Voices of America
In the Fall of 1982, Eric Bogosian traveled to Britain, where he performed in his two solo shows Men Inside and Voices of America. His tour took him from London’s ICA, through Cardiff, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Middlesborough, to Glasgow and Edinburgh, during the months of October and November , traveling with just one small suitcase of clothes, a black wool overcoat, and a selection of paperbacks to keep him company. Quite a feat at a time when things were organized without the advantage of the internet, emails, texts or mobile phones. It reveals much about Bogosian’s ambition and self-belief, as it does about his talents.
Bogosian had opened Men Inside and Voices of America that Fall, at the Martinson Hall in New York, where he was hailed as “the best performance artist I’ve yet seen,” by Valentin Tatransky in Arts Magazine. He had also been described as like “a man possessed, a medium, a schizophrenic,” by Sally Banes in the Village Voice, and as someone who could “perform the performer, and out-perform the performance artist,” in Flash Art.
At the time, I was a student, avoiding studies while editing the university magazine. How I’d heard about him, I can’t recall, a press release or flier most likely - my life back then seemed lived from the inside of an aquarium - knowledge, happiness, love and success were always beyond the glass. This disengagement with the external world might explain why I turned up late after his first show at the Third Eye Center, on Sauchiehall Street. Understandably, he was pissed, but I made my excuses and walked him back to his hotel on Cambridge Street, with arrangements to see and meet the following night in Edinburgh. These then are extracts from that interview.
Bogosian performed in a small stage area, surrounded by raised seating. He was imposing, for such a compact figure in black shirt, black pants. A bare stage except for one chair. Everything was suggested, created, from Bogosian’s physical presence. He walked onto stage and became a small child flying as Superman, talking to his father, mimicking adult bigotry before, shockingly, breaking into a stutter. So began the darkly comic Men Inside a carnival of souls from a troubled America - dysfunctional men, unable to interact with the world because of their bigotry and hate.
From Superman, Bogosian became a young man masturbating before declaiming his loneliness by saying “I love you” to a centerfold. Then on to a bored teenager, a stud, a bully, a sleaze-ball, a down-and-out, a Blood and Sword evangelist. It was loud, noisy and funny. Bogosian’s performance was as brilliant as his characters were low:
“Each character, each scene, flows into the next presenting different aspects of man gone wrong: his sexism, his racism, his hate.
It’s my effort on my part to try to communicate from a man’s point of view, trying to be sympathetic to men, saying this is how it happens, this is how a man ends up with these perspectives about women, about life - what can we do about it?
The thing I’m trying to lay out on women is the whole discussion of Women’s Liberation, Feminism, and the like, is all very complicated and that’s the first thing - it’s a complex issue, it’s not black and white. Women are perfectly justified in complaining about their situation, however, in different times men have also been put into situations that are not so great, the biggest one I can think about is certainly war.
War is Hell on Earth, and nobody should ever have to go through that. And of course, now, here in Great Britain people are thinking of the Falklands thing. I mean, it has to be thought about, if anything is sexist, it’s men should have to go off and die, that is sexist thing too. All I’m saying, we’re all people, let’s try and be a little sympathetic to each other, while we try to find out what exactly is going on.
I was in a restaurant on a Sunday morning in Vancouver, on tour, and I came in and had my breakfast around 10 o’clock in the morning, and there was all these men in the place, all by themselves: smoking a cigarette, reading a paper, eating a breakfast, looking kinda glum, kinda down. And these two couple came in, both in their sixties, and each guy was very dapperly dressed with his wife. And the women were happily chatting with each other and the men were sort of ushering their wives in. And you had a very strong feeling that these women were in some way protecting these guys, they were giving them something to do with themselves, yeah know. They weren’t like every other guy in this place, and you got the feeling that these guys were kinda looking across at these two couples, how these guys’ clothes were clean, their clothes were pressed, and how, how they had something to fucking do.
And all those other guys were just crumpled up pieces of paper. And here are these two guys, who because they stuck it out with a couple of marriages, now that they were in their sixties, had something to do. And somehow I wish people would admit this: that mean and women are different, and that for whatever reasons, whether they’re cultural or whatever, they are complimentary aspects of one another.
