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That Time Norman Mailer Debated Germaine Greer, and All Hell Broke Loose: Review of ‘The Town Hall Affair’

The Wooster Group’s stage distillation of the 1971 documentary, ‘Town Bloody Hall,’ reimagines a night of verbal fireworks when male chauvinism clashed with feminism head-on.

Hervé Véronèse

It was a tentative ascent, up the steep flight of steps to the seats of the Wooster Group’s performance space in New York’s Soho. Snow and slush on the bottom side of people’s shoes had left the steps slick and wet, and audience members trod carefully.

The show they had come to see was choc-full of its own set of perils. The Town Hall Affair is an hour-long meditation on Town Bloody Hall, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, which captured what happened one night in 1971 when Norman Mailer chaired, and sneered his way through, a debate about feminism with Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer, lesbian activist Jill Johnston, the writer Diana Trilling, and Jacqueline Ceballos, then-president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The Wooster Group’s co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte doesn’t merely direct a recitation of the speeches and antagonisms of the evening, though these are present. The handsome Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos both play Mailer, sometimes as himself, and sometimes reporting what Mailer did. The author is by turns witty, bullying, and menacing.

Maura Tierney, most famous for playing Helen Solloway in The Affair, plays Greer, a languid, eloquent force for mischief, who—while politically and diametrically opposed to Mailer—also, in both film and this stage show, smiles and laughs with him.

Their egos match in size, and it is significant that Greer’s speech that night is not about legal equality, but artistic power, and the primacy of the male artistic voice over the female. A young gun herself at the time—wearing a slinky fur stole--but one intensely aware of her own celebrity (just as Mailer was of his), Greer was seeking to advance her own star-power as well as the rights of her sex.

Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) is a force neither Greer, who she flirts with, and Mailer can contain. Just as on film, the moment when Johnston and another woman kiss proves pivotal—so it is here. And suddenly, in the screen behind the actors, scenes from the 1971 film segue to scenes from another film, Maidstone, made the year before, starring Mailer in which he and the actor Rip Torn wrestle each other to the ground.The use of that footage means we get to see Mailer’s violence in all its forms: linguistic, menacing, and brutely physical. The actors even produce a hammer to evoke the one Mailer used in Maidstone, also asking us to imagine it as a gavel in which to bring order to the debate at Town Hall.

Valk is a wonderful Jill Johnston: flighty of voice, mischievous in intent, and strangely childlike when Mailer tries to cut her off. Greg Mehrten as Diana Trilling also brings to mind the character’s basilisk-steady command. She who will not be interrupted is as lofty as Mailer and Greer, and similarly not to be messed with. On the sides of the stage, Erin Mullin, Gareth Hobbs and Enver Chakartash are voices of scattered audience members, and a kissing partner of Jill’s. Mia Fliakos, Ari’s daughter (who he sweetly holds in his arms at the end), is charming as a small girl disturbed by the violence of the adults around her.The fragments of the 1971 Town Hall event are not reconstituted in total. The company has not simply produced a piece of tub-thumping feminism, positing Mailer as a sexist jerk to be mocked and condemned.

Instead, the Wooster Group cleverly blurs the already blurred lines of that night to tell us something new about fractious masculinity and fractious early modern feminism. It was, like the social media universe of today, a time of so many voices, all jostling for attention. But back then, debates were conducted as debates, as opposed to landing zingers. Now, the notion of debate is more polarized, and—with the political stakes so high—there are few smiles to be had. What seemed like entertaining cultural prize-fights in 1971 are now urgent matters of rights, equality, and dignity being stripped from women and minority communities. If there is a nostalgia about The Town Hall Affair it might be a nostalgia about discourse. Here are a group of people—all well-known writers and cultural avatars—with opposing views, willing to talk. They may not totally respect one another. They may not understand one another. They are also arrogant—Greer’s putdown of one sexist in the audience is wonderful—but they are also an chaotic compendium of our own clashing political and cultural beliefs. The night might be a car-crash of personalities, but all its participants leave unscathed, smiling to themselves as the evening ends.In contrast, in today’s extremity-filled echo chamber we demand the right to speak having willingly forsaken the ability to listen.