The Devil Digs Up Olga
An Exploration of Olga’s House of Shame and The Wooster Group’s House/Lights
Reading time 30 Minutes
An Exploration of Olga’s House of Shame
Unanchored to narrative, experimental filmmakers are able to show you whatever they want, in whatever order they want, for whatever reason they want. As a result, the best ones feel uncharted, experiential and – being a horror guy, this was always especially important – dangerous. I think it was Beckett who said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that his plays aren’t about something, they are The Something. This is how these films felt to me. So far as I can remember, my introduction to experimental anything began with David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which I bought on a bootlegged VHS at a Fangoria Weekend of Horror convention. Lynch’s wonderfully strange, lo-fi images washed over me. What did said images mean, exactly? No clue. I wasn’t there yet; in that moment, I was only interested in the images for their own sake, and the sounds and sheer bizarre-ness of the scenes (“Um, are those giant sperm falling from the ceiling?”). More importantly, I was interested in the creator. This, for me, has always been the main appeal of experimental films. They tend to be immersive in a way that conventional cinema really isn’t. That is to say, when you watch these films, you’re not inside the head of the character, you’re inside the head of the artist.
Around the same time, I was also falling in love with another kind of cinema – low-budget exploitation movies from the 1960s and 70s. These were, in a lot of ways, about as far away from the ‘high-brow’ art films of Lynch and his ilk as you can be, and I discovered most of them in the worst way possible; which is to say, through Mystery Science Theatre 3000 – a show that I have mixed feelings about. Viewed from a preservationist standpoint, MST3k serves as a form of cultural recycling, finding new uses for forgotten objects and giving them new life. (Would we still be talking about Manos: The Hands of Fate without MST3k? Probably not. Would the filmmakers prefer their films simply be forgotten as opposed to ridiculed? For many of them, probably.) With that said, there are also a number of wonderfully strange, oddball gems that have been undeservedly slapped with the simplistic “Bad Movie” label because of the show.
In any case: these were the two kinds of movies that I was most enamored with as a 17 year old, growing up in Maine.
Fast-forward eight years later, and I found myself getting an MFA in Playwriting at Brown University, which, for the uninitiated, is a school that really likes its Avant-garde theatre (and literature, and film, and art, and…). I’d gotten into theatre more or less by accident (having basically exhausted all of the other writing classes my undergrad university offered), but loved it once I found it. Suddenly, I had access to a world of writing that was both in keeping with everything I loved about film and fiction, but which necessarily behaved differently; playwriting felt more language-driven than film, more performative than fiction. Early on, I obsessed over plays by Sarah Kane, Edward Albee, Rebecca Gilman, Eugene Ionesco, and Wallace Shawn (if you only know Shawn for his performances in The Princess Bride and My Dinner With Andre, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of his plays Aunt Dan and Lemon and A Thought In Three Parts); tough, dark, introspective writers, all.
However, during my two years at Brown, I read relatively few play-type-plays. While my pals at other universities were deconstructing Shakespeare and Chekhov et al., we were reading obscure William Blake poems and essays about genocide. The program was deeply political with frequent discussions on the cultural impact of three act structure and the way we – as writers / storytellers / poets – reinforce normative values through conventional narratives. If other schools treated playwriting as a craft to be learned (in the same way one learns carpentry or auto repair), Brown treated it as something more akin to joining a religion; a calling with moral dimensions that couldn’t be disentangled from the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the work. Washing someone’s foot is not about hygiene, it is an offering.
This is the context in which I first discovered the works of The Wooster Group, who – miraculously – managed to marry all of my early loves – film, theatre, horror, exploitation, and experimental art – into one bizarre little package known as House/Lights.
But before I talk about that, I need to talk about Olga.
OLGA’S HOUSE OF SHAME
Olga’s House of Shame is a smutty little S&M thriller that was released into grindhouse cinemas in 1964, an early entry in the roughie subgenre which went on to replace the nudie-cutie films of the late 1950s and early 60s. When it came out, it was apparently shocking enough that several theaters showing it were charged with violating obscenity laws, and the case eventually made its way as high as the Supreme Court before the ruling came down in Olga’s favor. Today, it could probably play on daytime television without creating much of a stir, and yet the deep weirdness of the film lends it a kind of tonal and aesthetic relevancy.
