Judith Malina, Founder of the Living Theatre, Dies at 88

Obituaries   Judith Malina, Founder of the Living Theatre, Dies at 88
 
Judith Malina, the co-founder, with her husband Julian Beck, of The Living Theatre, and a central figure in the New York avant garde theatre during its most vital time, in the 1960s and ‘70s, died on Friday in Englewood, N.J. She was 88.
Judith Malina
Judith Malina

The Living Theatre was one of the first experimental theatre groups to crop up in New York in the years following World War II and was one of the most long-surviving. Most of the troupes and theatre spaces that challenged theatregoers alongside it — The Open Theatre, Theatre Genesis, Caffe Cino, Judson Poets Theatre — have long since ceased to exist. But the Living Theatre soldiered on, largely due to the indefatigable energies of Ms. Malina and her unshakeable vision of what the theatre should be.

The company was founded in 1947 by Ms. Malina, the German-born student of Erwin Piscator, and abstract expressionistic painter and poet Julian Beck. Inspired by Antonin Artaud and his anarchist aesthetic of Theatre of Cruelty, the company endeavored to shake American theatre audiences out of their complacency, engaging spectators directly. Their mission, as expressed in a Beck poem, was, in part, "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."

In the 1950s, The Living Theatre produced more work by artists known as poets, than ones known as playwrights — not surprising, given Beck's interests. Authors included Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Rexroth and Jean Cocteau. The group’s first production was of Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, in 1951 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. The theatre's greatest, and most notorious, successes, however, were yet to come, with Jack Gelber's jazz-oriented look at drug use, The Connection, in 1959; and Kenneth H. Brown's The Brig, a 1963 look at conditions in a Marine prison during a typical day. (Brown, a former Marine, had spent a month in the brig for going AWOL.)

The Living Theatre always struggled to survive. Early productions were often closed down because of a lack of cash. The authorities, also, played close attention to the company's productions and frequently shut them down. The Buildings Department shuttered its home on Broadway and 100th Street in 1956, and did the same with another Living Theatre residence on Third Street in 1993. Following the opening of The Brig, the IRS closed down the theatre, and Beck and Ms. Malina were imprisoned for contempt of court. Actors who disrobed as part of the play Paradise Now were arrested for indecent exposure multiple times.

Not surprisingly, given this track record, The Living Theatre turned to Europe in the 1970s, touring from city to city, playing in various non-traditional spaces. Even on the road, though, things could be tough. When The Brig played Brazil in 1971, the cast was arrested on drug charges. Actor Steve ben Israel managed to escape to New York. There, he enlisted the help of famous artists to get the actors freed from jail. The experience resulted in another Living Theatre work, Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism. Malina never lost her spirit. She regarded the turmoil as part of her daily effort to move toward B.N.V.A.R. — "beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution."

In recent works, the troupe had a much lower profile. It performed quietly out of a theatre on Clinton Street, which is began using in 2008. It was the company's first permanent home since the closing of The Living Theatre on Third Street at Avenue C in 1993. At the time, in a characteristic statement, she told the New York Times, "I don’t do much else except study, make love and run the theatre." But, soon after, company member and co-director Hanon Reznikov—Ms. Malina’s second husband, died. Matters grew bleak in 2013 when the company was suddenly faced with having to gather tens of thousands of dollars together in order to stop city marshals from evicting them. Donations were called for through a local crowd-funding site called Lucky Ant. Just hours before its deadline, it met its goal of raising $24,000. Soon after, Ms.Malina moved to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood.

Ms. Malina wasn’t totally devoted to the stage. She took on occasion film and television roles, notably in "The Sopranos," "The Addams Family," Woody Allen’s "Radio Days" and "Dog Day Afternoon," in which she played the mother of bank robber Al Pacino.

Julian Beck predeceased her in 1985. She is survived by their two children, Isha Manna and Garrick Maxwell Beck; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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