In one of his last major works, actor Ron Vawter produced a one-man show called Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (which Jill Godmilow‘s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith made timeless), a deceptively simple performance of deep resonance and shrewd dialectical purpose. Vawter was a vital member of the experimental theater world of the 1970s-’80s. Although best known as a founding member of the Wooster Group (along with Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk, Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray), Vawter also collaborated with Richard Foreman, Mabou Mines, as well as filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, Jonathan Demme and Shu Lea Cheang.
During an all too brief career, cut short by an AIDS-related heart attack at the age of forty-five, Vawter established himself as an axiom of the East Coast demimonde of advanced performance work. Even in his film roles, where he was presumably easing into a universe of relative verisimilitude, Vawter was able to introduce a cold, analytical distance, utilizing an alternative “method” of externality over psychologism, of using his mouth and face to physicalize language’s materiality. As the therapist in sex, lies, and videotape, for example, Vawter didn’t crash the ambiance of techno-mediated, reptilian “realism.” Rather, he conveyed the sense of being the sole character who possessed self-awareness of desire as manipulation, a knowledge he could not directly impart.
Vawter knew he was losing the battle with AIDS when, in 1992, he composed Roy Cohn/Jack Smith for the stage. The piece begins with an explanatory introduction that probably seemed more necessary then than it does now. As Vawter explains, there are unsettling parallels between the two men profiled in the performance piece. Both came of age in the 1940s, both identified with certain interpretations of forties and fifties culture throughout their lives, and both were gay men whose public lives were, in many respects, reactions to the pervasive homophobia around them.
Obviously it is here—how those interpretations and reactions take shape—that the similarities diverge in truly radical ways, and this is the crux of Vawter’s unusual intellectual experiment. Roy Cohn wasn’t just a closeted gay homophobe. He was an opportunistic right-wing toady who made his prosecutorial career through his involvement with two controversial, high profile federal cases. In 1951 he was part of the judicial team that convicted the Rosenbergs of espionage, resulting in the death penalty for them both; then, two years later, he was chief counsel for Joseph McCarthy during the HUAC hearings.
During the later years of Cohn’s life, he was invited to speak at a dinner for a group called the American Society for the Protection of the Family. Vawter’s “Roy Cohn” section is an imagined, hypothetical speech that channels Cohn’s viciousness, his unctuousness, and above all his buried recognition that he walks a thin line in public life. He is only welcome in the halls of power so long as he’s useful, and Vawter suggests that maybe, just maybe, the knowledge that Cohn has picked up here and there about the perversions of gay life (all from rumor and innuendo, you understand) can grant him a few more years in the spotlight.
Vawter, a little over a year before Tony Kushner zeroed in on Cohn in his far more expansive, self-consciously Zeitgeist-encapsulating Angels in America, creates a portrait of Cohn as an insecure narcissist, tragicomically drenched in flopsweat before a collection of his WASPish “betters,” people who would take him on as hired help but never truly accept him. (We can also see this in the way Vawter’s Cohn overplays his Jewishness, both to help his right-wing benefactors cleanse themselves of lingering intimations of anti-Semitism and to further deflect from gay whispers, in what the late Mike Rogin might have identified as a kind of Americanizing minstrelsy.)
Jack Smith had no interest whatsoever in fitting in. In the second half of his performance, Vawter does a reasonably convincing impression of Smith, although by playing a cassette of the artist’s voice onstage, and then performing his own effort to approximate it, Vawter seems to have been granting to his subject a particular point that, understandably, he felt no need to in the first half. Smith is truly inimitable, and as Vawter explains in his introduction, the second act of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith is a mere condensation (to around forty-five minutes) of the original meandering, highly variable four to five hours that Smith devoted to the performance-thing in question, “What’s Underground About Marshmallows?” Vawter is very clear that to “do” Smith in this context is merely to suggest or to conjure him.
