Ken Campbell and Robert Anton Wilson: Theatre Perilous
by Tom Lennon
[or “Theatricality is what you can get away with”]
Last week, that most respected of British broadcasting institutions – Radio 4 – let its hair down, took a huge toke of Alamout Black and briefly turned into Radio Fnord: Robert Anton Wilson was on Book of the Week.
Well, indirectly at least. It wasn’t a serialisation of a Wilson classic like Illuminatus!, the Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy or the often overlooked Playboy Book of the Breast (surely a contender for the Woman’s Hour drama slot). Rather, it was an adaptation of The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of the maverick English theatre director Ken Campbell.
In the 1970s, Campbell famously turned Wilson and Robert Shea’s vast, sprawling Illuminatus! trilogy into an equally vast and sprawling nine-hour play. Illuminatus, in case you don’t know, was “a genre busting mix of thriller, science fiction & labyrinthine international – nay, intergalactic – conspiracy.” That’s Coveney’s description, and it’s much better than mine. My description is: “Foucault’s Pendulum with dick jokes”.
I didn’t know all that much about Campbell’s Illuminatus! adaptation, but after listening to the Great Caper serialisation I found myself doing that thing middle-aged men rarely do: I wanted to be older. If I was older I could have seen this glorious folly in 1977, instead of pissing my life away on a diet of Star Wars, Spangles and The Six Million Dollar Man. And I might have gone to an Ian Dury gig afterwards.
The Great Caper was full of wonderful anecdotes and things I didn’t know (including the fact that Bill Drummond of the RAW-influenced KLF designed sets for the play) and it made me realise just how delightfully eccentric Ken Campbell was:
Charlton Heston could play (anarchist pirate) Hagbard Celine or, if not, Marlon Brando. He telephoned Sean Connery. He wrote to Vanessa Redgrave. He didn’t hear back from Connery, or Heston, or Brando, but an actor called Jim Broadbent said he would ‘do’ Sean Connery.
My favourite anecdote, though, was from Bill Nighy (another former Illuminatus! cast member):
Bill Nighy had been working at the Liverpool Everyman with the director John Roche and had followed him to Aberystwyth for the summer season. The gig turned out to be problematic and Nighy returned to London to report to Roche in Belsize Park. The director was leaving on a family holiday, but not before giving
[Nighy] a copy of Illuminatus! Nighy spent the first day in London reading it. He was hooked. The book was about many things, including the killing of John Dillinger outside the Biograph Cinema in Chicago in 1934, and the fact that the picture of George Washington on the American dollar bill was, in fact, a picture of a high-ranking Illuminati doppelganger.
“Now I’m not a seeker, or, indeed, a supposer of any kind,” says Nighy, “but I turned on the television after making a cup of tea and the first thing I saw was some ancient footage of John Dillinger being led backwards into a prison cell, flagged by FBI agents. I changed channels, in a nervous way, and the whole screen was filled with an American dollar bill.
“I felt slightly uneasy, and I hadn’t had a drink yet, so I figure I’ll go to the pub. I didn’t know the area, but I walk into the Belsize Tavern and order a pint of Guinness. I’ve got these three books under my arm and a bloke with bushy eyebrows comes up to me and says: ‘Ah, I see you’re reading Illuminatus!’
“And I say: ‘Well, yes, I am.’
“And he says: ‘Well, I’m mounting an enthusiast’s production of it at the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun.’ I told him I was an actor.
‘Ah’, he says, ‘then you can be in it!’”
The bloke with bushy eyebrows was, of course, Ken Campbell, but Nighy didn’t take him up on the offer (at least, at this point). I imagine he was thoroughly weirded-out by the evening’s cavalcade of coincidence, or maybe his parents once told him never to take parts from strangers. Who knows? You’d have to ask him.
In any case, things would only get weirder. Some months after the chance encounter in the London boozoir, Nighy visited some friends in Liverpool. He missed his train home, so went to a cafe on Matthew Street to grab a cup of coffee. Standing at the cafe counter was the bloke with bushy eyebrows..
“You made it, then,” said Campbell.
Nighy’s anecdote is lovely, to me at least, because it not only sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a Robert Anton Wilson novel, but because it sounds like the sort of thing that typically happens to people who read Robert Anton Wilson novels.
I speak from personal experience, of course.
For some reason, Wilson’s books make their readers susceptible to coincidences, synchronicities and the Goddamn Bizarre. Long ago and far away I was reading the first book of the Illuminatus! trilogy in the living room of my parents’ home. My brother was watching something on TV, but this didn’t bother me as I was quite adept at screening out noise while engrossed in a book. Just as well, really.
