Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Judith Malina (1926-)

Sierra Club


Tremble: your whole life is a rehearsal for the moment you are in now.


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French theorist Antonin Artaud called for "a theatre in which the actors are like victims burning at the stake, signalling thru the flames." For five decades, Julian Beck and his wife & partner Judith Malina have done just that with their tribal troupe, The Living Theatre.

With their revolutionary art and passionate performances, they smashed the barriers between art and politics. They left an indelible mark on the form of theatre itself, pushing it off its com- fortable naturalistic pedestal and into experimental realms of radical confrontation, stirring ritual, and spectacle that was no less vivid for its frequent underfunding.

They took their central theme of the world as prison to the theatres and the streets across Europe, the United States and Brazil, questioning the authority of political power everywhere with stamina and commitment.

The Living put on new and controversial plays of their own, produced works by the then-unseen new wave of European playwrights, explored a myriad of new forms pulled from the theatrical theories of Brecht & Artaud. Perhaps above all, they moved theatre squarely into the political arena, challenging quiescent assumptions and cherished idealogies. Founded in 1947, the theatre began by producing the works of Picasso, T.S. Eliot, John Ashberry, W. H. Auden, Jean Cocteau, Paul Goodman, Strindberg and Pirandello.

The theatre took on national prominence in 1959 when it presented Jack Gelber's hyper-realistic view of drug pushers and addicts. "The Connection," complete with hazy Jazz, needles shooting into arms and street language transferred to the stage, was explosive. The public was outraged.

From 1959 to 1963, in a space that John Cage and Merce Cunningham helped to find, the Living Theatre became the center of New York's cultural avant-garde and the goad of its social conscience. This was not without consequences. Their production of The Brig, Kenneth Brown's searing look at human debasement in a Marine prison, led to calls for military reform and may have provoked the government: The IRS moved in, demanding back taxes and eventually seized their theatre. After protests to save it failed, Beck and Malina locked themselves in the stage prison where they stayed until they were physically removed and taken to real jail.

Smacked with a five-year suspended sentence, Beck and Malina left for Europe. There they developed their best-known works, Frankenstein, Mysteries, Antigone, and Paradise Now. They became known for confronting the audience with its passivity, often dragging spectators into the aisles, inducing them into performances and inciting them to mass action.

In 1968, they were involved in the Paris student riots. In 1970, they took their theatre into the streets with pieces developed for public places in Europe, the U.S., and Brazil. It was not until the late 70s that they returned to conventional venues, performing Ernst Toller's 1920 Masse Mensch and their own new plays, Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism, The Yellow Methuselah and Beck's last work, The Archaeology of Sleep.

Their odyssey lasted nearly twenty years. In 1983 Beck, Malina and The Living returned to New York for a run at the Joyce Theater. The repertoire was met with critical hostility. Before they could find money for a space of their own, Julian was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Beck died in 1985. Not just a political and artistic iconoclast, he was also a pacifist, anarchist, feminist, vegetarian, theorist of gay and bi-sexuality, and unflaggingly creative. His abstract paintings showed at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery & formed huge, scrolling backdrops for at least one Living Theatre production. His book, Life of the Theatre, has appeared in more than one edition.

Malina shared his passions & was prolific as well, publishing diaries and poems, teaching theater at New York University, and continuing to produce work with The Living after Beck's death.

Beck and Malina were a uniquely ardent couple. Together they fought against the cold war and the folly of bomb shelters, Vietnam, prison conditions, economic injustice and repression of all kinds. They and troupe members were jailed a dozen times in half as many countries. Their personal life was no less unconventional, and it was entirely consistent with their political principles. In his theory of freedom, Beck proposed that the erotic pattern is one on which we base our social structure. If the sexual pattern is rigid, our political and social lives will be rigid. It begins in the home and continues in Congress. The best way for the individual to break out of it is to break out of sexual cliches. Judith and Julian practiced what they preached. Beck had a longtime male lover in the company, Illion Troya. Judith too was involved with one of the troupe, Hannon Resnikov, a man decades her junior, whom she married after Julian's death. [Adapted from JULIAN BECK & JUDITH MALINA of the LIVING THEATER]

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