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The Theater: In a Mood for Rape

3 minute read
T.E. Kalem



Of all David Storey’s plays, this one, bravely produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, is the strangest. In Home, The Changing Room and The Contractor, each of which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best play of its season, Storey austerely refused to proffer any hints as to the specific meaning of the work. In Life Class, he scatters clues with abandon, rather like confetti at a wedding, which often blinds viewers to the event it is intended to celebrate.

In equally uncharacteristic fashion, British Playwright Storey makes extended comments on the relationship of art to life and of the artist to experience. Some of this talk is almost gassily inflated. Some of it is nutcracker tough, and some of it is like a muted dirge for a dying civilization.

By any conceivable dramatic calorie count, the plot courts starvation. The setting is a drafty, government-sponsored art studio, a cross between a ratty garret and an army barracks. Several young men and women of working-class origin drift in. Their teacher, Allott (Kevin Conway), has come earlier, as has Stella (Veronica Castang), the nude model. As the students stand at their sketch boards, it is quickly apparent that they are wholly inept and could not tell Degas from dandruff. They are whiling away the days on a subsidized boondoggle, and for them art is what Writer Rose Macaulay once said of a certain novel: a way “to kill time for those who like it better dead.”

The boys keep up a sputtering fire of obscene expletives, raw sexual gibes and smutty innuendo. The girls and the model give as good—or as ill—as they get. Allott does not monitor this chatter, but he does deliver scathingly caustic appraisals of each individual’s sketches as well as alienating colleagues (Peter de Maio). After Act II gets under way, Allott suggests that he might take the place of the model for a while. Before he does anything about it, one of the randier boys begins stripping, grabs the model, pins her down and rapes her before the stunned and remonstrating class. Allott is seemingly too paralyzed to intervene or speak, and one of the students gets him sacked by informing his superiors of what has happened.

Quasi-Warhol. During the play, Allott has issued a kind of quasi-Warhol manifesto that the plastic arts are exhausted and that the truly contemporary artist must orchestrate an “event” out of the materials immediately at hand. In that light, Allott may be seen to have orchestrated the specific mood that precipitated the rape, thus fashioning his own particular happening. On another level, Allott has expressed such acid contempt of his brush-wielding anthropophagi that the rape could conceivably symbolize the crude assault that some sad creature might make on a subject that he is totally incapable of mastering, either through study or craft.

Because Allott’s role is an in-depth version of the central figure of Butley, which appeared on Broadway two years ago, and since Britain’s Alan Bates played both roles with scapular authority, one fears for Kevin Conway even as one scrutinizes him. But he is up to his hazardous task. As an actor, he is not a flashy water-skier splashing off extraneous effects but a deep-sea diver of strenuous gravity who comes up with the pearl of truth.

T.E. Kalem

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