Ronald Tavel, 1941-2009
by Michael Feingold
The sad news arrived late Wednesday afternoon of the passing of playwright, novelist and screenwriter Ron Tavel, one of the formative figures of the off-off Broadway movement in the 1960s and 70s. He was equally significant in cinema for his contributions -- as conceiver, writer, and occasionally performer -- to the important early films of Andy Warhol, several of which, including the pivotal The Chelsea Girls, were based wholly or in part on Tavel's plays. He also contributed notably to the avant-garde film and stage events of Jack Smith.
Tavel, who had been living in Bangkok for several years, is reported to have died, apparently of a heart attack while on a plane from Berlin, returning home from a theater conference he had been attending in the U.S.
An innovative, daring, and outrageous writer who mixed a deep philosophic vision of life with a gaudy burlesque sense of humor, Tavel invented the Theater of the Ridiculous, both its name and the concept behind it. "We have passed beyond the Absurd," he said. "Our position is completely Ridiculous."
His early collaborations with director John Vaccaro and actor Charles Ludlam attracted enthusiastic downtown audiences. One of them, Indira Gandhi's Daring Device, also provoked an international scandal when the troupe's performances at Columbia and Rutgers universities provoked protests from Indian students. Relayed by their consulate to the NYPD, these objections led to the shutting down of Vaccaro and Tavel's next production, and to Ludlam's breaking away from the troupe to form his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
Another early actor in Tavel's work on whose subsequent career he had a deep influence was Harvey Fierstein, who appeared in productions of his plays Kitchenette, Vinyl, and The Life of Juanita Castro.
Tavel himself also ultimately broke away from Vaccaro, working with a variety of directors in a range of the off-off spaces that were quickly becoming major institutions, including La MaMa, Judson Poets Theatre, Theater Genesis, Joseph Papp's Public Theater, and the American Place Theatre. The last of these produced his memorable Obie Award-winning play, Boy on a Straight-Back Chair, which has received many subsequent productions. Collaborating with composer Al Carmines and director Lawrence Kornfeld at Judson, he entered the commercial mainstream with the improbable musical hit, Gorilla Queen, about a tribe of "gibbons" that worships an effeminate giant ape called Queen Kong, which transferred to a lengthy commercial run Off-Broadway.
That the impudent comedy of Gorilla Queen (exemplified by its most memorable epigram, "Farce is seldom in good taste, but genitals always are") could be the product of a serious mind was demonstrated when Theater Genesis produced Tavel's deeply introspective and tragic next play, Bigfoot, a study of humans' animal nature that won him the unusual honor of being named the first playwright-in-residence at Yale's Divinity School. (It's worth noting, however, that Bigfoot does not lack humor: One of its characters is the head of a monastery, Abbot Costello.)
Tavel had lived for a time in North Africa, which he wrote about in his novel Street of Stairs, published by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press in Paris. His theater career following the commercial success of Gorilla Queen and the acclaim for Boy on a Straight-Back Chair and Bigfoot, was marked by a widening gap between him and the burgeoning nonprofit institutions which, he felt, tended to dampen playwrights' originality and to pull them away from taking risks.
After difficult experiences with a workshop and production of his play Gazelle Boy, a study of a feral child which brought the renewal of his residency at Yale Divinity School, he embodied his frustrations in his pièce a clef, Success and Succession, produced at Theater for the New City, one of his few plays to be written in the naturalistic "well-made play" format. His subsequent plays, which tended to be produced in more marginal off-off sitiuations, include the gay political work, The Ovens of Anita Orangejuice and My Fetus Lived on Amboy Street. He had taught and/or served as writer-in-residence at numerous universities.
His early play The Life of Lady Godiva begins with the memorable line, "From this point on, every line you hear will be better than the one before." While he lived, Ron Tavel embodied the hope in that line with an astonishing degree of success. From this point on, the line is no longer true, a pity for us, not for him.
Photo, "Self-Portrait" by Ronald Tavel.