The history of The Living Theatre begins when Judith Malina and Julian Beck meet each other in 1943. He was 18 and she was 17. Julian was the son of well to do second generation Jewish parents. His father was the successful owner of an automobile parts business. His mother had been a teacher. They lived in a large apartment on West End Avenue. Judith had come to America when she was two years old, from Kiel, Germany. Her father was a rabbi. Her mother had wanted to be an actress, but devoted herself to her husband’s career. Max Malina worked tirelessly to warn of the coming destruction of Jewry in Europe. He ran a busy congregation in New York and sadly passed away of cancer in 1942. Judith and her mother ended up on welfare. But then she met Julian. He had dropped out of Yale and was an aspiring abstract expressionist painter in the world of Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning and the many others. Judith was taking classes at the New School with German director Erwin Piscator. Together Judith and Julian decided to start a theater. It would be a theater of poetry, a political theater, a theater different from Broadway and commercialism. They married and began a family with the birth of son Garrick in 1949.
Their first plays were in the living room of their apartment at 789 West End Ave., across the street from Julian’s parents’ apartment. Irving Beck, Julian’s father, paid the rent. They produced “Childish Jokes” by Paul Goodman, “Ladies Voices” by Gertrude Stein, “He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No” by Brecht, and “The Dialogue of The Manikin and The Young Man” by Garcia Lorca. In 1951 with an inheritance from a relative of $6,000, Julian rented the Cherry Lane Theater on Commerce St. in the West Village. During two years Judith and Julian began their first seasons in actual theater spaces. They produced “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights” by Stein; “Beyond The Mountains” by Kenneth Rexroth; “An Evening of Bohemian Theatre”: “Ladies Voices”(Stein), “Sweeny Agonistes”(Eliot), and “Desire Trapped by the Tail”(Picasso); “Faustina” by Paul Goodman; “Ubu the King” by Jarry; and “The Heroes” by John Ashbery. The Living Theatre at the Cherry Lane was ended in 1953 when the fire department closed it down. And so would begin many run in’s with the authorities over theater occupation.
Judith and Julian found themselves in a vibrant world of artists, dancers, and actors. And many of these creative spirits flocked around The Living Theatre. There were the poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Jackson MacLow, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso; writers Paul Goodman, Tennessee Williams, Joseph Campbell, and Jack Kerouac; painters Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Ray Johnson; dancers Merce Cunningham, James Waring, and Remy Charlip; musicians John Cage, Lou Harrison, David Tudor, and Alan Hovhaness; film maker Maya Deren. And these are just a few of the names. Judith had a deep relationship with writer James Agee in this period. Judith and Julian’s physical relationship was an open one. Julian was bi-sexual and Judith took other lovers as well.
Their next theater space was a loft on West 100th and Broadway in 1954. There they produced “The Age of Anxiety” by W.H. Auden, “The Spook Sonata” by Strindberg, “Orpheus” by Cocteau, “The Idiot King” by Claude Fredericks, “Tonight We Improvise” by Pirandello, “Phedre” by Racine, and “The Young Disciple” by Paul Goodman. After a year in 1955 the space was closed by the fire department again.
Finally in 1959 with the help of producer Paul Williams and in collaboration with John Cage and Merce Cunningham they were able to open the theater on 14th St. and 6th Ave. which was the Theatre’s home for five years. Merce Cunningham had his dance studio on the top floor. The Living occupied floors two and three. Many friends and artists pitched in to renovate and build the space. They opened with “Many Loves” by William Carlos Williams on January 13, 1959. Williams came to see the show; Judith and Julian had known him for several years. They revived “Tonight We Improvise” which had been a big success on 100th St. They produced two Brecht plays, “In The Jungle of Cities” and “Man Is Man”. Also in the repertoire were “The Cave At Machpelah” by Goodman and “The Theatre of Chance”: “The Marrying Maiden” by Jackson MacLow and “Women of Trachis” by Ezra Pound. In July of 1959 they opened Jack Gelber’s play, “The Connection”, about heroin junkies waiting for their fix to arrive. There are four white junkies and four black jazz musician junkies. A lot of Jazz music is played during the play. Many great musicians cycled through the play in its three years, including Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean, Cecil Taylor, and Tony Williams. The connection, played by black actor Carl Lee, finally arrives. And everyone shoots up, taking turns in the bathroom reached by a door upstage. One junkie takes too much and almost od’s, Leach played by Warren Finnerty. At that, the musicians feel it’s time to go. Nothing happens and everything happens. The actors mixed with the audience during intermission, begging for spare change. The critical reaction was tentative in the beginning, but after Kenneth Tynan and Robert Brustein wrote rave reviews, the play became a sensation, running over 600 performances and touring Europe. The Living Theatre was on the map. Shirley Clarke made a celebrated film of the production. A second Gelber play, “The Apple”, was produced in 1961.
