Judith Malina: An appreciation of a theatrical trailblazer

Had American theater provocateur Judith Malina never existed, the 1960s would surely have had to invent her.

Had Judith Malina never existed, the 1960s would surely have had to invent her. Yet it was Malina, a diminutive, German-born, American theater provocateur of immense boldness, recklessness, commitment and courage, who actually helped crystallize our notions of 1960s aesthetic and political radicalism through the Living Theatre, the company she founded with husband Julian Beck in 1948.

Malina, who died Friday at age 88, was a student at the New School for Social Research of Erwin Piscator, a major influence on the great German political dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht. She clearly absorbed a good deal of what Brecht took in, because her work synthesized his vision of Epic Theater with Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, mixing in a healthy amount of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Biomechanics and Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theater, and serving it up in the chaotic playpen of New York’s newly burgeoning underground theater scene.

In his invaluable book “Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement,” Stephen J. Bottoms calls the Living Theatre “the single most influential American company of its era.” Malina and Beck, he writes, wanted to create a theater, in Malina’s own words, of “pure art, pure poetry, [with] the highest level of artistic adventure, the highest level of experiment, the highest level of political advance.”

Their precedent-setting objective, Bottoms writes, “was to mount collaborative, multidimensional events, with the playwright’s text functioning as a starting point in the creation of productions that belonged, uniquely, to their participants.”

Many of the Living Theatre's productions became theatrical watersheds — Jack Gelber’s “The Connection” (1959), about heroin addicts awaiting their next fix, gave birth to an unflinching school of gritty American playwriting; Kenneth Brown’s “The Brig” (1963), set in a U.S. Marine Corps prison in Japan, demonstrated the way ritualistic theater could be stirringly deployed as a tool of political dissent; “Paradise Now,” described as a “spiritual and political voyage for actors and spectators,” famously led to the arrest of several performers and audience members for public indecency when the work was performed at Yale in 1968. (This was after Beck and Malina’s return from exile in Europe after running into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.)

Malina, who married actor and writer (and subsequently co-director of her company) Hanon Reznikov after Beck's death, made appearances in movies (playing Granny in “The Addams Family” in 1991) and on television (as Aunt Dottie, a nun with a decades-old secret, in an episode of “The Sopranos”). But it was through her ongoing work with the Living Theatre that she left an indelible cultural mark. And her all-encompassing radicalism, which never lost its bite, has inspired new generations of progressive theater makers struggling to find alternatives in a society that has grown only more thoroughly commercialized.  

When a revival of “The Brig” came to the Odyssey Theatre in 2008, I was worried that this might be a Living Theatre nostalgia trip, but the work had a hallucinatory hold on me. With two wars going on at the time, the politics were just as starkly relevant. But it was the austere dynamism of the performance, the way it enacted its meaning and theatricalized its oppositional message, that kept the piece from seeming stylistically dated. Indeed, “The Brig,” which made my end-of-the-year highlight list, was still cutting-edge half a century later.  

I asked Gordon Rogoff, a professor at the Yale School of Drama and former Village Voice critic who had a long professional and personal relationship with Malina, to share his thoughts of his friend. Here is what he wrote back, via email:

“At a post-performance party after ‘The Brig,’ Judith passed me my first joint. As a non-smoker -- and smoking cigarettes was clearly the source of the emphysema that finally felled her -- I couldn't pass her test, which is to say that my smoking performance was instantly marred by coughing seizures. Yet I was wrong: Judith was a director with a difference -- tempting actors into a performance on behalf of the non-violent revolution she was always staging regardless of the material, the inspirations, the ideas, and the text. Yes, the text has to be remembered because that's where she and Julian began all their work: Gertrude Stein, poets, playwrights, and once in exile after their tax battles and brief jail time, a new lifetime project hell-bent on making that quiet revolution a bit more raucous in the theater. Hence: those Yale events in 1968 after their return, including texts of a sort [such as] Brecht's ‘Antigone’ with Judith the likely-unlikely protagonist, less the lead in the play and more the entire chorus filtered through a screen of mixed-up languages that came down to English, though it never mattered since they were umbilically tied to both Greek and German, Judith faithful always to her origins, education, and existential passions. (Yes, Piscator was her beginning, and she did publish a “memoir” with his name in the title, only recently.)

“The Yale atmosphere was just ripe for the Living's invasion. ... The company was clearly unlike any other visitors to the school [of drama]: Students had to notice that these actors also hauled in all the gigantic and smaller pieces designed by Julian for all four productions, that they were the technicians, the carpenters, the army (and their little children) who did everything before they did any part of what they'd played in Europe. In short, unlike the school set-up, this was all-collaboration all the time. Even without the world in its customary turmoil, their visit would have been a metaphor for universal upheaval, the reaction to their program of non-violence more psychically violent than anything they were actually doing. They didn't get a permit to march down Chapel Street after a ‘Paradise Now’ performance, so the cops locked them up and [Yale School of Drama Dean Robert] Brustein had to come to court to --- what? -- rescue them for the next performance.

“... I can't recall [my] first encounter [with Judith], but assume now that it must have come while I was working with Joe Chaikin as some kind of ‘dramaturg’ for the Open Theatre, though we hadn't yet used that word. From that moment, and through my time as a working drama critic, I learned soon enough that I was always free to write responses to their work that might not please them, but the neutral space would always be there, friendship always more the point than opinions strenuously held and uttered. By 1969, I found myself writing an essay in which I compared Joe to Judith and Julian: ‘Joe's actors are liberated through exercise,’ I wrote, ‘Judith and Julian's are plunged further into the existential abyss: Joe's people grow childlike in an evening. J and J's turn ancient.’"

 

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