Richard Foreman, the avant-garde director and playwright, has come a long way since 1968, when he opened his theater in a fourth-floor loft on lower Broadway. In the intervening 15 years he has produced approximately 20 of his own plays for his company, the Ontological- Hysteric Theater. For the last two years, Mr. Foreman has been in residence at the Public Theater, where the latest Ontological-Hysteric production, "Egyptology (My Head Was a Sledge Hammer)," opens this week. He has also created several musical theater pieces with the composer Stanley Silverman, including "Dr. Selavy's Magic Theater, " which had a long Off Broadway run, and "Madame Adare," which was performed two years ago by the New York City Opera. And his unorthodox stagings of classic plays have been seen on such prestigious stages as the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and the Paris Opera.

Despite his international renown, however, Mr. Foreman remains a controversial figure. The stubbornly original theatrical techniques that have won him many admirers and critical champions continue to outrage the theatergoing public. When Joseph Papp brought the stylized Foreman staging of Moliere's "Don Juan" from the Guthrie to Central Park last summer, Mr. Foreman was accused of purposely trying to destroy Moliere's play.

Both of the director's previous productions at the Public, Botho Strauss's "Three Acts of Recognition" and his own "Penguin Touquet," caused an unusually high number of walkouts. And earlier this year he made headlines in Paris several days in a row after audiences booed his production of "Die Fledermaus" for its use of nudity and bright lights shining in the audience's eyes -- two of Mr. Foreman's favorite devices.

"I'm always in trouble," the 45-year-old director said recently, unperturbed. The day before "Egyptology" began previews, he was sitting in the lobby of the Public while workmen finished last-minute construction on the set. "I have the feeling that of all the people in my position -- Robert Wilson, Mabou Mines, Meredith Monk -- my work creates a certain amount of hostility which will prevent me from ever being totally acceptable," he went on. "Whenever I do a big production and I think, 'This one they're all going to love,' I get slapped in the face and reminded how idiosyncratic and how aggressive my work really is."

It's true that Mr. Foreman's style of both directing and writing is aggressively idiosyncratic. From the very beginning his plays rejected dramatic action in favor of their own quirky logic. The various elements of theater -- music, speech, lighting, movement -- have independent lives within each production instead of blending into a harmonious whole; a lighting effect, a burst of prerecorded music, or the brandishing of a weird prop might have as much importance as a spoken line of dialogue. And rather than presenting motivated characters in a straightforward story line, Mr. Foreman's plays consist of nonlinear fragments in which the actors do not so much play characters as embody states of mind. As one critic has observed, "What happens in this drama reverses a traditional process. We do not see the full-bodied character and fathom his soul: we observe the presence of the soul and imagine the character."

Chaotic and hard-to-follow as they may sometimes be, Mr. Foreman's plays are not meant to be obscure. His peculiar staging techniques represent in specific physical terms the philosophical and extremely personal themes that run through his plays: the attempt to break out of social conditioning, the quest for enlightenment, the need to understand the fragmented nature of the human mind. Any first-time visitor to the Ontological-Hysteric Theater is bound to be disoriented by the jarring noises, the object-strewn scenery, the oddly melodramatic language, and the non-naturalistic style of acting Mr. Foreman prefers. Yet the very strangeness of the work, the fact that it doesn't look like any other kind of theater, often makes it entertaining, comical and surprisingly moving.

Although his plays look and sound much the same now as they did 10 or 15 years ago, Mr. Foreman sees a clear progression in his work. "At the beginning I decided to cut out all rhetoric," he said. "I only wanted to register little discrete moments of physical sensation, so my plays were all about, 'Oh, I'm sitting on the chair. It's hard. Now it's even harder. Pause. Adjust." It was all on that level. It also had a very distinct narrative, which the audience probably couldn't follow, but I wrote from an outline. At a certain point, I got the courage to throw away the outline and started to speak about other things, making contact with the codes and the language systems we live with and reflecting all the garbage, the debris of our culture. Finally, the third step was to touch base with mythic, archetypal themes."