The Theatre also hosted many one time events, poetry readings, dance concerts, art meetings. O’Hara and Corso read, famously heckled by a drunk Kerouac. Leroy Jones(Amiri Baraka) read, as did Ginsberg. Musical concerts by Hovhaness, Cage, and Tudor and others were held. There was dance by Erik Hawkins and others. Exhibitions were held in the lobby. Julian had formally renounced working as a painter to devote his time completely to the Theatre. But of course he was constantly designing sets and costumes. As well as acting, directing, and running the administration. Judith did more of the directing and acted in many of the shows. In addition to the theater work Judith and Julian were very committed pacifist anarchists. They participated in many protests and were often arrested. They were part of the General Strike for Peace against the nuclear testing. Judith spent a month in the Women’s House of Detention with Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, for failing to take cover during air raid drills in 1957.
In 1963 the Becks were given a play by Kenneth Brown called “The Brig”. The two hour play describes twenty four hours in the life of a Marine prison brig. There are 10 prisoners and four guards. The text consists of orders and obedient responses of the prisoners. All shouted at top volume. There is a good deal of sadistic verbal abuse and some physical abuse, a constant ritual of torture. The play was a tremendous success and played for five months and later toured Europe for two years. But it did bring the attention of politicians and of the I.R.S. The Theatre was shut down by the tax authorities in the fall of 1963. The actors occupied the premises for two days and were finally hauled away by the police. The production transferred to another theater on 42nd St. for several weeks. When the landlord ended the run, the company snuck back into the padlocked theater and Jonas Mekas was able to shoot his celebrated film of the play. There was a trial. Judith and Julian were put on a five year probation and received contempt of court penalties for insulting the judge. Judith served one month and Julian two in 1965. By that time the company had already decided to accept numerous engagements in Europe. And so began a four year nomadic existence in Europe.
In the late 60’s the company had long residencies in Italy and Germany and was touring constantly. The main workhorse was “The Brig” which was performed all over the continent. The company mounted a production of “The Maids” by Genet, with an all male cast. In 1964 the group created “Mysteries and smaller pieces”, a series of scenes, incorporating some of the work from “The Brig” with theater rituals based on yoga, raga music, theater actions such as Sound and Movement and Tableaux Vivants, culminating in a realization of The Plague, as described by Antonin Artaud in his book, “The Theater and Its Double”. Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty was of significant influence to the Becks in the searing reality of “The Connection” and “The Brig”. By 1965, the men in the company began to let their Marine haircuts grow out into the long hair of the hippies. The women wore flowing silks and kohl around their eyes. And the Living came to symbolize the cultural changes of the era – the style, the marijuana, the sex, the radical politics – on stage and off. In 1967 Judith gave birth to a daughter, Isha Manna. Her father was Carl Einhorn, an actor in the company.
In 1965 the Living created a total theater production of “Frankenstein”, based on the text of Mary Shelley. The play took place on a three story structure of metal pipes. More and more the company began to work with collective creation, attempting to create the art in a true anarchist form. In 1967 the company opened “Antigone” in Judith’s translation of Brecht’s version of Holderlin’s translation of Sophocles. The play had no set and was performed in street clothes. It was a two hour sound and movement piece of Antigone’s civil disobedience in burying the body of her brother. The show was played over 200 times(and another 200 in revival after 1979). The culmination of this late 60’s period was “Paradise Now”, a four to five hour collective creation with a great deal of audience participation. The play consisted of rituals, visions, and actions, moving up an ideal ladder to paradise. Between each rung on the ladder, space was given for the audience to react/participate. The play was often the scene of mass participation, much nudity, utopian discourse, arguments, and sometimes arrests since the last action of the play was to take the theater into the streets. The play opened in 1968 at the Avignon Festival in France. The festival asked the company to substitute another play, due to the controversy and sensation of the event. The company refused and left the festival. France was very tense in those months after the May ’68 protests; Judith and Julian had participated in the occupation of the Odeon Theater in Paris in May. Fascists were also prowling about, threatening company members where they were domiciled. The company was escorted to the Swiss border by the police.
