Elizabeth LeCompte Splits Norman Mailer in Two, in The Town Hall Affair

Based on a 1970s film, the Wooster Group's new play examines how unconscious gender bias persists even among First Wave feminists.

Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk (Paula Court)

On November 8, 2016, one of FiveThirtyEight.com’s headlines read: “Clinton Couldn’t Win Over White Women.” What prevented them from electing this country’s first female president? The Wooster Group’s director Elizabeth LeCompte suggests one contributing factor — deference.

That would be women’s deferential behavior towards men. It may sound like a culturally antiquated notion, but in her company’s new play The Town Hall Affair, unconscious gender bias persists even amongst a trio of 1970s-era, First Wave feminists.

In the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, upon which the play is based, three women at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement debate the merits of feminism with Norman Mailer, the most unlikely of moderators. Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling all make impassioned speeches in response to Mailer’s book The Prisoner of Sex, published earlier that year in 1971.

Scott Shepherd, Erin Mullin, Kate Valk, Greg Mehrten (Zbigniew Bzymek)

Directors Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker caught the unbridled energies of the debate, and the times, on film that night at New York City’s Town Hall. Despite the women’s cogent and well-argued stands at the lectern, Mailer brims over with condescension and remains immune to their arguments.

LeCompte, who watched the film for the first time three years ago, made an incisive observation: “These were the ‘revolutionary’ women, and each one of them still has a kind of deference, a winking at the male as either the cute little boy or as the great artist father figure.”

The play is framed with writings by the poet and cultural critic Jill Johnston (as inhabited by Kate Valk). From LeCompte’s research, Johnston, in a post-mortem written after the event, felt that she might have failed in some way.

“Or there was some kind of opening there for something that she had tried to do or thought she could do there that didn’t happen,” LeCompte says. “Because you see Mailer stopping her. And what she does at that point, she doesn’t stay. She leaves the building instead of facing doubt. That’s what bothered her, because she didn’t get to finish her statement.”   

Johnston, the author of Lesbian Nation, had something very different to deal with from the other women there. “Even Jill says ‘I want him to adore me.’ But she’s more self-aware about it,” LeCompte notes. “She’s not denying what a man can do for you but she doesn’t think we can ever be equal. She obviously wants the attention. She wants the attention of her father — very much.”

Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten (Hervé Véronèse)

As for Greer’s and Trilling’s roles, LeCompte saw that “Germaine tries to say something about that [deference] but at the same time if you read her, she wanted to fuck him [Mailer]. And then of course Trilling is like his mother.”

The director, aware of their ambivalence towards Mailer, limits both characters to supporting roles. What she does with Mailer is more interesting: She splits him in two. He’s played by two actors, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, who finish each other’s sentences. In The Town Hall Affair, identity is as thrillingly fluid as gender (an actor, Greg Mehrten, plays Diana Trilling).

LeCompte insists that dividing Mailer’s role de-emphasizes his authority.

“It splits it out so that it’s a number of voices in that world. It’s not one male persona. It is the male persona, more generalized.” The play may be politically relevant at this particular moment in history but she says, “I don’t think about any of that. In fact, the choices are so much more pragmatic.”

In this case, the estate of Harold Pinter withdrew its permission for The Wooster Group to perform a play they’d already arranged an international tour around. Fortunately, LeCompte remembered Town Bloody Hall, the documentary Maura Tierney had brought to her years earlier. “I’m looking for things outside of myself. Often, we gravitate towards things in the culture at the time. By serendipity.”

The Town Hall Affair, through April 16, at Z Space, 450 Florida St., 415-626-0453 or zspace.com


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