Written and produced by George Weiss (of Glen or Glenda fame) and directed by Joseph P. Mawra, Olga’s House of Shame tells the story of a madam (the titular Olga) who runs a multi-million dollar crime operation, of international reach, out of an abandoned ore mine in the woods. The film can be read as an examination of the way that corrupt societies produce corrupt individuals; over the course of the movie, Olga grows increasingly paranoid and violent as her staff of sex workers continue to betray her. Meanwhile, her first captive, Elaine (who is the closest thing we have to an audience proxy) struggles to escape the compound. As her escape attempts continuously fail and the abuse against her mounts, Elaine’s previously meek demeanor begins to slip and be replaced by a new, more sadistic persona. Eventually, Elaine transforms entirely and begins gleefully doling out the same brutality on others that she herself previously suffered. Late in the film, Olga stands back watching as Elaine whips the most recent saboteur, and thinks aloud in a dubbed narration: “She looked as if she’d handled a bullwhip all of her life and I could see then we were going to do a lot of good together.” The film ends with Elaine and Olga joining forces, now two like-minded monsters, vowing to continue their streak of greed and sadism into the next film in the Olga series.
But, in truth, the film is less concerned with the actual characters or the crimes they commit (which we’re told include prostitution, narcotics and jewel smuggling) and more with Olga and her brother Nick punishing the sex workers who have double-crossed them. This is essentially the film’s raison d'être. The tone is both relentlessly sadistic and deeply silly, with the scenes of violence feeling about as convincing as Bela Lugosi wrestling the giant octopus in Bride of the Monster. At times you can see the actors who are doing the torturing trying not to giggle while their victims thrash and flail in a desperate attempt to sell the scene.
But none of this actually communicates what makes Olga so wonderfully bizarre, which is really the best reason to watch the film; ultimately, Olga is fun for the sheer strangeness of some of its aesthetic choices. From the music to the setting to film’s omnipresent narrator, whose bland, disembodied voice feels like it was lifted from some 1950s educational short on the importance of good hygiene, the film benefits immeasurably from the having been made by people who clearly didn’t know how to make a movie (in the traditional sense, at least). Had the filmmakers more time or money or training, some of the film’s unusual (and memorable) moments would almost definitely be lost.
One such moment comes in the form of one of those ostensibly-sexy dance sequences that seemed to be all the rage in 1960s genre cinema. In it, two sex-workers are lounging, looking as bored as store mannequins, while a third does a kind of faux-Arabian belly dance. The narrator explains: “The girls wanted to be entertained, and Marianna was willing to oblige by doing one of her more tantalizing dances… The girls were in the mood for anything, so why not let themselves go all the way! Go the limit!” This is apparently evidenced by the women sitting, jouncing one foot ever so slightly and tapping their hands lightly on the sofa. The chasm between what’s being shown and what’s being said is – to say the least – wide, and there’s something almost artistic in how boldly misleading the narration is in this moment. This may have been a result of the fact that the movie was shot without a script – just a treatment. As Joseph Mawra put it in an interview with The Rialto Report, “Dialogue took longer to write and film. But I could write a treatment quickly. I could literally write it overnight.” The actual story, as well as the voice overs, would be created later in the editing room.
Regardless, whether or not this scene, and many others like it, is to be read as silly or lovely or sad depends almost entirely on the viewer and how willing they are to extend the filmmaker a certain benefit of the doubt. The choices are boldly unconventional and, deliberate or not, lend the film an unexpected, highly stylized quality that, in a different context, could almost be described as avant garde.
Which brings me back to House/Lights.
