The Theater of Ignorance
The Living Theater began life nearly twenty years ago in a loft near Columbia, the creation of a young couple named Julian and Judith (Malina) Beck, who were, and are, very passionately involved with questions of social justice, pacifism, anarchism, the fate of human love, and the destructions of technological civilization. They also were, and are, vegetarians, believers in astrology, and, one is entitled to suspect, addicts of various other ready forms of mystic news.
Julian Beck, now in his middle forties, is tall, thin, pale, high-domed, with a shelf of frizzy graybrown hair canting down from the back of his head to his shoulders. He has a thin mouth, a large bony nose, and eyes that are strangely light, intent, and what is usually called “piercing.” His chief theatrical skill has always been as a stage designer, although he has done considerable acting and directing too. His wife is a tiny woman, intensely black-haired, with a small round nose and mouth and large brilliant eyes, an elf with enormous energy, a gamin made of steel. Primarily and most successfully a director, she has done some literary work as an adapter of classic dramas and tinkerer with new texts, and has also acted a good deal. Like her husband, she has never been more than a gross amateur as a performer.
Being amateurish at some particular thing was not of much concern to the Living Theater, which combined this quality with professionalism, skill with ineptitude, originality with cliché, and coolness with frenzy, in an indivisible act of making theater, one that was at the same time a way of making a life. As part of that the Becks were intent from the beginning on fashioning a public attitude toward what they had found mattered to them, and to their constituency, as social beings. What mattered, at least as much as dramatic art, was political reality, especially the reality of atomic weapons, and later, of the war in Vietnam. The Becks were ferocious activists who while managing to keep their productions mostly free of blatant Tendenz or explicit ideology were forever throwing out hints of their extra-aesthetic sympathies, most unmistakably by the aggressive épater le bourgeois spirit in which they put on their plays.
It was often a painful and embarrassing experience to go to a Living Theater production as a spectator full of goodwill and a readiness to shelve technical and even aesthetic objections in the interests of giving support to experiment and imaginative valor. In your seat, among an audience whose average age was less than thirty and whose dress was as casual and even scruffy as any proletarian impresario could want, you were subjected to continual abuse for your bourgeois origins and presumed sympathies. It came directly at times in the form of harangues before the curtain went up or at intermissions, but most generally and subtly through the atmosphere of bare tolerance, the rugged hauteur, with which the whole enterprise took you in. The Living Theater was forever trying to shame and convert the people who already believed in them and were manfully trying to go along.
But for us it was a case of faute de mieux. What sustained and propelled the Becks as people of the theater was the conviction, not especially widespread at the time, that drama should be arresting, difficult, fiercely contemporary, full of revelation and unrest, a personal encounter. This conviction, translating itself into a flawed, erratic, but fervid spirit and methodology, came to recommend itself to a small but steadily growing number of intelligent persons for whom theater had become the emptiest of arts and a social occasion of stupefying inanity. The Living Theater’s productions were jagged, nervous, almost always technically deficient, and sometimes wholly inept, but they were full of idiosyncratic zeal and intensity. And in the last years before it closed its doors (on Fourteenth Street, where it had moved in the early fifties), it gave the American theater two of its most remarkable and vivifying recent works: The Connection and The Brig.
That the Theater, apart from its predictable financial difficulties, should have been in crisis almost from the beginning was not a question of any inevitable conflict between aesthetic disinterestedness or professionalism on the one hand and political commitment on the other, not a question of the group’s subject or theme, but, in the first place, of the allocation of energies and loyalties. The Becks were forever dropping their theatrical activities to go off on a peace march or participate in a demonstration, occasionally winding up in jail, and at these times leaving playwrights, stagehands, actors ready to go on, and audiences with tickets in hand to get the news at the last minute that the show was off. More than that, a painful toll was taken in the company’s morale by their leaders’ absolute indifference to any consistency and rigor in training or artistic preparedness, so that their invigorating ideas about the stage flourished always under siege by forgetfulness, disjunction, and a sense of other things to do.
