Judith Malina, co-founder of The Living Theatre, died on April 10th at 88 years of age. I had the privilege of meeting her about seven years earlier, while renting an apartment on New York’s Clinton Street, a few doors from the company’s performance space. On my way home one night, I asked a troupe-member on a smoking break if Ms. Malina was still active. Yes, he said, she was directing their upcoming play about Edgar Allan Poe.
When I told him how deeply her work had affected me long before I ever thought about working in the arts, he suggested I come inside to meet her. She was gracious, grand and generous, ultimately inviting me to watch rehearsals whenever I liked.
Sitting in on that process was eye opening for me because Ms. Malina’s brand of theatre was designed to seem spontaneous and unrehearsed. Yet to make the play feel as alive and in-the-moment as she wanted it to - to allow for alterations in tone as audience responses varied from night to night - the core of the piece had to be crystal clear to actors and rehearsed with rigor and precision.
Decades ago, when Judith Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, made their biggest waves, a term like “spontaneity” would have been too tame for them; “revolutionary” was more appropriate. Mr. Beck, Ms.Malina and their troupe were pioneers in exploding conventions as basic as the imaginary fourth wall between spectators and performers. As basic as actors wearing costumes.
That’s right, costumes! The first time I saw Judith Malina, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1968 performance of Paradise Now, she was stark naked. Naked and challenging onlookers with the chant, “To be free is to be responsible.”
The production sent shock waves through all of pop culture. Jim Morrison’s arrest for indecent exposure onstage in Florida came shortly after he’d seen Paradise Now. Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck were his muses.
A sequence in Brian DePalma’s 1970 film HI MOM, known as “Be Black, Baby,” depicts an underground theatre performance in which bourgeois white patrons are brutalized by an acting troupe and love it. DePalma’s brilliant faux cinema verite set piece ends with an audience member declaring, “Clive Barnes was right!” Mr. Barnes, a New York Times reviewer, was indeed an early supporter of Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck’s work.
Spurred by such critical support and a modicum of commercial success, other theatre companies engaging in radical experimentation began to reach wider audiences. Richard Schechner’s Performance Group on New York’s Wooster Street triumphantly staged Dionysus in 69, a confrontational approach to classical characters comparable to The Living Theatre’s Antigone. The San Francisco Mime Troupe travelled the country with innovative outdoor productions of Brecht. And Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre toured the U.S. with its aim of “encountering the spectator – intimately, directly, not hiding behind… wardrobe mistresses, stage designers or make-up artists.”
But Judith Malina’s late sixties success hardly overnight; The Living Theatre was founded in 1947. At that time, its focus was not on the fourth wall, but on dramatic language. Conventional playwrights simply didn’t capture Ms. Malina’s vision of how to awaken audiences from their somnolence. So the company staged productions by Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and William Carlos Williams, among other non-traditional playwrights.
Later, they took on gritty subject matter with dramas like Jack Gelber’s The Connection (1959) – about heroin addicts - and Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig (1963) – about a Marine prison. Both were adapted into powerful films, the former by Shirley Clark in 1961, the latter by Jonas Mekas in 1964. Mr. Mekas’s made his movie to preserve Ms. Malina’s Obie Award-winning production after the IRS shut down the company’s West Village space. His cinema verite-style filmmaking and the company’s acting were so intense that, according to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, European viewers thought they were watching a documentary.
Meanwhile, The Living Theatre’s tax problem afforded Judith Malina an opportunity to merge life and art. Dressed as Portia from The Merchant of Venice, she defended Julian Beck at his tax evasion hearing. But her performance was not successful, at least from a legal standpoint.
So The Living Theatre spent the next few years touring Europe, developing ever more radical form and content for their work, returning to the U.S. in 1969 with bold productions of Frankenstein, Antigone and the infamous Paradise Now. Like novelist/activist Emmett Grogan (Ringolevio), they were reborn during their decade of self-exile on the continent.
The fertile ground of 1960’s popular culture, however, proved to be exceptional. After the company’s 1968 tour, The Living Theatre remained intact and innovative, but their cage rattling took place on the fringes. And in 1975, Judith Malina made an unforgettable foray into the mainstream, playing Sonny’s (Al Pacino’s) mother in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.
According to director Sydney Lumet, casting Ms. Malina was Mr. Pacino’s idea. And it paid off in spades, much as casting Lee Strasberg as THE GODFATHER PART II’s Hyman Roth had.
Director Milton Ginsberg pointed out to me how generous and courageous it was for Mr. Strasberg to take the part: his reputation as a groundbreaking acting teacher on a par even with Stanislavsky was secure regardless, but anything less than greatness in Francis Coppola’s film might have tarnished him. The same was true for Ms. Malina. Her achievements in avant-garde theatre were legendary, and run-of-the-mill work in DOG DAY would have disappointed her admirers, myself included, and potentially diminished her stature. But what she delivered was awe-inspiring.
During the time I spent with The Living Theatre in 2008 a company member shared a story about Al Pacino’s ongoing support of its co-founder. When Julian Beck died in 1985, the multiple Academy Award-winning actor paid for the funeral and burial, asking in return only that no one mention his generosity to the press.
Ms. Malina couldn’t afford to pay herself; avant-garde theatre simply doesn’t make money. When she appeared in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, in fact, the production had to cover her bus fare to New York from the Vermont commune on which she lived. And in 2013, even with considerable contributions from Al Pacino and Yoko Ono, The Living Theatre was forced to close its Clinton Street space.
The theatre shut its doors for good, and Judith Malina went to live in the Lillian Booth Home for Retired Artists. She’d had a 66-year run. Not bad!
As I write this piece, I reflect on how her life and work connect to filmmaking. Of course, there are the movies themselves – THE CONNECTION, THE BRIG, DOG DAY AFTERNOON (along with ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, AWAKENINGS, LOOKING FOR RICHARD and even an episode of THE SOPRANOS). There are the motion pictures she influenced: HI MOM, THE DOORS and others. And there’s the age-old bond between theatre and cinema per se.
But Judith Malina’s strongest link to making movies is that her uncompromising nature and her vision continue to inspire all of us who got to see her work. She dared to be bold and authentic to a degree most of us forget we can. Her legacy makes us aim higher.