A production photo from the original 1965 staging of Motel shows the motel-keeper to the left of a couple who have ravaged their room in a fit of unbridled passion. The show is being re-staged by La MaMa in the East Village.
Americana Sex Machines
Ellen Stewarts La MaMa revives Jean-Claude Van Italie 60s shocker
By Jerry Tallmer
Some things you dont forget. Jean-Claude Van Italies Motel was one of them. Still is.
It has been 39 years now since, in the Motel segment of Van Italies America Hurrah trilogy, those two gigantic dolls, a male and a female automatonmaneuvered from within by flesh-and-blood actorsbegan pornographically trashing and then ripping apart not just their rented motel room but the motel-keeper herself, another enormous rotating robot.
The two destroyers said not a word. The motel-keeper was a babbling river of banality, touting the glories of her establishmenti.e., 1960s middle Americain excruciating detail:
The best stop on Route 66. Well, there might be others like it, but this is the best stop. Youve arrived at the right place. This place. And a hooked rug. I dont care what, but Ive said no room is without a hooked rug
Ordered from the catalogue
bottles, bras, breakfasts, refrigerators, cast-iron gates, plastic posies
pickles, bayberry candles, South Dakota Kewpie dolls, fiberglass hair, polished milk, amiable grandpappies, colts, Galsworthy books, cribs, cabinets, teetertotters
Smash! Smash! The female desecrator smears lipstick on her own nipples. Her male companion scrawls obscenities on the wall. The female draws genitals on the walls. They dance. They embrace. They smash the TV, wreck the bed, crash the window, rip the walls, tear off the head and arms of the still gabbling motel-keeper. Sirens. Deafening music. Headlights into the face of the audience.
You left the theater shaking.
And Jean-Claude Van Italie was such a nice boy. Still is. Since America Hurrah set the keynote for a decades protest generation, he has translated Genet and Chekhov; opened other doors with The Tibetan Book of the Dead and, for the late Joseph and his own personal history.
Ellen Stewart, who gave America Hurrah its first exposure 39 years ago and brought it back in 1981, is bringing it to La MaMa once again for four performances, October 7 through 10, as part of that emporiums 2004 Puppet Series Festivalthough these are pretty big puppets, maybe eight feet tall, originally designed by none other than a then unknown Robert Wilson.
I wrote Motel before I ever knew Ellen, Van Italie said from his Massachusetts countryside retreat last week. I saw a note on the door of the Caffe CinoOff Off Broadways 1950s seedbedthat said: If you like the Cino, youll love La MaMa.
So I went over there, it was then at 122 Second Avenue, and I met Ellen. I dont remember what I said, but I remember what she said: Honey, youre home. Come do your play here.
Stewarts still saying it to one and all, by the waystill spreading theater around the globe like Johnny Appleseed.
Jean-Claude Van Italie, born 1936 in Brussels, Belgium, was still in his twenties when America Hurrah burst into his head.
I had been writing a fairly conventional three-act play called Children on the Shore and getting polite rejection notes. I think America Hurrah came out of anger. Personal anger. That I wasnt being let in the door of Broadway theater. Angry at myself for trying.
So I thought Id write something that would not please anybody, and had no expectations of it ever being produced.
It was not only produced, it ran for 640 performances in New York, first at La MaMa, then at the Pocket Theater, Third Avenue and 12th Street (subsequently a porno house). There followed banned but triumphant bookings in London and Sydney, Australia, and since then, everywhere.
Whatever happened to Children on the Shore?
The first director of Motel was Michael Kahn; then came Jacques Levy, then Tom OHorgan. The voice of the motel-keeper was originally and crucially supplied by Ruth White, memorable Off-Broadway star of Samuel Becketts Happy Days. The director of La MaMas 2004 staging is George Ferencz.
Had playwright Van Italie, whose whole early life in 1940s Europe constituted a dark drama in itself, envisioned those dolls as gigantic and scary as all that?
Yes, that was my point. Id been reading [famed stage designer] Gordon Craig and [Theater of Cruelty playwright] Antonin Artaud. So that was the fun of it.
Well, Jean-Claude, said this interviewer, all I can tell you is that I remember it vividly, and it really scared the shit out of me.
Good, good, Van Italie said gleefully, up there among the cows in Massachusetts. Asked about his original puppet designer, he continued, Robert Wilson? A friend had called me, maybe a year or two before, to say there was this young guy who wanted to get into theater in New York, and could I help him? I was very flattered to be asked that about anybody.
Wilsons dolls are being re-created for the current production by Jane Catherine Shaw.
Van Italie remembered back to his early life in Europe.
Remember the Holocaust? We were Jews. My father, a stockbroker, was in the Belgian army. He waded out at Dunkirk to one of the rescue ships. My mother drove usme, her sister, her parents and my fathers parents, seven of us in one carfirst from Brussels to the Belgian seashore, then all through France to Spain and then to Portugal.
My father joined us in France, and his parents took a boat across the Channel to England. The boat hit a mine; they were killed. The rest of us were lucky enough to get visas to go to America
Just like Casablanca?
Just about the same time.
All of which somehow feeds in to the new play that Jean-Claude Van Italie finished a week or two ago.
Its called Fear Itself, Secrets About the White House, and its somewhat related to [the Vietnam eras] America Hurrah.
The first two words of its title immediately summon up, of course, FDRs invigorating The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but the we of today are participants in an inside-out New Deal of somewhat more ominous cast.
The White House in this play, said the man who wrote it, is occupied by Emperor Bush and his wife Mommy, who are talking about their children, who are locked in the basement. Every time Emperor Bush does something dastardly, like bombing some place, its actually the kids who get it.
Or as the motel-keeper says while her eight-foot-tall platform-shoed overnight guests set to disemboweling the premises: All folks everywhere sitting in the very palm of God. Waiting, whither, whence?