Valerie Solanas Gets Another Shot
Two new shows, one by Solanas and another about her, give a glimpse into the mind of the individual known as "the woman who shot Andy Warhol."
Valerie Solanas is probably best known for shooting the legendary pop icon Andy Warhol. One of the reasons for this act of violence was apparently that Warhol promised to produce a play Solanas had written, then lost it. The play was found many years later at the bottom of a silver spray-painted trunk donated to the Warhol museum by photographer Billy Name.
A production of that lost 1965 play, which Solanas titled Up Your Ass, is now finally getting its New York premiere at P.S. 122, directed by San Francisco-based avant-gardist George Coates. Coincidentally, a play titled Valerie Shoots Andy by Carson Kreitzer is currently being staged by Reverie Productions at the Present Company Theatorium. "The zeitgeist is a mysterious thing," says Kreitzer on the odd convergence. "But I have to say that, with the current administration stepping in and immediately beginning to dismantle women's reproductive rights, this is an excellent time to be looking at women's anger in the past and how we can use our anger without being consumed by it."
In addition to shooting Warhol, Solanas is known for her S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), which advocates overthrowing the government, eliminating the monetary system, instituting complete automation, and destroying the male sex. "It's an incredibly intelligent, witty, well-written, very accurate take on society," comments Kreitzer. Many people, most of whom have never read the document, take it as a sign of just how crazy Solanas was; but Kreitzer argues against this interpretation. "It's a satire in the grand tradition of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal," she says.
Coates agrees. "People didn't understand that [Solanas] was a writer," he says. "When Up Your Ass got lost for so long, coupled with the famous shooting incident, Valerie's reputation as an artist writing for the stage got completely lost. Who knew she could people a stage with characters that were funny and humorous?"
Up Your Ass centers on Bongi Perez, a sharp-tongued lesbian radical, and her encounters with drag queens, housewives, and various chauvinist pigs. "The play is a very comic riff on gender norms," says Coates. "It takes the proposal that if men have been in power for the last six thousand years, we should have women in charge for the next six thousand years." Since one of the play's themes is that men should be eliminated (which parallels Solanas' theories outlined in her manifesto), Coates has an all-female cast play both the male and female characters.
Coates is adamant that the play is "not about Valerie at all," despite the fact that many people have assumed that Bongi Perez is a loose stand-in for the radical writer. This autobiographical interpretation is partly a result of Solanas' later madness and the infamous shooting. According to Coates, "There was a generation of people that took the S.C.U.M. Manifesto completely seriously. You call your work the Society for Cutting Up Men, then later you cut up this guy, and people think it's a manual. People thought Solanas was a ranter rather than an artist, and they didn't take her work seriously."
After the shooting, Solanas underwent psychiatric evaluation and was deemed incompetent to stand trial. She eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. After her release, she found herself shunned and nearly friendless. She died in a San Francisco welfare hotel in 1988.
The life of Valerie Solanas became much better known following the release of Mary Harron's 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol, featuring the amazing Lili Taylor as Solanas. "It was because of that film that I became alert to the play," says Coates. "I thought it was great." Although the title of Kreitzer's play bears a remarkable similarity to that of the film, Valerie Shoots Andy was originally workshopped in New York in 1993. ("I was a little ahead of the zeitgeist," the author jokes.) While concerned that people may think she got the idea for her play from the movie, Kreitzer is confident in her work. "Once people get into the theater, they'll see that they're two different animals," she remarks.
Kreitzer--whose previous efforts include The Slow Drag, inspired by the life of Billy Tipton--often bases her plays on real people. "I'm fascinated with stories of women's anger," she says. "I find that anger will either turn inward or outward." Still, Kreitzer is not so interested in the actual historical details of Solanas' life. "I really write about the myths that we as a culture have of these real people," she says. In the Kreitzer play, Solanas has just been released from a mental institution and is at the theater to discuss violent crime. The playwright uses Solanas, the denizens of Warhol's Factory, and the circumstances around the near fatal shooting to explore the question of how we can comprehend the violent mind.