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

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01 Mar 2013

Judith Malina
Judith Malina

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."

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.

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."

The Clinton Street theatre 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, she told the New York Times, "I don’t do much else except study, make love and run the theatre." But, the revival was short-lived. Shortly after it opened, Reznikov suddenly died.

Matters grew bleak last year 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.

Malina, of course, isn't happy how things have turned out. "It's a nice place. It's beautiful," she told The Daily News of the Booth home. "But I don't want a nice place that's beautiful."