|Joseph Della Sorte, Osceola Archer, Robert Jackson. (Photos: Alan B. Tepper)|
The Chelsea Theatre’s monumental staging of this controversial four-and-a-half hour, 17-scene epic drama about characters embroiled in the Algerian war of independence against France was one of the theatrical landmarks of the early 70s. It was written in 1959, published in 1961, and first staged in Paris by Jean-Louis Barrault in 1966, after five years of being officially barred from production. Barrault’s staging led to riots by those who claimed it to be an anti-French depiction of the strife.
Genet’s nihilistic black farce was more than just anti-French. It was anti “all of modern civilization,” noted Harold Clurman, being an attack on the conventional morality of goodness and decency and a paean to evil, “a celebration of the elegance of vice,” as John Simon phrased it. During its nonlinear, episodic, fragilely constructed plot, Genet shoots scorching satiric fireballs at the decadence and corruption of French imperialism, at the pederasty of the French army troops, and at multiple other targets.
The surrealistic tale is told with dynamic and poetically charged language, often profoundly scatological, with a barrage of theatrical inventiveness carried out by a company of over 40 actors handling more than 80 roles.
The Screens, called by Clive Barnes “an elongated strip cartoon of a civilization in the process of death,” tells of the oppressed young Algerian farmhand Said (Robert Jackson), a poverty-stricken misfit so poor he must obtain money by wedding Leila (Janet League), an ugly, foul-smelling girl, thus relieving her father of her. He is guided in his actions by his equally repulsive mother (Julie Bovasso). Said treats Leila with sadistic contempt, turns for sex to whores, and sinks ever lower into a life of thievery, which continually sends him to prison. Leila, who responds ecstatically to Said’s sadism, is his willing partner in crime. In his perverted desire to achieve transcendent guilt, Said betrays his nation to the French, and eventually is slain by the Algerians.
What Simon dubbed an “endless, sticky, mazy, maddening marathon of a play” moved effortlessly through its many scenes via the use of 10-foot high screens that set the locales, disbursing the actors on the floor and on platforms of varying levels situated before a long wall in the rectangular space, with the audience facing the action on tiers of bleachers. Clurman suggested that these titular screens were also “symbols of the false front behind which we hide our villainies.”
Although most critics were intoxicated by the sheer scope of this “tidal wave of total theatre,” in Jack Kroll’s words, there were those, like T.E. Kalem, for whom it more closely resembled “a roiling, debris-clotted river in flood.” Kalem saw “the flaw . . . in the script’s grandiose pretensions, which dwarf interest in any individual.” Barnes noted the difficulty of sustaining concentration on this rambling work: “its picturesque wanderings at first amuse and then rather annoy.” Walter Kerr said, “If there were a thousand ways of expressing any given thought, Genet has here used all of them at once.”
The great majority felt that director Minos Volanakis had created what Kroll called an “amazing” production, one that was helped enormously by Willa Kim’s costumes and Robert Mitchell’s sets. Clurman was awed by the director’s “fidelity and understanding of the script” in which every nuance and intention was made clear and “theatrically visualized.” However, Michael Smith thought the work “earthbound.” The acting was not particularly inspired, but Julie Bovasso as the Mother and Despo as Kadidja were superlative.
The huge company included Grayson Hall, Marilyn Chris, Barry Bostwick (!), Sasha von Scherler, Marilyn Sokol.
Several honors recognized this show’s achievements, among them the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play. Willa Kim’s costume designs won the Maharam Foundation award, the Drama Desk Award, and Variety’s Off-Broadway poll for Best Costume Design.