Thinking About Theater

Judith Malina and the Award-Season Rush

Amid a frenzy of openings, a radical-theater genius passes.

Judith Malina, who died on April 10, cofounded the radical theater company Living Theatre in 1947.
Judith Malina, who died last month, cofounded the radical theater company Living Theatre in 1947.

It happened in April, so its meaning didn't fully register with me. No New York theater journalist has time to register the meaning of anything in April. Increasingly every year, producers crowd the bulk of Broadway's openings, madly, into the month before the awards-nominations deadlines. Even those of us whose attention is mainly focused off-Broadway, where this city's true theatrical life occurs, find ourselves caught up in the whirlwind: The response to the big-scale uptown openings alters the framework in which we converse. And then off-Broadway adds to the bedlam by making its own major demands toward season's end. This year, the one brief letup in the gush of Broadway openings was filled by major revivals off-Broadway of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Ibsen's Ghosts — heavy artillery for a month mostly crammed with trivial diversions. (Both productions turned out, ironically, to be among the worst renderings I’d ever seen of these two beloved plays.)

Judith Malina and Julian Beck, cofounders of Living Theatre, spent a brief stint in jail after running afoul of the IRS after staging their final performance of The Brig.
Judith Malina and Julian Beck, cofounders of Living Theatre, spent a brief stint in jail after running afoul of the IRS.

So I was already punchy, and bracing myself for worse batterings to come, when the news arrived that Judith Malina (b. 1926) had died, two months short of her 89th birthday. Not till weeks later, after I'd survived the Tony rush and life had quieted down a bit, did I perceive that, in her death as always in her life, the great actress-director had made the most strikingly radical gesture possible, a rebuke to all the hyperbole and money-grubbing falsity the city's theater was celebrating around her. It was as if the great apostle of anarchism, founder and nurturer of the Living Theater, had said, "You are flooding New York's stages with meaningless dreck. How do you expect the human spirit to survive?"

Malina's was a surviving spirit — a pixieish, quick-witted, fervent little bundle of vitalizing energy, directing, writing, and planning new productions until virtually her last moments. Five years ago, after moderating a panel on off-Broadway's history in which she and Edward Albee participated, I found myself writing that, next to the youthful optimism of these revered figures, both well over 80, I, having just turned 65, felt like the oldest person in the room. The power that kept her dynamo running was her passion for art and for politics: In her case the two were fused in a single overmastering love. The Living Theatre, which she and her first husband, Julian Beck, cofounded in their Upper West Side living room in 1947, started out with poets like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams as guiding spirits. It flowed from there to Luigi Pirandello, to the disconcerting hyper-realism of Jack Gelber's The Connection, to Bertolt Brecht, who inevitably, became one of the company's touchstones, and to his theoretical antithesis, Antonin Artaud.

A scene from Living Theatre's The Brig, the last performance of which was filmed in 1964 by Jonas Mekas.
A scene from Living Theatre's The Brig filmed in 1964 by Jonas Mekas just before Malina and Beck were arrested.

And then, just as Artaud's theories were coming into public discussion here, and political tensions were rising as we edged toward the Vietnam War, came The Brig, Malina's staging of which, in 1963, was a life-changer for her and countless others. More a ritual than a play — no plot, no characters — The Brig simply shows one horrific day in the life of prisoners in a Marine Corps brig, endlessly insulted, humiliated and physically abused by their guards while performing endless, meaningless tasks. It riveted 1963 audiences, and was still riveting (and seemed even more relevant) when Malina revived it for a renewed Living Theatre in 2007. It also prompted, in 1963, calls for a Congressional investigation. By a stunningly unsurprising coincidence, the IRS suddenly discovered that the Living Theatre owed back taxes, and padlocked its 14th Street theater. Beck and Malina, unwisely, broke into their seized property to give one last fundraising performance of The Brig (filmed by Jonas Mekas). There was hell to pay. The Becks briefly went to jail; the company then went to Europe, and didn't return to America for five years.

To juxtapose that chronicle, which skims over only the first segment of Malina's astonishing career, with what the New York theater was doing in April while she took her leave of us, produces a startling, almost shaming, dramatic contrast. Certainly there are aspects to theatrical life that the Living Theatre didn't fulfill, and that Broadway does. Malina, who was as delighted as anybody by the theater's inherent sensuality and its gift for flamboyant effect, would not have scorned the best things going on in the struggle for Tony attention.

She would certainly have admired, for instance, the taut intensity and the cunning dark-light alternation of an essentially serious piece like Fun Home. She would not have been unsusceptible to the lithe dancing and lavishly colored scenic effects of An American in Paris, even though these were far from her own aesthetic; she might even have admired the book's attempt — though I personally think it a rather muddled attempt — to bring a touch of political resonance into the essentially frivolous story. And — as one strong female survivor to another — she would certainly have admired the powerful presence that Chita Rivera brings to The Visit.

But deeper questions lurk in the gap between what Broadway does and what Judith Malina's Living Theatre strove to achieve. I'll articulate some of them next week.

Chita Rivera plays Claire Zachanassian in Kander and Ebb's musical The Visit.
Chita Rivera plays Claire Zachanassian in John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally's musical The Visit.
(© Thom Kaine)

To read Part II of this "Thinking About Theater" column, click here.

Michael Feingold has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, most recently in 2015 for his "Thinking About Theater" columns on TheaterMania, and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. He serves as chairman of the Obie Awards and has also worked as a playwright, translator, and dramaturg.