AMERICA HURRAH (Interview, TV, Motel)
America Hurrah is a trilogy of short plays: Interview, a fugue for eight actors, TV, and Motel, a masque for three dolls. Motel, directed by Michael Kahn, and Interview, directed by Peter Feldman, premiered at LaMama Experimental Theatre Club in NYC (1964-65). Ellen Stewart, LaMama’s Artistic Director, toured Motel in Europe, directed by Tom O’Horgan, dolls heads by Robert Wilson. Interview was produced on National Educational Television as part of 3 from LaMama, directed by Tom O’Horgan; the cast included James Coco, Cynthia Harris, Joseph Chaikin, Alvin Epstein and Joyce Aaron.
America Hurrah premiered as a trilogy Off-Broadway at the Pocket Theatre, NYC, on November 7, 1966. Joseph Chaikin directed Interview; Jacques Levy directed TV and Motel. The producer was Stephanie Sills. The cast: Ronnie Gilbert, Cynthia Harris, Joyce Aaron, Brenda Smiley, Conard Fowkes, Henry Calvert, Bill Macy, James Barbosa and the voice of Ruth White. The dolls were constructed by Robert Wilson.
America Hurrah ran 640 performances in New York. Widely hailed as the watershed play of the sixties, America Hurrah heralded and was the first major dramatic expression of the anti-Viet Nam war movement. Catching theatre—goers by surprise, America Hurrah had a shock effect on the culture.
The New York production of America Hurrah toured with the original cast to the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1967. The Royal Court registered as a private club to avoid the censor’s ban, but the censor prevented the planned move of the play to a larger theatre in the West End.
In Sydney, Australia, a cheering audience formed a barricade to prevent vice officers from arresting the actors after the play’s performance. At Boston’s Charles Playhouse where America Hurrah was directed by Thomas Bissinger, the cast included Al Pacino. America Hurrah has been performed frequently all over the world, and translated, among other languages, into French and Japanese.
FROM REVIEWS OF AMERICA HURRAH
"I think you’ll be neglecting a whisper in the wind if you don’t look in on America Hurrah, three views of the USA. There is something afoot here...
Take a slippery and in the end rather chilling moment of the first ‘view" We’ve watched a handful of unemployed persons sit wistfully on square blocks while bland masked interviewers, sugared with smiles, hurl impertinent questions at them. We’ve watched the stage dissolve into the city streets, the players dissolve into wailing sirens, whispered folk songs, the jumpy cacophony of marionettes rattling through a recording tape at the wrong speed. We’ve noticed that the lurching through sound and space has an interior urgency about it that is odd indeed, especially as there isn’t the least trace of obvious narrative to lure us on. We lurch along willingly, bidden to do so by something original and personal in playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie’s restrained voice.
Now a moment comes when a full-throated siren alerts us to a corner accident. Someone’s been killed. The laboured inhale-exhale of artificial respiration, made into a musical continuum by the same malleable actors who are saying all the lines, fails.
A pretty girl — a girl with a strong sense of obligation - leaves the accident to go to a party. She would like to tell everyone at the party about the accident, though no one will listen. Above all, she would like to apologize for being late. No accident is enough to make a person late for a party.
Slowly, subtly and with a sense of having been slapped in the face, we do grasp that it is the girl herself who has been killed and that she is apologizing for having been killed at so inopportune a moment. The dead must never be inconveniently dead. Not in America, not just now.
In his second and third bits of spying on the way it feels to be on this continent these days, the playwright offers us two strong, plain contrasts that are quietly and deftly kept from turning obvious.
In a television studio, three very normal workers glance at the monitor now and then, where busy performers with striped faces — they look like so many up-ended zebras - go through all the violent, cloying, synthetic motions that pass for entertainment on the national airwaves. But there is no relation between the workers and the work: a yawning gulf, big enough to drown us all, has opened between the real concerns of real people and the imaginary concerns of our imaginary archetypes.
One of the real workers strangles to death on a bone in his chicken-salad sandwich. But the burly chanteuse who pours affection across the land as though she were an open fire hydrant of boundless goodwill goes right on beaming her thousand goodnights. Disaster is irrelevant in a time of eternal delight.
In a "respectable, decent and homey" motel — we are in the last playlet now - a massive Mother Hubbard made of very clammy clay revolves and revolves, like a warning beacon, welcoming the transient to a haven filled with the books of John Galsworthy and "toilets that flush of their own accord." Meantime, two oversize grotesques, male and female, enter a paid-for room to strip their flesh-tinted Band-Aid bodies and then to destroy the room wantonly, book by book, toilet by toilet.
None of this is didactic. It is simply observant. None of it is laboured. For the most part Mr. van Itallie treads gently across the sorrowing inattentive earth. If some of the evening sounds as though the verse of e.e. cummings had been rearranged by Kenneth Fearing and then set to the intrusive rhythm of Turkey in the Straw, it’s no mistake. For one of the things the theatre is trying to discover at the moment is a means of approaching poetic effect on the stage without reverting to echoing forms. And these deliberate "primitives" come to seem a valid perhaps necessary first try — almost as though we were Greeks again, searching out a right sound for the stage. Perhaps that is why there are so many garish Greek masks and elevated Greek boots puffing up the players at the Pocket.
The players are, one and all, first rate...Joseph Chaikin and Jacques Levy have directed, in general, with a casual grace. And the author is someone worth watching, and wished well." Walter Kerr, New York Times, November 7, 1966.
