The Dialectics of Liberation Redialled – By Neil Hornick

I must have been there!  Because, in keeping with the well-known adage about the sixties, I can’t remember a thing about it.

Well, I exaggerate a little. I can remember some of it. Which suggests that I wasn’t there after all.  Okay, enough of that, get a grip, Hornick, straighten up and testify. The sober truth is that I’m both surprised and regretful that my memories of the DOL Congress fortnight at the Roundhouse in July 1967 are so hazy. Maybe that’s because the event is overshadowed in my mind by the preceding Roundhouse event, ‘Angry Arts Week’ in June-July, for which I devised and directed a twice-nightly agitprop vaudeville called The Gang Bang Show, my first ‘professional’ production, albeit unpaid.

There was an overlap of participants in The Gang Bang Show and Carolee Schneemann’s Round House happening. Brenda Dixon, Jean Michaelson, Adrian Harmon and I were involved in both productions, and Mike Kustow was also one of the organisers of Angry Arts Week.

I guess it was African American dancer/choreographer, Brenda, by then my girlfriend, who recruited me for Carolee’s happening, and I in turn may well have invited ‘Core’ performer Jean, and ‘Mass’ players David Cronin and Adrian Harmon.

The Congress certainly created a buzz. No wonder. There was an impressive line-up of colourful counter-cultural gurus on the bill, whose published works assured some egghead-cred to the zany zeitgeist of 1967. Who knows, maybe it even contributed to the groundswell of ideological protest that was to erupt a year later in les évènements in Paris. 

In her account of the 1967 London gathering, Carolee says that she was too busy with work on Round House to attend most of the lectures and discussions, and the same is probably true for me too. At any rate, I can’t recall if I attended any of them (maybe Herbert Marcuse’s) and I certainly had no personal contact with any of the speakers. All I can recall is spotting Allen Ginsberg in the throng roaming the building and feeling frustrated because I couldn’t think of anything to start a conversation with him. I believe it was at the DOL (or was it earlier, at the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace in April ’67, or perhaps even at the Albert Hall Poetry Festival of ’65?), that Ginsberg startled the audience by beginning his poetry recital with prolonged ‘Hare Krishna’ chanting.  I also recall that Stokely Carmichael caused a commotion by refusing to admit any whites to his address on Black Power, though it’s possible I’m confusing this, too, with some other occasion. However, David C tells me that he was approached by a guy who, having failed to gain entry to Carmichael’s session and desperate to get a message to him, appealed to David to find him and deliver it on his behalf.  David duly handed over the message to the Black Power spokesman, who was “surrounded by bodyguards”.

If I didn’t attend their speeches, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know anything about the speakers. Take the ‘anti-psychiatry’ contingent and Erving Goffman. I’d read both R.D.Laing (long before he became a counter-culture guru) and Erving Goffman for extra-curricular nourishment while studying Psychology at University College London (1959-61), and visited Kingsley Hall when Joe Berke was in residence there. I’d read David Cooper too (and was surprised to learn years later that David Gale, a member of my performance company before he founded Lumiere & Son, was subject to his ministrations). I knew of Paul Goodman’s writings and had even delved a bit into Herbert Marcuse. And somewhere I still have a book by Gregory Bateson, as pristinely unread as the day I bought it at Compendium Books.

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Such meagre recollections as I have of the DOL Congress are mainly confined, then, to the event in which I took part, Carolee’s ‘kinetic theatre’ happening.

It was in May 2002 that Paul Cronin, the son of my old friend and fellow-participant David Cronin, sent me photocopies of the section devoted to Round House in Carolee’s book More than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings (1979, reprinted in 1997). This, together with the original programme for Round House, plus the duplicated and stapled catalogue of Principle Participants at the Congress are all that survive of DOL in my personal archive.

