Juha Virtanen, University of Kent

Olson, Black Mountain and Theater Piece #1


In her introduction to Charles Olson’s The Special View of History, Anne Charters writes, “when asked about his theories of education before becoming rector of [Black Mountain College], Olson answered: I came with no ideas; Black Mountain did it all” (1970:2). During his time in the College itself, Olson identified that if Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies was “a kind of assembly point of ideas,” then Black Mountain College would ideally be conceived of as “an assembly point of acts” (Olson, 1977a:28). As these statements imply, the milieu at Black Mountain College, for Olson, was one of action and communal convergences. Such statements are also the point of departure for this article, which will investigate one particular event that emerged from this milieu. More precisely, my intention is to approach a tentative account of John Cage’s Theatre Piece #1 from an Olsonian perspective.[i] The event was performed as a part Black Mountain College’s summer programme in 1952, and involved many of the college’s faculty members, including Olson, in its proceedings. Although reports regarding Olson’s stance towards the event and his attitudes towards Cage vary, often becoming contradictory in the process, my intention in this article is to suggest that some form of dialogue can be opened up between the performance and Olson’s poetics at that time. These suggestions do not seek to attribute any ownership of Theatre Piece #1 to Olson, but rather to arrive at an understanding of the event as emblematic of the social situations that formed a significant part of Olson’s attachment to the college. I will conduct my proposals in three parts. I will firstly provide a brief account of what we know happened during Theatre Piece #1. From there, I will move to negotiating Olson’s role in the performance and his responses to it. Based on these proposals, I will venture to offer an analysis suggesting some parallels between the dynamics of the performance of Theatre Piece #1 and those present in Olson’s conception of “composition by field” and the “stance towards reality” he implies within it.


Part 1: “The features are…”


Due to its reputation as the “first” happening, the majority academic studies about Black Mountain College or 20th century performance art are likely to feature some form of discussion regarding Theatre Piece #1. Yet, even the widest survey of such texts is unlikely to produce a definite consensus of the proceedings.[ii] For instance, while some accounts of the event claim Mary Caroline Richards arrived to the hall on “a hobby horse or a little cart”, others omit this detail entirely ( Berghaus, 2005: 85).[iii] In fact, despite its reputation, Theatre Piece #1 is difficult to approach in any context, as with the passage of time, the event has become extremely difficult to map out. No footage of the performance exists, and the score for the event has practically disappeared, apart from a short note for the part of the projectionist discovered among Cage’s papers after his death.[iv]. In the absence of such documentation, the present understanding of the event is based largely on audience impressions and the performers’ recollections gathered in several interviews.[v] However, as the seats were arranged in a “square composed of four triangles” facing each other, the impressions of the audience vary depending on where they were seated (Kirby & Schechner, 1995: 53). Furthermore, due to the failures of memory, and the spontaneous nature in which the event was staged, even the circumstances surrounding Theatre Piece #1, such as its duration, “the time of day it was performed and the date are all questionable” (Fetterman, 1996: 97). Ergo, any analysis of the event should only be considered tentative, as the disparities in the documentation regarding the performance mean it is difficult to discuss the occasion with a great degree of precision.


A brief summary of the event could be outlined as follows: the performance was conceived, according to Cage, “one afternoon after lunch and […] presented that evening” in the dining hall (Harris, 2002:227).[vi] Cage assigned each of the performers time brackets during which “they were free to act as long as they wanted” and although each performer had an idea of what they would do no specific tasks were assigned (Kirby & Schechner, 1995: 53).[vii]  Similarly, all of the performances took place independently, with some occurring at the same time.[viii] Ergo, the proceedings were directed by indeterminate procedures, which Cage would later describe as enabling “the possibility of a unique form, which is to say a more unique morphology of [its] continuity” (Cage, 2009:35). The individual performances included a lecture by Cage, Merce Cunningham dancing around the dining hall and David Tudor playing a Cage composition on the piano. Rauschenberg’s paintings were displayed, as was a motion picture by Nicholas Cernovitch. Also, at one point, M.C. Richards climbed up on a ladder in the hall and read some of her poems.[ix] Thus, the event consisted of “a multimedia performance of several unrelated solos” across a range of artistic practices drawn out from the Black Mountain College community (Fetterman, 1996:97).