In time the procedural chaos and lack of quotidian principles (large, overarching ideals and eschatologies were always available for consolation) came down to a confrontation with pressures of ordinary citizenship. The Becks were charged in 1964 with owing the U.S. government some $25,000 in admission taxes collected over the years and never turned in, and upon their refusal to pay, had their theater closed down and were themselves sent to jail for a few weeks. At the trial a certain quality of the Becks, something we might call pushy martyrdom, was more than ever on display. A sympathetic judge, prepared to tender the defendants the benefit of every doubt and the fullest imaginative grasp of their predicament, was obliged to give them minimal sentences in the face of their refusal to admit even technical guilt and of Miss Malina’s strident, tearful, expertly staged denunciations of him and of the social order that had had them haled in.
Plot-sniffing critics were quick to assert that they had been the victims of government suppression of art and ideas, but it was clear that nothing so sinister was at work. The Becks, in their beautiful primitivism or dangerous innocence, had blundered across a line dividing realms and were paying the penalty for not being able to distinguish them.
If it was a penalty; in fact it turned out to be a blessing. Artistically and psychologically the Living Theater had been building toward the necessity for radical change, for a departure that might somehow lead to the resolution of a number of contradictions and contrarieties: their growing dislike and suspicion of formal, fixed dramatic texts, and their technical inadequacy for creating works directly on the stage; their activist desire to change the world, and their recognition that theater, as they had been practicing it, promised no such alteration: their hunger for community, and their inability up to then to maintain intact the community they had organized; their quest for personal salvation, and their wish to be exemplary, effective instigations to the salvation of others. America having come to an end for them, the Becks and a small band of the faithful set off for Europe in the summer of 1964 to find out what they might become.
A Scene Before the Sailing
The Village Gate on Bleecker Street. An afternoon in late spring. The annual Obie awards for off-Broadway theater are being presented before an audience of more than five hundred—theater people, fans, Village swingers—who sit with pitchers of beer in front of them and make loud chatter. Judith Malina is to be given an award for her direction of The Brig and her husband one for having designed it. But they are involved with their trial and have not appeared. As the afternoon draws on and the other winners have been given their scrolls by a smiling famous actress, word comes that the Becks are on their way. Everyone waits, watching the clock, for the nightclub has been rented only until lour.
A few minutes before the hour the Becks sweep in, as though from a motorcade with sirens screaming, rush to the podium to embrace the judges anti other notables. Miss Malina, her hair flying and her eyes on fire, blows kiss after kiss to the spectators, many of whom shout back loving things. Beck stands with arms spread wide to enfold the room. Then Judith takes the microphone, and in a voice breaking with passion, thanks all those present for their love, their faith, their support of the theater against tyranny. This is our vindication, she sobs, this is our triumph. Everybody rushes up then, and in a swirl of embraces and back-pounding, the Becks are ushered toward their new life.
Judith Malina: “We’re a group of people gathered together to go through certain actions, experiences, words, sounds, movements, whatever, maybe far more than that, I don’t know, in which one person, or all of the people, or several of the people, are in some way changed, helped, raised, or some event occurs in the life of the participants, or one or all, which then makes some actual change in the life situation. . . . We are saying essentially the same things that the early Christians did . . . the very simple, so simplistic that it becomes terribly complex because of its simplicity, the statement that we can live with each other in peace without violence, that we can supply each other’s needs, that there is enough and we have some way of making it go round. . . . We can do it better, simpler, just love one another.”
Reports came back to America about what was happening to them. Snaking through Europe, a practicing, striving, peripatetic utopia, they picked up new members along the way, some of them temporary; young American actors, or would-be ones, would hear the news, go to Europe to live and work with the company for a while, and then come home. They spread further word: the group had changed drastically, having become wholly, furiously evangelical, political beyond politics, and for the first time, a true collectivity which lived together and built its repertory around its own visions anti imaginative creations instead of relying, as it had in the past, on the works of others. The four years of wandering, during which they shaped their new nature before European audiences, whose own theaters apparently possessed nothing so farout or so self-willed, brought the Living Theater back to America in the fall of 1968 as something unified, millennial, and giving off a hard continuous pressure to take sides.
