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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 76-78

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Remembering Jackson Mac Low

I saw him first as Marcus Aurelius in Paul Goodman's play, Faustina. Prester John's company was an anarchist group performing great theatre in a freezing-cold artist's loft on 8th Street, long before it became the fashion to perform in artists' lofts. That was in June of 1949 and the loft was Robert Motherwell's, shared with Barney Newman's art school. Mac Low's Aurelius was spare and solemn against the Roman world of debauchery and decadence. He showed plainly the painful tearing apart of passion and rationality that Aurelius suffered.

But in Washington Square Park on certain days, Jackson could be seen cavorting in a costume covered in maple leaves.

We were together through the turmoils and triumphs of the small but cohesive anarchist movement in New York during the Cold War, at the weekly meeting on 13th Street, Jackson defending the validity of individual action, talking of "the inevitability of the right choices." But he also spoke of his need for a regenerated faith in man, as his good will was trodden bare by his repressed cynicism.

Then, in March of 1954, we devoted all our energies to Auden's The Age of Anxiety. Everything went smoothly—except the music wasn't ready—and Jackson worked like a blue streak. All day long the dissonances drove me to distraction. Dick Stryker came to organize a recording session. He arranged for Grete Sultan to play the piano part, for Tui St. George Tucker to play the recorder, and Larry Rivers, the saxophone. Larry called from Southampton, having received the score, and played it over the telephone for Jackson's ok. Between the rigors of the mathematical and the sensual pleasure of the pure flow of words and meters, Mac Low suspends his life on the grid of chance and the intuitive freedom of his musical choices create a new harmony into which the prodigious talents at hand merge.

It was during the run of Phèdre, in which he played Theramène, that he rallied me to my first protest action. That was in June 1955, when he called about the Phèdre rehearsal and then added, "I'm going down to City Hall to picket against the air raid drills." I went with him and did some jail time for it, and so began my commitment as an activist. [End Page 76]

On August 9 of that same year, Jackson fasted for the memorial period between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We went with the Catholic Workers to the Japanese Consulate in the Empire State Building, bringing a note of repentance.

It was when he played The Heckler in our production of Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise that we first saw his strictness applied to the question of honesty in the theatre. He felt Pirandello was too structured, too falsified. "These improvisations," he cried, "are not improvisations!" He was searching for the ultimate freedom of action that comes of true freedom of interpretation, yet adheres to a matrix that gives form to the improvisational. This is the highest form toward which the anarchist philosophers are always reaching, freedom within harmony, and harmony consisting of freedom.

John Cage was perhaps our closest mentor. Merce Cunningham had his studio in our building on 14th Street and John was there every day, pounding out rhythms for Merce's classes. John's influence on all of us was enormous. He came downstairs regularly to tell us of his latest explorations of music, mushrooms, and random procedures. Jackson absorbed it all. John proposed a new philosophy of art, and no one understood this new terrain better than Jackson, except, of course, for Merce, who put it all directly into dance. Mac Low, however, put the theory to the test of theatre, the theatre that has traditionally resisted any tampering with its form. He created The Marrying Maiden, a play of changes, an altogether new type of theatre.

Jackson took an existing...


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