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Identifier: MC 927

Tom O'Horgan Theatrical Papers


  • 1965-1991

Scope and Content Note

The Tom O'Horgan Theatrical Papers, 4.3 cubic feet dating from 1965 to 1991, include a variety of materials saved by O'Horgan from productions in which he, and the actors and designers who worked with him, redefined the dominant modes of American theater. Substantial materials trace O'Horgan's work from the mid-1970s, with a few scattered items from his earlier work. Some significant items are scripts which belonged to Galen McKinley, who served O'Horgan as production stage manager in a number of productions; in these are recorded many of the technical details of O'Horgan's stagings─blocking, lights and music cues. Materials connected with the collaborations of O'Horgan with the Danish writer Elsa Gress are also noteworthy.

There is an immediate problem in arranging the works of a director and dramaturge, especially one whose talents were as various, and whose works were so emphatically for the stage and the moment, as were Tom O'Horgan's. The materials are extremely various: they include scripts with notes, photographs, set designs, administrative records, press clippings, programs, posters, flyers, brochures and other publicity materials, and so forth; and almost all have actually been produced by O'Horgan's colleagues and assistants. The nature of O'Horgan's work emerges not from any single item so much as from the combination of this variety brought together. Therefore, in order to preserve the relations of these items to one another, they have not been sorted according to format or document type. Rather, the groupings of the documents as they were received (gathered together by production) has been retained and rationalized under the series heading DRAMATIC WORKS AND RELATED MATERIALS (2.6 cubic feet), and arranged chronologically. Folder headings, reflecting contents as succinctly and specifically as possible, were assigned in the repository. The term "Dramatic Works" is therefore very loose; the series includes, for example, programs to concerts of musical works staged or written by O'Horgan. In the few instances where materials have been separated (for example, materials connected to collaborations between O'Horgan and Elsa Gress which were found together), provenance information has been recorded in notes in the finding aid.

There are four additional series in the collection. PHOTOGRAPHS (0.5 cubic feet) and VIDEOTAPES (four videotapes in VHS format) comprise separate series. O'Horgan's music manuscripts, which are solely his work and which are readily separable from other materials, have been gathered in the series SCORES. Finally, the GENERAL FILE includes miscellaneous items not connected to any single production, including correspondence from Elsa Gress, materials connected to O'Horgan associates Galen McKinley and Kevin O'Connor, press coverage of O'Horgan, and the like.


4.3 Cubic Feet (9 manuscript boxes, 5 photograph boxes, 2 oversize boxes, 2 map folders)

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

No restrictions.


Tom O'Horgan was a musician, composer and innovative theater director, of New York City. His papers consist chiefly of scripts, music manuscripts, programs, photographs, videotape recordings, stage designer's drawings, posters, reviews and other materials pertaining to over 50 theatrical productions (plays, musicals, television productions and films) and other staged events (primarily concerts). Included are materials relating chiefly to performances in the United States (at La Mama E.T.C., other New York City venues and elsewhere) and in Europe (especially Denmark). Some of the scripts are the copies used by J. Galen McKinley, the stage manager for several of O'Horgan's productions.

<emph render="bold">Biographical Sketch</emph>

Thomas Foster "Tom" O'Horgan was born in Chicago on May 3, 1926. His father, an amateur singer and theater enthusiast, encouraged O'Horgan's interests from a young age: as a child, O'Horgan was already writing opera and planning ambitious stage productions. After taking degrees in music from DePaul University, O'Horgan began work in New York and Chicago managing and performing in different shows, and presenting a nightclub act as (he later said) a "beat harpist." He also composed music, wrote and directed productions for the Chicago theatrical company Second City.

The late 1950s found O'Horgan in New York, where Second City had relocated. Over several years O'Horgan staged various original works in New York's increasingly active avant-garde theater scene. After an O'Horgan staging of Jean Genet's The Maids at Caffe Cino was seen and admired by Ellen Stewart, the costume designer and force behind the Cafe La Mama (founded in 1961), O'Horgan began working─and, for a time, living─at La Mama, one of the most active venues of the burgeoning New York Off-Off Broadway theater movement. There he directed, performed, wrote music and built sets for numerous productions put on in the club, new plays by Tom Eyen, Paul Foster, Leonard Melfi, Rochelle Owens, Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude Van Ittalie, Lanford Wilson and others.

