Sunday, October 20, 2013

94. The Living Theatre, and Why I Kept My Clothes on

     This post is about the Living Theatre.  It isn’t a history of the Living, just an account of my impressions of it, usually in its early years and certainly not recently, though it still exists. 

     I first became aware of the Living Theatre in 1959 when I attended their production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a play about a day in the life of a group of drug addicts.  The portrayal of addiction was, to put it mildly, frank, though the addicts could come off as likable, even though they at times  screamed at the audience.  It is said that the actors playing junkies came down into the audience to ask for money for a fix; I don’t recall this, but it would have made it clear from the outset that the Living Theatre wasn't going to leave the audience alone.

     I next encountered them in 1963 when I saw ex-Marine Kenneth Brown’s The Brig, a brutally realistic play about a Marine prison where the guards routinely beat up and terrorized the inmates.  When the audience went to their seats, they became gradually aware that the actors were already performing on the curtainless stage, portraying the guards talking softly to one another before dealing with the inmates.  When the play actually began, it was a seamless transition, the most natural continuation of what had already quietly unfolded.  I was with a friend and his boss.  The boss, an ex-Marine, didn’t deny that brigs exist, but insisted that this was a ludicrous exaggeration.  He didn’t convince me; the play’s gripping realism was too powerful.  Said critic Robert Brustein, “I don’t remember a more unpleasant evening in the theatre.  But it made a point.”  The Living was always out to make a point.

     Both these plays got critical attention, usually negative, and won Obies (Off-Broadway Theater Awards).  By now I and a lot of people were wondering what the Living Theatre was all about and who were the people behind it.  It was founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and her husband Julian Beck, an Abstract Expressionist painter who switched his talent to theater upon meeting Malina, a Jewish immigrant from Germany.  Influenced above all by the French director and theorist Antonin Artaud, they embraced an extreme realism meant to shock the audience out of complacency.  With The Connection and The Brig, they succeeded.  Since they wanted no truck with commercial Broadway, their productions found a natural home in Off and then Off Off Broadway.  Politically they were as far to the Left as they could get, and had every intention of moving – some might say shoving – the audience in that direction, too, though their needs and demands were such that no existing political party could satisfy them.  For Beck and Malina the footlights, that barrier between stage and spectators, did not, must not, exist.  They wanted to mix with the audience, excite them, radicalize them, get them into the streets.

     In October 1963 their antiauthoritarian stance took on a new dimension when the IRS padlocked their 14th Street theater for failing to pay $28,435 in back taxes.  Defiant, Beck and Malina continued to stage performances inside the theater for small audiences who had to climb over rooftops and enter the theater through a fire door.  Audience and cast were then arrested and charged with impeding a federal official in the performance of his duties; in the end, only Beck and Malina faced trial.  In May 1964 they defended themselves vociferously in a much-publicized trial where they presented themselves as beleaguered champions of beauty and art resisting oppression by the IRS, anonymous agents of the military-industrial complex.  By not paying the taxes, Beck insisted, they had been able to pay their actors; it was a case of art vs. money. 

     Though Beck and Malina succeeded in turning the trial into theater with a far wider audience than their productions had reached, the jury found them guilty, imposing a fine of $2500, and the judge sentenced Beck to 60 days and Malina to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.  As a result, the Living Theatre soon left these cursed shores for a four-year self-imposed exile in the fairer climes of Europe, whose Old World charm was untainted by interventions of the IRS.  But whatever the pair lacked in practicality, they had more than made up for in imagination and spunk.

     The Living Theatre returned to New York in 1968 with a host of new productions that they had ripened in Europe.  “The Living Theatre is back,” one observer observed; “God bless them and God help them.”  Reports of near riots in the audience in Avignon, and the arrest of Beck, Malina, and others for indecent exposure after a performance in New Haven, heightened the anticipation, guaranteeing attendance by avant-garde theater buffs, rebels with or without a cause, exhibitionists, voyeurs, hardy adventurers, and those anxious to “keep up” like myself.

A typical Living Theatre production of the 1960s: a tangle of actors, gestures, and grimaces, with Julian Beck in the center.  The audience was not to be soothed.