Anyway, I was reading a passage in Illuminatus! where underground magazine editor, Joe Malik, witnesses an occult mass in LA:
They stopped to take some chalk from a table on which hashish and sandalwood incense were burning, then squatted to draw a large pentagon on the blood-red rug. A triangle was then added to each side of the pentagon, forming a star – the special kind of star, Joe knew, which was known as a pentagram, symbol of werewolves and also of demons. He found himself remembering the corny old poem from the Lon Chaney, Jr. movies, but it suddenly didn’t sound like kitsch anymore:
Even a man who is pure of heart
And says his prayers by night
Can turn to a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright
Just then, there was a trailer on the TV for a forthcoming season of vintage horror movies. As I read the “corny old poem” in the book, on the TV a Vincent Price-impersonating voiceover artist recited the very same verse, word for word, at exactly the same time.
I felt slightly uneasy, too.
(Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney is available in paperback and I plan to buy it. Apologies to the author for any sloppy errors in transcribing the radio adaptation.)
Chasing Eris by Brenton Clutterbuck reviewed by Alden Loveshade
Chasing Eris author Brenton Clutterbuck approaches Discordianism as a self-proclaimed Gonzo anthropologist where the observer isn’t removed from the observed. Therefore I’ll do the same and take on the role of a Gonzo reviewer, especially at the end.
Discordianism has been described as “a joke disguised as a religion” and “a religion disguised as a joke.” Started by two young American men, Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, in 1958-1959, the “Zen for roundeyes” counterculture philosophical movement drew from a number of creative people, some well known and some still obscure. Tongue-in-cheekily focused on the Goddess Discordia/Eris, it sees disorder as important as order, and both potentially leading to creativity or destruction.
After 60 years, it’s probably more active than ever before. Clutterbuck traveled America, South America, Australia, and Europe meeting people influenced by Discordianism, and in Chasing Eris shares their stories.
I believe this book will fascinate almost any Discordian/Erisian, Chaos Magic(k) practitioner interested in the “joke” religion, many members of the Church of the SubGenius or Flying Spaghetti Monster, and Pagans who don’t detest Discordianism. Non-Discordian non-Pagans who want to learn about the counterculture from America to Australia to Europe to South America will likely get something out of it too. It will introduce even long-time Erisians to practices of their own religion they didn’t know, and show them surprising things about a number of fellow Discordians, many of whom they’ll recognize by name. And it’s fascinating even from a multicultural perspective, seeing an Australian adapting to the “foreign” practices and belief systems that are native to the hosts.
In Finland, you pay for your drink before you make it yourself. In Poland, Discordians are rebelling against organized Christianity much as Christians had previously rebelled against organized Communism. In America, while some Discordians are also Pagans/Wiccans, many Pagans take offense at the “joke religion.” In much of Europe, they’re intertwined, and it’s sometimes hard to separate the Chaos Magician from the Discordian.
I enjoyed the “virtual tourism” of the book, giving the reader a chance to “visit and stay” with Discordians who live lifestyles with which many would not be comfortable. Sex in the living room in the midst of guests? A future director of a Robert Anton Wilson/Discordian play conceived during a Robert Anton Wilson/Discordian play? Foam parties with the police? A request for suicide by pumpkin? Drinking…something? Setting off firecrackers inside the house?
Clutterbuck felt driven to investigate it all. “Something has been planted in me, a kind of desperate curiousity that has developed a life of its own. The Discordian story….” This desperation, along with routine boredom while teaching in a remote area, drove the author to travel. Clutterbuck visited and stayed with fascinating people in Australia, America, Brazil, Argentina, England, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Authors including Jon Swabey, Adam Gorightly, and Sondra London (all in this book) have worked to connect today’s Discordians with the lives of the early Erisians, and some have written a little about the neo-Discordians. But Clutterbuck is almost certainly the first and so far only person to make such a major effort to physically connect with what’s happening in the worldwide Discordian community now–or at any time.
Sexual identity is a recurring theme, including one interviewee who wants to be referred to as he first, she second, he third, etc.–or visa versa. (This reviewer often uses “e” for “he” or “she,” “em” for “him” or “her,” “es” for “his” or “hers,” and “emself ” for “himself” or “herself.”) While not mentioned in the book, Dr. Michelle Cretella, president of the American College of Pediatricians, recently released a “there’s male and female only and it’s set at conception” video in America. By contrast, in the Netherlands which Clutterbuck also visited, a 2013 law declared that gender identity can be changed on official documents even without sterilization or other surgery. The early Discordians challenged gender identification in their own way, choosing a neopagan goddess in the 1950s when the Abrahamic American God was exclusively male.
Chasing Eris deals with sexuality perhaps even more than it does with sexual identity. Several people in the book practice polyamory, having sexual relations with more than one person with the knowledge and approval of those involved. It also deals with the earlier concept of polyfidelity (although my notes don’t tell me if that term is used in the book), the Kerista-created term for being sexually faithful with more than one partner. Thornley associated in some way with the concepts of Kerista, although it seems to be more what would now be called polyamory. The book also touches on bisexuality, exhibitionism, multisexuality, necrophilia, omnisexuality, paedophilia, and other sexualities possessed, practiced, and/or promoted by some, but not all, Discordians.
