Jack Smith / Bennett Theissen

January 18, 1982. I was rehearsing a solo theater piece at ReCherChez on St. Marks Place and John Brown, an actor and friend, dropped by to watch. Afterwards we stopped at a Hungarian coffee shop at First and Seventh. We were sitting in the front window of the shop when Jack Smith walked by outside, carrying a stack of posters under his arm. He waved and joined us. The Friday before I had attended the first performance of Jack’s play, “I Was A Male Yvonne De Carlo For The Lucky Landlord Underground,” at the Theater of Exotic Aquatics (actually, the basement of an aquarium store) in the West Village. I was a huge fan, having attended all the performances I could of Jack’s work in the three years I’d been in New York. The three of us talked for a while, then John headed back home to Brooklyn. I suddenly remembered I had a tape recorder with me and I asked Jack if I could tape our conversation. He agreed and what follows is the tape:
JACK SMITH: I don’t now use actors, other actors, because I don’t like having them sign the releases.
SMITH: And I wouldn’t even like taping other people because I feel it’s—it’s sneaking up on them, and then if you ask them it kills the whole thing because then they’re self-conscious and it doesn’t make a good tape.
THEISSEN: Well, I asked.
SMITH: That’s why I won’t use actors because I don’t want to have anybody sign the release.
THEISSEN: At your show on Friday night, you had like four or five other people working with you. Before, when I’ve seen you, and I’ve seen you perform four times, you had one assistant. Well, you had none at Club 57, with the slides.
SMITH: But I want to eventually become like Liberace and do Las Vegas night clubs. He makes six million a year from working half a year, twenty-five weeks.
THEISSEN: What do you think he does that gets people to come see him? Would you go see Liberace?
SMITH: Oh, I wouldn’t pay whatever they pay. Well, maybe I would. The people that see him can afford it, you know. But if you’re that great I think it’s worth it. Once a thing is real, then there is no price that can be put on it—it can be a low price or a very high price. What he does is really his art and yet it’s so commercial.
THEISSEN: He uses popular products of the culture that already exist. He uses popular songs that other people made famous and he plays them, “Hello Dolly,” or—
SMITH: Yes. It’s so easy for singers and pianists. It’s so easy.
THEISSEN: But you do your own material. Do you think you could take things that other people wrote and do them your own way?
SMITH: I do that. See, I mix in stuff that has been used already, like Hamlet.
THEISSEN: Would people in Las Vegas want to see Hamlet?
SMITH: Well no, I like just cribbing a little bit from each source and then making something new out of old ingredients.
THEISSEN: Like Artaud’s statement “No More Masterpieces.” He meant use the past as material. Don’t treat it like it’s in a museum or keep it in a vault, make it new.
SMITH: Yes. If you can’t make something new with it, then you don’t really have the right to use other people’s stuff. But if you can find something completely new in it, or make some incredible point with it, then it’s all right. There is too much of that anyway, doing old plays without adapting them.
That can’t be done.
THEISSEN: Where did you get your idea of doing Ghosts?
SMITH: Oh, because I was worried about syphilis then. New diseases were being found out about, and I just identified with Oswald a lot. It was Halloween also at that time, and I’d found a large place. I mean, you can’t do better than Ghosts for Halloween.
THEISSEN: Yeah. I read Ghosts when I was about eight and I thought it was a ghost story. I didn’t have the slightest idea what it was about, but it stayed with me. I didn’t see a production of the play until I was eighteen. When I first read it I knew who everybody was, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I thought he was a ghost or something at the end.
SMITH: Well, yes, I mean, it’s not a well-understood play. There’s a lot of disagreement about the play, I think. I still don’t understand it. It’s not clear cut, anyway. It is not. All the experts have their own version of what it means.
SMITH: It’s kind of a mysterious thing, and yet I think it’s incredibly juicy. It’s a juicy story.
THEISSEN: A lot happens in it.
SMITH: My heavens, what a, you know, El Cheapo product project.
Everything in it is wildly climactic, and yet there are just a couple of people involved. It has these themes that humans are most interested in, like mothers, and VD. I think they didn’t understand venereal disease when the play was written. It’s something I really never could figure out. How the mother could pass VD on to Oswald and not have it herself. I never could understand that.
THEISSEN: They thought it was something passed from father to son.
SMITH: But VD is not that kind of a thing.
THEISSEN: That was what they thought then.
SMITH: Yes, I think they might have. Anyway, I still don’t understand the play.
THEISSEN: Have you read The Master Builder?
SMITH: I love all of Ibsen. If Ibsen wrote it, I’m sure it’s the greatest, you know.
THEISSEN: Peer Gynt is a good story for you. It’s a good journey story.
SMITH: I don’t even know that story at all.
THEISSEN: I worked on a piece last summer called The Crack In The Chimney based on The Master Builder.
SMITH: Uh huh.
THEISSEN: The central image of a builder who felt that a crack in the chimney that he hadn’t fixed was the cause of a fire that killed his wife and daughter. The fire really started in a closet, but he felt guilty because he never fixed the crack.
SMITH: And that’s in The Master Builder?
THEISSEN: That’s the center of The Master Builder, yeah.
SMITH: Oh, I must read that.
THEISSEN: Look again, because it’s really beautiful.
SMITH: I mean and it’s so modern. Everything in Ibsen is a pressing issue today. Like look at Enemy of the People. My god, poison leaking out of a chemical plant and infecting the water in these vats. I could do any of that tomorrow.
