Performance and Permanence in Sixties Literature
What is art? Any generation of artists defines itself by the way it answers this question. The artists of the 1960s found their answer in the idea of art as experience. Art was not something that happened; it was something that happened around you, with you, to you. In the moment of creation, and in that moment alone, there was art. For artists of the Sixties, art was vibrant and alive, and thus to say a product was finished was simply to say it was dead. For literary artists this obsession with the fleeting now translated to a fascination with performance itself-a fascination that in turn cuts at the very heart of art itself. For if work must be performed to be truly experienced, then art is transient and irreproducible, and therefore barren. Art becomes local and mortal, tied to the life and influence of a single artist-unable to speak to those who were not there at the time. One cannot have it both ways; if we accept the preeminence of "the happening" and reject the notion of reproducibility, then art seemingly becomes smaller, diminished. This struggle between performance and permanence, between moment and monument, can be see as one of the central questions of the literature of the 1960s.
Experimental theater provides a useful example of the extreme form of this perception about performance art. Drama has sometimes been praised, sometimes been maligned, but it has undeniably been a type of literature for as long as literary study has existed, as important in its own way as poetry, and prose. Experimental theater challenged this notion in its sheer irreproducibility; it begs the question, "Can something be literary which only happens once, which fails to involve writing at all?" Writer Phil Biner suggests the irreproducibility of one such experiment in his article on one such experimental production, "Paradise Now."
Approaching people here and there, separately, they declare in tones ranging from anguished confidence to neutral objectivity, "I am not allowed to travel without a passport." Whatever the reaction, verbal or otherwise, the actor repeats the sentence without engaging in conversation...After about two minutes of this all the actors let out a great shout-releasing, in effect, the mute cry that has welled up within everyone during the foregoing action. (Bloom 290)
The vagaries in this sort of production can be seen in this brief description alone. By involving the audience-by making their reaction part of the show-the play becomes unpredictable. The actors are also given tremendous latitude in what they say, how they say it, and when they say it; the play happen in the range between desperation and confidence, in "about" two minutes, wherever the actor happens to be standing.
These factors can vary wildly between shows, and so the potential clearly exists for two individual audiences to have seen wildly different shows. This is the...