     In Europe they had embraced collective creation, whereby the whole troupe participated in developing new productions.  Beck proclaimed it “an example of Anarcho-Communist Autogestive Process” (a typical Beck pronouncement) and, more simply, “a secret weapon of the people.”  This made for cumbersome and lengthy rehearsals, since each detail of a production required consensus agreement, and there was a fair dose of amateurism as well, because some of the actors had no training.  It soon became apparent as well that the Living had tuned from grim realism toward a more expansive and imaginative realm, toward a kind of wild poetry.

     The Living’s new productions were mounted in October 1968 not in Manhattan but at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, requiring their Manhattan fans and critics to undertake a long trek into that borough’s dark and distant hinterland.  The first production, guarded at its opening by a strong police presence, was Frankenstein, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, or rather a creation somewhat based on that work.  The production involved a huge scaffolding mounted on the stage, a kind of outsized jungle gym where the actors clambered about, finally assuming poses, some of them dangling in space, that created the back-lit silhouette of the towering monster: a remarkable and memorable stage effect.  Whatever the ideological intent may have been – I never did figure it out – there was nothing like it on, or Off, or Off Off Broadway.

     The second production, Antigone, based on the play by Sophocles as adapted by Bertold Brecht and then translated from German by Malina, pitted Antigone, played by Malina, against the tyrant Creon, played by a lean and craggy Beck, his scalp now bald, but with a flow of long, graying locks below the hairline.  The intention was to encourage the audience to challenge authority just as Antigone, alone and without allies, had done: a theme that found resonance in the turbulent 1960s.  As for the production, I remember a tangle of actors in modern dress (or undress, though not nude) who at moments achieved striking visual stage effects.

     The climax of their season in New York was Paradise Now, performances of which at the Avignon Festival in France earlier that year had provoked such a turbulent audience response, both pro and con, that the mayor issued a decree forbidding any further performances.  The Living had then withdrawn from the festival and, ever ready to make theater of life, left the city in a formal procession, applauded by supporters who lamented the departure of le Living.  And it was following a performance of this play in New Haven that Beck, Malina, and others, surging out into the street, had been arrested for indecent exposure.  I got  my partner Bob to go with me, even though his taste in theater ran elsewhere.

     Paradise Now was meant to encourage a nonviolent anarchist revolution, a transformation that would be both external and internal for actors and audience alike, leading toward the realization of an alternative society.  To me and many others it appeared unstructured, though the actors were performing a series of actions intended to enlist the audience in revolution.  “Act!  Speak!” cried the actors.  “Do whatever you want!”  Then they circulated among the audience shouting a list of social taboos: “I’m not allowed to travel without a passport!”  “I don’t know how to stop wars!”  “I’m not allowed to smoke marijuana!”  “I’m not allowed to take off my clothes!”  Back on the stage and wearing only bikinis and sagging G-strings, they contorted themselves so as to spell the word “PARADISE.”  After this the performance – if that is the word – slid into chaos, with a few, but only a few, spectators stripping down to their underwear or less: mostly exhibitionists delighted to “do their thing.”  To my eye, no transformation occurred, no nonviolent revolution, only a mounting hubbub of confusion.  There was tedium in this four-hour-long happening, and bored spectators were beginning to peel away.  Bob left before I did, but I soon followed.  My last impression was a guy in his undershorts kissing a fully clothed girl who seemed quite taken with the adventure; far from liberating, it struck me as just plain sleazy. 
Paradise Now: totems of nudity and gestures.

     The worst thing that permissiveness can do is bore, and that, alas, was my final take on Paradise Now: it was boring.  Other performances may have come off differently; I can only comment on the one I saw.  Yes, boring.  And nobody even got arrested. 

     But arrests were not lacking as the group toured the country.  Malina told later how, when they arrived in a city, the police would come and tell them they didn’t care what they did in the theater, they could do sexual things, smoke pot, burn money, take their clothes off; but they mustn’t go out and do it in the street.  Which was, of course, what they intended to do and did; arrests followed, and with them more publicity that surely brought more people flocking.

Their home away from home.  Or maybe just
a good imitation of it.