The Living toured the US in 1968/69 with the four recent plays. From New Haven at Yale, to New York, to many colleges across the country, all the way to California, the arrival of the Living was always a sensation. Demonstrations, nudity, and arguments became the norm. And some arrests. Financially, it was not a success. Julian famously refused producer Michael Butler’s offer of Broadway; Butler was the producer of “Hair”. Several members of the company felt the tour had not realized their political goals with all the scandal. The company toured London, France, Italy, Belgium, and Berlin. And in 1970 the 30 member group divided into four groups. Judith and Julian wanted to pursue a theater which would stay out of the traditional venues of commercialism and take theater to the factories, the poorest of the poor, to people on the streets. Another part of the company chose to pursue a spiritual path and went to a project in India. The two other groups held brief happening performances and disbanded.
In 1970 Judith and Julian and a group of about 10 Living actors who had remained with them accepted an invitation to work with the Oficina Company of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After several projects in Rio and Sao Paulo and some street theater performances, the company settled in Ouro Preto, a small town in the state of Minas Gerais. Ouro Preto had been the 18th century capital of Minas and was filled with magnificent Baroque buildings, but was also home to the grinding poverty of the Third World. The company held school workshops and produced a play for Mother’s Day at the local school of a nearby factory town. Brazil was under a military dictatorship in those years and local officials became suspicious of the North American hippies. In July of 1971 the company was arrested and spent two months in jail. The charge was being in the presence of marijuana. A trial was held and finally the group was deported by order of the president of Brazil. The arrest had been a media frenzy. International attention had been intense. For many in Brazil, the experience of the Living there had been a catalyst to say things which were forbidden to Brazilian citizens. Many years later Judith was given the medal of culture by President Lula.
For the next two years the company resided in Brooklyn. The group numbered from 15 to 20. Work was spent on a cycle of plays called “The Legacy of Cain”. The work was influenced by the work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and studied the master slave relationship, using six societal variables: war, love, property, the state, death, and money. Plays were designed for many different audiences – schools, prisons, mental institutions, and of course, the street. The introductory play was “Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism”(1973). It took the form of a zen ritual in the round, surrounded by the audience. There was a ritualized torture scene of the parrot’s perch, a torture form used in Brazil. A sonorous Gnaoua chant from Morocco was used throughout. The play was eventually performed over 300 times in the US and Europe. In 1974 the group created “The Strike Support Oratorio” in support of the United Farm Workers’ grape and lettuce boycott. It was a 30 minute procession of oppression, work, and struggle movements, ending in barricades in front of a local supermarket. In this and the other “Legacy of Cain” works, the company employed the Bio-Mechanics devised by Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia after the Revolution. In 1975 the company opened “The Money Tower”, a play on a tower five stories high depicting the social system, its oppression, and a utopian hope for change. In September of ’75 the company performed plays all over the city of Pittsburgh, where the Living had resided for 10 months.
In the fall of 1975 the Living departed for Europe for what would turn out to be eight years. It toured “The Legacy of Cain” plays in Italy, Denmark, France, Belgium, and Spain. Finally in 1977 the company rented two apartments in Rome. The Living became a constant presence all over Italy. In 1978 it created a version of “Prometheus”; in 1980 Judith directed “Masse Mensch” by Ernst Toller, and in 1982 member Hanon Reznikov wrote and directed “The Yellow Methuselah”, based on Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah” and Vasily Kandinsky’s “The Yellow Sound”.
In 1983 the group moved to Nantes, France where Julian wrote “The Archaeology of Sleep”. The group performed the play and organized a Museum of Sleep with local artists in June. Unfortunately, Julian developed cancer and the company had to disband. In remission in the fall and performing in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club”, Julian was able to reunite the company for a month’s run in January 1984 in New York. The repertoire was “Antigone”, “Masse Mensch”, “The Yellow Methuselah”, and “The Archaeology of Sleep”. Julian’s cancer returned and the company disbanded again. Julian lived for another year, dying in September 1985. In that last year he also appeared in the film “Poltergeist II” and in “A Beckett Trilogy” at the LaMaMa Theater in New York; Julian performed “All That Time” by Samuel Beckett. In 1984 Mystic Fire Video released the film, “Signals Through The Flames”, by Sheldon Rochlin and Maxine Harris, a documentary about the Living.
