Judith Malina ran the Living Theatre for close to 70 years. I knew her for about half of that time, though I only saw her sporadically. We got acquainted when Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and I toured in Europe with Judith, Julian Beck, and several members of the company in the fall of 1979.
“The Living,” as the company refers to itself, is the oldest experimental theater group in the United States. Between 1951 and the present, they have mounted more than a hundred productions. (I use the present perfect tense of the verb to mount here rather than the past tense because, contrary to a New York Daily News headline of 2013, the Living are not dead.)
Judith was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1926. Her father, a rabbi (and apparently something of a prophet), was alarmed at the rise of Nazism and so took his family to New York when Judith was three years old. As a teenager, she worked as a singing waitress in Greenwich Village. At 17 she met Julian Beck, and they set out to educate themselves as thoroughly as possible in the arts. In 1946, Judith began studying at the New School with the German Expressionist director and theorist Erwin Piscator whose concept of “epic theater” was taken up by Berthold Brecht. She wrote in her diary at the time that her studies were to prepare her for the Living Theatre. It seems she had named the company before it materialized. Julian was an abstract expressionist painter and became a respected set designer before co-founding the Living Theatre with Judith in 1947.
The Living came into being during – and were key players in – the emergence of the radical avant-garde in New York in the post-World-War period. You could say they were working on the 1960s in the 1940s. They were working on the ‘90s and 2000s too: the company was multi-ethnic, polyamorous, and radically queer from the get-go.
Judith and Julian were both poets, and early productions reflected their interest in poetic language. Their first production, in 1951, was of Gertrude Stein’s “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights.” They went on to present work by Alfred Jarry, Kenneth Rexroth, T. S. Eliot, Paul Goodman, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, W. H. Auden, and William Carlos Williams.
Their work played a seminal role in the Off-Broadway theater movement. Two of their most influential early productions were Jack Gelber’s play “The Connection” (1959), about heroin addicts, and Kenneth H. Brown’s “The Brig” (1963), about a U.S. Marine prison. The latter production attracted the ire of the government, and the IRS shut down the play, arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed the directors on tax charges, and impelled the company into exile for much of the ‘60s. For years they operated internationally as a nomadic anarchist collective with a base in Italy.
The Living Theatre performed in eight languages in 28 countries on five continents, but sustaining experimental work in the conservative cultural climate of the U.S. was always a struggle. Every New York home the company had between 1953 and 1993 was shut down on various pretexts by authorities such as the Fire Department and the Buildings Department.
Julian and Judith were pacifist anarchists. They believed that the theater could transform reality not just for the duration of a performance, but in an ongoing way, that it could and should be a force for radical social change, what Judith called “beautiful non-violent revolution.”
In 1968, Judith told a New York Times interviewer, “I demand everything — total love, an end to all forms of violence and cruelty such as money, hunger, prisons, people doing work they hate. . . . We can have tractors and food and joy. I demand it now!”
Julian Beck described the Living’s mission as follows.
To call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theater, to undo the knots that lead to misery, to spread ourselves across the public’s table like platters at a banquet, to set ourselves in motion like a vortex that pulls the spectator into action, to fire the body’s secret engines, to pass through the prism and come out a rainbow, to insist that what happens in the jails matters, to cry “Not in my name!” at the hour of execution, to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the theater.
As Bruce Weber noted in the New York Times (April 10, 2015), the Living Theatre “was perhaps the most prominent and persistent advocate for a ‘new theater,’ one that sought to dissolve the accepted artifice of stage presentations, to conjoin art and political protest, and to shrink, if not eliminate, the divide between performers and the audience.”
During the 1960s, they increasingly incorporated elements of improvisation and audience participation. Their most controversial production, “Paradise Now” (1968) involved intense audience interaction, pot smoking, nudity and sexuality. In Italy and France, where the Living developed a huge following, police shut the show down. I was once on a panel with Judith on the subject of performance, and a guy who looked to be in his thirties got up during the Q&A and said that he had been conceived at a “Paradise Now” performance.
In the 1970s, the Living produced a series of plays, called “The Legacy of Cain,” to be performed in prisons, factories, streets, schools, and other alternative venues. In the 1980s they developed techniques to rehearse with audience members and then introduce them as company members in performance. In 1989 they established a space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was closed by the authorities in 1993. In 1999 with funding from the European Union, they established a residency program in Rocchetta Ligure, Italy, where they made a play celebrating the citizens’ resistance to Nazi occupation. In 2001 they collaborated with Lebanese artists to make a site-specific play protesting the treatment of political prisoners in Lebanon. In 2008 the Living established a base on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side. They lost that space in 2013.
The Living were sometimes scoffed at, sometimes panned by critics, many times arrested (Judith said she’d been jailed in 12 different countries), and they were deported from Brazil for publicizing street theatre work critical of social conditions, but they never wavered. They kept at the work for decades, and after Julian died in 1985, Judith and her long-time partner Hanon Reznikov kept at it for more decades until he died in 2008, and still she kept at it, finally directing and performing from a wheelchair until she died last Friday, April 10, in a home for retired actors in New Jersey.
Jon Kalish, in The Jewish Daily Forward (April 14, 2015) reported on perhaps her last performance, which took place in December at the Bowery Poetry Club. “She was in a wheelchair and breathing with the help of an oxygen tank as she read a poem about Eric Garner, the African-American man from Staten Island who died in a police choke hold last summer. Malina’s reading was followed by chants of ‘I can’t breathe’.”
As I noted at the start, I can’t speak of the Living Theatre in the past tense, because it isn’t past. It’s not the type of thing that ends. The work of cultural transformation goes on as long as the actors and family members and affiliated artists and disciples continue that work and continue to pass the work to succeeding generations. It goes on in innumerable subtle tendrils such as the one initiated in 2010 when I took a group of my students to the first theatrical performance they had ever seen. The Living is large. It’s part of the world fabric now.
Julian and Judith were extraordinarily kind and generous and supportive. When we were on tour and I would nervously perform a poem or song because Ginsberg insisted that I do so, they cheered. I never saw them shoot anybody down. Judith in particular was a happy genius. She radiated curiosity and love of life and art; art was everything. When you worked with her, she took you totally seriously. She was barely five feet tall but her joyous aura filled whatever room she was in.
Whenever I have been with the Living, I have felt completely turned on and have also felt a kind of longing or jealousy because I wasn’t with them more often. I have gone for a year or more without visiting, because the real world is a swamp of complication and entrapment and getting to the Living was like some kind of impossible dream, until Judith would invite me to participate in an evening of performance, or later to collaborate on some music for a play, then it was back to the big open sky of art without limit.
That big open sky tended to happen most often in small rooms. It’s amazing what the Living can make happen in a basement room with a few rudimentary lighting instruments. That’s the magic of the theater at its purest. Judith was pure magic. She still is. The plays, the poems, the manfestos, the diaries are still there, and the company is still there because Judith and Julian’s son Garrick, and Tom Walker, and Brad Burgess and the ever-evolving company continue the work.
So go look for the Living.