‘and so his noise was ours too for those times’ – On Ronald Tavel (1936 – 2009)
Did black magic and a curse play a role in the death of Ronald Tavel – the Obie-winning playwright and Andy Warhol collaborator who mysteriously died aboard a Thailand-bound jet last week?1
So queried Page Six of the New York Post in an item headlined Satanic Scribe’s Eerie Death, which went on to enumerate the evidence in support of its sensational claim: Tavel’s alleged interest in the dark arts which lead to his writing a play on the subject of Satan and black magic; a production of the aforementioned play plagued by ill actors and falling scenery; a curse, followed by his ‘downward spiral’; a terrified flee from New York to Thailand, where he made his home for the last twelve years; and finally, his death of an apparent heart attack while on a plane flying home to Bangkok from Berlin on March 23rd.
"The moral is" playwright Larry Myers is quoted as saying of his friend’s story: "Watch what you write about."
A pulpy, near-parody of a “descent into darkness” B-movie (“Author Writes Own Ending!”), this weird elegy may be factually iffy, but is a fitting tribute of sorts to Ronald Tavel, the playwright, screenwriter, poet, novelist, essayist, raconteur and founding force behind the Theater of the Ridiculous who famously defined his canon in a single sentence: We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous. Over four decades, Tavel conceived, wrote, directed and occasionally performed in countless works for stage and screen, which included seminal collaborations with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and Charles Ludlam. With and without these co-conspirators, Tavel built a brilliant reputation for genre-bending works that satirized, queered, dismantled and disrobed popular American mythologies (cultural, political, religious, sexual and otherwise). His productions were known for their audacity, outrageousness and a general beyond-ness that has come to epitomize the off-off-Broadway avant-garde theater movement of the 1960s and 70s, and has designated Tavel an essential voice for those times – a man who absolutely watched what he wrote about.
Hollywood is a mythology all Americans can understand.2
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, young Ronnie was a proud member of the “’movie generation’ (they for whom Tinseltown created a mythology more meaningful than the Greek’s or The Bible’s).”3 The prurient glamour, the exotic geographies, the dramatic swells and tragic destinies all entranced Tavel, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood cinema and its icons would often serve as the lattice through which he would look at American culture at large. He wrote his first play as a teenager (Toltec, in verse), and while studying the Theater of the Absurd in a class at Brooklyn College, thought to himself, “What could come next? A theatre of the Ridiculous?”4 He received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wyoming (in Laramie) in 1959, and thereafter spent time in North Africa, travels which formed the core of his novel, Street of Stairs, which he wrote between 1962 and 1964, and published in 1968.
Back in New York, Tavel worked alongside underground filmmaker and photographer Jack Smith as a set assistant and soundman on Flaming Creatures (1963), the groundbreaking orgiastic sex spoof which – due to the inclusion of nudity and simulated sex acts – was banned as obscene shortly after its release. During this time, Tavel discovered that he and Smith shared an obsession with film siren Maria Montez, star of Cobra Woman (1946) who was best known as The Queen of Technicolor. Wrote Tavel about Smith, “I would never mention Maria Montez in public before I met him, because that would seem like talking about a very private thing. It was nobody else’s business. They wouldn’t understand. It was somewhat embarrassing too. In that way, he freed me up.”5
There was an other who could make a noise like that with her mouth. A noise that is not a word or a loud shout or a piece of song but still a noise and people from a different part of Africa can make it. Pssss! a strange sound… I got up and went over and opened her mouth and put my whole hand into it. But I found nothing! Everybody laughed. The other laughed, too, and wasn’t angry. Then we went for a walk together. When we sat down she made that noise for me with her mouth. Then every night she came to the café, I always went with her, but not to do the things with her, but just to sit and listen to that noise. And so the noise was mine too for those times.
— from Street of Stairs6
By the summer of 1964 – his tongue certainly loose enough to say Montez aloud – Tavel began reading his poems alongside writers such as John Wieners, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso at Café le Metro where he sharpened his voice, literally as well as figuratively; “I had an attention-getting technique for public readings in those days. I would deliberately and diabolically caress phrases and add an almost religious respect for form and the independence of single lines to a dramatic build…some aficionados then reported that my voice brought to mind the sound which one imagines the Serpent must have had in the Garden of Eden.”7 It was there that Andy Warhol, at the suggestion of his assistant Gerard Malanga, first heard Tavel read. Having recently bought a sync-sound 16 mm Auricon camera (his films-to-date – including Kiss, Haircut, and Blow Job – had all been silent), Warhol realized that his transition to ‘talkies’ would require voices, and asked Tavel if he would be interested in reading on the soundtrack to his newest film project, Harlot (1964). Tavel agreed, and Warhol soon realized that this young writer was not only a voice to be reckoned with, but was also highly prolific. Over their three-year working relationship, Tavel conceived and wrote almost twenty screenplays for the artist, most notably The Life of Juanita Castro, Horse, Screen Test #2, Shower and Kitchen (all in 1965), and Hanoi Hanna, Radio Star and Their Town, which appeared as two sections of Chelsea Girls (1966).