I recall nothing about the tensions and pressures, including attacks by Trotskyite students, that Carolee describes in her account in More than Meat Joy, and almost certainly knew nothing about them at the time.  But I can confirm from later unpleasant personal experience that the hothead – or should I say ‘thickhead’? – Trots were prone in those days to sabotage the conveniently soft targets of ‘alternative’ theatre events of which they disapproved; in my own case, because the idiots mistook an absurdist satire on bourgeois party rituals for approval of the depicted behaviour. Anyway, in hindsight it was certainly disgraceful that no women were included in the Congress’s roster of speakers[1], and that Carolee’s contribution was sidelined or even omitted in pre-publicity. It must have been tough to be the only female contributor under such circumstances.

As for the piece itself, about all I can recall is we ‘Core’ players being tipped off a hand-hauled wagon onto the playing area along with piles of debris. But, in a recent email, Brenda has elaborated:

‘I remember the event fondly, because I used Carolee’s stalk-catch-and-fall exercise in my somatic performance workshops (which I’m still called upon to conduct on occasion). Don’t you remember that we greased up our bodies, performed in our underwear, and crawled out of the dumpster, having buried ourselves in the detritus from the week’s already finished conference? I remember “auditioning” for Carolee. I remember that R.D.Laing was big then, and one of the guys in this “performance” was one of Laing’s patients.’   

Excellent idea, using all that crumpled paper from the Congress – an early instance of recycling, too. It’s a pity I haven’t the foggiest how the piece developed from there. So instead, in case it’s of any interest, I’ll doodle some notes on some of the personnel.

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The programme for Round House includes a lot of names that were active in London’s radical/underground arts scene of the 1960s, and our paths crossed in various ways.

Of the seven ‘core’ performers apart from Carolee herself, three were already known to me. Jean Michaelson became my assistant, as well as a key performer, in the improv company I created on the back of The Gang Bang Show, called The Troupe (later renamed The Switch). We subsequently both became members of the Wherehouse La Mama company, and she was a founder member of my longest-lasting company, The Phantom Captain, established in 1970. I’d got acquainted with Michael Kustow during our schooldays (at different schools) – he’d even paid a visit to the Hornick family home, parking his jacket over a painting in the living room that offended his taste. In later years, more endearingly, he engaged The Phantom Captain to perform at the National Theatre and wrote an admiring review in the Guardian about us. Good chap, bravo. Brenda Dixon, now Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, long resident in Philadelphia, joined Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre before forging a distinguished career in dance. She remains a close friend to this day, in frequent contact, and I’ve recently been checking through the manuscript of her forthcoming fourth book.

Turning to members of ‘The Mass Group’, David Cronin has been a staunch compadre ever since we met while undergoing ideological training, age 7, at Hendon Hebrew Classes. We shared an apartment for a while in Paris and busked our way round Europe during the folk revival of the early 1960s. His wife, Abby, was responsible for getting me involved in Angry Arts Week. When I asked David for his take on the DOL Congress, it turned out that his memories are as hazy as mine. All he recalls of the Round House happening is dragging the garbage-wagon on stage and tipping out its contents. “I didn’t attend any of the main congress events,” he says, “because by then I was holding down a full-time job”.

Adrian Harmon was a fine guitar-accompanied singer of English traditional ballads, whom David and I had met when we all active in the London folk club scene. Together with two others, Adrian, David and I shared a flat in Hampstead for a while, and Adrian acted in The Gang Bang Show.  His partner is Pauline Munro who was in Peter Brook’s production, US (which Michael Kustow helped into being). We remain in occasional contact.

Tony Woodward was to join The Troupe, my improv workshop group. He was an unstable character (could he have been that mystery patient of Laing mentioned by Brenda, above?). His mysterious disappearance on a skiing trip abroad inspired a short play that we presented at Ed Berman’s Ambiance Lunchtime Theatre Club.  

In the seventies, David Triesman built a reputation as a hard-hitting left-wing activist and commentator. He went on to become a Labour peer. It wasn’t until 2005 that David C and I met him again, under circumstances we could hardly have imagined in 1967 – introduced by an old schoolmate, also a Labour Peer, in the lobby of the House of Lords; and only last year he was subject to some kind of now forgotten (by me at least) Mail on Sunday exposé.