SMITH: All Ibsen, all Sheridan, and not so much Shakespeare. To me everything they say about Shakespeare’s really true of Sheridan.
THEISSEN: Well, the Sheridan plays are closer to us. Shakespeare wrote a lot broader. Maybe overwritten.
SMITH: Wrote them how?
THEISSEN: Broader. Always wrote trying to be a poet and trying to elevate. Sheridan presents things more like they are, like Ibsen does. Do you like Strindberg?
SMITH: I don’t know. I just saw one thing. Something about the quarreling, the husband and wife that are quarreling always—
THEISSEN: The Father, it’s called.
SMITH: —and trying to destroy each other. I don’t know too much of Strindberg.
THEISSEN: The Father is about a man in a woman’s household.
His daughter, his mother and his wife, and he’s a soldier. When he’s with his command he’s strong and powerful and when he’s at home the women dominate him and tear him apart.
SMITH: I like Ibsen and Sheridan because they don’t pick on those things. They put the blame on institutions rather than the trouble in the world coming out of something rotten about people, you know, the average person. It’s really—I’m trying to get at this, this criminal personality, and identify it, you know, and put the blame on that. I mean, the rotten criminal person and their institution, because they always have some kind of institution that goes with them. That’s how you know.
THEISSEN: It’s the institution that gives it the power—
SMITH: It’s the institution that gives them the respectability and a place of trust from which they can commit these things.
SMITH: And that’s what real criminals always are. They’re connected to some respectable institution and they’re in this position of trust which just offers them these opportunities which they eventually succumb to, you know, because they get an awful lot of protection even if they are proved to be criminals. I see it all really as one certain type and I’m trying to identify it in this latest thing.
THEISSEN: As a young artist trying to gain some attention in the community there’s a lot of pressure to identify with a group. To become part of some scene as a matter of acceptance. Or to incorporate, to have a theater so that I can qualify for the government to give me some money. I don’t know if I like that, but at the same time it’s a kind of necessary thing. It makes things easier.
SMITH: The people that collect art are always criminal. There’s something wrong with that, anybody that wants to collect other people’s art. It’s a very abnormal thing because that’s missing the point of art completely.
THEISSEN: The point of sharing it?
SMITH: The point is that they’ve got to collect this sort of thing because it’s missing in their personality. There’s something wrong with that. Art is not a mysterious or supernatural thing. It’s not given to one person more than another. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s just the carefulness that you do anything with. And when you miss that point, you’re just becoming a collector and a thief and making it harder for the people that make art. Then it’s justified to steal their art. If I could use it, I could make it continue to be art. I could keep it alive, and then it would be alive, because the person who thought of it is also using it to give to the public and also to make a living with it. That’s what it is. But after it’s collected, then it isn’t art, it’s somebody who cannot make it but is just presenting it. The collector doesn’t understand that there is something that they could do in their everyday life that would easily be art, whatever they do.
THEISSEN: Didn’t you say the other night that they have to put the art in a safe before they can find out what to do with it?
SMITH: Yes, that goes with it. They do that because that’s what the society believes. That’s a societal value. And that’s why they have no art in their lives. That’s why the world is ugly and built in this most stupid and ugliest way because they don’t know. You can use art in making a door, a window, anything on earth. You know, the way bricks are put in, anything on earth, I mean, the world should be very beautiful. But then when anything beautiful appears, it’s immediately grabbed and taken out of context—oh, always, always.
THEISSEN: They have to hold it in place so that they can catch up with it and take it over, take the balls out of it.
SMITH: But it’s not a mysterious thing. If anything were just done carefully, it would automatically come out as art. If it were done completely and carefully, whatever it is, it would come out as art. I don’t care what it is. Craftsmanship, maybe. Complete craftsmanship. Because you see this in other countries, you know, a little coffee shop can be a pure art thing. They use it all. In making a door or a window in Italy, you look at things and everything is just done beautifully. They understand, and there’s no confusion about how to make art. Everybody in a way does make art. Of course, they don’t want to pay for it either and, of course, it’ll be stolen also. But your small businessman in Italy wouldn’t dream of doing anything without craftsmanship. That’s the way the world was at one time. Everything was done that way. Now, art has to be separated from life. It has to be on a crust that isn’t attached so that it can be—
THEISSEN: So it can only be “art.” Just art. Not life.
SMITH: Or so it can be put in one of those special storage places.
THEISSEN: Maybe that’s why I do theater, because you can’t pin it down. It’s temporary and then it becomes something else. That’s why I keep coming back to theater. I’ve made films, and they become objects that have memories about them. When I watch them I just remember what happened when I made them. But theater makes it something live, a confrontation. I’ve been doing it a while. Nobody’s stolen anything from me yet.
SMITH: It goes together. The idea of art and stealing definitely go together.
THEISSEN: What do you do in the daytime, Jack? Do you have a job or anything?
SMITH: Oh no. I could never be put on a business-like basis. One day I make posters, the next day something else—I’m just so ridiculously spread out.
THEISSEN: Well, I guess that’s true. I have to do the same thing in order to make money. They want you to do the same thing, so that you can be identified. Did you read the book that Stefan Brecht wrote when he talked about your work?
SMITH: Oh no, I have to make a list of all these books to put into my resumé. I have to have two pages of all these books. There must be hundreds of them I was mentioned in, all these film books, that has to go in—[end of tape]