Of their collaboration, one might say that Andy and Ronnie went together like a hand in mouth, and as was the case for so many of Warhol’s collaborators and cohorts, all strings that tied to Andy functioned as both lifeline and noose. Issues of authorship and compensation – subjects that appear and reappear in Warhol scholarship – did not elude Tavel,8 and in 1971, he brought suit against Warhol for back payments, though eventually dropped the case. According to Tavel, Warhol suggested that they work together on some films for Hollywood, but the writer would have none of it. “I felt he was dreaming qua usual re Hollywood,” wrote Tavel, “but was altogether too emotional by then, in light of what I considered to be his ingratitude, to entertain collaborating any further. In a remarkable gesture of competitiveness, he withdrew from circulation all of the films that I’d written and directed myself and secreted them away under lock and key for the remainder of his life– and then some, via his estate.”9
Although it is unlikely that Warhol’s decision to bury the films was one born solely of a competitive streak, it is unfortunately true that some of Tavel’s most important works went unseen for nearly two decades of his lifetime. (Warhol’s films only began to circulate again in 1988, and even then were not available all at once.10)
In August of 1965, Tavel opened The Life of Juanita Castro and Shower as two one-act stage plays under the aegis of the Theater of the Ridiculous. Directed by John Vaccaro, each play reflected Tavel’s evolving aesthetic. Juanita Castro – based on a Life magazine article titled My Brother Is a Tyrant and He Must Go11 – stars a woman as Fidel Castro, and lays bare the machinations of the director-actor relationship by having the dialogue and directions read aloud onstage to the actors who then repeat the dialogue and do as they are told. Shower – originally written for Edie Sedgwick but never filmed – was inspired by tv soap commercials, and had its stars taking showers (fully clothed) in for the duration of the play. His next production, The Life of Lady Godiva (1966), starred Charles Ludlam, as did Tavel’s most controversial show, Indira Gandhi’s Daring Device (1967), which depicted the Prime Minister of India’s obsession with a giant phallus, and caused India’s Foreign Minister to declare that further performances could ruin foreign relations between the United States and India. Ludlam would soon thereafter, in 1967, break away from Tavel and Vaccaro to found the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
Over his lifetime, Tavel wrote approximately forty plays (in the production notes posted on his website, which serve as a poignant memoir of sorts, even he did not have an exact count). Though his work continued to scandalize audiences and antagonize collaborators (he and Vaccaro fell out over his refusal to direct Tavel’s epic, Gorilla Queen), he went on to win an Obie for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting for his Boy On the Straight-Back Chair (1969). His play Bigfoot won an Obie for Best Play in 1972, and earned him the first appointment as Artist-in-Residence at Yale University Divinity School. His other plays include Arenas of Lutetia (1967), How Jacqueline Kennedy Became Queen of Greece (1973), Gazelle Boy (1976), and The Ovens of Anita Orange Juice (1977). Although his literary production seemed to have slowed in recent years, he had – five days before his death – handed in a manuscript for a new novel, Chain, and had been talking about working on a new play tentatively titled Que Dices? (What Did She Say?) in homage to his friend Jack Smith.
Currently, there is no collection of Ronald Tavel’s work, a terrible fact that Tavel blamed on an inept publisher who failed to print the manuscript he prepared for this purpose within the term limits of their contract.12 Tavel apparently took it upon himself to upload scanned copies of his scripts, screenplays, poems, essays, and an unabridged version of his Street of Stairs onto his website (www.ronald-tavel.com). For his work to remain unread would be – in a word – ridiculous.
2 Tavel, Ronald. “The Banana Diary: The Story of Andy Warhol’s Harlot.” Andy Warhol Film Factory. Ed. Michael O’Pray. London: BFI Publishing, 1989. 74.
3 Tavel, Ronald. The Complete In-Facsimile Warhol Shooting Scripts, http://www.ronald-tavel.com/screenplay.htm. From “Hedy,” p. 2 / 259. [Note: All facsimiles available on Tavel’s wesbite are marked with 2 different numbers – one typed, and one hand-written.]
6 Tavel, Ronald. Street of Stairs. New York: Olymipia Publishing, 1968. 1-2.
7 Tavel, Ronald. The Complete In-Facsimile Warhol Shooting Scripts, http://www.ronald-tavel.com/screenplay.htm. From “Harlot,” p. 2 / 11.
8 For more on Warhol and the complexity of authorship, see: Koestenbaum, Wayne. Andy Warhol. New York: Lipper™ Viking, 2001. 2-3. See also: Crimp, Douglas. “Coming Together to Stay Apart” at http://www.warholstars.org/tavel_crimp.html.
9 Tavel, Ronald. The Complete In-Facsimile Warhol Shooting Scripts, http://www.ronald-tavel.com/screenplay.htm. From “Jail,” p. 3 / 445.
10 Angell, Callie. Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné Volume I. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. and the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006. 19.
11 “My Brother Is A Tyrant and He Must Go.” Life. August 28, 1964. 22-38.