Shamey Maxwell went on, in 1973, to book The Phantom Captain (which then included David Gale) at the Howff, the venue in Chalk Farm that he co-managed, not a stone’s throw away from the Roundhouse. This was despite – or, as he insists, because of – the fact that another venue administrator had strongly advised him not to.

The listed ‘assistants’ on the Round House programme include Ron Geesin (Scottish) and Steve Dwoskin (American). I knew and greatly enjoyed Ron’s music, having seen him strut his stuff during Angry Arts Week. He was to compose the score for a short film, Me Myself and I, directed by Steve Dwoskin, in which I appeared that same year (1967), along with Brenda’s dancer friend, Barbara Gladstone. I still have cassettes of two of Ron’s wonderfully quirky record albums and his book, Fallables.  And last year, I was very touched to meet Steve again, for the first time since 1967, in course of hunting down a DVD copy of the film.

I see that among those gratefully thanked in the Round House programme is Bob Cobbing, now deceased. I’d known him since 1955 when, aged 16, I joined Hendon Film Society, which was part of Bob’s local arts fiefdom at the time. He went on to manage Better Books and prominence as a sound poet.

In 1980, R.D. Laing, Ron Geesin, Bob Cobbing and The Phantom Captain were among contributors to Miniatures, a record album anthology of 51 solicited one-minute pieces, and I grabbed the opportunity at the album launch to tell Laing how much I’d enjoyed an earlier record he’d made in which he recited his poetry, sang and played the piano! This was my one and only personal encounter with the great man.

As for Carolee herself, I recall visiting her on some delivery errand that summer at the flat she shared in Abbey Road. Like Brenda, I also used Carolee’s excellent slo-mo stalk-grab-and-fall exercise in my improv workshops for years afterwards. In 1979, when The Phantom Captain was playing at the Performing Garage in NYC, Carolee was kind enough to billet members of the company in her SoHo loft apartment while she was out of town. And I briefly reacquainted with her when she returned to London in May 2002 to supervise a re-staging of one of her happenings. But, regretfully, we’ve not stayed in touch.

Finally, The Roundhouse itself … Its prospects fading as the Great White Hope of Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42, it had recently come to life as an offbeat venue for hire. I believe the first event I attended there was a launch for the republication of Elizabeth Smart’s incredibly pretentious novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. The book may have been over-rated but the strawberries and cream they laid on that evening were delicious. Since then I’ve seen many a remarkable show there. In 1970 the Roundhouse hosted a benefit concert for the Wherehouse la Mama, prior to our European tour. And in 1978 The Phantom Captain company was to enjoy a six-month residency there in the guise of a team of waiters, serving restaurant customers with a choice of tableside mini-happenings.

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Enough already, if not more than enough. To all surviving veterans of Carolee’s Round House, I send fraternal greetings, with apologies for any inaccuracies in this account. My memory isn’t what it used to be – assuming, that is, that I correctly remember what it used to be.

Or have I said that before?

London

April 2011


[1] It’s an interesting exercise to speculate all these years later who might have made it onto a shortlist of potential women guest speakers in 1967. Among feminist writers, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett and Eva Figes had yet to publish the books that made their names, and Gloria Steinem was only just emerging. But Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan were up and running. Valerie Solanas (of the SCUM Manifesto and Andy Warhol fame) was at large, too – she was nothing if not radical. A shortlist might also have included Susan Sontag (yet to publish Styles of Radical Will, however), Joan Baez, Judith Malina (of the Living Theatre), Vanessa Redgrave (a sponsor of Angry Arts Week) and Yoko Ono (who had Situationist and Fluxus credentials up her sleeve, as well as her other considerable talents). Caroline Coon, anyone? – she was a rising counter-cultural star. ‘Suzy Creamcheese’? Admittedly, in whatever incarnation, Suzy might have been thought to lack sufficient intellectual heft. But how about Cynthia Plaster Caster? After all, she was on record as saying, “I think every girl should be a plaster caster – try it at least once. It’s going to be a significant element in the revolution.”

Neil Hornick is a performance artist, literary consultant and archivist.