[Marxism] Judith Malina, Founder of the Living Theater, Dies at 88
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Sat Apr 11 08:33:06 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 11 2015
Judith Malina, Founder of the Living Theater, Dies at 88
By BRUCE WEBER
Judith Malina, an actor and director who with her husband, Julian Beck,
founded the Living Theater, a troupe of activists and provocateurs who
advanced the idea of political theater in America, catalyzed fierce
debate over their methods and intentions, and in the name of art ran
afoul of civic authorities on three continents, died on Friday in
Englewood, N.J. She was 88.
Her death, at the Lillian Booth Actors Home, was confirmed by a friend
and playwright, Karen Malpede. Ms. Malina had lung disease caused by
years of smoking.
For movie and television buffs, especially those not old enough to
remember beatniks, Lenny Bruce, Vietnam War protests or other symbols of
remonstration against Eisenhower-era complacency, Ms. Malina was best
known as a character actress. She appeared on “The Sopranos” (as Aunt
Dottie, a dying nun who reveals to the gangster known as Paulie Walnuts
that she is actually his mother) and in films including “The Addams
Family,” Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” and, perhaps most memorably, “Dog
Day Afternoon,” as the anguished and frantic mother of Sonny Wortzik,
the misguided bank robber played by Al Pacino.
But she steered a far more emphatic and influential course with the
troupe sometimes known simply as the Living, which occupied the leading
edge of stage experimentation in the 1950s and 1960s and both fed and
fed on the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. It was perhaps the most
prominent and persistent advocate for a “new theater,” one that sought
to dissolve the accepted artifice of stage presentations, to conjoin art
and political protest, and to shrink, if not eliminate, the divide
between performers and the audience.
A diminutive woman (journalists often noted that she weighed less than
100 pounds) who studied acting and directing with Erwin Piscator, the
German director and theorist who, like Brecht, was a proponent of epic
theater, Ms. Malina was tireless and passionate in advancing the idea
that theater can be, and should be, a blunt force for cultural change.
She and Mr. Beck, an Expressionist painter as a young man who became
renowned as a set designer, considered themselves anarchists and
pacifists, and their productions were statements as much as performances.
Idealistic and fervent, they began planning a new kind of theater
company in 1947, when she was 21 and he a year older. The troupe’s first
public production, Gertrude Stein’s “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights,” was
staged in 1951 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village.
Their belief that the theater and real life are part of an experiential
continuum drew them, at first, to present plays written in verse or
otherwise abstract language — they produced work by Kenneth Rexroth, T.
S. Eliot, Paul Goodman, Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden and William Carlos
Williams, among others — and to involve their audiences in the action of
their shows in defiance of the so-called fourth wall, the conventional
presumption of separation of the actors from the audience.
“We believe in the theater as a place of intense experience, half-dream,
half-ritual, in which the spectator approaches something of a vision of
self-understanding, going past conscious to unconscious, to an
understanding of the nature of all things,” Mr. Beck wrote in The New
York Times in 1959. He added that “only the language of poetry can
accomplish this, only poetry or a language laden with symbols and far
removed from our daily speech can take us beyond the ignorant present
toward these realms.”
The period of Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina’s greatest impact and notoriety
began in the late 1950s with productions that included groundbreaking
dramas like “The Connection” (1959), Jack Gelber’s harrowing depiction
of a den of heroin addicts, and “The Brig” (1963), Kenneth H. Brown’s
portrayal of a harsh day in the life of a Marine prison. (Both were made
into films.) It was during the run of “The Brig” that the Living was
shut down by the Internal Revenue Service — an event that led to
demonstrations outside the company’s home at West 14th Street and Avenue
of the Americas, with placards bearing slogans like “Art Before Taxes.”
Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina represented themselves at their trial, arguing
that it was both wrong and unreasonable for the government to take away
their theater without making a good-faith effort to help them save it,
and that their nonviolent civil disobedience was a reaction against the
unfair administration of the law. But they also turned the trial into a
loopy spectacle that included rambling speechifying, outbursts of
protest and Ms. Malina’s recitation of her poems.
“The human heart and the human mind have to examine the rigidity of the
law,” Ms. Malina said in summing up the case to the jury, which
convicted her, Mr. Beck and the Living Theater on several counts
surrounding the crime of impeding federal agents from seizing the assets
of the tax-delinquent theater.
“Innocent!” Ms. Malina exclaimed, each time the prosecutor, Peter K.
Leisure, used the word “guilty.” Judge Edmund Palmieri reprimanded her.
“You can cut out my tongue, but you cannot stop me from saying that I am
innocent,” she responded. “I will not grant you that privilege, sir.”
Mr. Malina and Mr. Beck were fined and given brief jail sentences,
though pending an appeal they were allowed to leave for Europe, where
the Living had bookings, and they and the company went into self-imposed
As time went on, their shows, which included adaptations of “Antigone”
and “Frankenstein,” were staged, usually by Ms. Malina, with mounting
radical fervor and an application of techniques that tended to sublimate
artistic craft in favor of political passion and to blur the distinction
between performance and real life. Living Theater productions through
the 1960s were increasingly characterized by improvisation, and troupe
members addressed spectators directly, encouraging them to participate
vocally as if contributing to a spontaneously evolving script and even
exhorting them to join the troupe onstage or exit the theater and take
the performance into the streets.