Judith Malina: “There is no need to sit and admire someone speaking a line of poetry in a beautiful voice.”
An Evening in Brooklyn
The Living Theater has opened its run in New York, alter having inaugurated its return to America with a series of performances at the Yale School of Drama. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, a courtly, undistinguished building, redolent of the atmosphere ol modern-dance concerts, recitals by visiting Russians, and fall seasons of lectures by outstanding speakers, is aware of having something rather more questionable on its hands. Seven or eight policemen stand around the entrances, and a squad car with its lights on is parked across the street. There had been a wild evening in New Haven, during which the Becks had been arrested (and later fined), and it had come very close to cutting off their would-be triumphal tour at the start.
But inside, the atmosphere is calm, if not exactly decorous. The ambience strikes you as not radically different from that of a good many other occasions of the not strictly commercial off-Broadway theater. The audience is an amalgam of well-dressed “higher-type” theatergoers in their late twenties and thirties, a scattering of older, in some cases grizzled, followers of culture, and a fair number of hippies or, doubtless more accurate, hippie-style youths.
The main reason for their moderate political and class composition and the restrained quality of their expectations is probably the fact that tonight the Living Theater is doing the only “play” in its current repertoire. It is Antigone, Judith Malina’s translation (and rewriting) of Brecht’s adaptation of Hölderlin’s German version of Sophocles, and it has been directed by Miss Malina and her husband, who also take its leading roles.
It is a play, but it does its best to keep from being any kind of straightforward one. The Becks, it soon becomes apparent, are involved here with that animus toward the classics which is only in part a matter of anti-intellectualism (and theoretically does not have to include it at all), its other basis being a justified boredom with the way plays like this are perpetually being presented: according to someone’s received idea of how Greek “dignity” and “majesty” must have exhibited themselves histrionically in their time.
Thus there is nothing artificially dignified and certainly nothing majestic about this production. It proceeds with the feeling of an experiment, not so much one of techniques as of spirit. What seems to be wanted is a sense of liberty from the text itself, in the interests of the people doing it. There is no hesitation in skewing the plot around to point up the most contemporary (and obvious) issues and in fiddling with the texture to release an upto-the-minute aroma, and the very pace and movement-spasmodic, febrile, continually backing up on themselves—reveal a wish to interrupt and sabotage the stately, solemn, boring measures of Greek tragedy as a cultural inheritance.
One is sympathetic to this ambition, as one is to the occasionally purely physical éclat which the Becks have always proposed as their chief theatrical virtue. This takes the form here of inventive groupings, movements off the stage and into the theaterbuilding-as-the-world, communal sounds and gestures of despair, anguish, frenzy, and so on, explosions, silences, palpable declensions of feeling, in all of which the chorus becomes the body of the emotion and the action instead of being their commentator.
But the play is nearly intolerable whenever it has to be acted, whenever lines have to be spoken and consciousness invoked. It is evident from the beginning that whatever else it has become, the Living Theater has lost almost all its newer more than marginal abilities Tor the rudimentary processes of acting: speech, characterization, the assumption of new, invented life. Miss Malina and Beck are the worst offenders. As Antigone she is alternately wild-eyed, coy, neurotic, and impish, a hippie heroine, while he plays a preposterous Creon, monstrous and swollen, a portrait modeled largely on Lyndon Johnson as MacBird. Heavyhanded, amateurish in the full pejorative sense, making its grotesquely predictable political points about freedom and tyranny with the utmost sneering self-righteousness, this Antigone reveals, wherever it “speaks,” that the group’s strength must surely lie somewhere else.
Stephen Ben Israel, a member of the Living Theater: “At first they’re antagonistic and hostile, and then they kiss your hand. At the end they have the opportunity to come on stage and do anything they want.”
The group’s strength lies theoretically in its rituals and games, its processes of antitheater, and its attempt to break clown what has always separated theater from life. It lies in its raids on the expectations of certain audiences and on the preparations other audiences make for being changed, or for being made to feel alive: and it derives, this possible strength, from the proposition that reality is in need of new morale and that society, sick and loathsome now, demands regeneration through “honesty,” “openness,” and “sincerity.”
