copy of the Venus de Milo, causing it to bleed paint.” Each of the artists was also given a speaking part, but two had doubles speak their lines, while Rauschenberg’s words weren’t spoken at all but rather projected on a screen.
Other plays pave the way for the current fascination with conceptual writing, which depends upon the appropriation of existing language, the privileging of idea over finished artifact, and the use of constraints and rules to generate texts. Some of Koch’s works collage together found language, like “The End,” in which a large number of characters walk about the stage speaking entirely in quotations and appropriated language. Others, like Koch’s “improvisational plays” of the 1960s, exist more as an idea for a play than as an actual script, more as potential than as a realized artifact. Here is one, called “Coil Supreme,” which creates certain constraints and rules to generate the work:
Eight or ten actors come onstage, being anyone they want. They speak for thirty minutes. The only requirement is that every sentence they utter must contain the phrase “coil supreme.” They may distort the language in any way they wish in order to do this. They should try to generate as much excitement as possible by what they say and do, and they play should end on a note of unbearable suspense.
Such plays extend the spirit of John Cage into the theater, while in the process creating something like a mad, avant-garde forerunner of the improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Koch’s work in the theater, like his poetry, often looks for formal means to convey the teeming multiplicity and simultaneity of experience that he finds so alluring and exciting. For example, in the full-length play The Red Robins (adapted from Koch’s experimental novel of the same name), Koch presents a vast, kaleidoscopic canvas, with an enormous cast of characters including the aforementioned Santa Claus, a malevolent Easter Bunny, and a group of child-like pilots who travel the globe having adventures. In Edward and Christine (1996), Koch achieves a similar sense of multiplicity, but with very different results, by following two lovers across an immense swath of time and space, in dozens of short scenes that leap achronologically from moment to moment, from Florence to Haiti, from Crete to Kenya, from Tokyo to Newark. As Koch explains in a note, the characters “appear in diverse and rapidly changing scenes that aren’t continuous in the ordinary sense of the word” because he is hoping to convey “the way memory and passion and reflection” put our experiences together. The result is a fresh and moving portrayal of a life, and a relationship, unhinged from linearity and conventional realism.
“I like the idea of bringing the whole world onto the stage,” Koch once said. In 1988, he published a collection of 112 extremely short plays under the title One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays that rely on brevity and juxtaposition as a means for “bringing in everything” he could of the world’s multiplicity and variety. Koch recalled that these plays were inspired by “the idea that everything, almost absolutely everything was potentially dramatic and could be made into a play … I noticed I could be in tears from a watching a TV movie for thirty seconds and laughing happily after switching to a different one for the same amount of time. Why not get this on stage, in a way that wasn’t accidental?”
Perhaps the true centerpiece of Koch’s work in the theater, One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays functions as a collection of stand-alone pieces but works even better as a coherent cycle of short plays, with recurring characters, motifs, and themes. The plays, most no longer than a page, zoom back and forth around the world, from the ancient past to the present, from absurdity to pathos and back again. In one play two Chinese rivers speak, in another Madagascar bids farewell to Africa 250 million years ago, while in a third, hippos talk “as they move, migratorily, across a semidarkened stage.” Many of the plays are fleeting, moving glimpses of a moment in time, such as “An Atmosphere of Heavy, Intense (Summer) Stillness Pervades the World of Christine et Édouard,” where a man and woman in a garden are interrupted by a character named “the Future” who dashes by and vanishes, causing the woman to exclaim “Look! The Future! / But now it’s gone!”
In One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays, Koch often seizes on strange, suggestive fragments from history or myth or the literary past and stages them with lightning fast strokes and bits of dialogue: we hear Alexander the Great speaking in his tomb, watch Yeats talking to an old crone as he searches for “faeryland,” and witness an extremely brief conversation between Wittgenstein, Hamlet, and Michelangelo. Another is spoken entirely by “The Duke of Wellington’s Nose.” One mini-suite of plays brings to mind Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, as it rings humorous changes on Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, including “Smoking Hamlet,” “Team Hamlet,” “Little Red Riding Hamlet,” and “Transposed Hamlet.” The last, spoken by a man in “avant-garde clothes,” reads like an homage to Oulipo: “Tube heat, or nog tube heat: data’s congestion / Ladder tricks snow blur Hindu mine dew sulphur / Tea slinks end harrows have ow!” Endlessly imaginative, varied, absurd and transporting, One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays opens up the stage to strange new vistas of meaning and possibility. Reading them, one cannot help but imagine how delightful it would be to spend an evening seeing 15 or 20 of them performed.
A character in Koch’s early play The Election gets at the heart of Koch’s goals as a writer when he exclaims, “This is not an ordinary play, it’s not a play ABOUT reality, it’s a play that IS reality, that gets right to the heart of reality itself.” His ambition as a playwright, Koch once explained, was quite similar to his aim in writing poems: “I have much the same feeling about the theatre as I do about poetry: I don’t want it to be smothered or drowned in meaning and syntax, but to present pure experiences.” By that measure, The Banquet succeeds in spades, giving us an entire “world of pure experience,” to borrow William James’s phrase, one that is just waiting to be brought to life.