Beard, The

by Michael McClure
   Viewed by many as the most controversial play of the 1960s, michael mcclure’s work The Beard represents one of the finest and most visionary works of his career. The play’s title refers to an Elizabethan slang phrase, “to beard,” meaning to engage in an argument with someone. In the case of The Beard, the argument consists of an extended dialogue between two archetypal American figures: 19th-century gunfighter Billy the Kid and 1930’s film sex goddess Jean Harlow. The couple’s heated discussion takes place as they encounter each other in the afterlife—an afterlife, early critic John Lahr noted, not based on a “Christian heaven, but a meatier one.”
   The play’s stage setting is sparse, bringing the audience’s attention to the actor’s language and physical gestures. Seated onstage with only two chairs and a table covered with furs, the walls covered in blue velvet. Harlow and Billy the Kid wear small beards of torn tissue paper to signal their role as spirits in eternity. First seated apart but then growing physically closer as the play progresses, the pair engages in a verbal sparring match around themes familiar to readers of McClure’s poetry and essays: the spiritual depiction of humanity as divine versus the biological view of humanity as “meat,” and the power of sexuality to merge the two. Hollywood sex goddess Jean Harlow is the embodiment of all that is beautiful, sexual, and feminine, while Billy the Kid, the Wild West outlaw, embodies violence, physicality, and masculinity. The repetitive, rapid-fire, dialogue between the two figures makes up a verbal pas de deux in which both characters flirtatiously size up the other’s position. The play’s dialogue is stark and terse, providing a realistic grounding to the dreamlike setting and a realistic backdrop for the characters’ quest for what Harlow describes as “the real me”:
   HARLOW: Before you can pry any secrets from me, you must first find the real me! Which one will you pursue?
   THE KID: What makes you think I want to pry secrets from you?
   HARLOW: Because I’m so beautiful.
   Their flirtatious dialogue and actions become increasingly violent and more and more erotically charged. The Kid at first rejects Harlow’s ethereal notions that the beauty of the human body is illusory, and he refers to her repeatedly as “a bag of meat.” As the play progresses, both characters continue the heated dialogue: part threat, part seduction, part philosophical debate. Echoing each other’s words, each of the pair grudgingly comes to see the truth in the other’s viewpoint, gradually acknowledging that both sides—meat and spirit, physical and cerebral, male and female—must ultimately be joined. The play ends with a shocking moment of sexual coupling in which the play’s tensions are resolved. As The Kid drops to his knees, his head beneath the raised dress of Harlow as he performs cunnilingus on her, the two opposing forces are ecstatically brought together both physically and spiritually. Harlow’s final lines in the play “STAR! STAR! STAR! [. . .] OH MY GOD! [. . .] BLUE-BLACK STAR! [. . .] STAR! STAR!” signal a joyous transcendence as spirit and meat are finally reconciled.
   First staged on December 8, 1965, by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop, The Beard was targeted from its outset by censors who condemned its “obscene” language and the graphic sexuality of its final scene. Despite the fact that the play had won Obie Awards for Rip Taylor as Best Director and for Billie Dixon as Best Actress, a firestorm of controversy followed the production. During a production of the play in San Francisco, lead actors Richard Bright and Billie Dixon were arrested. Other arrests followed—in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. All in all, the play was the focus of 19 court cases, with charges including obscenity, conspiracy to commit a felony, and lewd and dissolute conduct in a public place. A highly publicized trial in San Francisco resulted in exoneration of the playwright and, more broadly, of all American plays that dared to challenge the status quo. Just as the trials concerning the alleged obscenity of allen ginsberg’s “howl” and William S. Burroughs’s novel naked luncH had broadened the boundaries of what constituted “acceptable” poetry and fiction, McClure’s legal battle with The Beard had done the same for drama, achieving a lasting victory against the censorship of stage productions.
■ Lahr, John. Acting Out America: Essays on Modern Theatre. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1972.
■ Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta. “Michael McClure.” American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981, 143–157.
■ Phillips, Rod. Michael McClure. Western Writers Series 159. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2003.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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