Charles Marowitz dies at 80; playwright, director and critic
Charles Marowitz, a playwright, director and theater critic known for his blunt manner and cutting-edge work, including controversial reworkings of classics by Henrik Ibsen and Shakespeare, died in Agoura Hills on Friday from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by his wife, actress Jane Windsor-Marowitz.
A New York native, Marowitz spent six decades in theater on two continents. He co-founded the experimental Open Space Theatre in London and collaborated with Peter Brook on productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s experimental group. After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, he worked with the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre on a number of provocative productions, including a radical retooling of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”
He wrote books on acting and directing, and original plays, including “Sherlock’s Last Case,” which was mounted on Broadway in 1987, starring Frank Langella. He also was a theater critic for publications, including the London Guardian and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where his expansive view of theater included female mud wrestling and happenings on the Venice boardwalk.
“He was a major force in theater, period, not just in L.A.” said Alan Mandell, the distinguished classical actor who met Marowitz 30 years ago at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre. “He was an all-around theater person, and perhaps one of the most perceptive, profoundly honest theater critics I have known.… He wasn’t there to flatter you.”
Marowitz’s associations with the Los Angeles group and a Malibu company he founded ended badly because of a suffer-no-fools philosophy that caused clashes with overseers. “You loved him or hated him,” said his wife, who acted in some of his plays. “Most actors ended up adoring him. He always made actors look good.”
Born on Jan. 26, 1934, Marowitz was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who worked in New York’s garment industry. He grew up speaking Yiddish, learning English from an older brother and sister, and began writing plays in elementary school. By the age of 17, he had formed an acting company and was writing reviews for the Village Voice.
He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, but wound up serving in France, where he edited his company’s newspaper. After completing his military service, he enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
By the mid-1960s, he was helping to shake up the London theater scene, collaborating with Brook on experimental stagings of Shakespeare and directing playwright Joe Orton’s farce “Loot” as well as works by Saul Bellow and Eugene Ionesco. In 1968, he co-founded, with producer-actress Thelma Holt, the Open Space Theatre, an early venue for alternative theater in what became known as the London fringe, similar to New York’s off-off Broadway. He chronicled his two decades in London in the book “Burnt Bridges” (1990).
In 1981, Marowitz moved to Los Angeles and was soon making waves with a subversive refashioning of “An Enemy of the People.” Many critics hated what he did to Ibsen’s iconic last scene, when the maverick hero stands alone by a broken window and vows to take on the corrupt forces ruining his town. Marowitz rewrote the scene to suggest that change comes when people move together. His ending, critic Dan Sullivan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, was “true to Ibsen’s spirit, if not to the letter of the text, and more important, true to life.”
Marowitz often compared his approach to Shakespeare to breaking a precious old vase and reassembling it in a new shape. “Shakespeare provides the vase and I provide the glue,” he said in 1985, when his unorthodox version of “Hamlet” was staged at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, which became the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
His association with that theater ended on a sour note in 1989, when he organized a panel discussion on the future of theater that had only Anglo speakers. He went on to a brief stint as drama critic at the Herald Examiner, which ceased publication that winter.
“His mind was so esoteric,” said Richard Stayton, Marowitz’s predecessor at the paper, who now edits a magazine for the Writers Guild of America. “He wanted to expand the whole idea of theater criticism. He wasn’t eager do the traditional type of criticism I did.”
He founded the Malibu Stage Company in 1990 and was artistic director for 12 years, until he was fired in 2002 after a unanimous vote by its board of directors, whose members he had alienated with insulting remarks.
“Maybe I don’t suffer fools gladly,” Marowitz said at the time. “But there was nothing in my contract that [said] I had to be a sweet fellow.”
His marriage to Julia Crosthwait ended in divorce. He is survived by Windsor-Marowitz, whom he married in 1982, and their son, Kostya.
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