With this in mind, it should be noted that although Cage’s account of the formation of the event makes it seem as if it emerged from nowhere, the piece was not created in a vacuum. Its origins can be traced to earlier events. As Kirby’s Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology has noted, the performance evidently integrates several dominant strains from “the Futurist-Dada tradition” (1965: 31). There were also more immediate seeds sown in the milieu at Black Mountain College. For example, the College’s previous summer programmes had also involved experiments with “non literary theatrical forms” (Harris, 2002: 228). seen with the mixed media experiments of the Light Sound Movement Workshops in 1951.[x] Similarly, in the summer of 1952, Cage had been reading, together with Tudor and Richards, Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double. The essays there criticized European theatre for its over-emphasis on dialogue, without recognising the “physical language” of theatre, which was “aimed at the senses and independent of speech” (Artaud, 2005: 27). According to Derrida’s subsequent formulations of Artaud’s work, the effects of such logocentricity led to a stage “dominated by speech, by a layout of primary logos which does not belong to a theatrical site and governs it from a distance” (Derrida, 2004: 296). To re-configure this hierarchical rule of speech over theatre, Artaud argued, one should change “its intended purpose, especially to lessen its status, to view it as something other than a way of guiding human nature” (Artaud, 2005: 53). This would develop a theatre that would not “be derived from an other art” (Derrida,2004: 300), and used speech “as something concrete” deployed in a “spatial sense, uniting it with everything in theatre that is spatial and significant in the tangible field” (Artaud, 2005: 53). For Cage, Artaud’s arguments about a “theatre of cruelty” seemed to correlate with the principles he was deriving from the Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind.[xi] In this respect, Cage’s emphasis on the “centricity within each event” being independent of other events can be connected to both his readings of Zen Buddhism and Artaud’s work (Kostelanez, 1988: 104). Certainly, Theater Piece #1, where music, dance, poetry and painting worked independently instead one controlling the other, could be understood as relating to Artaud’s wishes to re-configure the hierarchies of a performance.[xii] Therefore, not only did the community at Black Mountain College generate all the performers for Cage’s event, but the activities that took place during that summer also provided a fertile milieu for the performance’s conception.[xiii]


Part 2: “The will to change”
What was Olson’s relationship to Theatre Piece #1? I deliberately omitted his involvement with the event from my earlier discussions in order to provide it with a more detailed treatment now. As previous studies of Black Mountain College have noted, Olson was not a stranger to Black Mountain College’s collaborative performances. For instance, in 1950, Cernovich and Frank Moore converted Olson’s poem “Pacific Lament” to a dance. [xiv] Similarly, during the summer of 1951, he took part in an evening of “glyph gifts”, which operated a series of interfacing artistic practices. Olson presented a poem to Ben Shahn, who responded to it with a painting, and Katherine Litz performed a dance accompanied with music by Lou Harrison.[xv] Yet, Olson’s association with Theatre Piece #1 is a more complex affair. Firstly, there is a great degree of discrepancy in the accounts related to Olson’s contributions for the event. Both Cageand Richardsfor example, remember that Olson also climbed on the ladder Richards had used, and read some of his poems from there. However, Tudorand David Weinrib recall that Olson prepared a poem composed of fragments, and distributed parts of it to “a section of the audience” who would then read out these individual segments (Duberman, 1972: 354).[xvi] [xvii] [xviii]  Due to these vastly different accounts, it is plausible that both events took place. Beyond such inferences, the precise capacity of Olson’s involvement seems unclear; apart from Duberman’s suggestion that parts of Olson’s poem contained French, no further details of the exact material are known (1972:354). Discrepancies such as these make it difficult to determine exactly what Olson performed, and how his contribution was presented.


