One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts: On Kenneth Koch’s Work In Theater

Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch.

Some writers excel in more than one form: Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence and Eileen Myles are poets and novelists. Others, well—Eliot and Yeats are very great poets who wrote some plays. It might be unfair, but I approach modern and contemporary poets’ left-handed work—Wallace Stevens’s plays, Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings, Robert Creeley’s fiction—with adjusted expectations.

The 600-plus pages of The Banquet suggest that the late poet Kenneth Koch had two right hands, even if it’s impossible to agree with Mac Wellman’s assertion in the foreword that these plays might “prove as theatrically durable as” those of Beckett. The Banquet (which has one of the ugliest book covers I’ve ever seen, but you know what they say) follows The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch (Knopf, 2005), On the Edge: Collected Long Poems (Knopf, 2007) and The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch (Coffee House Press, 2005). (We thus have approximately one billion pages of Mr. Koch in print, but no decent selected edition for those of us who’d rather sift to spare our shelves; Ron Padgett’s otherwise excellent Selected Poems for the American Poets Project is actually a bit thin.)

Mr. Koch and his fellow faculty in the New York School—John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler—were gaga for the theater, opera, ballet. They all wrote plays—“we are like spectators swarming up onto the stage to be absorbed into the play,” Mr. Ashbery writes in Three Poems—but Mr. Koch, who died in 2002, seems to have been the most prolific dramatist (the volume contains film scripts and librettos as well). In his best poems, Mr. Koch’s comedy is tempered with a Chaplinesque sentimentality. His second poem called “The Circus,” written years after the first (opening line: “I remember when I wrote The Circus”), contains an extraordinary passage that recalls O’Hara at his most naked:

I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote The Circus

Although they meant almost more than anything to me

Of this now for some time I’ve felt an attenuation

So I’m mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me

Not them perhaps but what I felt about them

John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank O’Hara

Their names alone bring tears to my eyes

As in O’Hara’s poems, the names of people we’ve never met mean something to us because—as with characters on a stage or beneath a big top—they’re invested with emotional life.

Paradoxically, Mr. Koch’s plays—144 of them, many less than a full page in length—are less dramatic than this. Or, to be fair to work that owes as much to the Japanese Noh theater as to Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, they are dramatic in a different way: “All that junk about character development,” Mr. Koch told The New York Times in 1979. “There are other things that are dramatic, like existence in time and space.” Here is the entire text of Searching for Fairyland, which originally appeared in One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays (there are only 112):

(mist)

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS:

I have coom all this distance, lookin for faeryland.

OLD CRONE:

Well, ye have time, auld father. Tis not yet dark.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS:

Accents change, and all things change, but Beauty is like a stone.

(a snowfall)

This is cute, a gentle parody of Yeats’s symbolist self-seriousness. But it also has a witchy poignancy, echoing the Irish poet’s “Easter 1916.” Yeats, ambivalent about the failed uprising, finds all “changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” The hearts of the revolutionaries, “with one purpose alone,” are “Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream”; everything around the stone “Changes minute by minute,” but “the stone’s in the midst of all.”

Mr. Koch reverses Yeats’s evaluative measures, suggesting that perhaps Yeats’s own investment in an idealized Beauty was an enchantment to a stone, a way of avoiding the realities of dynamic change, symbolized in Yeatsian fashion by the change of weather that closes the playlet.

Which might make too much hay out of this funny little scene, but Mr. Koch’s shortest plays are like Zen koans, inviting the reader or theatergoer to tease out their implications in the ample white space or silence that follows them. “Tease” is the word Mr. Wellman uses to describe Mr. Koch’s stagecraft—the playwright “charms” and “taunts” orthodox dramaturgy, turning its own conventions against it, challenging the notion of modern theater as a series of drawing-room arguments in period dress.

Such a challenge is of course not original with Mr. Koch, and lightheartedness is at the core of all his work in whatever medium or genre. Not for him the violence of Dada or Artaud (listen to the recording of his “assassination” at St. Mark’s in 1968, easily discoverable online, to get a sense of Mr. Koch’s attitude toward revolutionaries). The challenge is also, as Mr. Wellman notes, a come-on. Several of the plays read as conceptual pieces rather than as notes for production. The in-joke is their unlikelihood. The script for the film Sheep Harbor reads in its entirety: “The scene is a harbor, filled with sheep (not in the water, but occupying all the land area around it). End.” Or consider The Gold Standard, an improvisational play:

A Mountain Shrine, in China. Two monks enter, and try, without the slightest success, to explain the gold standard to each other, for four hours. There should be nothing comical whatsoever in anything they say. The drama should be allowed as a “field day” for the lighting technician. … The play should end with a snowfall and with the exit of the monks.

I suppose you could stage this, but I don’t want to see it. (Mr. Koch also wrote, in blank verse, a non-improvisational, non-four-hour-long version of The Gold Standard.)

Many of Mr. Koch’s plays have in fact been staged, “both Off Broadway,” as the book jacket has it, “and Off Off Broadway.” Seventy-two of the 112 One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays were staged in a single evening. Production, of course, would modify one’s conception of the texts. George Washington Crossing the Delaware, written for Larry Rivers’s son’s elementary school but performed Off Broadway after the school’s auditorium collapsed, must seem less parodic, even genuinely patriotic, in the right hands on the right stage:

FIRST OLD MAN:

I hear something, as though the sound of splashing.

SECOND OLD MAN:

I hear nothing. My ears are dead things.

FIRST OLD MAN: (suddenly very excited)

Why do I ask you what you hear and see, when now I hear and I see. Do you know what I hear and see?

SECOND OLD MAN:

No.

FIRST OLD MAN: (rapt) 

I see General George Washington crossing the Delaware, with all his troops and horsemen. I see him standing up in his boat, but I cannot make out the expression on his face. The men and horses on the other side of the river are shaking themselves free of water.

“What you saw was enough,” the second old man says.

A negative Webster to Ashbery and O’Hara’s Shakespeare and Marlowe, Mr. Koch was at his weakest when he settled for glibness over lyricism, as he often did in his later work. And many—too many—of these plays are merely entertaining; some are simply tedious. But in the best of them, what he saw was enough.

editorial@observer.com