"…beckons you straight through the surface cacophany of shrill night noises on the city streets, the hum and buzz of the daily round as it is danced in the electronic age, the blare of the evening news broadcast and the shriek of the thriller that follows it, deep into the cool pool of quiet self-contradiction which contemporary man has accepted as his natural environment. Inside the clatter there is essential composure: the author has listened for, heard, and precisely reported the address of that womb-away-from-womb in which most of us spend our hours now." Walter Kerr, Sunday New York Times.
"The three marvellous Jean-Claude van Itallie plays that opened last night at the Pocket Theatre are all of today — in style, in technique, in attitude, in humor they demonstrate what a modern artist can do in the theatre and they are very exciting. … There are very few playwrights who ever manage to show us new truths from facts to which we are all accessible. This playwright’s truths are not all new, but some of them are and that is remarkable. Equally remarkable is his sense of stage, of language, of color and rhythm." Martin Gottfried, Women’s Wear Daily.
"…the finest product of the American theatre since West Side Story. … " Irving Wardle, London Times.
"One of the most impressive debuts in a long while. … This is a compelling image of American violence all right, but on a much deeper level —it is an extension of our powers of envisaging ourselves." Newsweek.
"Season’s most hair-raising play." Look.
"…best and most significant of the off-Broadway season…" Norman Nadel, World Journal Tribune.
"…the best off-Broadway production this season…a brilliant achievement. …" Joseph LeSueur, Village Voice.
"Fascinating! Brilliant! … perhaps the most consistently fascinating, frequently brilliant evening of drama produced so far this season.… " Wall Street Journal.
"Hurricane of horror." Boston Globe.
"More critical acclaim than any new American drama this year." The New York Times.
"At last something new." Elizabeth Hardwicke, New York Review of Books.
"I admire the Motel episode of America Hurrah." Harold Clurman, The Nation, March 11, 1968
"Brilliant." Harold Pinter
"His plays don’t develop, they explode." Variety.
"I was especially impressed by America Hurrah. It is possible that Motel is the best one-act play I’ve ever seen." Norman Mailer.
"…amusing, startling and invigorating, a stage along the road to a real theatre of commitment in America." Eric Bentley
"Pick the Pocket Theatre if you want to see America’s funnybone crack. A fine balance of ouches and laughs. Jean-Claude van Itallie is a master." Associated Press
Excerpt from Interview:
First Interviewer: Won’t you sit down?
Second Applicant (standing): I’m sorry.
First Applicant: I am sitting.
First Interviewer (pointing): There. Name please.
Second Applicant: Jane Smith.
First Applicant: Jack Smith...
Girl at the Party: And then after the ambulance took off I went up in the elevator and into the party. Did you see the accident, I asked, and they said they did, and what did he look like, and I said he wore a brown coat and had straight brown hair. He stepped off the curb right in front of me, this block right here, I said, but she wasn’t listening. Hi, my name is Jill, I said to somebody sitting down and they looked at me and smiled so I said his arm was torn out of its socket and his face was on the pavement gasping but I didn’t touch him, and she smiled and walked away. And I said after her, you aren’t supposed to touch someone before — I wanted to help, I said, but she wasn’t listening...
Excerpt from TV:
...Susan (seated with George and Hal behind the console in a TV-rating studio): Listen, I just remembered a joke. There’s this writing on the subway wall: "I love grills," it says. So somebody crosses out "grills" and writes in "girls." "I love girls," it says now. And then somebody else writes in: "What about us grills?"
(She laughs and laughs over this. On the other side of the stage the President and his family appear on TV.)
News Announcer: The President is accompanied by his family.
Susan: What about us grills? Isn’t that fantastic?
Hal: What’s the matter with you?
Susan: I think that’s the funniest thing I ever heard.
President: We will stamp out aggression wherever and whenever...
Hal (to Susan who continues to laugh): Shhh. Stop it.
Susan: I can’t.
President: We will tighten our defences and fight to guarantee the peace of our children, our children’s children and their children.
George (to Susan, getting up): I’ll get you some water.
President: That all men are not well-intentioned or well-informed or even basically good is unfortunate.
Hal (who can’t hear the TV because of Susan’s laughter): This is easier.
(Hal slaps Susan hard on the face.)
President: But these people will not be indulged...
President: But these people will not be indulged...
Excerpt from Motel:
Motel Keeper’s Voice: Myself I know it from the catalogue: bottles, bras, breakfasts, refrigerators, cast-iron gates, plastic posies...
(In the motel room, the Woman doll opens her negligee and the man doll pulls off her bra. The Man and Woman dolls embrace. The Woman doll puts lipstick on her nipples.)
Motel Keeper’s Voice: Paper subscriptions, Buick trucks, blankets, forks, clitter-clack darning hooks, transistors and antimacassars, vinyl plastics..
Motel Keeper’s Doll: ...crazy quilts, paper hairpins, cats, catnip, club feet, canisters, bannisters, holy books, tatooed toilet articles, tables, tea-cozies...
(The Man doll writes simple obscene words on the wall. The Woman doll does the same with her lipstick)
Motel Keeper’s Voice: ...pickles, bayberry, candles, South Dakotan Kewpie Dolls, fiberglass hair, polished milk, amiable grandpappies, colts, Galsworthy books, cribs, cabinets, teeter-totters...
America Hurrah was first published by Coward McCann, NY, and by Penguin Books, London, subsequently published in mass paperback by Bantam Books, and then by Grove Press, NY. In America Hurrah and Other Plays, Grove/Atlantic, 2001. Acting edition: Dramatists Play Service, NY
Eight Plays from Off-Off Broadway, ed. Nick Orzel & Michael Smith; Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
The Norton Introduction to Literature. W.W.Norton, 1973.
The Off Off Broadway Book: The Plays, People, Theatre; Ed. Albert Poland, Bruce Mailman; Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.
Winner: Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award, Outer Circle Critics Award.