HOUSE / LIGHTS
Described by the New York Times’ Ben Brantley as “America’s most inspired [theater] company,” The Wooster Group was founded in New York in the mid-1970s. Emerging out of Richard Schechner’s The Performance Group – whose play Dionysus in ‘69 was documented by Brian De Palma in his 1970 film of the same name, and whose title character was played by De Palma regular William Finley – The Wooster Group began in 1975 by producing the trilogy Three Places in Rhode Island. These pieces (Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, and Nayatt School) were rooted in the autobiographical impulses of Spalding Gray, and were the foundation for his later monologue performances, famously filmed by Jonathan Demme (Swimming to Cambodia, 1987), Nick Broomfield (Monster in a Box, 1992) and Steven Soderbergh (Gray’s Anatomy, 1996). All were directed by Elizabeth LeCompte (one of TWG’s founders and its primary director, as well as a winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Award). They ended the series with a fourth “epilog” called Point Judith in 1979, which introduced fellow-founding member, Willem Dafoe.
The group went on to produce experimentalist versions of classic texts which included O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones, Chekhov’s Three Sisters (Brace Up!), as well as a somewhat notorious production of Wilder’s Our Town called Route 1 & 9. According to Andrew Quick’s The Wooster Group Work Book (2007), “Route 1 & 9 juxtaposed Our Town with Pigmeat Markham’s comedy routines, which were performed in blackface and included a lecture demonstration, dance, the presentation of Wilder’s text in the style of soap opera on televisions suspended from the lighting rig, task-based actions (the construction of a house) and a pornographic road-movie within its multiple layers.” The production drew a heated response and resulted in the New York State Council on the Arts drastically reducing the group’s funding. LeCompte followed this up with a Timothy Leary-themed riff on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, called L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...), which resulted in Arthur Miller’s lawyers sending a cease and desist letter, and having the production shut down.
The Wooster Group presented its first work-in-progress showings of HOUSE/LIGHTS in February 1997. HOUSE/LIGHTS is essentially a collage of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 opera libretto Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (a modernist retelling of Marlowe’s Faust, which was later adapted by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe) and the aforementioned 1964 trash-classic Olga’s House of Shame. If you’ve ever read Gertrude Stein and aren’t already a fan of her particular brand of literary cubism, you can be forgiven for getting pre-impatient with that last sentence.
Born in Pittsburg in 1874, Stein moved to Paris in 1903 where she lived and worked for the rest of her life. Today, Stein is probably known as much for her writing as for the Saturday evening salons which she ran out of her house, and which have become the stuff of legend. There she mentored such young artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Francis Cyril Rose, as well as writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis and Ezra Pound (and the list goes on). As a writer, Stein moved back and forth between fiction, poetry and playwriting, oftentimes blurring the distinctions between the genres. Her writing boldly eschewed conventional narratives in favor of a kind of pure-language approach that sought to strip words of their conventional meanings and associations.
Thus, sentences like “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” (“Sacred Emily”) And “Chicken: alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.” (Tender Buttons) And: “I think I have thought thought is not bought oh no thought is not bought I think think I have thought and what have I bought I have bought thought, to is not bought but I I have bought thought and so you come here you you come here and here and here where can I say that not today not any can play I look and see, no no I cannot look no no I cannot see and you you you see are Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel and I I cannot see I cannot see Marguerite Ida and I cannot see Helena Annabel and you you are the two and I cannot cannot see you.” (Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights) Whether you find this sort of thing fascinating or maddening will depend largely on your appetite for repetition and monosyllabic words. (To be fair, many have argued that Hemingway’s writing is little more than a prettier version of the style that Stein created, and yet somehow he’s managed to avoid a lot of the aesthetic criticism that Stein receives.) Nevertheless, Stein’s work represents one of the important voices of early-20th century Modernist Literature, as well as of Queer Feminist Literature.
In anycase, the mash-up between Stein’s text and Olga works gloriously. To quote Ben Brantley’s 1999 New York Times review: “Hold the groans, please, and the dismissive rolling of the eyes […] There is nothing dry or academic in the experience of the show. As a mind-scrambling entertainment, there's nothing else like it around; it turns disorientation into a primary sensual pleasure, even as it raises terrifying thoughts about the deeply mixed blessings of technological progress.”