In 1965 Ellen Stewart sent two companies of actors from La Mama abroad. A group which went to Paris was not very well received; but Tom O'Horgan's company, which went to Copenhagen, met with popular and critical acclaim. In addition to its stage repertory, the La Mama Troupe (as it had been dubbed) under O'Horgan's direction made a film, Boxiganga, with a screenplay by the Danish writer Elsa Gress. Danish tours in 1965 and 1966 were followed by a longer tour in 1967 to a number of European cities, culminating in the 1967 Edinburgh festival, where the La Mama presentation of Rochelle Owens' Futz! won for it some notoriety in the conservative Scottish press, and where, more importantly, Paul Foster's Tom Paine was received with great enthusiasm.

With the La Mama Troupe, O'Horgan had refined and developed the working techniques for "total theater." The basic idea of total theater was derived from the opera; as it evolved between O'Horgan and his actors, however, the term took on a special meaning. As O'Horgan applied it, total theater applied most immediately to the actors themselves, who were directed by O'Horgan in communicating with their entire bodies, not only through speech but through singing, playing, dancing, expressing. O'Horgan's role as director was not so much to tell the actors what to do and how to react, as it was to arrange them in such a way that their own actions and their reactions, to the basic raw material of a play and to each other, would combine for maximum effect─in keeping with the synaesthesia of total theater, O'Horgan conceived himself as an "orchestrator" or "sculptor" of the dramatic action. The freshness and immediacy achieved through this effort to evade the conventional strictures and formalities of theater was clearly felt by audiences, for whom O'Horgan's total theater thus had a wider meaning: it was theater constantly spilling over the edges of the stage, involving the audience directly in the emotion and action of the play.

This approach was at the heart of the successes of the Danish tours, of Futz! and Tom Paine, and O'Horgan returned to New York to apply the same principles to a string of hits. Futz! and Tom Paine both enjoyed long runs Off-Broadway; they were shortly joined by the epoch-making Hair, the "American Tribal Love Rock Musical," and the equally highly acclaimed Lenny, based on the life of Lenny Bruce, the controversial comedian (and friend of Tom O'Horgan's from his days on the nightclub circuit). A film of Futz! was shot in 1969; an experimental television production, Paul Foster's !Heimskringla! or The Stoned Angels, was shot later that year.

In the 1970s O'Horgan was presented with further opportunities to explore his manifold talents. In 1970 he led a new company on tour in the U.S. and abroad, the New Troupe, presenting two plays by Sam Shepard and O'Horgan's own Gurton's Apocalyptic Needle, an adaptation of medieval drama. Inner City and the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar! opened on Broadway in 1971. In 1972, O'Horgan led a U.S. tour of Tom Paine. In 1974, he directed Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel and Karen Black in a film version of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. In the same year, in Denmark, O'Horgan directed an Elsa Gress teleplay, Philoctetes Wounded, on Danish television. In 1976, O'Horgan broke into opera, designing sets for a Vienna State Theater production of Berlioz' The Trojans; in 1977 he directed Leon Kirchner's Lily at the New York City Opera. And even while engaged in other work on and off Broadway in the 1970s, O'Horgan was still active at La Mama E.T.C., where he directed Francisco Arrabal's The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria in 1976 (this production subsequently toured South America and Europe), Albert Camus' Caligula in 1977, and Bertold Brecht's The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui in 1978. Hair was revived in 1977; O'Horgan also continued his collaborations with Elsa Gress in Denmark, presenting Environment Theater in 1979 (a presentation of the paintings of Clifford Wright for which O'Horgan wrote music) and Memory of the Future for television in 1980.

In the years from 1980 through 1991, O'Horgan's work continued to explore new directions. In addition to more conventional (if never "traditional") works for stage, such as I Won't Dance (1981), Pal Joey (1983), Mowgli (1985), Senator Joe and Nimrod (1989) and Arrabal's The Body-builder's Book of Love (1990), O'Horgan contributed to experimental works such as The Light Opera (1983) and spectacles such as the 1983 Brooklyn Bridge Centennial show The Eighth Wonder and the Union Square experimental concert Sky Music. O'Horgan's attention increasingly turned to music; he staged Bernstein's Mass at the Kennedy Center (1981), Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale at Carnegie Hall (1982), Mozart's The Magic Flute (1991), and the music theater of Harry Partsch (at the Bang on a Can Festival, 1991), and continued to write and present music of his own.

Related Collections

At other repositories: Additional Tom O'Horgan papers are held by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.

At Rutgers University Libraries: Documentation concerning Tom O'Horgan, or plays that he produced, is also represented in the Paul Foster Theatrical Papers (MC 865) and in the Jerry Cunliffe Theatrical Papers (MC 901).

Tom O'Horgan Theatrical Papers MC 927
Edited Full Draft
Wendell Piez
September 1993
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English