Thus to place itself before audiences as colleagues and fellow sulferers, to gather spectators in community with them or, alternatively, to do battle with them, to provoke, needle, exhort, preach, shame, cajole, and caress, to las itsell hare, to be sacrificial and incorruptible and redemptive in the middle of society, is what the Theater organizes itself so strenuously to do. A serious undertaking, an ambition having nothing to do with entertainment or feats of skill or coldly formal art served up from a distance.
Paradise Now is the group’s latest and most ambitious production, the work that best exhibits what the Becks are about, what they dream of and hunger after, and how they see themselves. The audience on this night is considerably younger and farther out, although the contingent of more rooted and more nearly patrician spectators is still visible, in a way, indeed, that makes sou think ol opening your tie and mussing up sour hair as you walk into the theater, where what greets you is the rumor and aspiration of “life” itsell.
You are a few minutes late, or, more likely, the show has started before its announced time. On the stage sit, stand, or mill about some seventy-five or a hundred persons, almost all of them young; interspersed with members of the audience are some twenty or thirty Living Theater people, distinguishable by their near-nudity. People keep coming up to join in, and you, remaining in your place, try to overcome the desire to ask what exactly is happening, since you know this is the kind of question, out of an old, discredited habit oi mind and culture, that the event is designed to eliminate.
What is taking place, in the purely ontological sense, is that the separation between audience and stage, spectator and performer, is being broken down, or at least that is the intention. The scene breaks up, to be resumed later in the evening. People drift back to their seats, and the production, or phenomenon, resumes its course, structured and laid out. though appearing not to be. Rituals, games, group embraces, “spontaneous” exercises, among them something the company calls a “transflip,” in which energy is passed from one to another, and—most centrally, violently, and dangerously—colloquies, shouting matches, and other intimacies with the audience.
Every so often a truly affecting, even lovely image is shaped: the company, which unfailingly responds as a trained organism in the group exercises and is clear and disciplined in its submission of the traits to the whole, arranges itsell silently as an anguished exemplary body of victims or moves around the theater with the rediscovered gravity of a religious procession. And at these times, moments of silence in every case, you feel it possible to move out in love toward the sheer beleaguered, impracticable hope that some kind of community is really forming, and toward the group and the Becks themselves, remembering all the hard times, warning the thing to be redemptive, purgative, and new.
But it is all brought down, the whole enterprise, the myth and the possibilities are brought down by an unforgivable naïveté (if it is merely that) and a self-love that undercuts any pretense of love for us. As they did in the past, but much more violently and apocalyptically now, the Becks are castigating the bourgeoisie, the American social order, the world all around. The hatred and the fury may be tactical at some points, but it overwhelms that to become its own fulfillment; aspiring to prophetic thunder, it reaches you as dementia. Once the ritual gestures stop, once the pure physicality gives way to a resumption of social being, the Living Theater openly reveals its spiritual and psychological bases. They are in tyranny—the special despotism of the weak—in loss and despair, in resentment and impotence, and a profound neurosis masquerading as redemptive zeal.
The theater is filled with talk at every other moment, and it is pure cant, pompous, self-righteous jargon, a feast of cliché and shibboleth. It is speech that says what we already know and have found useless as words, “This theater is owned by pigs,” an actor shouts. “To reinvent love,” they all chant, “to do useful work,” “to get rid of central control,” “to spell out paradise.” “The day we stop using money” will be the day of paradise, we are told. “Be the black, be the poor,” we are enjoined, and someone unfriendly in the audience yells back, “Why are you charging admission?”
“Fuck the Arabs, fuck the fews,” the actors bellow in a painful attempt to indicate political impartiality in the interests of human solidarity, an effort made even more embarrassing by their next piece of information: “Fuck means peace.” “This theater is yours,” we are informed: “this theater is for creating a better world.” But except for a very rare moment when something unconscious takes over in you, when the self is forgotten or provisionally overcome (and this accomplished in spite of the company and in the face of the rampant egotism), the better world is all rhetorical, all easy, easy statement, the easiest of statements.