House / Lights opens on a darkened stage with metal guard rails, white floor lights, and several televisions playing grainy B&W footage from Olga’s House of Shame. An actress sits on a rolling stool, center-stage, spotlight on her face, breathing in thin whispery inhalations. Dimly lit exposed lightbulbs descend from the rafters and begin to rotate upwards again as though attached to fans of a slow-moving windmill. On the televisions screens, a car moves down a dirt road through the woods. A woman (Olga’s prisoner-turned-accomplice Elaine) staggers out of the vehicle and collapses to the ground as the driver chases after her, then beats her unconscious.
Meanwhile, the actress (in the play) begins to recite the opening of Stein’s text, which are essentially stage directions: “Faust standing at the door of his room, with his arms up at the door lintel looking out, behind him a blaze of electric light.” Later, it shifts to a kind of internal monologue: “I am Doctor Faustus who knows everything can do everything and you say it was through you but not at all, if I had not been in a hurry and if I had taken my time I would have known how to make white electric light and day light and night light and what did I do I saw you devil I saw you and I was deceived…” The words feel almost like an incantation of sorts. At some point, we hear a duck quack.
Back on the television(s), the driver hefts the now unconscious Elaine over his shoulder and carries her to the nearby ore mine. Somehow, in this context, everything that had previously made Olga’s House of Shame feel silly (e.g. technical incompetence, phony acting, etc.) now lends it a kind of chilling authenticity, like a snuff film that’s been discovered in some lunatic’s basement.
From there, the play alternates between horror and slapstick, utilizing a mish-mash of old and new technologies (for 1999, that is): puppets, computerized voices, live video-tricks wherein stage actors are edited into / between scenes of Olga. Characters bound around the stage, flailing, falling, appearing and disappearing, posing and groping while disconnected sounds create strange cacophonies. The actors are less representation of characters than they are contributors to the aural and visual landscape; the same way that musicians in an orchestra collectively contribute to one large, singular sound.
Also, “Lumpy women” (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth LeCompte) are a big part of the show.
So what’s the story in all of this? In a sense, it really is just a very odd retelling of Marlowe’s original narrative: An ambitious man (in this case played by a woman) makes a deal with the devil in exchange for worldly gifts (which, in Stein’s version, is to be the inventor of artificial light) and comes to regret it. There’s also a love interest (of sorts) who appears in the form of Gretchen, and who Mephisto helps Faust seduce.
But that’s really where the similarities to Marlowe and Goethe’s texts end. LeCompte (much less Stein) isn’t interested in telling a conventional story and whatever shred of plot exists is contained less in the lines or interactions and more in the staging and blocking. An arc isn’t depicted so much as hinted at. More importantly, to attempt to describe the “story” is to miss the point of the production entirely. House/Lights is a sensory experience, like walking through a particularly silly and deviant haunted house, where strange things spring up out of the dark. One moment, you’ll find yourself watching as Mephisto drives Faustus through hell while singing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. The next moment, Mephisto is laying cross-eyed on a table while Faustus rubs her nipples and a computer generated voice asks “Are you aware that in 20 seconds you will be given a lethal injection and die?” What connects the two is less a narrative than the housing itself, and a set of impulses designed to delight and unmoor you.
House/Lights would go on to perform in Brooklyn, Chicago, Minneapolis, Copenhagen, Weimar, Amsterdam, Brussels, Montreal, and Paris, among other places. It won the 1999 OBIE Award for Best Production and was, earlier this year, included on the New York Times’ List of “25 Best American Plays since Angels in America.”
OLGA’S HOUSE / LIGHTS
Ultimately, what makes House/Lights such a fascinating work is the way it juxtaposes texts from opposite ends of the critical spectrum. Gertrude Stein was on the cover of Time Magazine and was dubbed a genius by fellow artists who were themselves geniuses. The most notable credit associated with Olga’s House of Shame is Weiss’s – a man whose films are legendary for, if anything, their ostensible badness. And yet, the longer you look at the two, the more similarities begin to emerge, narratively, architecturally, and semantically.
