Feminism, Live: Debate as Theater

Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's The Town Hall Affair, 2017, at the Performing Garage, New York. Photo Paula Court.


What might feminism’s present learn from feminism’s past? This question is especially urgent after the terrifying first weeks of Trump’s presidency. Some answers may be gleaned from The Town Hall Affair, the Wooster Group’s new theatrical production at the Performing Garage in New York through March 4. The one-hour show restages a raucous “dialogue on Women’s Liberation” that took place on April 30, 1971, at New York’s Town Hall theater, later documented in the 1979 film Town Bloody Hall. Organized by Shirley Broughton, the debate angled for a spectacular presentation of feminism’s various factions. Panelists included National Organization of Women president Jacqueline Ceballos, dance-critic-turned-associative-essayist Jill Johnston, Australian–born radical feminist Germaine Greer, and literary critic Diana Trilling. Adding to the manufactured drama was moderator Norman Mailer, provoking the women at every turn with his cartoonish, macho posturing.

With the urging and collaboration of his wife Chris Hegedus, vérité filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker edited his footage of the three-and-a-half-hour debate into an eighty-eight-minute documentary, Town Bloody Hall, released in relative obscurity at the end of the decade. The film’s shaky close-ups and abrupt cuts register the heady excitement of second-wave feminism’s radical apex. With its combination of verbal fireworks and swooping, impressionistic camerawork, Town Bloody Hall serves as a perfect source for the Wooster Group to apply its meta-theatrical methods.

Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, an all-star Wooster Group cast (featuring Maura Tierney, of ER and The Affair, as Germaine Greer), began rehearsing The Town Hall Affair over a year ago. A workshop version of the production debuted at the Performing Garage last spring. If the show was tentatively conceived for a Hillary Clinton presidency, it is by no means a feminist victory lap. Rather, the show seems positioned to instigate an inquiry into the state of the victories and concessions of liberal feminism. Today, however, it reads as a warning about deadly masculinity.

The majority of the production sees the actors reciting Town Bloody Hall verbatim, as the film plays on screens behind them. Interspersed are vignettes, also performed verbatim, from Norman Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone—a bloated, unscripted, cringeworthy feature about a pugnacious movie director (played by Mailer) who runs for president. Pennebaker filmed sections of Maidstone, connecting the two films formally. But more importantly, Maidstone powerfully telegraphs the blustery bravado of America’s first reality-TV president.

The original Town Hall debate organizers anticipated a clash between the larger-than-life personalities of Greer and Mailer, which many (including filmmaker Hegedus) interpreted as a flirtation. The two writers were well situated for a public face-off. Mailer had recently penned “The Prisoner of Sex” for Harper’s—a blistering rebuttal to Kate Millett’s caricature of Mailer as a “prisoner of the virility cult” in her book Sexual Politics (1969). Greer, for her part, published her watershed radical-feminist tract The Female Eunuch in 1970 to wide acclaim. Glamorous in a long black dress, a fox stole, and an oversize Venus pendant around her neck, Greer commanded the stage as she railed against the male artistic ego in thrall to capitalism, and articulated women’s roles as artistic objects instead of artistic producers. She summed up the representation of women as “menials, goddesses, or even worse, both” who “break our hearts trying to keep our aprons clean.” Though a decade older than Greer was in 1971, Tierney effortlessly embodies the author’s speech pattern and elegance. And yet, Tierney’s expression of weariness with Mailer’s petty riposte—that women can be both slobs and goddesses, at different hours of the day—is more realistic than any sexual frisson.

Rather than Greer, The Town Hall Affair centers critic (and frequent A.i.A. contributor) Jill Johnston as its heroine. In the documentary film, Johnston appears with a strange (or stoned) personal affect, all cockeyed grin and shaggy bangs. Her speech about lesbianism as a political practice, stylistically indebted to Gertrude Stein’s stream of consciousness writings, is cut short by Mailer. Two women rush the stage to kiss her, and the three lovers disappear thereafter. In the play, Wooster Group founding member Kate Valk plays Johnston as languid and seductive, with humor and pathos. The entire production is bookended by Valk’s reading of two excerpts from “Tarzana from the Trees at Cocktails,” one of Johnston’s essays in Lesbian Nation (1973) about her experience of the debate. Johnston wrote about the contradictions of participating in such an event with enduring clarity:

“Just to appear at Town Hall was to acknowledge Mailer. And to concur in the tacit premise of the occasion-that women’s liberation is a debatable issue. In this sense, that the event occurred at all, it was a disaster for women. As a social event, it was the victory of the season.”

This biting analysis could be applied to many feminist demonstrations over the last four decades, including the Women’s Marches last month. Consider the exasperated signs hoisted by older women: I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT.

The Town Hall Affair‘s most experimental formal leaps concern the depiction of gender expression. Two actors (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd) share the role of Mailer; the women playing Greer and Johnston illuminate the tension between the hetero- and homosexual wings of second-wave feminism; and a man (Greg Mehrten) portrays the matronly critic Diana Trilling. Trilling’s speech chastens, at turns, the rigidity of Mailer’s sexism and radical feminists’ denial of the vaginal orgasm. (LeCompte’s casting eliminates the debate’s fourth panelist, the National Organization for Women’s Jacqueline Ceballos. Ceballos’s voice issues forth from the film running behind the actors for just a few seconds. It is long enough for her to admit that her organization, which champions liberal equality feminism over more radical ideologies to overturn patriarchy, is the “square” faction of the Women’s Liberation Movement.)

The rationale for this gender multiplication and tension is explained only at the production’s climax. The two Mailers turn against each other to re-enact the desperate final fight scene between Mailer and actor Rip Torn in Maidstone. The exasperated “flirtation” between Greer and Mailer is actualized, as Tierney dons a white apron to portray Mailer’s wife Beverly Bentley. The men writhe on the ground for an uncomfortable amount of time, drawing blood from each other’s faces. Bentley, hysterical, tries to force them apart. If the Mailers’ homoerotic fury represents the twinned consciousness of men, Johnston simultaneously enacts a very different erotic expression between women. Downstage, she tenderly kisses actor Erin Mullin, whose only other action in the show is voicing a debate question from second-wave author Ruth Mandel. Johnston’s monologue, a breathless description of a lesbian utopia, an umbrella under which variously marginalized groups could unite to upend patriarchy, concludes the play.

While emotionally moving, The Town Hall Affair is not intended as a comprehensive depiction of the terms of feminist dialogue. Discussions of race, trans subjectivity, and sex work are absent, both from the play and the documentary on which it is based. Despite these omissions, The Town Hall Affair feels contemporary in its honest depiction of a feminist movement that has always been riven with infighting. At the hands of our new, ultra-conservative government, the struggle against biological essentialism also remains vital. What feels distant from our contemporary moment, then, is not the Left’s fervent criticality or internal dissent. It is the aggressive complexity of these authors’ positions, and their willingness to debate them, not in shadowy corners of the internet, but in public, under the glowering gaze of the male retaliator.