Review of Kenneth Koch’s The Banquet, with a note on Koch and Beckett

My review of Kenneth Koch’s complete plays, The Banquet — “‘Here Is Freshness and the Shore’s Timeless Teeth’: The Plays of Kenneth Koch” — has just been published at the Los Angeles Review of Books.  

Anyone familiar with Koch’s poetry will not be surprised to learn that his plays are extremely funny, playful, and diverse. Driven by delight in the play of language and the creation of surprising, odd situations, the plays exude the same boundless, manic creativity one finds in his poems, as well as the same childlike wonder, campy humor, inspired silliness, and unexpected moments of pathos. In fact, one of the pleasures of these plays is having the unusual opportunity to see key elements of Koch’s poetry, and poetry of the New York School more broadly, lifted off the page, set in motion, and turned into 3D spectacle.

My piece situates Koch’s abundant and delightful work for theater within the history of “Poets Theater,” “the long, hallowed tradition of poets writing for the stage, that stretches from Shakespeare and Jonson to Shelley, Byron, and other Romantics, to Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and beyond” — as well as within the context of twentieth-century avant-garde theater, art, and poetry.

An example of the latter can be seen in the fact that one of Koch’s important early plays shared a bill with a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, an intriguing connection I didn’t get to talk about in the review.  Among the many interesting images included in the book is a playbill from a production at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1962: a double-bill that featured Koch’s Bertha in tandem with a revival of Endgame (directed by Alan Schneider, the most esteemed and important of all directors of Beckett’s plays) — as part of a “Theatre of the Absurd” series.  

I love the idea of Koch’s play being performed in the same evening as Endgame, Beckett’s at that point very-new masterpiece.  You can still find contemporary reviews of that double-bill from the Village Voice and the New York Times, which both understandably rave about Endgame while being intrigued and bemused by Koch’s four-page mini-play.  “To attempt description is to risk the morass. Essentially, though, it is a bitter burlesque of power, war and civilization itself,” says the New York Times of Bertha, before concluding “The Theatre of the Absurd is not for the general taste. Nor, however, can it be denied.”  The Voice review begins by saying “Kenneth Koch’s Bertha is one of the silliest plays I’ve ever seen” and notes, with admirable precision, that it “is very funny about 8 times” in its 10 minutes running time.  Beckett’s play, on the other hand, “is not silly,” but is, as one might expect, “boring, engrossing, appalling, wildly funny, savagely whimsical, grindingly, grotesquely sad.”

In my review, I argue that Koch’s 1988 book One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays may be “the true centerpiece of Koch’s work in the theater.”  It is a series of 112 extremely short plays that range wildly over time and space and mood.  I mentioned that “reading them, one cannot help but imagine how delightful it would be to spend an evening seeing 15 or 20 of them performed.”  Although I haven’t been able to find any full-length video available of these plays, there is a 7 minute clip that presents highlights of a performance of a selection of these plays that was produced by the Oddfellows Playhouse at Guild Hall in Easthampton, NY, from 2002, just two weeks before Koch’s death.  (The ailing Koch can be seen on stage at the 5:20 mark, receiving flowers from the cast).  

Here it is, a companion to my review at LARB:

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