In addition, a more informed understanding of Olson’s response to Theatre Piece #1 is not without its complexities, as the accounts and documentation available involve a degree of variance. In an interview with Duberman, Tudor suggests that Olson, in distributing his fragments to the audience, was attempting something “subversive,” which implies Olson had plans to act against the proceedings of the event (Duberman, 1972:354). In Weinrib’s view, the poet had been rather noncommittal about the piece, and took part in it just to go “along with the joke,” again implying a certain degree of disapproval (Duberman, 1972: 355). Certain expressions from Olson himself provide supporting evidence to the view that he felt some resistance towards Cage’s piece. Consider “A Toss, for John Cage,” where Olson dismisses the composer’s work as self-taught tricks that lack an appropriate degree of gravitas (Olson, 1997a: 273). Although the poem refrains from explicitly mentioning Theatre Piece #1, its allusions are broadly contemporaneous with the performance; for instance, Olson’s reference to “magnetic tape” calls to mind the composition process of composing the Williams Mix, a project that Cage was already developing during the summer of 1952. However, rather than simply responding to an individual work, the poem appears to outline a wider, more fundamental criticism. By defining Cage’s methods as “tricks,” Olson associates them with adept techniques that are perceived to be devoid of further substance. In other words, the text characterizes Cage’s compositions as involved with form instead of content. By contrast, as “Projective Verse” demonstrates, Olson himself asserted that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” (Olson, 1997b: 241). In this respect, “A Toss” delineates a clear tension between Olson’s conception of forms as organically guided by the content, and Cage’s aleatory techniques, where serendipitous processes organize the composition.


Considering diametric opposition between these approaches, it is unsurprising that Olson frequently reiterated the suspicions present in “A Toss” elsewhere in his writing. In “Against Wisdom as Such,” the I Ching—which had a profound impact on Cage’s concepts of chance composition— is unfavourably deemed to treat “wisdom as separable” from man (Olson, 1997b: 260). Similarly, while writing “Proprioception,” Olson includes “I Chingness” on the list of “anything goes or all is interesting or nothing is” thinking, which he attributes to a dangerous “area of pseudo-sensibility” (Olson, 1997b: 186). These criticisms were also voiced in a memo written to Cage and Stefan Wolpe circa 1952. In it, Olson argues that neither of the two composers have sufficiently articulated the “actionableness” of their art (Olson, 1977b:41). Here, I take Olson’s term to be in reference to the sense of purpose behind these artworks. While Cage argues that an experimental action is “not concerned with its excuse. Like the sand, like the air, it needs none,” Olson would consider this supposed “excuse” not as a superfluous aspect of the work, but its actual content and purpose (Cage, 2009: 39). Without considerations towards the content, Olson suggests, Cage’s works existed purely as a spectacle. Perhaps as consequence of such articulations, previous scholarship on Olson has tended to conclude that the poet found Cage’s works, including Theatre Piece #1, to lack an appropriate degree of seriousness.[xix] For a man who believed that artists, and specifically poets, were the only trustworthy pedagogues of the age, a mere spectacle would not suffice.


Yet, I would argue such conclusions are not without complications, as there is evidence that Olson did not reject Theatre Piece # 1 in its entirety. For example, Francine Du Plessix Gray, who was a student in Black Mountain during the summers of 1951 and 1952, recalls that during his lectures, Olson hailed Cage’s event as “one of the glories of the twentieth century” (Lane, 1990: 306). Indeed, a lecture Olson prepared for a theatre arts institute that was to be held in Black Mountain in the autumn of 1952 suggests that despite his reservations, which he does reiterate during the lecture, Olson seemed to sense that there was something significant taking place during the performance. At one stage, the poet refers to “a very exciting school” of theatre, where the event itself serves as its own dramatic occasion. In other words, the “drama” is generated by the convergence of the audience and actors in the same place at the same time (Olson, 1977c: 52). Considering the proximity between the lecture and the performance of Theatre Piece #1, it is likely that Olson’s statements are a tacit reference to this particular event. At the very least, the descriptions effectively mirror Cage’s performance.


Olson’s lecture goes on to elaborate upon features of these performances. Firstly, he argues that the structures of these performances accurately represent the contemporary qualities of speech, which he identifies as “kinetics” (Olson, 1977c: 52). Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, he argues that these events recognize that the “several elements of theatre are a field in which & by which the composition” of a performance can properly be achieved. Both statements carry significant implications, as they offer a more complete understanding of Olson’s relationship to Theatre Piece #1 (Olson, 1977c: 53). Whereas the earlier examples of Olson’s criticisms about Cage addressed his techniques more generally, the arguments of the lecture are directly identifiable with the performance itself; and—as we have seen—the poet’s responses to Theatre Piece #1 are not without ambivalence. While the lecture does acknowledge that Olson objected to what he perceived as a lack of message in Cage’s piece, it also indicates that he detected a great deal of potential in the method that the event enacts. Crucially, the terminology deployed in the lecture, particularly both “kinetics” and “field,” indicates that Olson saw—or at the very least, was trying to establish—connections between the practices of the performance and his concepts of poetic composition as they were articulated in “Projective Verse” a few years earlier. Consequently, if we extend the arguments of the “Theatre Institute Lecture on Language,” it is possible to consider the performance through the poetics of Olson’s essay in order to identify the common spaces between the two.