“Talk to your neighbor on the right, fascist!” one of the company shouts at a man. And then Julian Beck says that there are 29,000 policemen in this city—“Who will form cells to change their consciences?”—and a printing press is brought on the stage, and the company shows members of the audience how to use it for the rhetorical elaboration of the better world. Then in an absolutely flawless cameo of irresponsibility, Beck, long, lank hair falling from his great bald dome, biblical and furious, announces that “there are fifteen hundred prisoners in the Atlantic Avenue jail a few blocks from here, who will free them? . . . We’re going to march on the jail and free them later tonight; who will march with us?" Of course no one marches later, of course the prisoners remain. It is all easy, irresponsible, outrageous.
Later, members of the audience drift up to the stage again at the urging of Lite company. On one occasion they link arms in a big circle and sway back and forth; on another they clap in unison to an actor’s low chant. What they want, it’s clear, is something physical, to get in out of the cold, to lose themselves; they want community without ideas or articulation, sanctions to do something different, to get out of the rut. When the call comes to take off their clothes, many obey, neither with alacrity nor self-consciousness for the most part, but, it seems to the fully-clothed onlooker, with a sad, temporary freedom, a liberty leading nowhere.
There are exceptions, aggressive egos seizing the day. Among the first to shed his outer clothing There is never any full nudity; as Eric Bentley has remarked, this is an underwear show) is Richard Schechner, impresario of the rival Performance Group, who swaggers about in jockey shorts, his huge paunch wobbling, and beckons everybody up to the breakthrough.
The audience has its nay-sayers to everything that is going on, even though the majority seem in at least partial sympathy. Young wits take the opportunity to try to score, in some cases for the benefit of wises or girlfriends, but more for the excitement of being someone for a brief public moment; their heckling is inevitably sexual, and they clearly do not understand love—the love that fills the theater air. Some spectators attempt to argue, debate, ask for practicalities in this sea of revolutionary assertion. But this is an occasion of the spirit, and they are violently abused by the actors for not being with it. A member of the company rushes through the aisles and screams, “Stop thinking about yourself and think of the dying!” to which a young man, spokesman for a pained and silent minority, returns, “What have you ever done for the dying?”
Julian Beck: “We are looking for ways to love you. Make it easier for us.”
Mysteries and Smaller Pieces
The Living Theater is still involving the audience in fiercely adolescent and rhetorical insurrection—“Stop the war,” “Don’t vote,” “Abolish the state,” “Abolish money”—offering news that is no news. But this production is on the whole less verbal and declamatory. The group turns to what it does best: theatrical games and exercises, having fun with precisely the kinds of actions “serious” theater anathematizes. They blow their noses over and over, an action as important as any other; they march around the stage in marvelous, useless precision; they “pass” one another emotions and gestures as if in a warm-up for an athletic event (it is something they have learned from the exercises of the Open Theater). Through much of the proceedings a little girl of perhaps two wanders, daughter of a company member no doubt, and she is allowed to do her thing, to be there with the same rights as everybody else.
The last piece of action, a long mimesis of social despair and the horrors of impersonality, in which members of the company “die” in agony at various points in the theater and are carried still and strangely remote by other actors to the stage, where they are piled in a pyramid, is solemn and affecting. What is more, it’s a true theatrical action, a new one. Yet you leave the theater pondering the mystery of what this skilled, professional job of imagemaking has to do with the Living Theaters platform and posture, its claim of being real.
“This theater is for creating a better world . . . not to tell you lies. This theater is yours.”
“Reality,” “truth” are what the Living Theater is supposed to be about. Apocalyptic, tendentious to the point of violence, a self-generated and selfvalidated juggernaut of renewed humanism and revised sensibility, the company comes at its audiences charged with mission. This is what it hopes you will experience: not performance, presentation, an active shaping for passive onlookers, but action itself, in which everyone participates, boundaries break down, and company and audience enter into a new and mystic collectivity, germ center of a coming better world.
