Reviews West End & Central Published 29 June 2018

Review: The Town Hall Affair at Barbican

21—24 Jun 2018

“Be a lady”: Maddy Costa reviews the Wooster Group’s staging of when Normal Mailer met with 1970s feminists.

Maddy Costa
The Town Hall Affair at The Barbican.

The Town Hall Affair at The Barbican.

Until all women are lesbians there will be no political revolution until in other same words we are woman I am woman who loves herself naturally who is other women is a lesbian a woman who loves woman loves herself naturally this is the case that a woman is herself is all woman is a natural born lesbian so we don’t mind using the name it means naturely I am a woman and whatever I am we are we affirm being what we are saying therefore Until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution meaning the terminus of the heterosexual institution

The first politically brilliant thing the Wooster Group do with their re-enactment of Town Bloody Hall is make Jill Johnston the star of the show.

Jill Johnston had been writing for the Village Voice – the then still-radical weekly co-founded in 1955 by, among others, Norman Mailer – since 1959, initially “serious dance and art criticism” but gradually “turning the space allotted me into a personal chronicle, adventure story, travelogue, confessional romance, anecdotal assemblage, bully pulpit or soapox”, finding new impetus at the beginning of the 1970s “when I found out I was a woman and a lesbian”, by which she means “I belonged to a class, a political class called women, differentiated from the privileged class called men”, at which point “I entered a strange period – torn between writing for fun and writing to save the world”.

All those quotes come from the introduction to Admission Accomplished, a collection of Johnston’s writing from the early 1970s, and in case you’re wondering: yes, since I bought it in 2011, I’ve revered it as religious text, despite barely reading a quarter of it. Johnston is my spirit animal, my will o’the wisp, my necessary daemon, and watching her during The Town Hall Affair – as reincarnated by Kate Valk, and in black-and-white on a television screen in scenes from the fly-on-the-wall documentary Town Bloody Hall – I felt giddy. Johnston is goofy in Town Bloody Hall, the recording of a “debate on women’s liberation” that she later described as “a disaster for women and a minor triumph for me”: she giggles at Mailer, the evening’s immoderate moderator, refusing to take him seriously, rolling on the floor with two stage-crashing friends, leaving the event altogether when Mailer cuts her off with the admonishment “be a lady”. Johnston wasn’t a lady, she was a renegade, but in Valk’s performance her casual, twinkle-eyed devilry becomes something else: slow, sensual, graceful, considered.

The Wooster Johnston is simultaneously within the event and commenting on it, Valk’s dialogue taken from two essays she published in her book Lesbian Nation: On a Clear Day You Can See Your Mother, which is the full text of the speech she was unable to finish on the night; and Tarzana From the Trees at Cocktails. You can already tell from those titles how different the quality of Johnston’s language and thinking from that of the rest of the panel – Germaine Greer, fresh from publishing The Female Eunuch; literary critic Diana Trilling; and activist organiser Jacqueline Ceballos, effectively excised from this re-enactment, glimpsed only in glancing, although the Woosters retain the accusation cried by a protester at the beginning of the film, that she “betrays the poor”. Where the other women’s words line up in neat sentences, Johnston’s spill, meander, snap and twist; the others’ thought progresses linear, hers spins in circles. It’s exhilarating listening to her, seductive, not least because she rejects the entire premise of heterosexuality as a political construct, and with it the feminism that is women speaking in and on the terms of men in order to claim some of their power, offering women instead “the Queendom of goddess”, a landscape abundant, fecund, proliferate.

As she traces her gleaming utopia in the air the Woosters swell a musical score beneath her that’s heady and romantic, gradually coalescing into the rest of the cast crooning I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. When, in almost the final words of the show, she invites women – people – to “dream the myths onwards and rewrite the stories”, the actors playing Greer and Mailer sit like children in playbox crowns singing Dream a Little Dream of Me. For the magical, evanescent hour of The Town Hall Affair, Johnston’s witching-hour logic holds sway; and then the show is over, the dream disappears, the vision drifts away. I want to hold on tight to it, to rewrite the stories, to save the world: what’s the point in writing or feminism otherwise?


Woman in the audience: Are you threatened because you found a woman you couldn’t fuck?

Mailer: I’ve been threatened all my life.

The second politically brilliant thing the Wooster Group do with their re-enactment of Town Bloody Hall is double – quadruple – the number of Mailers on stage.

It’s said that cis men, in a meeting, will feel outnumbered if women comprise a third of the group in the room. Not even half: a third. The balance, for cis men, it’s said, sits at 17%. It’s also said that women need to represent 60-80% of the voices in a room before they can be heard 50% of the time. Mailer might have been physically outnumbered during the Town Hall debate but by god he put the work in diminishing the women – on the panel, and in the audience. Trilling he refers to as the “lady critic”, a heckler as “cunty”; he gives himself space to pontificate not afforded to anyone else. He also presents himself as an object of oppression, both because he is a man, and feminism, he argues, offers “no recognition that the life of a man is also difficult”, but also because he’s Jewish, signalled when he offers to “take out my modest little Jewish dick”. Defensive of any criticism that even raises an eyebrow in his direction, his critique of feminism takes the lofty position that it’s “humourless”, in the same way that left-wing totalitarianism is humourless, and therefore crushes minds: unlike right-wing totalitarianism, he usefully specifies, which at least offers the benefits of adventure. If you’ve spotted an incongruity between the Jewish dick and the right-wing adventure well yes, I’m stumped too.

