The Living Theatre Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

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.