Part 3: “Despite the discrepancy […] this is also true”


To test this suggestion, I would like to further investigate the lines of connectivity between the event and the poetics through the terminology Olson himself specified, i.e. the “kinetics” and the “field.” In “Projective Verse” the two are closely related together, as the kinetics of the thing, or the transmission energy “from where the poet got it […] by the way of the poem itself […] to the reader,” form a part of the overall scheme of open field composition (Olson, 1997b: 241). In addition to the concept of form extending from content, Olson argues these kinetic compositions demand that in the poem, each perception “MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO ANOTHER” (Olson, 1997b: 241). Translating these concepts to the poems themselves, one can detect structures that emerge as fragments (poetic units) populating a field (the page), which are often quick to shift between various spaces and materials used.[xx] “The Kingfishers,” which Maud identifies as the site that originally generated the poetics outlined in “Projective Verse,” ably illustrates these movements (1998: 44). The initial section of the poem opens with a scene of a party, and while it primarily remains focused on this setting, its concerns quickly develop to questions about the kingfishers’ feathers as well as transnational exports (Olson, 1997a: 86). By the second section, the attentions of the poem seem to shift even more rapidly, with references to the E at Delphi and Mao Tse Tung appear within the same line, after which the section maneuvers through encyclopedic data involving the poem’s eponymous bird, before again returning to Mao (Olson, 1997a: 87). In this respect, “The Kingfishers” illustrates a direct and immediate progression from one perception to another through its persistent flickering between vast arrays of material. At times, these movements may involve highly contrasting sources as well; while lines such as “around an appearance, one common model, we grow up/many” are based on Plutarch, in the very next stanza, Olson utilizes Norbert Weiners’ Cybernetics instead (Olson, 1997a: 89).[xxii] [xxiii] It would appear as if the poem’s objects of perception, or contents, and therefore its forms, are not one, but many.


In this respect, “The Kingfishers” illustrates that the kinetics of open field composition are partially developed through the use of montage. In his extensive archaeology of the poem, Maud identifies Eisenstein’s writings as a potential influence for such features in Olson’s techniques (1998: 59). In The Film Sense, Eisenstein theorises the use of montage as a presentation of “a narrative that is logically connected” where the juxtapositions “inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality” (Eisenstein, 1977: 14). To elaborate, Eisenstein does not view montage as a disjunctive method, but rather as a “coherent and practical” resource for “realistic narration;” in other words, The Film Sense construes the technique as a tool for mutual unity (Eisenstein, 1977: 19). Yet, subsequent discourses on montage have characterised it as a releasing individual images “from their subordination to the organic whole” (Murphy, 1999: 21). Here, instead of producing an automatically integrated representation, the practice is contrarily proposed to offer a “reflective approach towards each individual component” of the work, which refuses to treat these discrete fragments “as merely the subsidiary means to an ending” (Murphy, 1999: 21). The conflict between such theorisations can be read in parallel to the developments in Olson’s “field,” where the poetic units of works such as “The Kingfishers” generate a certain friction between each other.[xxiv] While Maud insists that the relationship formed by the disparate elements of the poem remains fluid, in reading the text, the manner in which this fluidity is generated seems ambiguous (1998: 59). Are the references to (or from) encyclopaedias, Plutarch, Cybernetics, Mao and beyond all meant to converge upon a specific proposition? Or does the poem stretch itself further, and allow its kinetic field to be partially developed via the unresolved tensions between these individual fragments?


In light of such questions, it is possible to identify certain parallels between Olson’s poetics and the procedures of Theatre Piece #1. As demonstrated above, the performance used materials as diverse as music, speech, dance, poems, and projections, with some of these occurring simultaneously. Thus, by utilizing various materials that may have stood together uneasily, the structures of the event resemble the complexities involved with Olson’s kinetics. In this respect, if the open field of “Projective Verse” is constructed through “OBJECTS, what they are […] how they got there, and, once there how they are to be used” the individual performances of Theatre Piece #1 are orchestrated in roughly similar fashion (Olson, 1997b: 243).


