Michael McClure: Interview

Time Out talks to beat poet Michael McClure ahead of the London revival of his play ’The Beard‘, which US authorities tried to ban for obscene content when it was first staged in 1965

  • One of the original beat poets, Michael McClure, is a man who can make words dance, who loves to read his poetry out loud. He read at the seminal gathering of writers at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955, alongside Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, when Allen Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’, and a drunken Jack Kerouac encouraged them all from the audience. Neal Cassady was there, too. Later, McClure also read at the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967 when over 20,000 people turned up, Timothy Leary called on everyone to ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’, the Grateful Dead played, and Ginsberg chanted. Poetry was almost as fashionable as music.Less well known is the fact that McClure also wrote a play – ‘The Beard’ – which is about to be revived at the Old Red Lion with new music by Terry Riley.

    Performances in Islington will surely be a peaceful affair compared to its first production, which led to the two actors being arrested many times for obscenity. There were writers in the ’60s who were all too keen to shock, but McClure is clear that he was not one of them. In fact, the way he tells it to me on the phone from California – and he does tell a good story – he was never in control of the writing at all, but rather inspired by a vision he had of a boxing poster advertising a forthcoming fight between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow. Before he had written the play, McClure had the poster printed up by the main man for boxing posters in San Francisco.

    ‘I put the poster up on fences, windows, and in liquor stores where boxing posters would be, and put one up behind my head in the room I worked in at the time, which overlooked the bridge and the ocean. I could feel the presence of Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow broadcasting from the beautiful poster to the back of my head out towards the ocean. They began enacting the play and I began typing it up. They’d say a few pages, I just typed it. I thought it was a nature poem about mammal sexuality and mammal love. It could have been a tantric ritual.

    ’That wasn’t quite how others saw it, especially the man in the audience who punched McClure on the nose for exposing his girlfriend to foul language. The play is set in a no man’s land, in ‘a blue velvet eternity’ in which two mythical American figures – Billy the Kid, the violent rebel, and Jean Harlow, the glamorous film star – circuitously swap dialogue, hurl abuse, provoke and seduce each other using a rich and sometimes filthy vocabulary. McClure sent the play to the Actors Workshop, a company which clearly knew trouble when they saw it since they showed no interest in staging it until McClure met Harold Pinter in a bar in San Francisco. Pinter in San Francisco in 1965! The two writers got on well and Pinter sent the theatre a note, suggesting they take a look. A young director got in touch and in 1965 Richard Bright and Billie Dixon were chosen to play the two parts.

    They bravely carried on despite the best efforts on the part of the authorities to stop them. On one occasion, a policeman leapt up out of the audience and opened his trench coat to reveal a camera underneath. ‘Click, click’, he went, and off went Bright and Dixon to jail. ‘Our reply to the play being obscene,’ says McClure, ‘was that the war in Vietnam was obscene, the play was not obscene.’ McClure was never busted himself as the authorities knew he would be protected by the First amendment. People lined up as they did for Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, and William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’.

    Nancy Reagan and Charlton Heston on one side, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Norman Mailer on the other. The play also caused something of a stir in London when it arrived in 1968 and played at the Royal Court. But by then the Lord Chamberlain had been abolished and there were no prosecutions. It was the first time that McClure felt that the play was judged as a play rather than a cause.

    On a documentary that will be seen shortly on Channel 4, 74-year-old McClure looks remarkably healthy for someone who lived through San Francisco in the ’60s . Asked whether he feels nostalgic for those days, he replies, ‘No. I’m just glad I was there. And I’m glad that “there” still survives in fascistfied America to the extent that it does.’

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