There’s a way of watching this performance that sees the division of Mailer between two actors, Ari Fliakos stormy and pugnacious, Scott Shepherd cool and businesslike, as an external dramatisation of Mailer’s internal conflict. But I wonder whether the Woosters are doing something else here: reflecting more on the reproduction of masculinity, its continuum. There’s another subdivision, another disruption, in the form of scenes from Mailer’s film Maidstone, which he directed and starred in, as a famous film-maker running for president. The film was released in 1970, influenced no doubt by Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful bid for the actual presidency in 1968, and in the first scene the Woosters show from it, Norman The Director shouts at the female co-star he’s berating: “I’ve worked with a hundred actresses. I’ve worked with a hundred actors.” The hyperbolic cadence of those lines is so Trump it’s startling. In the second scene, Mailer and his on-screen co-star fight violently enough to draw blood; in the re-enactment, Fliakos and Shepherd shift all the furniture to make space for their wrestling. Masculinity is reproduced here in the same way that a cancerous cell divides and divides and divides, not knowing – like healthy cells – when to stop; that cancerous cell consuming social discourse, smothering public debate, fighting so loudly and aggressively, with so little concern for others’s space, that there’s barely oxygen left for anyone else. While the men fight a small girl stands at the side and cries out: “don’t fight any more”. And it feels like that’s what the violent masculinity epitomised by Trump does not only to women but to men: reduces them to children, fragile and unheard. Mailer talks of being threatened all his life; the increasing rate of suicide among men under the age of 45 is arguably a direct result of the failure of men like Mailer to listen to feminism and say yes.

While the men fight, over at the side, Johnston makes out with her girlfriend. Was the lesbian separatism advocated by Johnston that night the answer? No: not then, not now. I’m in the middle of reading This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writing by women of colour published in 1981, and Barbara Smith speaks for many of its authors when she describes lesbian separatism as “a dead end”. For her, true radicalism lay in “trying to make coalitions with people who are different from you. I feel it is radical to be dealing with race and sex and class and sexual identity all at one time.” An idea some feminists (I see it in myself sometimes) are still struggling with today.


One of the characteristics of oppressed peoples is that they always fight among themselves.

The third politically brilliant thing the Wooster Group do with their re-enactment of Town Bloody Hall is have Diana Trilling played by a cis male actor, Greg Mehrten.

Not everyone who’s written about the show agrees with this. For instance, here’s Paul Taylor for the Independent: “The drag representation of Diana Trilling by Greg Mehrten strikes me as questionable.” And here’s Claire Armitstead for the Guardian: “The one false note in an otherwise pitch-perfect show is the casting of a male actor, Greg Mehrten, as Trilling. If the intention is to underline that this literary grande dame was a stooge for the male intellectual establishment, it misfires, drawing unsisterly attention to her frumpy appearance…” I don’t think this is drag and I don’t think that is the intention: for me the casting is integral to how the Woosters are thinking about where feminism is now, and in particular the challenge trans women are raising against the policing, objectification and control of that “political class called women, differentiated from the privileged class called men”.

Before I say anything else, I want to acknowledge that, being a cis woman, my judgement here could be wrong. This reading relies on a specific response within myself, of looking at Mehrten on stage, not having seen his name in the programme, and immediately seeing a female body. The Woosters say Mehrten is Trilling and therefore Mehrten is Trilling: the verisimilitude – above all when Trilling speaks, Mehrten capturing precisely her intonation and pitch – is extraordinary. So much of the fight between trans feminists and trans-exclusionary cis feminists relates to the body, and specifically to cis women refusing to read or receive trans women except as male bodies. The casting of Mehrten brings that argument on to the stage, in the way that Mehrten’s body becomes irrelevant to Trilling’s womanhood. But as I say, I could be reading this all wrong.

That thing I partially quoted from Johnston earlier, that the night was a “disaster for women’s liberation”, is quoted at the beginning of the show as well: “I was conflicted over the whole thing”, Johnston says, because to take part was to “concur in the idea that women’s liberation is a debatable issue”. On my desk I have a flyer distributed in 2017 protesting Greer’s appearance at Brighton Dome on International Women’s Day: “Trans Women Exist” is printed across the front, and below that, “This Is Not A Debate”. Such are the echoes the Woosters are alert to. Echoes, but also shifts. Greer has gone from being the person drily noting, as she and Trilling scrap over a morsel of Freud, that “one of the characteristics of oppressed peoples is that they always fight among themselves”, to speaking in the voice of the oppressor. When it comes to trans women, as is argued on the back of the Trans Women Exist flyer, she’s done this for several decades. Even Johnston, in another essay in Admission Accomplished, expresses regret at the “monstrosities of transsexualism”.

It’s 47 years since that unruly discussion captured in Town Bloody Hall took place, and while women have gained much that might be described as liberation, there is still so much that hasn’t changed. The tenacity of power is immense and recognition of the continuum captured in The Town Hall Affair, of the ways in which patriarchy has held tight, makes that power feel unbreakable. But the Woosters aren’t looking to send anyone home in despair: if anything, this work is a call – maybe not to arms, that again would be speaking the language of aggressive masculinity – instead a call to creative action. “When the time for action has come”, Johnston exhorts in Lesbian Nation, spoken by Valk in a voice spun from caramel topped with whipped cream, “it must be seized”. We are in such a time, the Woosters remind us. How it might be seized is an open question.

The Town Hall was on at the Barbican as part of LIFT 2018. Click here for more details. 


Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

Review: The Town Hall Affair at Barbican Show Info

Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte

Written by Based on the film Town Bloody Hall, directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

Cast includes Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Mia Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Gareth Hobbs, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, Kate Valk



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