In 1986 Judith reunited many veteran members of the Living to stage “The Retrospectacle” at Cooper Union. There was a scene from each play, going back to the beginning. Martin Sheen and Joe Chaikin, among many others, took part. Judith directed “Us” by Karen Malpede in 1987, “Poland 1931” by Jerome Rothenberg in 1988, and “VKTMS” by Michael McClure in1988. In 1989 under the direction of Judith and now second husband, Hanon Reznikov, the Living opened a theater space on East Third St. in the East Village. In three years the company created “The Tablets” by Armand Schwerner, “I And I” by Else Lasker-Schuler, “Body of God” by Reznikov, “German Requiem” by Eric Bentley, “Rules of Civility And Decent Behavior In Company And In Conversation by George Washington” adapted by Reznikov, “Waste” by Reznikov, and “The Zero Method” by Reznikov. There were frequent tours in Europe. Other plays of the nineties were “Anarchia” in 1994 by Reznikov; “Not In My Name” in 1994, a street theater collective creation against capital punishment; “Utopia” in 1995 by Reznikov; and “Capital Changes” in 1998 by Reznikov. In 1994 Judith also performed in “Maudie and Jane”, based on a story by Doris Lessing, and created with Teatro Alfieri of Asti, Italy. Malina was awarded the Premio Ubu prize for best actress in 1994 in Italy. In 1997 Malina directed four Living Theatre actors, and company members from Teatro Alfieri, in “Chisciotte”, which toured Italy for two years. In 1999 the Living accepted a residency in Italy in the small town of Rocchetta Ligure in the Piemonte Region. The residency lasted for five years. In 2000 the group created “Resistenza” by Reznikov, about the experience of the resistance to fascism and the Nazis in northern Italy in 1943/44/45. In 2003 the collective creation, “Enigmas”, based on an idea of Julian Beck’s, was performed in Naples. “Resist”, a film by Dirk Szuszies and Karin Kaper, about the Living in 2001, was released in 2003. Many workshops were held in these years, and continue to take place up to the present, in Living Theatre techniques. The main workshop form is a collective creation with participants called “A Day In The Life of The City”.
Judith continued to pursue her movie career. She appeared in “Awakenings”, “Household Saints”, “China Girl”, “Enemies, A Love Story”, and “The Addams Family”, among others. Small projects continued in the winters in New York. A street theater piece, “Resist Now New York”, was created. In 2007 the Living opened a new theater space on Clinton St. in the Lower East Side. The first production was a revival of “The Brig”; it ran for five months and won two Obie awards. Several revivals and new shows followed. The revivals were “Mysteries”(2007), “Maudie and Jane”(2008), “The Connection”(2009), and “Seven Meditations”(2009). The new productions were “Eureka”, adapted by Malina from an idea by Reznikov, “Red/Noir” by Anne Waldman and directed by Malina, and then four shows all written and directed by Malina: “Korach”(2010), “History of The World”(2011), “Here We Are”(2013), and “No Place To Hide”(2014, performed at other spaces after Clinton St. closed). In all these plays Judith continued her work on experimenting with audience participation and promoting the Beautiful Non-Violent Anarchist Revolution. Tragically, Hanon Reznikov passed away in May of 2008 in New York, just as “The Brig” was on an extensive tour of Germany and Italy. The company left Clinton St. in March of 2013, surpassing by a year the duration of the time spent in the 14th St. space of 50 years before. Having spent every last cent on Clinton St., Judith moved to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. The company continued to perform, even going to the Burning Man Festival in August of 2014. Judith from 2011 until 2013 performed “The Plot Is The Revolution”, a theatrical interview with Italian actress Silvia Calderoni, a creation with the group Motus. Shows were held in Italy, France, and Switzerland. A film, “Love And Politics”, was made about Judith, by Ali Jacoubi and Azad Jafarian in 2011.
Judith Malina passed away in April of 2015 at the age of 88. The Living Theatre continues under board president Garrick Beck, Judith and Julian’s son, and artistic director Brad Burgess, who assisted Judith over the last seven years. 40 year veteran Tom Walker is the archivist. “No Place To Hide” was recently performed at The Bread and Puppet Theater’s summer circus in Vermont, August 2015. The Bread and Puppet Theater performed at The Living Theatre in the early 60’s on 14th St. The circle continues with new plays "Electric Awakening" (2018 in Brazil) and "Rosetta" (2023 in South Korea) and a new and ongoing workshop effort, "An Experiment in Civic Hope" started in 2021 in Indiana and continuing in Pennsylvania, California, Massachusetts, Florida and of course, New York... For the Beautiful Non-Violent Anarchist Revolution... And as Julian used to say, “If it’s not beautiful, I’m not interested in it.”