We’ve had an objective from the beginning. I characterized it, many years ago when we were on 14th Street, as a desire to stress the sacredness of life, and break down the walls, and increase conscious awareness. And that never changes. — Julian Beck, 1983
The history of the Living Theatre virtually recapitulates the history of recent avant-garde political theatre: for over 30 years the theatre’s founders, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, have tried to reconcile a desire to make art through performance with an equally strong desire to effect social change. The Living’s survival is due to Beck and Malina’s continued willingness to confront new issues, aesthetic problems and audiences.
The word “living,” in fact, originally emblematic of the theatre’s commitment to a contemporary repertoire, has come to stand for its responsiveness to change. Beck and Malina have explored myriad approaches to theatre, adjusting their work to their perceptions of the evolving needs of their times. They have sought to poeticize and politicize theatre, they have challenged their audiences, taken the theatre into the streets and brought it to audiences who would otherwise never have experienced it. Their work has long been characterized by a mixture of idealism and hard-headed pragmatism.
Though they try as much as possible to live on the edges of a social structure they do not endorse, Beck and Malina have accepted money from the Mellon Foundation and have taken roles in commercial films. (Beck recently finished work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, in which he plays a gangster.) Malina quotes former Living Theatre member Steve Ben Israel to the effect that “we have all swum in dirty water” and goes on to say that, whatever its source, it is better that money go into theatre than into weapons.
In this era of ever-intensifying political and aesthetic reaction, the Living is manifesting its own brand of conservatism. Whereas in 1970 Beck and Malina rejected any association with the privileged, they now seem willing to re-enter the world of theatre-as-commodity. Once, their pronouncements and behavior were characterized by evangelical fervor; today, although their convictions are as strong as ever, they have tired of traveling, of carrying their message to the world, and would prefer a home, a measure of stability and an opportunity to concentrate on their theatre work. Like many contemporary artists, they seem to feel a need to reassess their own aesthetic origins and suppositions.
In the 1950s, the Living Theatre was New York City’s only ongoing repertory company. Together with a handful of other theatres on the fringes of Off Broadway, it helped to introduce European modernism and Brecht to the American stage; produced American writers relatively unknown at the time (Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth); and encouraged young American poets to try their hands at playwriting. In the 1960s, the Living Theatre was a traveling commune whose collective life style and Happening-like, participatory productions seemed the quintessence of Hippie culture. In 1970, the company declared: “The Living Theatre doesn’t want to perform for the privileged anymore because all privilege is violence to the underprivileged,” and exchanged its customary theatre festival and university audiences for the Brazilian and American proletariat. The company was imprisoned in Brazil in 1971. In 1975, it lived among Pittsburgh’s steelworkers, holding workshops, aiding in the development of topical political plays and engaging in practical politics by helping to establish a women’s center and a food co-op. The Living spent the balance of the decade mostly in Italy, touring incessantly through that country’s network of regional theatres, presenting plays and holding political discussions and theatre workshops.
After more than a decade-and-a-half on the road, the Living Theatre is ready to settle down. Following an offer of support for two seasons by the French Ministry of Culture, the company has made Paris its headquarters. Beck and Malina hope to find a permanent home there and are negotiating for the use of a theatre building in Clichy.
During a recent conversation in New York, where the company was rehearsing for a six-week repertory season at the Joyce Theatre, Malina explained to me that although the Living has frequently helped others to structure plays around specific political grievances, the company’s own work is seldom topical. The theatre hopes to present a radical position against which its audiences may assess their own beliefs. This position is more a moral or spiritual stand than a narrowly “political” one: an all-embracing pacifist anarchism which holds that violence of any kind is wrong, that hierarchical social structures are wrong, that any form of competitive, currency-based economic system is wrong. The theatre proposes an alternative in its own collective structure: when possible (as it is not during a temporary stay in New York), the members live together as well as work together.
Although each of the group’s productions has a single director, most decisions, including such day-to-day matters as the scheduling of rehearsals, are made by consensus, and every member is encouraged to voice an opinion or complaint, even if his or her position is ultimately overruled.
Harold Clurman once wrote that the Living Tharre seemed to him more interested in “living” than in “theatre”; to the extent that the group’s lifestyle is as much a part of its work and message as the plays it stages, he was right. As Malina readily admits, the Living Theatre is no Utopia: there are as many problems, as many clashes of personality within the company as within any other organization. The point, however, lies in the effort to create a viable collective which can serve as a model for a future society.
The Living’s performance style reflects its advocacy of collectivism. Its productions are examples of ensemble creation: the actors change roles frequently, now standing out as individuals, now receding into the group. Following Artaud, Beck and Malina believe that the actor’s body and presence are the essential elements of theatre, that the greatest hope for true communication lies in a simple encounter between human beings. The company’s work in this vein began in 1964 with Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, a collectively created event combining improvisation and ritual with incitement to change. The actors sang and chanted to the audiences, recited the words on a dollar bill, mimed the action of soldiers cleaning a barracks, burned incense, performed yoga exercises and asked the audience how the world might be changed. Images of a repressive, authoritarian world alternated with pleasurable images of a climate of freedom, then posed the question of how to transform one into the other, the essential issue behind the Living’s work. The ritualistic, imagistic style of Mysteries has been the basis of the theatre’s formal vocabulary for the last two decades.