Skeptics will argue that because the intentions of the creators are so radically different the works themselves are inherently antithetical. After all, Gertrude Stein wanted to reinvent literary conventions and Joseph Mawra, well, didn’t. There are also those who distrust the exegetical approach in general, and see it as a kind of academic trick that tells you more about the critic than the work being critiqued. Author and literary contrarian, Dale Peck, made this argument best: “Here’s criticism’s trade secret: You can find meaning in anything if you look hard enough. Contemplate a work of art and patterns inevitably emerge, echoes, resonances, allusions which can be brought out and amplified through exegesis, the interpretive conceit by which a critic simultaneously deconstructs and rebuilds […] another writer’s vision.” And then, later: “[However,] exegesis is only incidentally or laterally concerned with quality. Its uncritical method can no more tell the difference between Hollywood Wives and The Iliad than a microscope’s lens can, on its own, distinguish between a drop of Jackie Collins’ blood and a drop of Homer’s.” And while there’s certainly truth there, these particular texts do seem to be speaking to one another. They seem to fit, both in their themes as well as their artistic preferences. Narratively, both texts tell the story of a decent person (Dr. Faustus / Elaine) making a deal with the devil (Mephisto / Olga) and losing their souls in the process. Non-narratively, both are fundamentally uninterested in conventional arcs, opting instead for loose, almost lyrical structures. Similarly, both utilize language that feels resistant to literal interpretation, thus making them receptive to creative juxtapositioning.
In Andrew Quick’s The Wooster Group Work Book, Katie Valk, who played Faustus and Elaine in House/Lights, explains how they ended up settling on the two texts: “We already had the idea to stage the Olga’s House of Shame film [...] but we knew we needed some weight, something to counter the film, that would give it bottom.” While Valk concedes that Olga was, by itself, not enough to sustain a theatrical adaptation, the reverse also seems to be true (at least for TWG’s purposes). If Stein’s Faustus provided House/Lights with its “weight,” then Olga offered something akin to lightness. A different quality, but a meaningful one. Later, in the same discussion, Elizabeth LeCompte draws parallels between Stein’s text and Olga’s House of Shame: “Those two pieces worked so well together: Stein’s language and that simple language that Elaine has with Olga. The two of them just bounce off each other really nicely. Because there is an air in [Stein’s] language, just like in the film’s language, about “What could this mean?”
And, of course, there’s the fact that both texts are just really really really weird, but weird in a particular kind of way which renders them experiential. This is a quality that The Wooster Group’s mashup amplifies beautifully. Stein’s text is – to return to Beckett – decidedly not about something, it is The Something. And the same can be said for Olga’s House of Shame, which feels less like watching a movie and more like digging up a box of lurid photographs; not lost, but buried. Hidden. More importantly, the mashup highlights qualities in both works that aren’t immediately obvious. By pairing the two, Stein’s work is allowed to be genuinely fun, and Olga is allowed to be genuinely menacing; qualities that weren’t visible at a glance, but nevertheless lurking there all along. These qualities – like the works in which we’ve found them – are made all the more potent specifically because they weren’t obvious. You had to dig to find them.
See below for an excerpt of House/Lights, courtesy of The Wooster Group.”
I’d like to thank the Wooster Group’s archivist, Clay Hapaz, for bringing The Wooster Group Work Book to my attention, as well as for being a great resource throughout the writing of this article. Special thanks also to photographers Paula Court and Mary Gearheart.
Ian MacAllister-McDonald is the writer/director of the film Some Freaks, as well as screenwriter of Rodney & Sheryl which was included on the 2017 Black List and Hit List. Ian holds an MFA in Playwriting from Brown University, where he also taught. He was the recipient of the Visionary Playwrights Award from Theatre Masters, as well as a playwriting grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ian has also been awarded fellowships to attend the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. He is an occasional contributor to the L.A. Review of Books.