Misogynists go toe-to-toe with famous feminists in this recreation of the 1971 debate by pioneering NYC theatre troupe the Wooster Group
Does the past have anything left to teach us? The Town Hall Affair, from New York-based experimental theatre company The Wooster Group, explores a turning point of feminism’s second wave just as we are staring down new conversations about women’s rights, consent, harassment and assault.
The performance, directed with rigour and careful balancing acts by Elizabeth LeCompte, is based on the 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall, which captured a debate between noted intellectual and shit-stirrer Norman Mailer and four feminist figureheads (Australian-born writer Germaine Greer, dance and culture critic Jill Johnston, head of the New York chapter of the National Organisation for Women – NOW – Jacqueline Ceballos, and literary critic Diana Trilling. (Other leaders, like Gloria Steinem and Kate Millet, had declined to participate.)
Johnston (Kate Valk) is our guide through the action. She was considered a radical at the time, her views largely discounted at the actual debate. Less than a year before the night at Town Hall, NOW had termed lesbians the ‘lavender menace’ of women’s liberation and a distraction to the cause, seeing an exodus of radical lesbians from the group and greater disharmony in the movement; Johnston, as a well-known lesbian separatist, didn’t exactly align with the ‘friendly’ face of women’s lib.
As we see in a performance with great heart from Valk, Johnston is the one woman who won’t play the ‘game’ of the debate. She goes over her allotted speaking time, she plans stunts to take focus from Mailer’s ideas; she’s the hero idealist who can’t be contained and who won’t conform. In hindsight, her refusal to comply is admirable, and in this production it’s the shot of life we need to connect with history.
Greer (Maura Tierney), of course, makes theatre out of her compliant non-compliance. Tierney’s Greer is sly and confident; her legendary composure and comfortable jabs are all delivered with an impish twist, but as she dances a verbal capoeira with Mailer, it’s clear that her purpose here is to make her point, yes, but also to show off her dazzling-quick mind and match wits with Mailer.
Ceballos doesn’t appear as a character and Trilling (Greg Mehrten, in a gentle prod to gender norms) speaks little, but her speech is droll and cutting; still, this excavation of the Affair belongs to Johnston, Greer and Mailer.
Mailer, the embodiment of this cartoon from the latest New Yorker, a man who assaulted his wife, provoked and derided women, and made a career of Having Big Opinions, is shocking here. He’s writ larger than life by having two actors – Ari Flaikos and Scott Shepherd – share the role, speaking in unison, then leaning back to let the other take over. His speech, all verbatim and all condescending, is almost unbearable. He’s bombastic and charming and punch-able, so casual with his misogyny the audience is both laughing in disbelief and gasping in dismay. The two Mailers end up in a brawl (it’s a recreation of Mailer’s vanity film project Maidstone), which suggests that he’s more conflicted than he appears. Still, his struggle is never as interesting as Greer’s calculated approachability and good humour or Johnston’s poetic, insistent protests.
LeCompte’s production relies heavily on video and projections (by Robert Wuss); the actors are often synced with their real-life counterparts, and later, are intercut with footage from Maidstone. It’s a disarming conceit that blends historical record with a living and breathing present, and it’s both compelling and not quite satisfying; we only have 65 minutes to take it all in, and we can’t alter the course of that debate and how it presented – and helped to shape – modern feminism. At the debate, the friendly paths won.
But what does this say about where we are now? The Town Hall Affair isn’t entirely frozen in amber, but the Town Hall Debate is, and we’re living in a new world. We never really finished the work of second wave feminism, and the third’s powerful, critical focus on intersectionality, working-class rights and more is often buried under feminism for decoration and self-advancement.
And we can’t rely on old heroes. Greer’s vanguard past can be difficult to swallow with her present; as she doesn’t recognise trans women as women, it’s clear her politics, and those of the time (Trilling was actually a friend of Mailer’s and her feminism had its own compromises), have an abrupt and exclusionary limit.
But what Town Hall Affair does, with surprising heart, is suggest we look back at those we overlooked. With Johnston cleverly positioned at the forefront of the work, if you squint, you might just be able to see a through-line from then to now. Look to the fringes: Johnston represents a defiance and disavowal of male gaze and opinion that calls on organisation, radical collaboration and political defiance to forge a new reality. Living history as a map to the future.