The Curtain Comes Down on The Living Theatre, a Crucible of Experimentation

By Robert Simonson
01 Mar 2013

Bertolt Brecht

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 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 has 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 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.

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