A ’60s theater radical
Had Judith Malina never existed, the 1960s would have had to invent her. Yet it was Malina, a diminutive, German-born, American provocateur of immense commitment and courage, who helped crystallize our notions of 1960s aesthetic and political radicalism through the Living Theatre, the company she founded with husband Julian Beck in 1948.
Malina, who died Friday at age 88, was a student of Erwin Piscator, a major influence on Bertolt Brecht. She clearly absorbed a good deal of what Brecht took in, because her work synthesized his vision of epic theater with Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty, mixing in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics and Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theater, and serving it up in New York’s newly burgeoning underground theater scene.
In “Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement,” Stephen J. Bottoms calls the Living Theatre “the single most influential American company of its era.” Malina and Beck, he writes, wanted to create a theater, in Malina’s own words, of “pure art, pure poetry, [with] the highest level of artistic adventure, the highest level of experiment, the highest level of political advance.”
Many of its productions — Jack Gelber’s “The Connection” (1959), Kenneth Brown’s “The Brig” (1963) and “Paradise Now,” which led to the arrest of performers and audience members for public indecency at Yale in 1968 — became theatrical watersheds.
When a revival of “The Brig” came to the Odyssey Theatre in 2008, I was worried that this might be a nostalgia trip, but the work had a hallucinatory hold on me. With two wars going on, the politics were starkly relevant. But it was the austere dynamism of the performance, the way it enacted its meaning and theatricalized its oppositional message, that kept the piece from seeming stylistically dated.
Malina made occasional appearances in movies (playing Granny in “The Addams Family” in 1991) and on television. But it was through the Living Theatre that she left an indelible mark. Her radicalism, which never lost its urgency or mission, inspired new generations of progressive theater makers struggling to find alternatives in a system that has grown only more thoroughly commercialized.
When asked to sum up his old friend’s legacy, Yale School of Drama professor and critic Gordon Rogoff said: “Judith was a director with a difference — tempting actors into a performance on behalf of the non-violent revolution she was always staging regardless of the material, the inspirations, the ideas, and the text.”
JUDITH MALINA cofounded Living Theatre.