Founded in 1947 by Julian Beck and Judith Malina, the Living Theatre started inauspiciously in the Becks’ living room, seating not more than 20 spectators. In these early years, the company produced experimental work by Paul Goodman, Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, and Federico García Lorca. As a literary theater specializing in modern verse drama, they mainly appealed to a select group of New York literati. From the beginning, the company defined itself in opposition to Broadway, opting to become a repertory theater where actors could collaborate closely for extended periods on a limited number of plays. Free from state interference and surviving on little money in the margins of the commercial circuit in New York, they set an example for other Off-Broadway companies.
From 1951 to 1964, the company looked for bigger audiences, establishing themselves in three successive New York locations. Each site led to evictions because of failures to comply with fire and safety regulations or to pay tax arrears. Because these laws unfairly targeted small, noncommercial companies, the Becks contested them as insidious forms of censorship. The Living Theatre took its protest against an oppressive establishment into the street, at the height of the cold war, organizing three successive general strikes and urging citizens not to comply with mandatory civil defense drills. Thus was formed a tradition of activism and civil disobedience that would cost the company fines, beatings, and jail terms but that would guarantee its visibility in the years to come. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Living Theatre mounted a challenging and diverse repertoire that included T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, Kenneth Rexroth’s Beyond the Mountains, Pablo Picasso’s Desire Trapped by the Tail, W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, and William Carlos Williams’s Many Loves. In 1958, they scored their first critical success with Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a jazz play about heroin addicts waiting for their fix, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. With this play, the company made its European debut in 1961, receiving the Paris Theatre Critics’ Circle Award for best acting and the Grand Prix of the Théâtre des Nations at the international theater festival in Paris. In 1963, the Living Theatre produced its landmark production of Kenneth Brown’s The Brig, a nightmarish depiction of the debasement of military prisoners. The Becks turned this play into a harrowing visual and auditory spectacle, having recognized in Antonin Artaud’s concept of a “theatre of cruelty” their own vision of a theater that would pierce through layers of cliché and conditioning to alter radically the perceptions of actors and spectators.
Evicted from their last theater and pursued by creditors, the company toured Europe between 1964 and 1968. As a collective heeding Artaud’s advice to end the theater’s enslavement to text, they experimented with collaborative creation, improvisation, and audience participation. This resulted in a series of original performance pieces inspired by the company’s protest against the Vietnam War: Mysteries and Smaller Pieces (1964), Frankenstein (1965), and Paradise Now (1968). Paradise Now included a scene in which the audience was invited to join a pile of writhing and groping actors in various states of undress that ended with a march out of the theater into the streets in search of paradise. All too often, however, actors and enthusiastic spectators found not paradise but the police with charges of public indecency.
After 1968, the Living Theatre was slowly left behind by new political and artistic developments. In France, the “Happenings” staged by the Living Theatre had almost naturally merged with les évènements, the 1968 student rebellion in Paris. Back in the United States, the Living Theatre found itself surpassed by other radical companies, such as Richard Schechner’s “guerrilla theater” (political, avant-garde, street theater) and Peter Schuman’s Bread and Puppet Theatre. To many who, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., sympathized with the violent militancy of Black Panthers and Weathermen, the Living Theatre’s blend of pacifism and anarchism sounded increasingly naive. In 1969, internal dissension caused the Living Theatre to split into a number of “action cells,” each with a distinct political philosophy.
By 1970, the Living Theatre had played out its role as an innovator. Once more, though, they would hold the world’s attention when the Becks’ action cell was imprisoned for two months during its Brazilian tour, where it had presented its ever-expanding cycle of plays on the nature of violence, The Legacy of Cain. In the 1980s, they returned to the theater with a string of original works, including Prometheus at the Winter Palace and The Archaeology of Sleep.
Julian Beck died in 1985. From then until 2005, the company was led by Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov, a longtime member of the group who became Malina’s husband. After the theater’s premises on Third Street in Manhattan were closed by the Buildings Department in 1993, the company continued to tour in the United States and Europe. Since Reznikov’s death in 2005, Malina has continued to direct productions in the company’s current performance space on Clinton Street in New York.
Beck, Julian. The Life of the Theatre: The Relation of the Artist to the Struggle of the People. San Francisco: City Lights, 1972. ———, and Judith Malina. Paradise Now: Collective Creation of the Living Theatre. New York: Random House, 1971. Biner, Pierre. The Living Theatre. New York: Horizon Press, 1972. Malina, Judith. The Diaries of Judith Malina: 1947–1957. New York: Grove Press, 1984. ———. The Enormous Despair: Diaries 1968–1969. New York: Random House, 1972. Rostagno, Aldo, and Gianfranco Mantegna. We The Living Theatre. New York: Ballantine, 1969. Silvestro, Carlo. The Living Book of The Living Theatre. New York: Greenwich Art Press, 1971. Tytell, John. The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage. New York: Grove Press, 1995.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.