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The Elective Affinities of Bad Boy Foreman

By Daniel Mufson
The German version of this article was originally published, with minor changes, in Theater Heute, in May 2000

In Richard Foreman’s latest play, Bad Boy Nietzsche, the title character says, “Let’s face it: Nobody likes being chained to the wall by somebody else’s imagination.” Posing in front of a large rectangle of white foam, Nietzsche then pleads, “Please! Wipe me out.”

Instead of erasing Nietzsche, Foreman presents a double exposure: Nietzsche superimposed on Foreman, and vice versa. By the time the show ends, the two seem almost destined for one another. Conflict motivated by the will to power has characterized most of Foreman’s work. For many years, Foreman’s plays structured themselves around a male virtuoso of some sort¾the Professor in My Head Was a Sledgehammer or the Maestro in Pearls for Pigs¾challenged and misinterpreted by lesser people surrounding him. The antagonism of female underlings invariably betrayed an aggressive and threatening brand of eroticism. Conflict so constructed lends itself extremely well to Nietzsche, underappreciated while alive and grossly misinterpreted after he died. Nietzsche’s nemeses, as Foreman depicts them, are known only as “The Child” and “The Cruel Man” and “The Beautiful Woman,” but they seem to function as composites of figures who bedeviled either Nietzsche or his cultural legacy: Lou Salomé; Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth; Wagner; or any number of nationalists and antisemites criticized by Nietzsche while he lived and who coopted Nietzsche after he died.

Foreman’s stagings, with actors murmuring their lines into headset microphones, have always had the claustrophobia-inducing feel of a combative dialogue between voices in his own brain. Correspondingly, the Nietzsche we see here is the fallen one, trapped in his head, confined to a room. The play takes as its launching point the incident in 1889 often identified as the end of Nietzsche’s productive life, when, upon seeing a cabman beating a horse on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself between the animal and its tormenter before passing out and falling to the ground. Indeed, one has to wonder if Foreman has been planning a  piece on the philosopher for years, because one of the stuffed horses that appears in Bad Boy Nietzsche has been used as a prop at least as far back as the 1994 My Head Was a Sledgehammer. Foreman has long saturated his stage design with sundry recurring images in the hope of creating a rich palimpsest, at least some of whose parts might resonate with whatever meanings might be suggested by the text. What’s remarkable is that, finally, all these knick-knacks that have come in and out of his work for years actually do resonate with the text; the rows of skulls, the crumpled papers filled with illegible scrawl, the walls littered with illegibly graffiti, the Hebrew letters and the Star of David, the stuffed horse, even the plexiglass wall between the actors and audience, at last breathe with aptness after years of seeming either arbitrary or habitual or both. There’s still no shortage of playful nonsense, but, as ludicrous as the portrayal of Nietzsche is, one can’t avoid thinking about the real man and many of the sad and bitter issues associated with his biography and the interpretations of his writing.

Aspects of Foreman’s character evident in past productions also seem especially apropos in his portrayal of Nietzsche. Foreman, too, seems to oscillate between egotistical flights of arrogance and insecure broodings about irrelevance, just as Nietzsche would boast of his independence in works like Zarathustra while whining about his loneliness in letters to friends. In Bad Boy Nietzsche, history lends Foreman’s all-too-familiar rituals of self-analysis a whiff, if not a burst, of fresh air. Attending a Foreman production has become a ritual akin to an annual family gathering: You know there’s some value in having to go every year, but there’s a certain dreadful creepiness to the way each gathering resembles the prior one—the same food, the same arguments, the same jokes. Bringing Nietzsche into this habitual dramaturgy is a bit like bringing a few friends home for the gathering: the stale familial dynamics shift a bit, and the hermetic self-involvement is cracked open by the forced recognition of other people in the world. This year, Foreman isn’t solitary by himself; he’s solitary with Nietzsche, and seeing the two of them isolated together in torment has a touch of irony that relieves the self-pity tinging Foreman’s recent productions.

Gary Wilmes, known to audiences from last year’s Hotel Fuck and from his performance in Richard Maxwell’s House, again shows off his formidable stage presence in the role of Nietzsche; Kevin Hurley, whose most recent European performance was in the Builders Association Jet Lag, looks appropriately sinister as The Cruel Man, strutting about the stage, flexing his muscles, and repeatedly slamming the back of Nietzsche’s chair with a golf club (much to Nietzsche’s chagrin). The women’s performances are less memorable, mainly because Foreman proves as inept as Nietzsche was at imagining—or trying to imagine¾the female Geist. The portrait of a sadistically seductive siren lacks the inventiveness required in order to keep this timeless archetype from lapsing into time-worn cliché. Foreman, as inventive as his world initially seems to be, has trouble inventing any other. Even here, we find Foreman shifting his gaze from himself to Nietzsche only to discover that Nietzsche is just like himself. This may excite theorists who go to the theater to see enactments of Lacanian theory, but after a while it looks more and more like a conceptual limitation that Foreman cannot, or will not, surmount.

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