At the center of its sensibility and operations, as these concern theater, is the recognition that the stage up until now has rested on the principle of illusion, from which follows the fact that it can be and mostly has been used for confirmation of existing experience, or for dream and solace. If you wish to use it for something else, for change, upheaval, Artaud’s “plague,” which brings about actions of recovered health through homeopathic treatment and leads to action outside the theater, then the illusory nature of the stage has to be overthrown.
The stage, in all its modern travail, has grappled with the necessity to be an additional reality, an increment, when every pressure from society asks it to be a complement, a procedure which reproduces life or somehow “enhances” it or gives it “meaning.” The popular stage has continued to be illusory, which is to say a matter of life misleading us; we can only say about a work of drama that “life is not like that” when the play is not a work of art, a true fiction. From the late Ibsen to our own moment, serious theater has attempted to become fictional while throwing oft illusion; the erosion of traditional plot and character since Ibsen and Strindberg is one process of drama’s throwing off its resemblance to life, in order precisely to become more alive.
But there is another recent tradition, which is that of breaking down illusion and imitation in the theater by trying to he “real” through presenting the selves of the performers instead of imaginary ones. The tradition is really one in the line of anti-art: no fictions, nothing “made up,” only what is decided on here and now in the space of performance—a theater, a garage, or the outdoors, as in the case of happenings and the like. This is what the Living Theater ostensibly is trying to do, in an action designed to change life and not merely to add to it, above all not to confirm it in illusions.
If this is so, and if the theater has to renew itself by dealing with the question of illusion, with the at least partly discredited tradition of impersonation, of pretending to be someone else (which the film, for one thing, gets around through its very abstraction, its mythic reality) , then what is the point of miming dead men or any other kinds of actual being? If you are to rouse and change audiences, for political purposes or for more general humanistic ones, by putting yourselves in front of them as your own selves, exemplary but also familiar, doing the things the spectator would presumably do if he were not a spectator and soliciting him to do them, to come up on stage, to sing along, to take off his clothes, then why impersonate anything, why pretend? If the point is to break down the artificial distinctions, then why “act” at all? Is it theater or is it life?
Judith Malina: “I think that every situation in which people can break through social restrictions is very good.”
A Night in the Quaker Meetinghouse
The Theater for Ideas is an organization that began by presenting experimental and offbeat drama, music, and dance in a small West Side studio and has turned more and more to sponsoring symposia and panel discussions on subjects like Vietnam, American democracy, the irrational, and the future of the various arts. Its audiences generally include nearly everybody who is anybody in the New York intellectual world, many of whom come to give support or quarrel with their colleagues on the platform, and others in order to avoid not putting in an appearance. Lately the discussions have attracted overflow crowds, necessitating larger auditoriums. Even so, on a Friday evening in March people are being turned away front a former Quaker meetinghouse in Gramercy Park, while inside some five hundred others prepare to listen to a discussion of the Living Theater.
The official subject is “Theater or Therapy?” and the panel is composed of Robert brustein, dean of the Yale School of Drama, who is to be against the Living Theater, the writer Paul Goodman, who is to speak in favor of it, and Judith and Julian Beck. The moderator is the social commentator and author Nat Hentoff.
Brustein begins by wondering what the discussion topic might mean, and then tells the audience that since theater is never therapy, never heals anyone, he will talk about whether the Living Theater has been offering anything useful or revivifying for the stage. It hasn’t, he says, in a matter-of-fact voice, since it has repudiated everything central to the practice of drama as an art, having renounced structure, ideas, language, and the histrionic imagination in favor of a deadly illiterate amateurism based on acting-out. Then he goes on to describe the group as fascist in temperament and methods, a manifestation of the new anti-intellectualism and impatience with culture, a sign of the new anarchy.
Before he is hallway through, the heckling begins, a voice shouting something unintelligible from the balcony. Though he manages to finish, the interruptions increase: their gist—and in some cases their explicit content—is that lie is “full of crap.” The audience, so heavily loaded with literary notables, full of minds used to responding to phenomena and drawing social implications, begins to stir, look about, question one another. But there is not yet any shape to the disturbance. Paul Goodman, who has been sitting on the floor of the podium with his hack to the audience in a gesture of either relaxed intimacy or supreme arrogance, is asked to speak, and after announcing that he has not seen the Theater since before they went to Europe but believes he’s for it, delivers a rambling, patronizing disquisition on the parallels between the Protestant Reformation and what is going on now among the young disaffiliated like the Living Theater.
