‘I wanna talk to you about lesbianism, goddammit!’ Thus, Norman Mailer, hunched and looking hunted, to the feminist writer Jill Johnston, on the night of 30 March, 1971. Not for the first or final time that evening, Mailer had lost the run of himself in the midst of a debate onstage with four prominent feminists – with several others taking aim at him from the audience. The novelist had recently been called a misogynist – ‘a prisoner of the virility cult’ – in the pages of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and had responded, in Harper’s magazine, with ‘The Prisoner of Sex’: a long and aggressively unfocused essay in which he affected to set Millett right, while addressing her as ‘Kate-baby’. Now, under the aegis of the Theatre for Ideas, Mailer faced down a crowd at the Town Hall performance venue in New York: ever the literary pugilist, he lost every round because he could not refrain from lashing out.
Among the cheaper pleasures of Town Bloody Hall (1979), documentarist D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the event, ‘Dialogue on Women’s Liberation’, is the sight of Mailer being expertly discomfited by the panel he is meant to be chairing, and by taunts from the floor. (At one point, to general gasps, Mailer explodes: ‘Hey, cunty, I’ve been threatened all my life, so take it easy!’) Mailer himself had paid Pennebaker to film the proceedings, though the venue disapproved; the director and his camera are frequently on the stage, dodging Town Hall staff and getting close to the principals: Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos, Diana Trilling and Germaine Greer. Town Bloody Hall – the title derives from a sneering line of Greer’s – is a minor but dramatic document of feminist history, which since 2016 has been adapted, and attuned to present concerns and controversies, as The Town Hall Affair (2015–ongoing) by the experimental theatre company The Wooster Group.
The original debate was already a theatrical proposition, deliberately if awkwardly structured for maximum tension. Each speaker was to have ten minutes, with Mailer announcing the cut-off point and then formulating a question, which could only be answered after all four women had had their turn. The rule allowed Mailer, who on screen is by turns portentous and smirking, to ask absurdly hostile questions. To Ceballos, of the National Organization for Women, who had gone first: ‘Is there anything in your programme that would give men the notion that life would not be as profoundly boring as it is today?’ Mailer is awfully amused by his own wit, but less apt to laugh at Johnston’s freeform, poetic disquisition on lesbian separatism, which ends with a stage invasion by two other women, who embrace Johnston before all three fall to the floor. ‘Come on, Jill, be a lady!’ barks Mailer, stepping over her to introduce Trilling.
A prominent literary critic since the 1940s, Trilling seems to offer a dated, more conciliatory version of feminism. She later claimed that during her talk Mailer and Greer ignored her and passed notes to each other – but there’s no evidence of that in Town Bloody Hall. It is true, however, that Greer, wrapped in her black feather boa, is the dark star of Pennebaker’s film: a stentorian, hip-scholarly presence whose allotted ten minutes consist of an erudite demolition of the masculine artistic ego. Greer’s book The Female Eunuch was about to be published in the US, and she clearly relished – Millett having declined to appear – her appointed role as Mailer’s most fearless and eloquent interlocutor. In the days before the debate, Greer informed the New York media that she intended to seduce Mailer – also that she would ‘carry him like a wounded child across the wasted world.’
Though Greer provides much of the intellectual weight, political acuity – against Ceballos, she argues that feminism must connect with other struggles – and countercultural glamour in Town Bloody Hall, she has some competition in the Q&A with which the film concludes. The camera darts about in the gloom of the auditorium to find Susan Sontag, who is exquisitely condescending (‘Now, Norman…’) about Mailer’s persistent use of the word ‘lady’. The essayist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, who along with Theatre for Ideas founder Shirley Broughton had helped put the debate together, very delicately drawls a put-down of the now flailing chairman over his inflated claims to do housework and look after his children. And Cynthia Ozick brings down an already raucous house when she asks Mailer, who is given to boisterous claims about creativity and male sexual potency, what colour the ink is that he dips his balls in when he writes.
Why pay attention to the intellectual-political circus of Town Bloody Hall today? Of course, the film has a certain ghastly timeliness in light of Greer’s recent ill-considered remarks about transgender rights and reducing prison sentences for rape. Town Bloody Hall is a reminder of what a compelling mind and persona she once projected. There is also a temptation to map Mailer the sexist monster onto Donald Trump: a paragon of obscene impunity whose every outburst is received, therefore normalized, as entertainment. Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker’s partner and collaborator, who persuaded him to complete the film for release in 1979, has commented that the film is suddenly no longer ‘something for the time machine’. And Maura Tierney, who plays Greer in the current Barbican iteration of The Town Hall Affair, recalls that when she first mooted a stage production to Wooster Group cofounder Elizabeth LeCompte, it had seemed far funnier than it does in 2018. The debate and the film were already riven and complex, however: even at his worst, Mailer thinks his feminist opponents represent the most important intellectual development of the age. And Greer’s ambivalence is palpable regarding the male artistic tradition she trashes. There are instructive moments too concerning the limits of a privileged white feminism: Pennebaker prefaces the whole with shots of a woman outside the hall who protests the high price of tickets. When she later invades the auditorium, she’s booed and hissed at by much of the liberal crowd – which is the kind of thing that sometimes happens when you turn ideas, even good ones, into spectacle.
The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair runs at the Barbican, London, until 24 June.
Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.