Douglas Messerli on Richard Foreman's new play Old Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)

The Unfortunate Truth of My Situation

Richard Foreman Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)

The Public Theater, New York, the performance I attended was on Saturday, May 4, 2013.

After years and years of enigmatic and provocative plays, and after having announced that he was giving up playwriting for filmmaking, Richard Foreman has come back with a new play that at times almost appears to be a kind of film script, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance). Like most of his works, this play is set upon a stage decked out with numerous alphabetical configurations, portraits of “significant” people, numerous odd props, and the strings that outline the horizontal shell of the stage, a kind of mix between a metaphorical representation of string theory and an eruv, the defining territory of the traditional Jewish community that outlines the boundaries through which certain objects can be moved or carried on holy days. The effect, no matter what Foreman’s precise purposes, is to draw a line between what occurs on “stage” and the audience. Above all else, Foreman’s plays are definitely not narrative representations that draw their audiences into the “romance” of the story, but are purposefully puzzling brain twisters that demand the audience think about what is being said and done within the author’s domain.


Even Foreman’s title is enigmatic: what are “old fashioned prostitutes?” And how can a romance, usually defined as a form dedicated to idealism and a preoccupation with idealized love, be “true?”  In fact, the central character of Foreman’s new work, Samuel (theater veteran Rocco Sisto), never once has sex with the prostitutes he encounters, and although the central figure, Suzie (Alenka Kraigher) invites Samuel to her room and even spikes his gin, no love occurs—unless one speaks of the love of language and philosophical speculation. The only physical contact that Samuel has with anyone is a sudden hug between Samuel and the mysterious “pimp-like” figure accompanying the two “prostitutes,” Alfredo (David Skeist)

                        Alfredo, Samuel hug
ALFREDO: Careful
SAMUEL: I do — beg of you, friend Alfredo              
ALFREDO: (He grabs Alfredo's lapels)            
— Convince beautiful Suzie
That when I speak to her directly
This is always the unfortunate truth of my situation

Suzie and Gabriella are not women of love as much as they are women who flirt, “coquettes,” as Samuel describes them, whose major activities include “sipping afternoon alcohol under the roar of distant traffic” and attempting to catch the gaze of passing men.

As Suzie convincingly argues, she is more a “teacher” than a lover, a woman who shows men the way. And she spends most of her time in this play grappling with Samuel’s attempt to come to terms with what “reality” is, what is the self, and what does it all mean in every day experience.

There is never a clear set of answers or even a set of codefied speculations to precisely what Foreman is arguing for or against in his provocative plays, but there are often clues to the animus behind them. In this case Samuel expresses it quite early in the work: 

But perhaps, ladies and gentleman,
it is best never to speak openly about
such things
But it did happen
That travelling these streets
In bright sunlight
An old man with white hair
Shabbily dressed, trudging slowly
In the direction opposite to the one
In which I was traveling
Carrying a large, soiled cardboard box
with what personal belongings
I could not guess
But — whispered hoarsely under his breath
"Go to Berkeley, make film".

I did not respond.
But I frowned
And a few seconds later
turned to watch him proceed, slowly
Down the street   
girls giggle

Later in the day         


Lying on the bed in my hotel room                        
I wondered -- I wondered should I have approached him
To ask for clarification.
Was he speaking to me
Or to himself
— yet it seemed appropriate to my concerns
And my possible

Go to Berkeley, my friend
Make film.
Which could have meant, not the city in sun drenched

But possibly the long dead Irish                                                        
A philosopher of idealism, Bishop George Berkeley himself,            
whose view of reality might be poetically re-imagined
as a vision of the world in which experience
itself was but a thin film, spread in illusionary fashion
upon human consciousness.

So that
"Go to Berkeley, make film", could have meant, go
deeper into the notion of the world as
a transparent surface only —
depending upon the impress of a mental apparatus —
snapping the world into apparent being only —

Accordingly, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes does serve as a kind of “thin film” exploring the “illusionary” experience of consciousness, a bit like Proust (and the mysterious city in which Samuel exists reminds me of Paris) steeped in sensual appreciation. Even now and then a voice cries out “hold,” reminding us a bit of a film command. But of course it also suggests that the audience might “hold” that idea a bit longer in the mind.

Samuel, obviously, is also Samuel Beckett, and Foreman’s seemingly personal memories are often channeled through the great author, vaguely paralleling, in particular, works such as “First Love” and, at play’s end, “Imagine Dead Imagine.” It is not this play’s story is even similar to Beckett’s first love; there are simply associated threads between the character of the Beckett story who meets a woman, “Lulu,” upon a park bench, a woman just as determined as Suzie to bring home her man. Unlike Suzie, the fat Lulu does eventually lure the narrator of Beckett’s tale into her home, but the two sleep in separate rooms, yet as in Foreman’s play her coquetry (numerous visits to the same park bench) results in very little “love” and ends with some of the same questions about reality and experience that Foreman’s Samuel poses. Similar to many of Beckett’s characters, Foreman’s Samuel cannot even move when he is asked to follow Suzie home, his legs being suddenly frozen in space, wrapped in the production in a gunny sack.

Since, in Berkeley’s “film of consciousness,” however, nothing is precisely determinable even the memory of such experiences and the identity of self comes into question. If Beckett may lie under Foreman’s Samuel, so too does Foreman’s own persona, Rainer Thompson, recently appearing in his autobiographical film, I Am Rainer Thompson, and I Have Lost It Completely, lie behind this play’s character, as Samuel suddenly declares he is Rainer. And in this sense—although it seems preposterous to claim this in a oeuvre that has always been highly personal and autobiographical—Old-Fashioned Prostitutes seems to be one of Foreman’s most intimate works, a kind of strange memory play made up of his own and other writer’s intellectual detritus.

 In the end, however, it is nearly pure Beckett in the final words of a play which has struggled with self-knowing and reality, with illusion and consciousness:

 Emptiness is here
    all to wall, then pause, then back: Music

Imagine no world but this world
Imagine no world but this world (THUD)
End of play. (THUD)
End of play.

Despite the play’s declaration of “emptiness,” Foreman, like Beckett, has embraced this world with his hundreds of questions and speculations over the course of his career, surely representing a “true romance” with “this world” with which we have such a difficult relationship.

Douglas Messerli
New York-Los Angeles, May 5-May 13, 2013