During this last phase, Mr. Foreman's plays have become increasingly less cerebral and more emotional, a trend he attributes to two factors. One is the influence of Kate Manheim, who lives with Mr. Foreman and acts in all his plays; the daughter of the noted German translator Ralph Manheim, she has an eerie, spaced out style of delivery and a romantic, Garboesque presence that combine to make even Mr. Foreman's loftiest philosophical concerns urgently personal. "What's interesting is that she brought something to my work that I would have rejected," he said. "She came to America 10 years ago and got hooked on all these television serials that I would never deign to watch. She loved "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" and so forth. And the injection of that kind of energy into my pretensions of rarefied intellectual art" -- here Mr. Foreman chuckled at himself -- "has been tremendously healthy. I'm terribly interested in using the lowest kind of theatrical shtick,but using it in a way that, I hope, has rather subtle, elegant theatrical points to make."

The other influence on Mr. Foreman's recent writing was his turning 40. "I'm not a Jungian," he said, "but I do remember Jung saying that when you turn 40 you either start to make contact with some sort of deep emotional current in yourself that connects with the archetypes, or you tend to dry up as a person. I've been purposely trying to make some connection with something as my death approaches, and I think it's racing toward me. I've done the work of learning my grammar, and I want to show people that it's not just a perverse, irrelevant, dadaistic grammar but a language that can speak clearly about all the things that touch us most profoundly."

In evolving his theatrical language, Mr. Foreman was most influenced by Brecht, Gertrude Stein, and 1960s underground films. "From the time I was a kid I was attracted to things that didn't scan properly," he said. "When I was 13, I thought Tennessee Williams's 'Camino Real' was the greatest thing in the world. I dragged my parents to it, and they thought it didn't make any sense. I was brought up as a nice, middle-class Jewish boy who felt a tremendous obligation to be a success, and being a success meant trying to write a play like Arthur Miller or like Brecht. Through college I tried to write like them. At Yale my playwriting professor thought I had talent but he said I had a tendency to like an effect and want to repeat it, and I had to guard against that.

"I came to New York after college and accidentally stumbled on these young poor people who just went out and made their own movies and let the rough edges show -- indeed, let the very content of the film be their awkwardness and their inability to make a film like Hollywood. This was the big revelation of my life. It allowed me to say to myself it doesn't matter if I can't write as slickly as Arthur Miller or as powerfully as Brecht, I have to deal with my own material. I have to accept it and show it. I have to say, 'This is what I do.' I wouldn't be able to do it if I hadn't had the example of people like Jonas Mekas, Yvonne Rainer, and Jack Smith."

This self-consciousness and self-examination remains a central feature of Mr. Foreman's work. "My plays have no indication when I write them who is speaking, so in a sense it is me talking to myself," he said. "The way I work is that at odd times of the day I get ideas for five lines of dialogue, and I jot them down. Every couple of months I type up all my jottings, and I have this stack of papers. When it comes time to get a play together, I spread them out on the floor and make a collage of all the material I've been jotting down randomly over the last year. Generally, I find a key page and experiment with that as a metaphorical center. The first page I picked up this time had these references to Egypt, so I organized the play around that."

"Egyptology," according to Mr. Foreman, concerns three Americans "stranded in an exotic culture and wanting to use the exoticism for their own private purposes without caring too much what happens to the people there. It has something to do with my feeling that if anything dominates the world I'm living through, it's the complete heterogeneity, that incredible cultural mix that I don't think any time on this planet has ever experienced before," he said. "This is related to my own shock and fascination with another culture, which is France; I spend half the year there now, and I feel totally schizophrenic about it. There's also a slight political overlay, nothing overt, but I think what's happening with the Third World influx, American imperialism, the American search for markets and such is a kind of music we should make an effort to keep present in our minds so we know where we are."

Mr. Foreman's residency at the Public has given him a much higher visibility for his Ontological-Hysteric Theater than when he worked out of a loft in SoHo, and one wonders if he considers his aggressively idiosyncratic plays comprehensible to anyone who might wander in by chance. "Sure," he said. "I really do. I know they're not, because of conditioning. Life is hard, and in order to manipulate your way through all of its obstacles you give yourself certain rules and you teach yourself that there's a certain straight-and-narrow that your personality has to learn to travel. Therefore, if something arises in your field that seems a little crazy, you can't open yourself to it because that would mean you're going to behave aberrantly in the office the next day and the boss is going to put you down. So I can understand why some people shut out my plays. On the other hand, since my plays are my own effort to break through that conditioning, I know that everybody else could."

New York Times, 1983