Foreword writer John Higgs (author of the book KLF) says many Discordians compare themselves to mycelium, fungus strands that spread unseen underground, forming a vast network. Later it breaks the surface as mushrooms. The early Discordians did that largely by mail, the early modern ones by Internet. But now that people including Discordians share their alternate beliefs, hernia operations, and sexual lifestyles on Facebook, there’s not much “underground” left to it in most of the countries Clutterbuck visited. It’s mostly mushrooms.
There’s many fascinating stories in the book, but I’ll leave it to the reader to explore those. In addition to people mentioned above, Clutterbuck introduces us to a virtual Who’s Who of modern Discordians, and some early ones (including the late Robert Shea, who often gets less mention than the author deserves). There’s Timothy Bowen, Triple Zero, Ari Almeida/Timpin, Sydada Fenderson, Lao Hunluan, Janos Biro, Johnny Brainwash, the Campbells (not all related), XX3, St. Mae, Joel Love, Mad Crampi, Elfwreck, Professor Cramulus, Groucho Gandhi, Hannah Lehtinen, Telarus, Rajiphun Maldonado, and Dr. Robert Newport. Am I leaving off some of the most fascinating and best-known Discordians and others found in the book? Yes.
The book itself leaves us with many unanswered questions, some involving the band The KLF. Why would the two-member band (aka The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMs, and the Timelords) burn a million pounds sterling? Is there a connection between them burning a wicker man and the Burning Man Festival? Is band member Bill Drummond related to Church of the SubGenius co-founder Philo Drummond?
There’s more questions from the past. Why did the counterculture Greg Hill spend his career working for one of the biggest banking corporations in America? Were Kerry Thornley and Lee Harvey Oswald subjects in the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s MK-ULTRA drug-induced mind control experiments? How serious were the ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu and the 20th century English occultist Aleister Crowley, and how did they influence Discordianism?
One of the unfortunate bugaboos I see in the book is the dire need for proofreading. While I’m sure Clutterbuck worked very hard editing the book, even the best writers can use proofreading. (I remember an editor wrote after the death of Isaac Asimov, one of the most published book authors in the English language, that Asimov only had a vague idea where to place a comma.) Many times I would be immersed in a page when suddenly a misspelled word or misplaced comma would slap me out of involvement. If Clutterbuck redoes this book in any way, I greatly hope there’s a proofreader involved.
Another thing that’s not necessarily a problem, but I still see as a shortcoming, is the almost complete lack of illustrations and photographs. I certainly understand that many Discordians (and the related SubGenii) use aliases and do not want their photographs published online or in books. Some people have suffered from threats and legal action due to their involvement, as I know personally. But others are very public. I think a few more Discordian images, and photos of locations to get a visual take on where Clutterbuck visited, could help.
Another issue that is, perhaps, a minor one in a Discordian-related work is factual inaccuracies. In some cases, Clutterbuck freely admits not knowing the truthfulness of a source, which I think is fine; Discordians traditionally mix fact and fiction. In other cases, however, something is presented as fact that is easily found not to be.
As I’m being gonzo reviewer here, I’ll describe one factual error that touches on me. Clutterbuck claims to have gotten a message bounce while trying to contact kerrythornley.com that gave the author an email address that’s part of loveshade.org. A whois check for domain registration, which I just did, would demonstrate this would not happen. One of the domains has been registered since 2005 through whois.tucows.com with a name server and email service connected since that time to yahoo.com. The other has been registered since 2009 through whois.godaddy.com with a name server connected to domaincontrol.com. I doubt that Clutterbuck is being purposely misleading; I think it more likely the author failed to make contact because of a personal mistake. But a contact error through an email service connected with domaincontrol.com would not result in a default response from an email service controlled by yahoo.com.
Here’s more gonzo. Reverend Loveshade is mentioned several times in the book, and called a ‘”contentious Discordian figure” and “problematic provocateur.” I won’t here dispute those descriptions. But I will clarify that more than one person has used one or more forms of the Loveshade name. I personally will only admit to writing as Reverend Loveshade for one short serious political piece which I don’t consider Discordian. (However, that piece was included in an FBI/multiple police agency investigation that included a law enforcement official reading portions of a Discordian-related play in court and officials nationally seeking the identity of Reverend Loveshade).
All in all, in spite of its imperfections, I definitely enjoyed traveling through Chasing Eris. If you’re Discordian or interested in who Discordians are, how they think and what they do around the world, you likely will enjoy it too.
Alden Loveshade worked professionally as a freelance book reviewer for a well-known but now out-of-business publishing company. “The Other Loveshade” wrote a 50th anniversary assassination article for Yahoo! about the connection between Kerry Thornley and Lee Harvey Oswald, the man convicted postmortem of assassinating American President John F. Kennedy. And Alden interviewed Clutterbuck about the then ongoing Chasing Eris project for the “In the Beginning” issue of Intermittens, the Discordian magazine mentioned several times in Chasing Eris.
Synchronicity note: on the day Alden finished reading this book about the Goddess Eris, who famously ate a hot dog without a bun after sparking the Trojan War, a relative who knew nothing about Discordianism was fixing supper. The woman asked Alden if a hot dog was OK, but then realized she was out of buns.