The Living Theatre Essay - Critical Essays

The Living Theatre


The Living Theatre

The Living Theatre was formed in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck. Inspired by psychologist Wilhelm Reich's theories and Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, it was created as an alternative to the commerical theater of the time. Known for its unconventional performance practices—such as breaking down the fourth wall between the actors and the audience, and acting outside of the theater setting—The Living Theatre helped initiate the Off-Broadway movement. The mission statement of The Living Theatre is “to call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theater … to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the theater.” In addition to writing and perfoming its own works, the group has performed plays by Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, as well as the works of European writers such as Jean Cocteau and Paul Goodman.

Background Information

Julian Beck was born in New York City on May 31, 1925. In the summer of 1943, Beck received a 4–F classification during a physical examination for admitting an inclination towards homosexuality. It was emphasized by a psychiatrist that Beck’s inclination was curable and that he should date women as a form of treatment. As a result, Beck met Judith Malina at an actors' club called Genius Inc., on September 14, 1943. Malina, an aspiring actress and a protégée of Erwin Piscator, discussed with Beck the concept of a theater with productions written by poets and performed as an alternative to the more commercial shows of Broadway. In 1948 Beck married Malina, and in 1951, The Living Theatre officially began in the living room of the Becks’ Upper West Side apartment. The couple made friends amongst the avant-garde of New York society, and in 1952, they rented the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village as a venue for The Living Theatre's performance of John Ashbery's The Heroes (1952), as well as several plays by poet Kenneth Rexroth. The Cherry Lane Theatre was closed in 1953 by the fire marshall who cited a fire hazard caused by the paper sets that Beck had created. The Living Theatre moved to a loft on Broadway at 100th Street, until that building was closed by the Buildings Department in 1956. In 1963, the I.R.S. closed The Living Theatre’s new location on 14th Street. From 1964 to 1968, The Living Theatre became nomadic, performing at various outdoor venues in Europe, but never staying at one place for long. In the 1970s, The Living Theatre began touring in Brazil, where certain members of the troupe were jailed on charges of selling marijuana and using their performances to create political upheaval. While in prison, the performers of The Living Theatre began to put on plays for the inmates. The members of the group were released from jail after celebrity appeals were made to the ruling military juntas of Brazil. In 1985, The Living Theatre experienced two major changes: Julian Beck's death from stomach cancer and the opening of The Living Theatre on Third Street in Manhattan with Malina and codirector Hanon Reznikov producing a wide range of works. In 1992 the venue on Third Street was closed by the Building Department, and The Living Theatre returned to nomadic performances in the New York area.

Major Works

The Living Theatre has produced more than 80 productions in eight languages in over 25 countries. The works performed are known for their avante-garde subject matter and audience participation. Some of the more popular and controversial productions have been The Connection (1959) by Jack Gelber, a play about drug addiction during which the actors solicit money from the audience to pay off their heroin habit; and Kenneth H. Brown's The Brig (1963), which focuses on cruelty in a Marine Corps prison. New adaptations of previous plays—both Antigone (1967) and Frankenstein (1965) were retooled as war protest pieces—generated both critical acclaim and political retribution. The production of Frankenstein that opened in Venice, Italy, lead to the acting troupe being deported from the country. In the 1970s, The Living Theatre created The Legacy of Cain plays for nontraditional venues, such as prisons in Brazil, schools in New York City, and a Pittsburgh steel mill, and performed for large audiences free of charge. Some of the Legacy of Cain plays included Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism (1973), Six Public Acts (1975), and The Destruction of the Money Tower (1975). The Living Theatre has also held poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, Imamu Amiri Baraka, and Frank O'Hara, as well as lectures by Joseph Campbell and Maya Deren. Since The Living Theater's return to New York in the early 1980s, it has staged a variety of plays such as Not In My Name (1997), a protest piece against the Death Penalty, which has been held in both New York and Italy on days when an execution is scheduled to take place, and a play based on Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century, Capital Changes called Capital Changes (1998).

Critical Reception

Many critics have compared The Living Theatre to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The works of both groups have combined politics with aesthetic imagination, and both theatres have been highly controversial and political. The Living Theatre's performance of The Brig lead to the troupe's 14th Street venue being seized by the I.R.S, as well as an early termination from the Mermaid Theatre in London. Mysteries and Smaller Pieces (1964)—an amalgamation of yoga techniques, acting, singing, and audience participation—was banned in Trieste for nudity. The show was also banned in Vienna by the fire department when student-actors in the audience joined the troupe on stage during the performance, inspiring brawls between audience members after the show. Criticism of the group's productions has been mixed due to the ever changing format that The Living Theatre presents to its audience. Audience reaction and participation have frequently been key elements to each Living Theatre production, and the troupe's practice of breaking down the fourth wall between the stage actors and the audience has been positively received.

