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A Peculiar Picasso Play

Mon, 10/18/2021 - 14:15

In the winter of 1941, soon after the Germans had occupied Paris, Pablo Picasso spent three days writing a play, titled “Le Désir Attrapé par la Queue,” (“Desire Caught by the Tail.”) It was first presented at a Paris apartment in 1944. Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Valentine Hugo, Raymond Queneau, and Picasso read the parts. Albert Camus directed.

Legend has it that when Gertrude Stein read the play, she advised Picasso to go back to painting. According to Helen Harrison, executive director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, who has a longstanding connection to the play, “It has only been produced maybe a dozen times.”

If so, then the performance of “Desire Caught by the Tail” at Guild Hall on Sunday at 3 p.m. will make that a baker’s dozen. Ms. Harrison is responsible for its presentation, which is happening in conjunction with “Picasso in Pollock,” the current exhibition at the Pollock-Krasner House.

When she was a curator at Guild Hall in 1984, Ms. Harrison co-organized an exhibition titled “Artists in the Theater,” which included bits of theatrical sets created by artists, among them Eric Fischl and Larry Rivers. “Somehow through the research we were doing for the exhibition, I found out about the Picasso play,” she recalled.

The discovery resulted in two productions at Guild Hall in June 1984 that were directed by Taylor Mead, a writer and performer who appeared in several Andy Warhol films. The sets were designed by the artist Lynda Benglis. Though originally written in French, the play was presented in an English translation, as it will be on Sunday.

The 1984 production at Guild Hall was the subject of a feature in The New York Times by Alvin Klein, who called it a “surrealistic work, which some would prefer to call simply weird.”

Ms. Harrison was a little more direct: “It’s complete nonsense, you really have no idea what’s going on, except that they’re all trying to win the lottery.” She added that the play has been so rarely produced because of its incomprehensibility.

Bernard Frechtman’s translation of the six-act play, published by the Citadel Press, includes four illustrations by Picasso. The characters’ names suggest that something strange is going on: Big Foot, Onion, Tart, the Cousin, Round End, the Two Bow-Wows, Silence, Fat Anguish, Skinny Anguish, and the Curtains.

A stage direction from Act Four reads: “Great silence for a few minutes, during which in the prompter’s box, over a big fire and in a big pan, potatoes are seen, heard, and smelt frying in boiling oil; more and more, the smoke of the fried potatoes fills the hall to the point of complete suffocation.” Ms. Harrison gave assurances that Sunday’s production would be smoke-free.

She first approached Josh Gladstone, the artistic director of Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, two years ago, when “Picasso in Pollock” was being planned, but the pandemic intervened. 

When that exhibition finally opened in July, she again proposed the play to Mr. Gladstone, and he agreed. The new production is being directed by Scott R. Sheppard, an Obie Award-winning theater artist who is co-director of Lightning Rod Special, a Philadelphia ensemble whose members will perform the piece. Mr. Sheppard, too, has a Guild Hall connection, having been an artist in residence there in 2018.

Tickets for the play are $15, $!0 for members of Guild Hall and the Pollock-Krasner House.


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