There is some further exchange on the stage, when the heckling suddenly breaks out much more violently. All over the auditorium people leap to their feet hollering or run shouting and gesticulating through the aisles. They are immediately identifiable as members of the Living Theater, some twenty or twentv-five of them dressed in hippie outfits or various kinds of outlandish costumes. They keep up their screaming, the import of what they are saying being that the proceedings are foolish. “Go home, go home!” one of them keeps screaming. “Don’t listen to this crap.”
But the debate on the stage manages spasmodically to go on. Miss Malina tells Brustein that “we’re banking on the fact that if the people are given freedom they’ll choose freedom, not fascism . . . we give the stage to the audience in the belief that every single one of them is capable of being a sublime creative artist . . . it’s the premise of the work we’re doing.” Brustein, still calm, remarks that what’s taking place is evidence of something else, to which Miss Malina, her eyes dancing, retorts, “It’s beautilul!” and Beck, standing there like a noble old savage in sleeveless silver vest and a band pulling back his hair, says “Better get used to it, it’s coming attractions.”
Now the meetinghouse is a scene of near-chaos. The Living Theater members, scrambling down from the balcony, racing through the aisles, scream imprecations at the audience. “You goddamn liberals!” over and over, while another grabs a woman’s purse, runs in front of the podium, and empties the contents of the purse over the auditorium floor. The learned and talented audience is registering shock, dismay, or anger; shouting matches take place everywhere; the stage is in milling confusion, its only still points being the figures of the Becks standing there in icy serenity, like field marshals looking down on a battle going as they had planned.
The moderator, Hentoff, huddles with Shirley Broughton, the head of the Theater for Ideas, who in turn huddles with a large, bewildered security guard. Now, her face white, fighting to be heard, she declares the meeting adjourned, apologizing to the audience and promising them their money back.
At this point Richard Scheduler seizes a microphone, and in a confidential, this-is-my-scene voice, tells the audience to be calm, to enjoy themselves, to go with it. But nobody pays attention to him, and he is suddenly thrust from the limelight by a far more grandiose ego. Norman Mailer, who arrived forty minutes late in a dramatic entrance and has been sitting down front with arms folded on his chest, abruptly barrels his way to the podium, takes another microphone, and harks in a peculiar Southern accent, a new persona, “Now listen, everybody, I’m Norman Mailer, this is a tough town, there’s always someone tougher than you. I’m Norman Mailer.”
“Who?” someone calls from the balcony. Mailer, grim, tight, a threatened institution (this is a big occasion for egos, a test of leadership) snaps back “Norman Mailer,” and goes on to harangue the crowd, trying in some gross and unfathomable way to take command, to bring his own order to the chaos. But he is an absolute failure (later he will remark to Hentoff, “How does it feel to he as ineffectual as me?”), and the wild, extravagant, halfludicrous, and half-terrifying scene continues to unfold.
Now Miss Malina addresses the crowd again. “Do you see what you’ve done,” she yells; “you can’t go along, you can’t let yourself go! Be free,” she tells them, “experience it! Everything that I’ve just seen happen is beautiful and good, it’s so beautiful, and you won t go along with it! You’ve ruined it, and it’s so good!” There is amazement and disbelief in the audience. A few who recover first shout accusations that the Becks have planned the whole thing, jumping up and clown, her arms flung wide, Miss Malina screams, “This is a holy place, and I’m a religious woman, and I swear to you I’m as surprised as you are. But it’s so wonderful!” A few minutes later Rufus Collins, one of the evening’s chief nihilists, admits to an onlooker that he had told the Becks that afternoon what the company was going to do.
