One of the great privileges of my life is to have known pioneering theater director and theoretician Herbert Blau, who passed away on May 3, his 87th birthday. In fact, knowing him made me feel like I had bragging rights—I told everyone I met who worked in theater or theater studies that I had studied with him, usually to be met with blank stares, which initially surprised me. Surely they had heard of Blau, I thought. After all, he had been on the forefront of the burgeoning regional theater movement in the United States after World War II, founding with Jules Irving the Actors Workshop in San Francisco, who produced works by Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett when both were still relatively unknown in this country.
But I should have known better. Before I attended graduate school at UW—Milwaukee, I didn’t know who Blau was either. From researching the school, I knew that he taught at UWM; was a distinguished professor; taught subjects I was interested in; had directed theater for a couple of decades; and even, because he mentioned it in his collection of essays titled The Eye of Prey: Subversions of the Postmodern that I read before taking one of his seminars, had been an expert witness at the Howl obscenity trial in San Francisco in the ‘50s, which interested me given the importance of Beat literature to why I was pursuing a PhD in English. But that was all that I knew about him or his work. Or so I thought. However, shortly after meeting Herb, I discovered that wasn’t true. I had been sitting in his office, and for some reason, I was telling him, perhaps even lecturing him, about a famous production of Waiting for Godot that had been produced at San Quentin in the 1950s that I had heard about in my Intro to Theater class at the University of Minnesota. Though he might have been somewhat stung by the fact that I didn’t know this, Herb simply said, “I directed that production.”
I suppose it hasn’t helped Herb’s reputation that among those theater practitioners who have heard of him, he is best remembered for a line from his first book, The Impossible Theater, that expresses his prickly attitude toward the theater: “There are times when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like Lear on the heath, wanting to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” Or that, as Douglas Martin reported in his New York Times obituary, in The Impossible Theater Herb also called prominent theater critic Walter Kerr “a cancer on the American theater.” Or that Herb was ambivalent, even antipathetic, toward theater departments, which I recall Herb on a number of occasions referring to as “debrained,” focused too much on the technics of theater and not its ideas, confirming an anecdote he read in Eric Bentley’s Playwright as Thinker that Herb recounts in As If: An Autobiography: “It soon became apparent that Bentley was onto some instructional fault when he wrote about a production of Ibsen at Yale, in which students there would talk about the lighting, the costumes, the sets, the acting—everything except what the play was about.” For Herb, it was an instructional fault to Heaven, and I remember when I was at Milwaukee, Herb would have nothing to do with the theater department there. So it’s possible that theater orthodoxy doesn’t have many reasons to keep Herb’s contributions to American theatre—in his role as director or theoretician—alive.
I’m also fairly certain that Herb’s relative obscurity among theater practitioners and
scholars is abetted by the difficulty of his writing and thinking. Douglas’ obituary cites an interview with Actor’s Workshop member Alan Mandell, who suggests that Herb’s infamously stormy tenure as head of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center may have been due in part to “Blau’s intellectuality and esoteric vocabulary”, stating, “I don’t think the board of directors understood a thing he said,” a point that Douglas returns to at the conclusion of the obituary with a remark that Mandell recalls Samuel Beckett made about Blau shortly before Beckett’s death, “Ah, yes, Herbert Blau … overpoweringly intellectual.” In fact, I’ve known a number of people over the years who criticized Herb for his difficulty, accusing him of being elitist and turning his back on his audience, about whom Herb once had written, “Give an audience a chance, and it will certainly be wrong.” It’s hardly the kind of statement that warms peoples’ hearts.