As Kirby has argued, while “happenings”—of which Cage’s event was a prototype—allowed space for the performers’ unique qualities, they would frequently treat each performer “in the same fashion as a prop or a stage effect” (Kirby, 1965: 19). Such methods are not only similar to the “objects” and their “use” within Olson’s field, but they also correspond with his notions of theatre as a practice where “human beings alone, or at centre, are [the] medium, the matière” of the work (Olson 1977d: 49). For instance, as he danced, Merce Cunningham’s body would have formulated the material for the time brackets he was allocated. On this understanding, the various forms enfolded in Theatre Piece #1 are presented to the audience via an intermedial montage; or, in the words of “Theater Institute Lecture on Language,” the performance is structured in a similar fashion to the “breakdown of language forms” apparent in composition by field.


Thus far, the parallels between Olson’s poetics and Theatre Piece #1 have drawn upon compositional similarities regarding the breakdown of syntactical and narrative structures. However, the two still remain at a certain distance from each other, as the criticisms Olson charged against Cage’s event primarily involved their lack of content instead of forms. Ultimately, while the exact relations between the fragments of field composition remain open, Olson insists on some ability to maintain “the syllables and all the lines […] in their relations to each other” (Olson, 1997b: 243). By contrast, if the montage of Theatre Piece #1 was structured through aleatory procedures, it consequently appears to promote an absence of relations between the actions that constituted the event. Furthermore, poems such as “The Kingfishers” undeniably contain a deep commitment to moral and political concerns:


with what violence benevolence is bought

what cost in gesture justice brings (Olson, 1997a:92)


However, is Olson’s accusation that Cage’s event lacks a “morality of motion” necessarily the most accurate stance (Olson, 1977c: 53)? Certain evidence indicates this may not be the case. For instance, when Duberman pressed Cunningham to describe the values of the performance, the dancer said, “Life itself is all these separate things going on at the same time. And contemporary society is so extraordinarily complex that way” (Duberman, 1972: 357).


Therefore, as Cunningham suggests, there are certain concerns for the “contemporary society” within Theatre Piece #1. However, I contend that additionally, through gathering various individual “things” to same time (and the same place) the performance also enacts concerns that are relatable to the social aspects of Olson’s “Projective Verse.”

To begin to illustrate this, I would like to return to some of the immediate sources for the event mentioned earlier in this article. Through reading Artaud, Cage developed some of his ideas regarding the presentation of various performances independently, instead of one controlling the other. It seems that for Olson, this independence largely contributes towards the “theatre of nonsense” (Olson, 1977c: 52). However, Artaud’s theories certainly involved far more significant intentions than indeterminate “tricks.” His concepts, to again appropriate some of Derrida’s suggestions, imagined theatre as a “nontheological space” where its various elements are united in the space of an event “aimed at the whole anatomy” ( Derrida, 2004: 296; Artaud, 2005: 66). This conception of theatre holds crucial implications, as I believe the terminology contains multiple meanings. As a prima facie reading, Artaud could refer to “anatomy” in order to express a wish for this theatre to engage with all of the sensations. However, on a deeper level, I also take him to mean the “anatomy” of the theatrical event itself. In this respect, the notions of a “nontheological space” may not actually relate to matters of theology. Instead, the term operates as an analogous reference to Artaud’s subversion of the hierarchical structures of classical theatre. The elaborations in Derrida support this reading:


Released from […] the author-god, mise en scène would be returned to its creative and founding freedom. The director and the participants (who would no longer be actors or spectators) would cease to be the instruments and organs of representation. (Derrida, 2004: 299)


Here, the liberty from “representation” should not be misconstrued as necessarily lacking a message or statements. Rather, this demonstrates that as Artaud’s theatre moved away from the hierarchical control of the stage over the auditorium, it opened a potential space where the event is produced by the social activity between the audience and the performers. Ultimately, in Artaud’s “nontheological” space, the “anatomy” of theatre is not a thing or an object, but a cluster of relationships.