The Living Theatre makes no attempt to create a consistent fictional reality; the concrete presence of the performers as people is always stressed in its productions. In Frankenstein (1965), actors supported by a scaffold created the monster, at once an image of human inequity and a demonstration of the power of collective effort. In the notorious 1968 Paradise Now, a long, complexly structured ritual, performers guided the audience through a series of “visions” and “rungs,” first attacking the spectators’ complacency, then inviting them to participate in the erotic “Rite of Universal Intercourse.” In the final portion of the event, actors and audience went together into the streets to call for revolution.
Although the plays the Living Theatre offered at the Joyce were more conventional in form than Paradise Now, the theatre has not abandoned its earlier techniques. Malina feels that much of the ground-breaking work done by the Living in the ’60s has had an effect, that on-stage nudity, anti-illusionism, audience confrontation and participation have become accepted elements of the theatrical vocabulary. In one of the four plays in the Living’s Joyce repertoire, The Yellow Methuselah—based on Shaw’s Back To Methuselah and Wassily Kandinsky’s The Yellow Sound, a seminal work of the early avant-garde—the actors create the environment of the Garden of Eden through abstract, animal-like sound and movement. Adam and Eve emerge from this ferment to play a scene from Shaw; the speaking actors are surrounded, lifted and positioned by other actors representing the environment, which becomes a force in the event. Audience involvement and confrontation are also used, though the Living’s engagement of the audience has become tamer and more structured over the years.
The Living’s choice of materials reflects a preoccupation with the mythic and archetypal-their symbolic treatment of the monster in Frankenstein is an example of this concern, as are the frequent references to yoga, the Cabbala, the I-Ching and other arcana in Paradise Now. In Antigone, the conflict between Creon and Antigone becomes an archetype for social conflict, the revolt of the oppressed against the oppressor and the complicity of the oppressed in their own condition. In Prometheus, Zeus and Lenin, both played by Julian Beck, were seen as having a similar stake in maintaining authoritarian ideological systems.
Unlike the many artists and thinkers, including Jerzy Grotowski, who doubt the ability of traditional myths and archetypes to affect a contemporary audience, the Living Theatre retains its faith in the possibility of universal communication through such imagery. Malina calls myth “one of the languages we have available to us.” Art has always drawn on mythic sources: “You can’t make art and leave out the art.” Nevertheless, the Living Theatre’s imagery is more introspective now than in the past, based on private perceptions as well as collective archetypes. Its current repertoire juxtaposes Antigone with Kandinsky’s more private imagery from The Yellow Sound and autobiographical reference in The Archaeology of Sleep, a new piece reveloped from Julian Beck’s study of sleep research and his ideas of what the members of the company might dream about.
The impulse to “look inward” is, according to Malina, a necessary response to current conditions. “These are bad times. People need reassurance. We all know what we want, what kind of world we want to live in, but we have no idea of how to get there. People would rather do nothing than do the wrong thing.”
Except through its own communal organization, the Living Theatre does not propose solutions to the problems of the world; it hopes, rather, to contribute to the creation of a humane atmosphere in which the search for solutions can take place.
Malina feels that ideas and impulses expressed through artistic innovation do filter into the general consciousness. At one time, she believed that theatre could cause revolution; now, she is more inclined to see art and society as inextricably bound together. Change in one is inevitably reflected by change in the other, though it is never clear which has primacy.
The Living Theatre has been enormously influential. The group was the direct or indirect model for most of the radical theatres of the ’60s and has left disciples in most of the places it has worked. Techniques developed by the Living Theatre and its off shoots, especially the Open Theatre, founded by Living Theatre alumnus Joseph Chaikin, are in current use as actor-training methods, even in relatively conservative acting classes. By the standards of the current avant-garde, however, the Living Theatre is undoubtedly old-fashioned; its return to New York was greeted with skepticism by many younger members of the experimental theatre community, and downright hostility by the critics.
Beck and Malina retain their commitment to the actor as the main instrument of theatre, showing little interest in the preoccupation with technology so prevalent now in experimental theatre. They are still more interested in working with ideologically compatible people than with skilled performers who may not share their values. They remain dedicated to humanistic values which are currently out of style, displaced by the irony and self-referentiality of theatrical Postmodernism. And their essential optimism is diametrically opposed to the apocalyptic vision of much New Wave and New Expressionist art.
But a resurgence of interest in the Living Theatre is taking place, evidenced by the group’s New York season, a film, Signals Through the Flames, which documents the last 10 years of the Living’s work, the publication in March of Malina’s early diaries by Grove Press and plans for a new book by Beck, and a course in the history of the Living Theatre being taught at New York University this spring by Beck, Malina and playwright Jack Gelber.
In a recent Village Voice essay, “Is There Life After Irony?” (Jan. 3, 1984), critic Elinor Fuchs notes a return to strong emotion and direct experience in the work of such notable avant-garde directors as Peter Brook and Lee Breuer. If this is to be the next trend in avant-garde performance—if a humanistic renaissance is in the offing—then the Living Theatre may again be at the forefront of a maior aesthetic revolution in theatre.
Philip Auslander is a theatre scholar, teacher and critic who has contributed essays and reviews to Theatre Journal and other publications.
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