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49 CHAPTER TWO The Living Theatre: Paradise and Politics in the Streets “The theatre is in the street. The street belongs to the people. Free the theatre. Free the street. Begin.”1 These final words of the Living Theatre’s landmark theatrical production Paradise Now, which the company performed from 1968 to 1970, encouraged audiences to begin a nonviolent revolution by moving from the theater into the street; they also encapsulated most of the salient themes of the group’s career. The idea that “the theatre is in the street” underscored the cultural currency of public performance, and it was a revelation that came after nearly two decades of struggle to create new ways of making theater that incorporated audiences as more than passive spectators. The claim that “the street belongs to the people” invoked the affinity of the Living Theatre’s anarchist and pacifist ideologies with the worldwideflowering of youth activism for democracy and liberation, led by the New Left in the United States. The appeal to “free the theatre” and “free the street” reflected the company’s belief that cultural life, represented by “the theatre,” and political , public life, by “the street,” intertwined inextricably. Finally, these comments also demonstrated a growing awareness of a broad agenda of personal freedoms—such as liberalized sexuality, freedom to experiment with drugs, and freedom from authoritarian control—that characterized the sixties counterculture. During the Living Theatre’s 1968–69 American tour, and to an even greater extent in the seventies, the company embraced public performance as 50 Chapter Two a means of meshing its political, artistic, and personal concerns. Its move to the streets resulted from the convergence of political beliefs and artistic concerns dating back to the late forties and early fifties, yet the company only escaped the confines of traditional paid admission theaters in the late sixties. The Living Theatre benefited from the civil rights movement’s expansion of cultural expression in public spaces, and represented a growing number of artistic and theatrical groups who used public spaces as venues for spectacles of oppositional politics. One of the world’s leading experimental theater companies, the Living Theatre mounted its first formal production in New York City in 1951. The company contributed decisively to contemporary theater by challenging popular conceptions of what constitutes a theatrical event, by exploring ways to operate outside the financial constraints of conventional theater, by pioneering techniques for involving the audience, and by infusing its theatrical innovations with the politics of anarchism and pacifism. Along the way, the company angered and frustrated its audiences, inspired the hostility of theater critics and academicians, and encountered the wrath of police and other government authorities. Charles Mee Jr., a contributing editor for Tulane Drama Review, once described the Living Theatre as “the brat-child we love to see hit by a car—until we realize that for all its damnable qualities, it had life; for all its silliness and irresponsibility and selfishness and egotism, it was so often right.”2 Despite such visceral reactions, the Living Theatre has enjoyed the greatest longevity of any American theater company. At a 1986 panel entitled “The Significance and Legacy of the Living Theatre ” at New York’s Cooper Union, moderator Michael Smith summarized the company’s contributions: “Its persistence, the range of its repertory, its marriage of politics and art, its dual function as both a community and a repertory theatre, both in New York and on the road, its extension into five continents, its journeys, its movement from the theatre into the street and back into the theatre . . . make it more than a theatre and yet a theatre par excellence, opening up the concept of what theatre can be and mean.” The dramaturge William Coco concurred, pointing out that few theater companies prove capable of sustaining themselves for even a decade. Coco compared the Living Theatre with the seminal Russian theaters of the early twentieth century, led by Vsevolod Meyerhold and Konstantin Stanislavski, arguing that the commonality linking the Russian theaters and the Living Theatre is their dedication to the “pursuit of an Idea.”3 Specifically, the company’s dedication to dramatizing ideas of anarchism and pacifism have allowed the group to survive for five decades, most recently remaining active with a residency in Genoa, Italy, part of the year, and in New York for the remainder. The Living Theatre 51 Infusing theater with serious political thought constitutes the Living Theatre...


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