These developments are closely comparable to some of the humanist principles underlying Theatre Piece #1. In addition to suspending the control of one mode of performance over the other, the event extended this suspension to the control of the performers over the audience. As mentioned earlier, the seating arrangements carefully avoided fixing the crowd’s attentions in any one particular direction, but instead allowed them to observe the performance through multiple fields of perception. Indeed, Theatre Piece #1 appears to have been designed to treat each of these perceptions as equal. As Harris notes, when Johanna Jalowetz arrived to the dining hall early in order to secure good seats, Cage informed her all the seats were equally good (2002: 228). Hence, the non-hierarchical relations of the performance highlight that the “morality” involved in the event is carried out through including the audience in the artistic production. The audience authors the event. As the various accounts of the proceedings testify, this “rigidly flexible format” allowed the participants to freely forge their own connections between the performances that took place (Duberman, 1972: 358). The social situation of the event, in other words, places each participator in a situation where— to borrow from the analogy of the orchid and the wasp in A Thousand Plateaus— all become interlinked “and form relays in circulations of intensities” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004: 11). As a consequence, perhaps the function of the event does not emerge as a mere spectacle, but as a multidimensional and non-linear figuration of the dispersal of energies from poet—through poem—to reader that make up the kinetics of “Projective Verse.” It is there the action of each performer finds its “use.” In this respect, it is possible that the message in motion during Theatre Piece #1 is not so much to do with what the individual performances are, nor who the audience is. Instead, appropriating Olson’s vocabulary, the message may be formed through, “what happens BETWEEN” them (Olson, 1997b: 196).


Furthermore, this social situation of the event is possible to consider along certain aspects of the “the stance towards reality” implicit within “Projective Verse” (Olson, 1997b: 239). For instance, towards the end of the essay, Olson writes:


Objectism is the getting rid of the…interference of the individual as ego […] that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature […] and those other creations of nature, which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object […] the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use. (Olson, 1997b: 239)


The underlying implication of the statement is one of communal correspondences, where man (or poet), in order to be of use, must not position themselves above their surroundings, but be involved in its movements. Such a mileu was presented to Olson at Black Mountain College.[xxv] Since its foundation, the college had been committed to a “belief in democracy as a way of life”(Harris, 2002: 7). These ineluctable principles already impressed Olson on his very first visit to Black Mountain College in 1948, when he praised the school for imposing “no separation of men and women, nor faculty from students”(Maud, 2008: 120).[xxvi]  Ergo, the social stance of “Projective Verse” clearly cohered with the ideals of the college. Yet, these formulations are also present within the non-hierarchical social situation of Theatre Piece #1. During the event, Olson, whether standing on the ladder or sitting in the audience, could find his “use” through participating in the larger forces of the performance. Ergo, Theatre Piece #1 requires from its participants a similar rejection of the performer’s ego that the stance towards reality in “Projective Verse” places on the lyric ego. In this respect, both the performance and the poetics also correspond with Black Mountain College’s aspirations for genuinely collective forms of governance. At a time when the shadow of McCarthyism was persistantly fixed over American colleges and universities, perhaps Olson, Black Mountain College and Theatre Piece #1—each in their own way—imagined and enacted alternative perspectives to such “perjorocratic” cultural modes.[xxvii] Through these correspondences, perhaps it is ultimately possible to read Olson’s field together with Theatre Piece #1 both on the level of their non-syntactical use of montage, and also on a level where—to loosely paraphrase Stephen Fredman’s observations from a different context—the field is a social space, in which and through which the resistant individual enters and contributes to their resistant community.[xxviii]


Coda: “the feedback is the law”
To summarize the movements and proposals of this article: I began with acknowledging that due to the lack of documentation available, the common understanding regarding Theatre Piece #1 still remains, to some degree, tentative. I then moved to outline some of the contradictions regarding Olson’s role in the performance, and his stance towards it. At this juncture, I proposed that while Olson’s lectures and papers from around 1952 do outline some criticisms about the event, they also reveal Olson, if only intuitively, noticed something of importance in its proceedings, and that he saw parallels between these ideas and his concepts of field composition. Based on Olson’s suggestions in the “Theater Institute Lecture on Language,” I investigated these lines of connectivity further. Analysing the methods of composition as well as the social situations of Olson’s poetics and Theatre Piece #1, the two were placed in dialogue with one another. Through these parallel readings, I suggested that rather than consider Olson’s poetics and Cage’s event in diametric opposition to one another, the two can be placed on a sliding scale that further informs our understanding of both. However, this parallel reading should not be pursued in order to claim the two are identical, nor to establish ownership of the event or concepts in either direction. Instead, I do not find it too extravagant to suggest that the dialogue conducted between “Projective Verse” and Theatre Piece #1 during the course of this article represents the sort of interaction that Olson, in 1951, had outlined as the strength of Black Mountain College:


