Futz, pb. 1961, revised pb. 1968 (music by Tom O’Horgan)
The String Game, pr. 1965
Istanboul, pr. 1965
Homo, pr. 1966
Beclch, pr. 1966
Farmer’s Almanac, pr. 1968
Futz and What Came After, pb. 1968 (includes Beclch, Homo, The String Game, and Istanboul)
The Queen of Greece, pr. 1969
Kontraption, pb. 1971 (one act)
The Karl Marx Play, pb. 1971 (one act; in The Best Short Plays of 1971, Stanley Richards, editor), revised pr., pb. 1973 (two acts; music by Galt MacDermot)
He Wants Shih!, pb. 1972 (one act)
The Karl Marx Play, and Others, pb. 1974 (includes Kontraption, He Wants Shih!, Farmer’s Almanac, Coconut Folk-singer, and O. K. Certaldo)
Emma Instigated Me, pb. 1976, pr. 1977 (expanded)
Mountain Rites, pb. 1978 (one act)
Chucky’s Hunch, pr. 1981
Who Do You Want, Peire Vidal?, pr. 1982
Plays by Rochelle Owens, pb. 2000 (includes Chucky’s Hunch, Futz, Kontraption, and Three Front)
The Girl on the Garage Wall, 1962
The Obscenities of Reva Cigarnik, 1963
Futz, 1969 (adaptation of her play)
Not Be Essence That Cannot Be, 1961
Four Young Lady Poets, 1962 (with others; LeRoi Jones, editor)
I Am the Babe of Joseph Stalin’s Daughter: Poems, 1961-1971, 1972
Poems from Joe’s Garage, 1973
The Joe Eighty-two Creation Poems, 1974
The Joe Chronicles II, 1978
W. C. Fields in French Light, 1986
How Much Paint Does the Painting Need, 1988
Black Chalk: Discourse on Life and Death, 1992
Paysanne, and Selected Earlier Poems, 1961-1990, 1993
Rubbed Stones: Poems from 1960-1992, 1994
New and Selected Poems: 1961-1996, 1997
Luca: Discourse on Life and Death, 2001
Spontaneous Combustion: Eight New American Plays, 1972
The Passersby, 1993 (of Liliane Atlan’s novel Les Passants)
Rochelle Owens emerged as an early leader of the Off-Broadway underground experimental theater of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Her use of primordial character types, scatological and obscene language, and perverse sexual relationships, including bestiality and sadomasochism, was surreal and shocking. This free use of language and sex, juxtaposed with wit and humor, satirized traditional American values and reflected the social unrest and free-speech movement of the day.
Born to postal clerk Maxwell Bass and Molly (Adler) Bass in Brooklyn, Rochelle graduated from Lafayette High School in 1953. She then attended the Herbert Berghof Studio and New School for Social Research, and she immersed herself in the developing Greenwich Village counterculture. There she met and married David Owens in 1956. Her poetry had begun to attract attention, so when her marriage ended in 1959 she retained the name Rochelle Owens professionally. One of her early poems, “Groshl Monkeys Horses,” led Trobar editor George Economou to publish her first collection of poetry, Not Be Essence That Cannot Be. She married Economou in 1962.
Owens’s guttural and violent poetry is often described as “evolving organically” into her plays. Her free use of language and time, with characters spewing raw emotion and humor, resulted in 1965 productions of The String Game and Obie Award-winning Istanboul at the Judson Poets Theatre, Beclch at Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts in 1966, and Homo in 1966 at the Café LaMama Theatre. The Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis gave Futz a workshop production in 1965, which led to a revised script being presented at the LaMama in 1967, directed by Tom O’Horgan. That production drew outrage, critical attention, acclaim, and Owens’s second Obie Award for Best Play.
Futz tells the tale of Cyrus Futz, who falls in love with his sow “because she is good.” The story becomes an allegory as the outraged townspeople kill Futz because of this gentle relationship while being blind to the animalistic nature of their own destructive lives. All of Owens’s plays depict decadence and corruption presented in outrageous allegory. The String Game dramatizes the destructive nature of foreign intervention as a German capitalist chokes to death while trying to involve a group of Greenlanders in the shoe business. Beclch shows the destructive relationship between active and passive temperaments as a tribal queen destroys men who withdraw from painful acts but is destroyed herself when confronted by a man even more odious than she. Istanboul and Homo depict scenes of dominance and submission, countercultural merchants who are allowed to trade by paying the price of self-abasement, and mother and sex-goddess archetypes pitting in competition for base male drives.
Owens’s overriding theme is the eternal conflict between the peaceful people of the world and the repressive people who violently oppose their simple lives. Her early dramatic career reached its height with the 1973 production of The Karl Marx Play. It best demonstrates her reputation as a poet of the theater, and in it she crafted a play which made its point largely by poetic imagery, “tonal meanings,” and the juxtaposition of experiences meant to create a “theatrical experiencing of the extreme humanness of Karl Marx.”
Even though Owens is most widely known as a playwright, she has been perhaps more prolific as a poet. Her poetry is also intended to elicit strong emotional reactions through both its content and form, including the placement of the words on the page. She has been featured in myriad anthologies, magazines, and journals and has routinely published collections. The majority of her early verse was gathered in volumes published between 1992 and 1997. She notes that in her work she is responding to an oppressive childhood, a destructive sexist culture, and a need to interpret technological developments through art. She has taught at the University of Oklahoma, been writer-in-residence at Brown University, and remained an active lecturer and performer of her own works to audiences around the world. She returned to the theater in 1981, receiving her third Obie Award for Chucky’s Hunch, an emotion-laden series of unanswered letters written to a former wife. Rochelle Owens continues to experiment with language and form, always attempting to shock her audience into contemplation through the juxtaposition of emotional extremes.