- The Scene of Foreplay: Theater, Labor and Leisure in 1960s New York by Giulia Palladini
The Scene of Foreplay: Theater, Labor and Leisure in 1960s New York. By Giulia Palladini. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017; 248 pp.; illustrations. $99.95 cloth, $34.95 paper, e-book available.
The introduction to Giulia Palladini's provocatively titled monograph opens with scatter-shot bits of description that call forth a collection of (initially unnamed) 1960s-era performers, places, and venues. These arresting "snapshots" center on important theatre and performance makers such as Ellen Stewart, Andy Warhol, Jackie Curtis, Penny Arcade, Tom Eyen, Ruby Lynn Reyner, and others who become the subjects of Palladini's critical investigations of performance-making, labor, and leisure in the 1960s. Her unusual study is based on a theoretical framework she conceives as and calls "fore-play." Palladini defines this paradigm along parallel lines with the sexual practice as "a labor of pleasure on the part of performers and spectators, […] not organized according to a climax" [End Page 173] (4). She writes that there is an "extended interval of leisurely enjoyment," that "playful activities" are engaged in and a "productive outcome" is avoided or postponed. Additionally, the subset of 1960s performances that Palladini bases her argument on are "not a form of preparation, nor a training toward a future craft" (4). In the four chapters and two "interludes" (shorter sections) that follow, Palladini interrogates each of the opening image-bits and works hard to connect them and support them via her theoretical construct, which she builds through lengthy formulations that meld Marxist theory (via Walter Benjamin and others) with queer theory. José Esteban Muñoz's evocation of the utopian potential in pre-Stonewall gay culture and Elizabeth Freeman's work on queer kinship and community are foundational to Palladini's thinking.
My encounter with and experience of the book's first pages reflect my takeaway from the book in its entirety—a sometimes startling and refreshing collage-work of detailed close readings and performance critiques, meshed with wide-ranging theoretical analyses that are occasionally interrupted by the author's self-reflections. Several of the book's 1960s-era subjects (she illuminates performer/playwright/director Jackie Curtis's life and work in juxtaposition and in combination with director John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous) are compellingly and comprehensively critiqued with the support of Palladini's theoretical framework. Using the fore-play paradigm, Palladini also brings a fresh lens and energy to her analyses of two stars of the time period—the filmmaker and performer Jack Smith and the legendary artist Andy Warhol. Palladini reviews Warhol's Screen Tests (1964–1966) as "a pure form of fore-play": in her reading of "Marx's scheme of the creation of value" these "auditions" are only "tests" of the performer's ability to do the actual work on a role (166). In the case of Warhol's evocative film portraits, the work ends with the scene of foreplay; there is no final production.
Palladini's analyses of Ellen Stewart's mission and practices work less well in support of her argument. Stewart's steadfast commitment to specific artists and their training, her strategic and forward-thinking fundraising, her accumulation of real estate and East Village and international theatre empire-building are in contradiction with Palladini's fore-play conception of her: Stewart did not see her participation in making theatre happen as "playful"; she was very interested in the success of the work at her theatres and actively sought critics' attention to shows she produced; she financially supported training and workshops for performers in La MaMa companies (see Crespy 2003; Bottoms 2004; Rosenthal 2006; Harding and Rosenthal 2017; Rosenthal 2017). Stewart was the advocate for and home to US and international collectives' and directors' path-breaking workshops and training-based theatre work (Joseph Chaikin/The Open Theater, Andrei Serban/The Great Jones Company, and Tadeusz Kantor/Cricot 2, to name a few...