The recent news that The Living Theatre was no more probably surprised more than a few theatregoers — because they probably hadn't realized the decades-old company was still in existence.
Once an influential force in New York's avant-garde theatre scene, the company has suffered a series of knocks in recent years, including the death of company member and co-director Hanon Reznikov in 2008, and battles with its landlord over back rent. But it kept soldiering on, occasionally producing stage works. But with co-founder Judith Malina's announcement that she would retire from the theatre after 66 years, the writing was on the wall. The Living Theatre was, indeed, dead.
The week of Feb. 25, Malina moved to the Lillian Booth home for retired artists in New Jersey, having been forced to give up the lease on The Living Theatre's Clinton Street space, the company's home for the past eight years. Malina had fallen four months behind in her rent. She lived in a small apartment above the theatre.
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.
The company was founded in 1947 by 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."