115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Is Mailer Dead Yet?: Afterthoughts on The Town Hall Affair

Katherine Kinney, University of California, Riverside

The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair restages moments from D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film, Town Bloody Hall, about a 1971 forum on women’s liberation moderated by Norman Mailer before an audience of New York literati. I explore the ways the play captures the tensions between different mediums and modes of literary expression that have shaped American literature since the 1960s.


Once upon a time, in or around 1971, Norman Mailer was widely recognized as the most important American writer of the time. The Wooster Group’s 2017 revival of their production, “The Town Hall Affair,” offers fascinating insight into this now arcane idea. An example of “found theater,” the play is based on the film Town Bloody Hall by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, a documentary about a 1971 forum on women’s liberation that included Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling and Jill Johnston. The panel was infamously moderated by Mailer before an audience of New York literati.  Parts of the film, an example of Pennebaker’s pioneering work in “direct cinema,” are projected on stage as actors perform the same speeches and actions, creating a version of the antic, impassioned nature of the event and film. Mailer, for example, is played by two actors simultaneously. As one critic archly observed, “this allows him to sit next to his favorite person in the world.” At the end of the play, Mailer attacks himself in a reenactment of the infamous ending of Mailer’s film Maidstone, in which Rip Torn “improvised” an assassination attempt by hitting Mailer in the head with a hammer.  If the play echoes aspects of the painful spectacle of the Clinton-Trump debates, it also captures overlap and tensions between different modes of literary expression then and now. In this paper I want to explore the ways the play stages the power and crisis gripping print culture at the end of the 1960s. In different ways, the film and play dramatize the breakdown of shared notions of debate, reason, critical insight and meaningful expression. Early in the documentary, Gregory Corso storms out of the town hall in protest against what he sees as the attack on men. In the play, poetry and the body win the argument, as Jill Johnston’s free verse claim and embodied enactment that all women are lesbians undoes the rules of the game. I’m interested in what the play can tell us about the way American literature been defined since the 1960s by an uncomfortable engagement with the image and the screen, the theatrical and the political, the body and the voice.