Julian Beck, 60, Living Theater Founder
Julian Beck, whose Living Theater brought the extremities of realism to the stage and whose personal life style often upstaged his own radical dramas, is dead of cancer, it was learned Tuesday.
Beck was 60 and died Saturday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City after losing an 18-month struggle with abdominal cancer.
With his wife, Judith Malina, Beck, the son of an auto parts salesman who began as a painter, founded Living Theater in 1947. They had met in 1943 when Miss Malina was 17 and he was 18. Both shared a love of theater that culminated in their audacious group that became a voice for social struggle and individual frustration.
They had been back in their native land for only a few years, having been in exile in Europe for nearly 15 years after the Internal Revenue Service ruled that they owed $23,000 in taxes.
Their theater of the dramatically absurd--which often found the actors exhorting audiences to join them in taking off their clothes--was viewed as far less appealing by critics on their return. What had been widely accepted as experimental, anarchistic theater in the decade of the Flower Child was now viewed as tasteless group therapy.
“Their gimmicks look tacky now,” Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote in 1984.
Beck-Malina defended their performances of “The Connection,” in which actors portraying drug addicts would drift into the audience asking for money to support their habit, or “The Brig,” about a cruel Marine Corps prison.
Those plays and others, the two said in 1984, were an attempt “to be real on stage instead of feigning realism . . . without that superficial psychology needed to create a character.”
Beck was redefining what he had written in 1965 in a critique of his motives:
“I think if we will look at this world as it really is we will find that even what is most ugly has within it the sparks of life. And I think we go to the theater to glimpse those sparks.”
For Beck-Malina those “sparks” were polemical--dramas to shock their audiences from complacency to action. When the actors stripped (and were arrested for indecent exposure in New Haven, Conn., in 1969), it was not prurient interest that was at stake but social protest.
“I am not free to take off my clothes in public in this country,” the actors would chant as they strolled the aisles in G-strings.
The Living Theater became a figurative and literal family, involving several married couples and a number of babies, two of them Beck’s own.
In 1968 the company was ordered from Avignon, France, by the city’s mayor, who complained of their hippie life style generally and their disheveled appearance in particular. Three years later Beck and Malina and 11 other cast members were expelled from Brazil after their arrest on marijuana charges.
At the height of the Vietnam War Beck-Malina adapted “Antigone” and “Frankenstein” and made war protest plays of them. Actors would urge the end of war in those plays as they had implored audiences in earlier dramas to free prisoners from jail or abolish the use of money.
These were efforts, Beck told the Los Angeles Times in 1969, to get people to “redefine, in a sense, daily life itself, so that we get a new notion of what ‘needs’ are. A capitalist system is going to make people very greedy . . . whereas a society that is concerned with people and not money is going to produce what is useful, distribute it and then go on to figure what the next step in human development ought to be.”
All that came to fruition in “Paradise Now,” an improvisational drama in which the Living Theater tried to show how the revolutionary must not only reform his community and society but also discover a spiritual side to himself so that he learns to genuinely care for his fellow man.
Probably the best-known alumnus of the Beck-Malina family of actors is Al Pacino, the stage and film star. Beck himself turned to films in his later years, portraying a gangster in 1984’s “Cotton Club.”
The Beck-Malina effort itself has been captured on film in a documentary about Living Theater titled “Signals Through the Flame,” which screened in Los Angeles in 1984. “The Connection” and “The Brig” also have been made into films.
Last year, in another Times interview after his cancer had been diagnosed, Beck said he believed Living Theater would yet rise from its ashes.
“This is a period of great alienation, yet the theater has become a place of great spectacle and lavish entertainment rather than a place of feeling.”