the happenings of yore
excerpt from William Pryor’s memoir
The Survival of the Coolest
But the drive and passion saw us beginning to practice what we preached, we were beginning to happen (verb: to put on a happening). Nigel and I had forgotten the worst ravages of being heckled at Roodmoodments. Happenings were what we did: we happened, we evolved, we improvised from scripts, we encouraged our spectators to influence what we did next. More live, indeterminate art than theatre, but a performance where anything could happen. The purpose a purely Dadaistic one: to disrupt and discombobulate, to carry the audience to another discontinuous understanding. Yes, that messianic tendency to change people, to wake them up.
John Cage had done one in 1952 at Black Mountain College, with paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, a ballet by Merce Cunningham, a poem by Charles Olsen and the music of David Tudor in a single space. Allan Kaprow took the idea to new places in New York in 1959 with 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in the Reuben Gallery. And in 1960 Jean-Jacques Lebel, disciple of Antonin Artaud, presented the Enterrement d’une Chose (Burial of a Thing) in Venice.
I don’t know how much of this we knew then – probably most of it, but ill-digested. The idea fitted perfectly with our wish to be revolting in public, to hit the bourgeoisie where it hurt, to undermine the comfortable Cambridge view of art.