- Theatre and Protest in 1968: An Interview with Judith Malina, Co-founder of the Living Theatre1
For more than seventy years now, the Living Theatre has been creating political plays based on audience participation and collective creation, often performing in the streets for free or in support of a political cause. In the anarchist perspective of its founders, Julian Beck (1925–85) and Judith Malina (1926–2015), avant-garde theatre had to emancipate the audience and encourage them to engage with the injustice around them. “We insisted on experimentation that was an image for a changing society. If one can experiment in theatre, one can experiment in life,” Beck once remarked (qtd. in Wilmeth and Miller 234).2 In order to put those ideas into practice, the pair created the Living Theatre in 1947 in New York City, the first performances taking place in their own apartment at 789 West End Avenue. Malina had studied drama under the guidance of Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research; Beck had dropped out of Yale to become an Abstract Expressionist painter, producing paintings in the style of Wilhelm de Kooning. Together, they conceived of a theatre that would be different from what had existed before—a theatre that would be both poetic and political, a theatre at odds with Broadway’s commercial productions. Their first performances consisted in plays by avant-garde playwrights like Bertold Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Federico García Lorca, Gertrude Stein, Jackson MacLow, Paul Goodman, and John Ashbery, among others. After the successesful staging of Jack Gelber’s The Connection (1959) and Kenneth Brown’s The Brig (1963), their venue on Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue was shut down by tax authorities, and the troupe went on a four-year exile to Europe. During this period the members lived a nomadic lifestyle together and started to write ritualistic plays based on audience participation and formal experimentation. It began with Mysteries and Other Pieces (1964) and Frankenstein (1965) and culminated with Paradise Now, a play they had written and rehearsed in Sicily during the early months of 1968, which was to open at the Avignon Festival (directed by Jean Vilar, founder of the Théâtre National Populaire) on July 24. Paradise Now, with its reliance upon spontaneous improvisation, Artaudian physicality, and anarchist principles, was meant to bring about revolutionary change; the political upheavals that shook France in 1968 were to provide a testing ground for such a theatrical enterprise.
The company came to Avignon in early May to prepare and rehearse, their bohemian lifestyle causing an uproar among the local population. During that time, Beck and Malina were in Paris as the May 1968 events were unfolding. Massive demonstrations, general strikes, and the occupation of factories and universities were taking place throughout the country, bringing the economy to a halt. Beck and Malina supported and participated in the movement, although their nonviolent ethos often stood in contradiction with the insurrectional strategies of Maoist and Trotskyist students. They were involved in the occupation of the Théâtre de France, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault. Meanwhile, filmmakers François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Berri had succeeded in shutting down the Cannes Film Festival. After the movement died down in June, the Living Theatre went to Avignon, where members stayed in a school that they shared with students from the École des Beaux-Arts. The company supported the Chêne Noir, a French theatre company founded and [End Page E-1] directed by Gérard Gélas in 1967, after its play La Paillasse aux seins nus, which was to be performed on July 18, was canceled because certain scenes showing nudity were deemed to pose a risk of causing a breach of the peace. Tension ratcheted up a notch when, a few days later, the Living Theatre was prevented from playing in the streets for free and was required to replace the performance of Paradise Now, which was judged too controversial by local authorities, by Antigone. This decision led the company to withdraw from the festival and to publish a pamphlet titled 15 Questions to the Organizers and Participants of the Festival...