What happens between things[…]—what happens between guest faculty, students, regular faculty—and happens among each as the result of each: for I do not that think that one can overstate—at this point in time […] the importance of workers in different fields of the arts and of knowledge working so closely together […] that they find out, from each other, the ideas, forms, energies, and the whole series of kinetics and emotions now opening up out of the quantitative world. (Olson, 1974: 11)


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[i] The performance has also been referred to as “untitled event,” or simply as “the first happening,” but this article will refer to it as Theatre Piece #1. However, it must be stressed that this should not be confused with Cage’s later “Theatre Pieces” and that this article is not attempting to draw any links between the Black Mountain event and these later performances.

[ii] Fetterman (1996: 97) makes similar observations.

[iii] See, for example, Harris (2002:228)

[iv] See Fetterman (1996:103)

[v] One of the first of these documents was an interview with Cage conducted by Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner in 1965 for Tulane Drama Review (subsequently reprinted in Kirby & Schechner: 1995). Martin Duberman (1972) provided a lengthy description with reference to responses from the audience and performers. Mary Emma Harris (2002) summarises Duberman’s account, with some additional references to interviews conducted by Harris. Fetterman (1996) uses most of the sources described above, and additionally bases his observations upon interviews conducted with M.C. Richards, David Tudor, Cage, Nicholas Cernovitch, Michael Kirby and others to collate the most complete account of the events that I have encountered, in that it admits the various contradictions instead of summarising the event based on selected views. Additional contributing fragments of information can be found in Kostelanetz (1988); Lane(1990) and Katz(2002).

[vi]As I am summarising, there are certain aspects of the event that I have omitted myself.

[vii] See, for example Harris (2002: 227)

[viii] See, for example, Fetterman (1996: 99)

[ix] There is some controversy regarding this. In an interview with Fetterman, Richards’ states her belief that she read her own work (Fetterman, 1996: 99) but in the accounts depicted in Duberman’s interviews regarding of the event, the sculptor and potter David Weinrib recalls that “she read sections of Edna St. Vincent Millay” poems (Duberman, 1972: 354).

[x] See, for example, Katz (2002: 187-188)

[xi] See Duberman (1972: 350)

[xii] See, for example, Kostalanetz (1988: 104)

[xiii] See, for example, Duberman (1972: 350)

[xiv] See, for example, Harris (2002: 210)

[xv] See, for example, Katz (2002:

[xvi] See Kirby & Schechner (1995: 53)

[xvii] See Fetterman (1996: 191)

[xviii] See Fetterman (1996:101)

[xix] See, for example, Clarke (2000: 226)

[xx] See, for example, Maud(1998: 25-27, 74-89); Herd (2010:14) features similar suggestions regarding “Projective Verse”

[xxi] Maud (1998: 44) identifies the scenes of the party to be loosely auto-biographical.

[xxii] See Maud (1998: 74)

[xxiii] See Maud (1998: 81)

[xxiv] In this paragraph, my considerations regarding the tensions in Olson’s “field” are informed by discussions presented in in Fredman(1996: 24) and Herd (2010: 14).

[xxv] See, for example, Von Hallberg (1978: 7), which refers to Black Mountain as Olson’s most significant institutional affiliation.

[xxvi] Maud is quoting from Olson’s “Black Mountain College as seen by a writer visitor 1948”. See Maud (2002: 120-1)

[xxvii] See, for example, Schrecker (1994: 83), which notes that the majority of dismissals for university staff suspected of Communist affiliations (and of those who refused to cooperate with the investigations) took place between 1952 and 1954. Black Mountain was not immune of such suspicions. Clarke (2000: 217-218) notes that in October 1952, the FBI called at the college to interview Olson.

[xxviii] See Fredman (1993: 72)