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  • On Aggro Performance: Audience Participation and the Dystopian Response to the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now
  • James Penner (bio)

During the 1960s, rock performance sometimes included volatile confrontations with the audience. In some cases, performers stopped singing and attempted to taunt and provoke the crowd. One of the most famous examples of confrontation involved Jim Morrison of the Doors. During a concert at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami on March 1, 1969, Morrison abruptly stopped singing “Five to One” and began mocking the audience and their ingrained passivity: “You’re all a bunch of…idiots. You’re a bunch of slaves, man. How long you think its gonna last? How long you gonna let it last? How long you gonna let them push you around?”1 Later in the performance, he exhorted them to come up on the stage: “I wanna see you people come up here and have some fun! Come on now, let’s get on up here! No limits! No laws! Come on. Come on! Let’s do it.”2 After the stage was cleared, the lead vocalist began to enact a mock striptease; he took off his shirt and dangled it like a matador’s cape in front of his crotch. Although no evidence suggests that Morrison disrobed while performing in Miami, a Florida jury found him guilty of misdemeanor counts of “indecent exposure” and “open profanity” in October of 1970.3

Although many people are familiar with Morrison’s 1970 trial, few are aware that his controversial performance in Coconut Grove was actually inspired by the Living Theatre’s production of Paradise Now. On February 28, the night before the Miami concert, the Doors’ lead vocalist had witnessed a performance of Paradise Now at the University of Southern California’s Bovard Hall. Morrison, a former theater arts major at Florida [End Page 75] State University and UCLA, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Living Theatre.4 The rock vocalist was intrigued by their confrontational tactics, especially the radical troupe’s willingness to verbally assault the audience and thereby dismantle the “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the performers.5 Morrison’s invocation “come on now, let’s get on up here! No limits! No Laws!” was taken directly from “The Rite of Guerilla Theatre” (Rung 1) of Paradise Now. This is the moment when the Living Theatre actors invite the spectators to join the performance and create “paradise now” throughout the performance space.

In their respective memoirs about the Doors, John Densmore and Ray Manzarek describe how Morrison invited all of the band members to a performance of Paradise Now. Densmore and Morrison’s accounts of Paradise Now highlight an important trend in the avant-garde theater of the 1960s: the desire to involve the audience in the performance event. In a traditional theatrical performance, the audience sits in the dark and acts as a voyeur for the actor’s performance onstage. Although audience members may laugh or applaud during certain moments of the performance, their participation in the theatrical event is firmly circumscribed by their role as spectators. Their primary function is to observe the performance, even from a safe and comfortable distance. For this reason, audience members are typically described as “passive.” Morrison was enthusiastic about Paradise Now precisely because it rejected the voyeur mode of spectatorship.

Most ex post facto scholarly accounts of Paradise Now focus on the utopian aspects of the production and the company’s subversive political message (anti-war, anti-repression, and anti-establishment); these accounts suggest that audience participation within the production of Paradise Now was generally peaceful and liberating. Their readings of Paradise Now tend to emphasize the spectator’s transformative experience on the stage.6 This essay acknowledges the Living Theatre’s utopian intentions, but is primarily interested in what might be described as non-utopian responses to Paradise Now—specifically, how the Living Theatre’s confrontational tactics also engendered hostile responses from the audience. [End Page 76]

Aggro Performance

Paradise Now was a groundbreaking production precisely because it could not be easily digested by the audience. It pushed them to react in some way. The Living Theatre’s desire for radical confrontation implies...