     After their American tour the Living Theatre returned to Europe, where Beck felt they enjoyed a greater freedom.  I lost track of them after that, though they developed new works and performed them widely abroad, often in the street or in schools, slums, and prisons.  In 1971 they were jailed for two months in Brazil for alleged possession of marijuana and then deported; their exposure of injustice and corruption in the country was surely not irrelevant.  Julian Beck died in 1985, but the group returned here and under Malina’s direction performed new plays at various locations in the city.  Malina is still active, and the group is still performing in New York.  A few years ago my partner Bob saw one of their plays and wished he hadn’t.  It was about a woman liberating herself, and Malina, playing the lead, at one point – inevitably – took her clothes off: a big mistake, in Bob’s opinion, since she was plump and jowly.  Yesterday’s tease is today’s fizzle.

     Still, the Living has left its mark.  Its mission statement, as expressed by Julian Beck, includes these points:

·      To call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theater.
·      To set ourselves in motion like a vortex that pulls the spectator into action.
·      To undo the knots that lead to misery.
·      To fire the body’s secret engines.
·      To insist that what happens in the jails matters.
·      To cry “Not in my name!” at the hour of execution.
·      To move from the theater to the street and from the street to the theater.

Beck was rarely so lucid.  He has left us a lot to think about.

     Nudity in the theater:  In the 1960s and 1970s there was lots of it.  Maybe Allen Ginsberg, not yet the later bearded sage of Poesie, led the way, since he got into the habit of exhibiting the contours of his unlovely flesh to others, while braying at supposed prudes, “Are you ashamed of your own body?”  To which I longed to answer, “No, Allen, only of yours,” but never got the chance.

     Proponents of the new nudity insisted that there had always been nudity on the theater, to which the theatrical Old Guard replied, “Yes, but it was interesting nudity.”  And they had a point, since much of the current nudity was boring.  An exception was the musical Hair, which hit Broadway in 1968, that year of international revolt.  At the end of the first act those actors who felt so inclined took their clothes off, but the lighting was such that the audience could just barely make them out, which personally I thought much more effective.  But in many ways the show was akin to the Living’s productions: there was little structure or plot; freedom and revolt were endorsed; and at the opening the actors came out into the audience, talked casually to one another, and walked across the tops of the seats, a stunt I had never seen before.  I had an aisle seat, and when one long-haired young performer lay back across my lap for a moment, I just smiled and said, “Well, hello there!”  Unlike Paradise Now, Hair was fun.

Hair the Musical

     The fall of that same eventful year saw the opening of another unstructured piece that sought to involve the audience: Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 69, a production loosely – very loosely – based on Euripides’ Bacchae.  When I saw it six actors, three men and three women, performed naked, demonstrating the perils of nudity in the theater.  With the best will in the world, I couldn’t help but notice that one woman was full-breasted and another flat-chested.  And when the actors were lying prone on the stage, one of the men reached under to adjust his genitals, provoking howls of laughter from the audience.  This is what I remember, little else.  Yes, performers and audience were all mixed up together, but the real point of it escaped me. 

     Still, there’s no denying that Dionysus in 69 had a cult following and is said to have launched the vogue of “happenings,” unstructured events where performers and audience mixed freely, and chance developments were common.  Happenings were especially popular – for a while – in New York City, and were related to the hippie culture of the day.  All of which shows the matrix out of which the Living Theatre developed: a kind of joyous anarchy and lust for freedom mixed with rage at all that is wrong in society.  Yes, it was wild – often too wild – and immature, but hey, we could use a little of that joy and rage today.

     A note on hair:  Speaking of hair, in the West Village recently I have seen women with pink hair, orange hair, and blue hair.  Bold pink, flaming orange, and blatant blue, as opposed to the hint of blue that goes so well with gray and white hair.  I don't judge, I simply note.  I have yet to see green or purple hair, but look forward to the experience with intense anticipation.

     Coming soon:  Three posts on Wall Street, its past and present sins, and do we need it?  Bubbles, booms, and busts; J.P.  Morgan and his purple nose; the Depression in my home town; Abbie Hoffman and the New York Stock Exchange; how big banks become bigger; and more.  In short, everything that the Living Theatre hated, loathed, and detested.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder


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