And now the evening settles down to fitful flurries of violent talk and near-physical encounters between members of the Living Theater (others of whom pose on the stage, as Indians, fag queens, lady vampires), and the audience, others of whom stand around talking about the events, a common sense being that of some acute and unappeasable sickness having been uncovered. Rufus Collins keeps screaming, “Stop analyzing and start living, that’s what this is all about.” A heavy-set middleaged woman goes up to him and says in a flat, even voice, “The things you have been saying are stupid, narrow, ugly, bullying; you are a stupid bully,’ while Collins goes on chanting obscenities in her face. It is not until two thirty in the morning that the last noises die away and the gestures stop being made in the old Quaker meetinghouse in Gramercy Square.
Jonathan Coppleman, a student at the Yale Drama School: “It seems to me that the trouble with the Living Theater is that they’ve gotten totally implicated in the society they hate. They stare the legal structure in the face, and the legal structure stares [back], and they’re frozen in that position and can’t move and can’t conceive of anything outside those terms. And I think the LT is quintessentially American in the assumption of their own innocence in looking at society and responding to it and [being] paralyzed by the horror which they say is in society but which is really in themselves. And that’s why they continually get involved in their opposite; whenever they talk freedom it’s totalitarian. It’s an incredible circle, something like the reflection of a Medusa s head. Their eyes are locked into it.”
Julian Beck: “I’m raging. We’re going to make it together somehow . . . but you’re not getting across to me.”
The Living Theater returned to Europe in April, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of clashing opinion and violent response. In places on their tour they seemed to bring news to naïve and experientially starved audiences, to come on as Pied Pipers of an alternative to present existence; in others, campuses like Berkeley, they were left far behind by spectators much tougher and more sophisticated than they. For the critics of the Village Voice their visit proved to be an incentive to an orgy of the self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophical, and lugubriously personal journalism, full of dreams and confessions, that is usually kept somewhat in check. For the critics of the New York Times, the occasion was one inspiring the desire not to be left out.
As they moved in sparse and equivocal triumph through America, the group clearly became more and more resentful and dangerous, a wounded animal trying to break out. Many of the members went increasingly on drugs. At the Quaker meetinghouse one knew that everything inherently irrational and demented in the Theater’s postures and ideology was at its peak, shamelessly and nakedly on display. And one saw because of this how at the basis of the company and its appropriated mission and of the Becks’ mythical and wizardlike status as their leaders exists an amazing lie, perhaps the most representative lie of our time.
For the Living Theater, apart from some circumscribed theatrical gestures and practices, has no status as an achiever of true, uncoerced, felt community or of the regeneration of political possibilities through accurate and hitherto unknown movements and utterances of indictment, repudiation, alternate morale. The claim of love, the claim to be a sacrificial agency for its audiences’ resurrection, is the basis of the lie. “Do you think Julian Beck loves you?” a student asked adherents of the group at a discussion, and when she heard cries of “Yes, yes!” she replied, “Well, I don’t love Julian Beck. And I don’t love you. And love is something that has to be earned.”
The Becks are fundamentally ignorant of what is happening in the world, nor do they wish to be informed. Self-pity anti self-love always crowd out knowledge. If the Living Theater were truly interested in others or even in peace and human beauty, they would see what they are doing instead of plunging forth unappeasably in the fixed conviction of their own righteousness and of guilt or inadequacy of the people they appear before. (One is continually surprised at how uncomfortable they are in the face of the many members of the audience who are clearly in sympathy, as though something precious in then self-consideration as noble outcasts, unique critics, were being threatened.)
Having made certain moves in the direction of a theater freer of artificiality and closer to the realities, they continually move off into their own astonishing artifices and unrealities. Their arrogation to themselves of peace, love, freedom, unsupported by anything earned, anything achieved or newly discovered about those conditions of humanity (“What have you ever done for the dying?”— a nurse does more), their wanting it both ways (to be a theater of public and political use and at the same time to be an apocalyptic community in search of its own salvation), their clear, hard, unwavering ressentiment—all this is painful to see and experience as it announces itself as rebirth. We are all waiting for the future to take hold in the theater, for politics to be cleansed and revivified by art or any other means; nothing like that is going to come from people who cannot see beyond the mirror.
“it’s not a show, it’s the real thing!” a member of the Living Theater shrieked during Paradise Now. No, it’s not the real thing, it’s a show.