But if his writing and thinking is difficult, it’s because Herb was trying to get at something so elusive, so hard to get at, that if there was the slightest discrepancy, the mind would be lost in confusion. And so: that Blauian style, impacted, allusive, elusive, performing the meaning of what it says in how it says it. Or, as Herb says in As If:
If there’s any notable influence on the way I’ve come to write (some speak of it as “density,” others “opacity”), it’s the prose of “darkest [Henry] James,” where nothing is but what materializes in the perceptual slippage, with its dilatory, circuitous, worriedly parenthetical (have I really said it? or even vaguely seen it?) delaying of predication, requiring an interjection, because you want to say it all, in a syntactical anamnesis, hypostasizing ifs, before you come to it (what it? “it all, it all,” as Beckett would later say), though it wouldn’t be what it is (it wouldn’t even exist, not that it) if I didn’t say it as I did. Or as Wallace Stevens would say, in the highest modernist vein, poetry is words about things that wouldn’t exist without the words—even the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (where Stevens merges with Beckett)—a notion I found exhilarating, as with other new directions.
I remember sending a copy of an essay by Herb to friend of mine, an artist—visual, conceptual, performance at times—who told me he had to read it a number of times to “get it.” Still, he’d gotten so exhilarated reading it—as had I, as had one of Herb’s fellow professors at Milwaukee who lent it to me—that he told a mutual friend of ours about it. But when our mutual friend asked him what the article was about, he realized he couldn’t exactly say, reminding me of Herb’s rejoinder to a New York Times Book Review critic who’d been chastising Herb for his opacity: “In other words, I would be saying something else.”
It reminded me, too, of my first seminar with Herb—a Shakespeare seminar that I believe was subtitled Tragedy and History—in which we read Shakespeare’s tragedies in the context of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. I don’t want to suggest that the class was incomprehensible. It wasn’t. At least, not always. But it was “what [materialized] in the perceptual slippage” that made it so exciting, so mind-blowing for me. When I couldn’t say what we were talking about exactly, I could tell there was something there, something whispering, rustling, murmuring, rustling, just out of sight, just beyond what was in our conversations, the readings, Herb’s lectures, something that in act of thinking and writing and talking about it was being discovered.
All of this deepened my understanding of what reading (and writing about it) was and could be. Herb showed me how to read by opening up rather than closing down the meaning in Shakespeare’s poetry, teasing out indeterminacies, pushing the reading, at times, to paradoxes, adumbrating the aphasias of Beckett. I remember, for example, reading Sonnet LXXVII—these lines in particular: Look what thy memory cannot contain,/Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find/
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,/To take a new acquaintance of thy mind—alongside Hamlet’s promise to remember his father:
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
Hamlet’s memory figured as writing, a “syntactical anamnesis” prefiguring the écriture of that theory some of us so dearly loved—or for me, came to love—because what Hamlet was being asked to remember, memory could not contain, nor could writing I suppose except in its slippages, but then again perhaps I’m making this all up because it was fifteen years ago now.
Basically, through Herb’s example, the seminar showed me the role that the reader plays in the life of a text, the experiences a text evokes, the meanings that proliferate within it, none exist without the reader. In this seminar, author’s intentions weren’t on the table, or at the very least they would be held with suspicion—as Herb would remind us from time-to-time, freeing us from the authority of the text, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” It wasn’t that we didn’t look rigorously at Shakespeare’s plays—we did. When I offered a reading of the line from Othello “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” that suggested the “rust” was blood itself, Herb complimented my reading except for that moment, where he said I was dreaming a bit, straying from the “words, words, words” themselves, the matter not between Shakespeare and me, as some would have it, but between my words and his.
If, as this might suggest, it sounds like we were engaging in acts of New Criticism, Shakespeare’s text a thing in itself, somehow hermetically sealed from the world outside of it—after all Yvor Winters supervised Herb’s dissertation—it wasn’t that. Instead, at least it seemed to me, the texts were arenas for thought, limited only by the rigor and imagination of our thinking (or as I told a recalcitrant student once, “Any text is as deep as its reader”), the world a part of that, how could it not be, since we’re not apart from the world, as much as we think we would like to be.
I was never quite the same after that seminar. And that’s a testament to Herb. He will be missed.