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Charles Marowitz, Legendary Critic, Playwright and One-Time Fort Worth Director, Dies

Marowitz-wwwThe New York Times reports that Charles Marowitz has died of Parkinson’s in California. He was 82.

As an American theater artist in ‘swinging London’ in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Marowitz will go down in history as the first director of such groundbreaking plays as Joe Orton’s Loot, John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes and Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime. He also collaborated with Peter Brook in some of England’s earliest experimental theater work with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In Prick Up Your Ears, his biography of Joe Orton, author-critic John Lahr provides an unflattering portrait of Marowitz as a pugnacious, would-be hipster, eager to court controversy and make some money doing it. But Lahr also concludes that, given London’s sleepy theater scene at the time, Marowitz was pretty much the necessary engine of what little avant-garde it had.

Something neither the New York Times nor the LATimes mentions: In the mid-’90s, Marowitz had a brief stint in Fort Worth, directing plays at the Caravan of Dreams.

In between his London and Fort Worth days, Marowitz crafted re-interpretations of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes that were noteworthy for their self-conscious iconoclasm. He displayed heroes’ feet of clay or undercut cultural idols with Marxist analysis or racial resentments. It can seem the comeuppance they deserve or the unsubtle imposition of contemporary political standards on the past. Marowitz’ Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock’s Last Case, for instance, embodied some of the more tyrannical aspects of the British Empire. It got eviscerated by the NYTimes critic, Frank Rich, and with Frank Langella in the title role, it ran on Broadway for only three and a half months. At one point in Bashville in Love, his musical adaptation of The Admirable Bashville, a lesser work by George Bernard Shaw, Marowitz had an African-American actor, portraying a Victorian servant, give a clenched-fist salute and shout “Black Power!”

That line does not appear in the published version of the play, perhaps because at the time the musical debuted — in Fort Worth in 1995 — the line managed to be anachronistic and unfunny all at once, given the rest of the play’s already overt colonial conflicts. In his preface to Bashville in Love, Marowitz defends the play as the kind of “harmless merriment” the theater needs, alongside “classical tragedies” and “weighty social dramas.” It certainly does. The chief problem with Bashville, though, is that Marowitz wanted to turn Shaw into Gilbert and Sullivan — both hardening Shaw’s social criticism into explicit and  blunt-edged terms while trying to retain Gilbert and Sullivan’s airy humor.

Yet Marowitz rarely demonstrated anything like the light touch this confection might need, and he knew it. He titled his 1990 memoir of his London theater days, Burnt Bridges.

So yes, I must confess I was one of the hordes of theater people who, over the years, locked horns with him. This was while he was in Fort Worth: Marowitz was brought in towards the end of the Caravan of Dreams’ attempts to turn its second-story auditorium into an actual theater. When he came, I was curious, eager and wary about what this man — who’d more or less abandoned or been kicked out of theater scenes in London, New York and LA — would bring to North Texas.

What he brought was a lot of energy and sharp-elbowed theatrical smarts, combined with a restlessly abrasive personality. As for his shows, they displayed a ’60s predilection for making theater into big political statements, social satire or arch, experimental comedy, the kind that reminds audience members this is a play, these are performers, we’re all in a theater. To borrow a line from Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood: “So … where do you think we think we are?”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, he didn’t succeed in North Texas — it seems I wasn’t alone in finding fault with his efforts. But I sensed other theatergoers never shared my curiosity about Marowitz, perhaps not even my wish that, somehow, the Caravan space could be made to work. Marowtiz seemed too much like an ‘outsider’ imposed on the problem.

The funny thing is I actually sympathized with a number of Marowitz’ political stands and admired his fervor for poking and upsetting everyone, including the local critic. But one could agree with all that and still object to the heavy-handed ways he set about it.

It was characteristic of Marowitz, for instance, that even after he left Fort Worth to return to California (and to another failed stint running a theater in Malibu), he persisted for a few months in writing me the occasional letter. He wasn’t about to give up any of our disagreements, jabbing at what I wrote, my analysis of what the Caravan needed, even the way I dressed. When I finally responded with a letter, he crowed that, at last, he’d pierced my rhinoceros hide.

Perhaps. A palpable hit, perhaps. But I wonder, while Marowitz was in Fort Worth, did he ever touch any theatergoers’ hearts?