The company’s most notorious show, “Paradise Now,” consisted of a jumble
of nonlinear vignettes, theater games, ritualistic exercises, group
embraces and volleys of incantatory anticapitalist slogans and other
epithets, some encouraging sexual abandon and marijuana use, often
culminating with members of the company and the audience taking off
their clothes. The vehemence of the revolutionary message and its
delivery joined the Living irrevocably to the more perfervid nonviolent
strain of the 1960s counterculture.
“I demand everything — total love, an end to all forms of violence and
cruelty such as money, hunger, prisons, people doing work they hate,”
Ms. Malina explained in a 1968 interview with The New York Times
Magazine about the sort off revolution her theater wanted to engender.
“We can have tractors and food and joy. I demand it now!”
Performances of “Paradise Now” often generated chaos in the theater and
controversy outside it. In Europe, where the Living became a collective
(operating as, in one reporter’s words, “a tribe or an anarchist’s
commune”) and commanded a large and youthful following that newspapers
routinely described as hippies, the police were called to shut down or
prevent performances of “Paradise Now” and other Living shows in Rome,
Avignon and elsewhere. In 1968 the Living returned to the United States,
where, after a performance at Yale, several members of the company and
the audience were arrested for indecent exposure.
The Living subsequently appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where
their performances engendered, in addition to the usual raucous
reception, a critical war waged in print, including in The New York
Times, where critics including Walter Kerr and Eric Bentley dismissed
the Living as jejune and antitheatrical, and Clive Barnes, who approved
of the company’s invention and physicality, saw in it a melding of
theater and dance.
The critic Richard Gilman wrote of the Living’s “Antigone” in The
Atlantic: “The play is nearly intolerable whenever it has to be acted,
whenever lines have to be spoken and consciousness invoked,” adding, “It
is evident from the beginning that whatever else it has become, the
Living Theater has lost almost all its never more than marginal
abilities for the rudimentary processes of acting: speech,
characterization, the assumption of new invented life.”
Writing in Saturday Review, however, Henry Hewes declared, “What they
have done with Brecht’s 1947 version of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ is
incredible and enormous.” He added: “This ‘Antigone’ makes theatrical
history with its fierce totality of commitment. It is beyond theater.”
Ms. Malina was born in Kiel, a port city in northern Germany, on June 4,
1926. Her mother, Rosel Zamojre, had been an aspiring actress before she
married Max Malina, a rabbinical student who became a leading cleric
after the family moved to New York City. There, according to John
Tytell’s exhaustive book, “The Living Theatre: Art, Exile and Outrage”
(1995), Ms. Malina met Mr. Beck in 1943, when she was just 17, and
together they undertook a cultural education, attending the theater,
visiting museums and reading modernist writers like Joyce, Pound and
Cocteau. Ms. Malina worked as a singing waitress in a Greenwich Village
bar and eventually enrolled in Piscator’s workshop at the New School for
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Living again spent much of its time
out of the country, partly in Europe and partly in Brazil, where Ms.
Malina and Mr. Beck were once again arrested, this time for marijuana
possession, though they said they were innocent, and supporters of the
company suspected that the authorities were wary of the work they were
preparing, a series of short politically tinged plays to be performed in
the streets of the town of Ouro Preto. After their arrest, protests from
cultural figures around the world, including Susan Sontag and Jean-Paul
Sartre, focused attention on their plight, and they were released but
expelled from the country.
Julian Beck died in 1985. Ms. Malina’s survivors include their two
children, Isha Manna and Garrick Maxwell Beck; three grandchildren; and
In 1988, Ms. Malina married Hanon Reznikov, who wrote and performed in
many Living productions and who had been running the company since Mr.
Beck’s death. For a time they established a theatrical home on East
Third Street in Lower Manhattan, until the city’s Buildings Department
closed the theater in 1993.
The company continued to produce work motivated by contemporary
political concerns, including the two Persian Gulf wars, the Wall Street
bailouts and income inequality, presenting it on different New York City
stages; they also created site-specific new works in Italy and Lebanon.
Just before Mr. Reznikov’s unexpected death in 2008, the theater
established another home in Lower Manhattan, on Clinton Street. There
Ms. Malina directed Mr. Reznikov’s last play, “Eureka!,” based on a
dense late work about the origins of life by Edgar Allan Poe, showing
that the company had lost none of its ambition and energy.
“The Living Theater wants nothing less than to rewrite the theatrical
contract,” Rachel Saltz began her review of “Eureka!” in The Times.
“Viewers can no longer remain passive spectators hidden in the dark.
There is no fourth wall, so they must become participants. In ‘Eureka!’
— a mix of science class, happening, utopian dream and group hug — that
means helping out with a mighty task: creating the universe.”
The Living was evicted from its Clinton Street space in 2013 but staged
Ms. Malina’s “Nowhere to Hide” at the Burning Man Festival in 2014. The
troupe will continue to produce work under the leadership of Brad
Burgess, Tom Walker and Garrick Beck, who will share directorial duties,
with Mr. Burgess as artistic director, Mr. Beck said in an email.
Ms. Malina’s published books include a compilation of her diaries and in
2012 a memoir of sorts called “The Piscator Notebook.” In his foreword
to that volume, the theater scholar Richard Schechner wrote:
“The thing about Judith Malina is that she is indefatigable,
unstoppable, erupting with ideas. Malina is long-living, long-working,
optimistic, and by the second decade of the 21st century girlish and old
womanish at the same time. She survives and she bubbles, both.”
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