Remembering Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)
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Theater 34.3 (2004) 100-133



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Remembering Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)

Chaikin in an Open Theater workshop, 1966. Photo: Phill Niblock
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Chaikin in an Open Theater workshop, 1966. Photo: Phill Niblock
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Gordon Rogoff

Suddenly I want to change the story I've told so often before—the one that's centered entirely, even obsessively, on Joseph Chaikin's lifework as actor, teacher, and director. The private, intimate Joe remains in memories and shadows, where he probably preferred to be, so I won't violate that wish—which is surely just as well, since I know only my own intimate moments, and those happened in a past rapidly fading from effective use.

In recent years, meeting Joe for occasional dinners in downtown bistros, I enjoyed more than ever the sight of his head held at an angle, his eyes roaming in a different direction as he seemed to be placing question marks over ideas as they emerged from the hard-won hesitations forced upon him by his stroke so long ago. That head was animated anyway by a strange detachment from his body, there even before the stroke, in which it was in perpetual reach for whatever might be plucked from the mysterious, starry universe, something to be borrowed for still another exercise in transformation, if only for a passing instant. Joe always could be trusted for an unexpected guffaw or giggle, leaping across conversation that might be in threatening sight of a pretentious thought, but at these late-1990s dinners, all those dangers were swept away in favor of Joe, the reluctant bon vivant who, among other crosses he had to carry with him, came always with his salt substitute to ensure continuing good health.

Which we all knew—especially Joe—couldn't go on forever. Joe kept challenging the gods by sending friends his schedule for next year, partly reflecting his wish for warm climates in winter, but surely also his way of declaring defiance. That defiance turned up in unexpected artistic corners also—Arthur Miller's plays, just for one [End Page 101] example, worthy in so many ways even when clunky and predictable, yet so far removed from Joe's youthful convictions about what theater might possibly do against the limiting visions peculiar to photographic realism. I suppose he was keeping former associates aware of his own freedom to change, to be different from what we had once imagined, to be his own person at last, though he should have known that his independence was never a question for most of us. Joe was accommodating his work to a narrative that, after all, is never in anyone's power to control: he was moving on just as he was going on.

He and I still had our shared musical sympathies to remind us of that Open Theater past, whether Mozart, Beethoven, or even Wagner, and we never tired of political rumination, with its baggage of unholy despair, but if we had major differences developed over the years of moving in so many separate directions, I can't remember talking about them. (Well, yes, there was the time when, in a review of one of his works, I queried his design choice, which blinded him momentarily to the plain, critical fact the review was warm and welcoming; he was taken by surprise, he said, because I hadn't mentioned the design to him after the performance, and to this I asked him to remember that, as in his own work, the critic discovers what he thinks while making it happen.)

Despite its certainty, death comes as a thief in night or day. One miraculous clue about Joe is that despite holding the fort so long against the predator, his actual finality came as a surprise. I...