Bogosian was concerned that some of the Scottish audience was offended by certain aspects of his performance thinking they may have confused the views of the characters with the performer’s. After all, this was dangerous stuff to bring to a city more attuned to the Royal Lyceum’s revival of Noel Coward, than an act billed as a cross between Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
“I don’t expect anyone to be so critical about performance or experimental theater as I have been. I mean, it’s my life, it’s all I’ve been doing for the past 12-13 years, it’s all I’ve been doing - working in theater and complex theater. I don’t expect everyone who walks in off the street to understand about that - they’re taking it at face value, and they may not even notice the technique I’m employing.
For instance, the exotic dancer and the Led Zeppelin thing seem very alike, but their movements are very complex. You just can’t jump out and do that stuff, it’s all choreographed, and all rehearsed a lot, it’s just subtle. Someone might watch and go, ‘Hmm, not bad, that’s good movement.’ But not everyone’s going to understand that, what it’s about. They’re going to go ‘Ha-ha. look at that, he’s playing guitar,’ you know?
I can’t say if that’s something formal or theoretical in my work, it’s just something I’ve always done as an actor. It comes through from the inside. I don’t think any good actor can explain what happens when they become Someone. I become them totally and I know I’m inside them, and somehow it reads, and that’s the funny thing because at acting school they teach you how to relate what’s going on inside your head to what you look like outside. I don’t know what I look like, I’ve seen photos and stuff, but somehow what I look like is corresponding to what I’m feeling.
In a way that’s very direct and without any real training on it, I just hit the stage and it starts happening to me. But that’s just me, it’s like something I’ve got to my advantage, that I should make the best use of.”
The second half of the show was Voices of America a relentless tour of America’s airwaves, where every speaker, no matter how cheery or inane, seemed obsessed with death:
“If you had a choice to die from a nuclear holocaust (oh no!) or, a heroin overdose (oh wow!), which would you choose?” - ‘Voices of America’
This was all very much a hint of Bogosian’s Barry Champlain in Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio.
“Voices of America started out as a sort of finger exercise, so I could practice my voice, and it ended up as a piece.
At the time I was trying to get into advertising, so I made this demo tape of adverts and jingles and stuff, but the company thought it too cynical.
It’s very black. I’m interested in the way society’s fascinated with the lives of its stars and superstars, with its violence and consumption, its decadence.
Like how Keith Richard’s habits became published or how real death and real suffering are treated. How things are mass produced indifferently, and people’s suffering doesn’t come through, but is just forgotten.
Though I don’t think my philosophy or my ideas about anything are social or profound or anything, they’re just basic, mundane, liberal ideas, what we call liberal in America. It’s just like everyone else should be nice to everyone else, and how you can do it and go vote and I’m against the death penalty and for social programs. It’s just dumb stuff - I don’t mean these things are dumb - I mean I’ve got nothing to tell anybody that they shouldn’t already know. I’m just making stuff I’m interested in, it’s the piece I’m interested in - how can construct them and how can I act them out, it’s just all that stuff is in my head and it all might as well come out in the show, it might as well be there, as not be there.
And I know they’ll never put me on TV for saying these things, that’s the funny thing about it: I don’t think there’s anything radical about what I’m saying or doing, but they’ll never put me on a TV station saying this kind of stuff.
The current comedians in the States are just zany, they’re just crazy guys. Comedians with a conscience are not wanted in the mass media.
It’s just intuitive, a whole set of things are interesting to me, things that operate in my life. It’s like my face, if I get a nose job, and get my nose to be straight and my chin to be stuck out and stuff like that.
If I’m eloquent in expressing my particular set of perameters in my frame of mind they start to seem universal, or interesting or something like that, or, somebody at least might identify with them. I don’t start off with a theory and try to work it all out, it’s just that I try to express myself as best I can.”
Later, we walked out into the Georgian cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s New Town. It was late and cold, and the evening’s silence reminded us of our own past experiences of walking around empty streets at night listening for parties to crash.
Bonus clips of Eric Bogosian in performance, after the jump…