Principal Works

Childish Jokes [by Paul Goodman] 1951

He Who says Yes and He Who says No [by Bertolt Brecht] 1951

Ladies' Voices [by Gertrude Stein] 1951

Desire Trapped by the Tail [by Pablo Picasso] 1952

Faustina [by Paul Goodman] 1952

The Heroes [by John Ashbery] 1952

Sweeney Agonistes [by T. S. Eliot] 1952

Ubu the King [by Alfred Jarry] 1952

The Age of Anxiety [by W. H. Auden] 1954

Phèdre [by Jean Racine] 1955

Tonight We Improvise [by Luigi Pirandello] 1955

The Connection [by Jack Gelber] 1959

Many Loves [by William Carlos Williams] 1959

The Apple [by Jack Gelber] 1961

Red Eye of Love [by Arnold Weinstein] 1961

Man Is Man [by Bertolt Brecht] 1962

The Brig [by Kenneth H. Brown] 1963

Mysteries and Smaller Pieces 1964

Frankenstein 1965

The Maids [by Jean Genet] 1965

Antigone 1967

Paradise Now 1968

Christmas Cake for the Hot Hole and the Cold Hole 1970

Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism 1973

The Destruction of the Money Tower 1975

Six Public Acts 1975

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Is There Something Wrong with the Way We Work? 1976

Why Are We Afraid of Sexual Freedom? 1976

Brothers, Don't Shoot! 1977

The One and The Many (Masse Mensch} [by Ernst Toller] 1980

The Yellow Methuselah [by Hanon Reznikov] 1982

The Archeology of Sleep [by Julian Beck] 1983

The Body of God 1990

Anarchia 1993

German Requiem [by Eric Bentley] 1995

Not in My Name 1997

Capital Changes [by Hanon Reznikov] 1998

Revolution and Counterrevolution [by Julian Beck] (theory) 1968

Conversations with Julian Beck and Judith Malina [edited by Jean-Jacques Lebel] 1969

The Life of the Theatre [by Julian Beck] (theory) 1972

The Connection 1960

The Brig 1963

Paradise Now 1970

Signals through the Flames: The Story of The Living Theatre 1983

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Harold Clurman (review date 1968)

SOURCE: Clurman, Harold. Review of The Living Theatre. Nation 207, no. 14 (28 October 1968): 445.

[In the following review, Clurman argues that The Living Theatre is a cult, not a theater.]

There are more than a few people in Europe and America who believe that the company known as The Living Theatre (Brooklyn Academy of Music) is making a vital contribution to the theatre. Having seen three of its four presentations I judge that Le Living (as the French call it) is more concerned with “living” than with theatre.

The company disarms criticism. Its productions are a way of life, closer to religious manifestations than to either art or...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Richard Gilman (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Gilman, Richard. “It's a Show.” New Republic 159, no. 19 (9 November 1968): 29ff.

[In the following essay, Gilman criticizes The Living Theatre for bad acting, bad faith, and childishness.]

When the Living Theatre left America for Europe four years ago I was among those who wished them well in their self-exile and, as it seemed to me, their opportunity to find out what they were really about. I'd always been troubled by them, having admired them more, I suspect, in theory than as an actuality. I defended them as often because of their detractors—most of whom represented everything sterile and commonplace in the theatre—as because of their own...

(The entire section is 2366 words.)

Bruce Cutler (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Cutler, Bruce. “Two Plays of the Living Theatre: The Difficult Wisdom of Nothing.” Wichita State University Bulletin 53, no. 3 (August 1977): 3–21.

[In the following essay, Cutler attempts to define the techniques of The Living Theatre through an anatomy of the technique of two of its experimental pieces.]

It is not an easy task to give a single name to recent developments in American theater, for generalizations are usually most effective when they are made retrospectively, and certainly it is too early to make definitive judgments about American theater in the 1960's. Yet movements such as Julian Beck's Living Theatre, and playwrights such as Jack...

(The entire section is 8056 words.)

Arthur Sainer (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Sainer, Arthur. “The Several Stages of the Embattled Living Theatre.” Theater 16, no. 2 (spring 1985): 52–7.

[In the following essay, Sainer traces the shifting reliance The Living Theatre has had on the pre-written text as the basis for its productions.]

By the winter of '84-'85, the Living Theatre had made the decision to settle (if that is the word) once again in New York City. Until the previous summer, it had hopes of establishing a two-cities base, performing six months in Paris and six months in New York, but events, not the least of which is Julian Beck's serious illness, have forced the company to reappraise what is possible. Julian, who...

(The entire section is 3959 words.)

Honor Moore (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Moore, Honor. “The Visit: A Memoir of the Living Theatre at Yale.” Theater 28, no. 3 (1998): 23–30.

[In the following essay, Moore describes a visit by The Living Theatre to Yale in 1968, the conflicts it generated, and the way the visit changed her idea of theater.]

When I arrived in September 1967, the Yale School of Drama promised everything to a 22-year-old in love with the theater, and everyone, it seemed, wandered through it: Sam Shepard with a ponytail down his back; Stella Adler in her seventies, a long-stemmed red rose secured in the décolletage of her black sheath; Jonathan Miller to direct Robert Lowell's version of Prometheus Bound;...

(The entire section is 3160 words.)

Hanon Reznikov (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Reznikov, Hanon. “Jerzy Grotowski, 1933–1999.” Theater 29, no. 2 (1999): 8.

[In the following obituary tribute to Jerzy Grotowski, Reznikov describes the differences between Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theatre and The Living Theatre.]

After the Living Theater went into exile in Europe in the mid-1960s, its path began to cross with Grotowski's Polish Laboratory Theater. At the time, both groups were considered, each in its distinct way, to be at the cutting edge of “experimental” theater. The differences could not have been more apparent. The Grotowski people were not particularly interested in the audience; for the Living Theater the audience was...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

James M. Harding (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Harding, James M. “Dissent Behind the Barricades: Radical Art, Revolutionary Stages, and Avant-Garde Divisions.” In Contours of the Theatrical Avant-Garde, Performance and Textuality, pp. 176–201. Ann Arbor: Univeristy of Michigan Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Harding combines a report of the occupation/liberation of the Odeon Theatre in Paris in 1968 with a discussion of the integration of vanguard politics and art as expressed in the opposing positions advanced by Beck and Jean-Louis Barrault.]


In the fall of 1968, just as the...

(The entire section is 11853 words.)