And what we see is both temporally expansive and, in some ways, intellectually constrictive. Vawter’s take on Smith, who understandably has become an exemplar not only for radical queer art practice but for a kind of anarchist/anti-establishment/zero-degree aesthetic mode, was a fallible human being and rejected the iconic stature that has been retroactively bestowed upon him and his work. What we see in Vawter’s interpretation is all the glorious chintz, mesh and faux-Orientalism that permitted Smith to create a patently phony glamor on the stage around him, a world of shimmering garbage that was his answer to the “rented world.”
His gaudy make-up, sequined scarves and headdresses, and the gold-plated tchotchkes he kept in a broken toilet (all elements Vawter takes directly from Smith’s performances and films) express the grief, the dignity and ultimately the radical triumph of the people who’ve been thoughtlessly jotted in the universe’s margins—the outcasts, the poor and grimy, the “queers” in the most capacious sense of the word. Like his patron saint, the actress Maria Montez, Jack Smith came into a cheap-ass set, wearing handmade finery, and compelled your belief through conviction, not in some misplaced idea of “camp,” but that another world was possible for us all.
Vawter displays all of this. But in choosing to perform “Marshmallows,” he also shows just how blinkered Smith could be. The tedious semi-story is about “Uncle Fishhook,” a.k.a. “Uncle Roachcrust,” aka “Uncle Pawnshop,” who steals underground artists, locks them in vaults and duplicates their movies. As I watched Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, I had to wonder how this would play to audiences who had no idea about Smith’s obsessive hatred of avant-garde filmmaker and Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas, the target of Smith’s ire. (Any Smith character named Uncle plus something unpleasant is a Mekas stand-in.)
Smith believed that Mekas had made an illegal copy of his film Flaming Creatures, something Mekas has always denied. But more than this, Smith hated that his film wound up at the center of a New York State obscenity trial, with Mekas as the defendant. Beyond this, Smith felt that the idea of AFA, an institution for the protection of underground film, was an oxymoron. Smith spent his life re-editing the films of his that remained solely in his possession, practically to the point of destruction. Leaving very little in the way of “art,” in the sense of a physical (sellable) substrate, was a fundamental part of Smith’s aesthetic. And yet, even from the standpoint of other artists at the time, Smith’s incessant slander of Mekas seemed not just mean but pointless. The radical anti-establishment figure had become trapped in a mental loop, incapable of thinking beyond his hatred of “Uncle Artcrust.”
So what Vawter finally shows us so vividly in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith is surprising, and all the more so since, apart from finding the rare out-of-print VHS, this film has been nearly impossible to see for years. The connection between the two men, the dialectic that Vawter identified with such insight for the broad material workings of history, have only become more dramatic. Like all of us, Cohn and Smith were defined by the institutionality that structures and governs our social, political and intellectual life. For Cohn, it wasn’t simple, but it was clear. You insinuate yourself with bullies, pick on those weaker than you, and infiltrate the halls of power through lies and deception. Smith’s vision was much more poetic, tragically pure, like an orchid or a Molotov cocktail. You must resist everything and keep moving, because the minute you take root, you become a part of that Rented World. Your feet become the clay that form the foundation of the dreaded Institution. Jack Smith was, in essence, a Groucho Marxist: “Whatever it is, I’m against it!”
And both men, like Vawter, ultimately succumbed to AIDS, the most politicized disease of the last century. The institutions that manage health care, research, funding, the public good, the rights of the poor, the long-term financial stability of artists who are ill or otherwise unable to work: all of this was once understood to be the province of governmentality. The AIDS crisis, as a flashpoint of neoliberal capitalism and Christian rhetoric, demonstrated all too well that thousands would die while we waited for the liberal state to provide for the public good. If one positive thing came out of this tragedy, it was the brave activism of groups like ACT-UP and Gay Mens’ Health Crisis, who in many respects laid the groundwork for today’s modern social justice/NGO culture, working to fulfill responsibilities that the corporate-capitalist state has abdicated.
Nevertheless, Vawter, Cohn, and Smith all had very different positions within the global crisis that was the AIDS pandemic, and the institutions that managed it. And, as Roy Cohn/Jack Smith shows, implicitly but quite emphatically, this had everything to do with decisions they had taken long ago, regarding who they wanted to be, and what sort of world they hoped to leave in their wake.