The Living Theater is a theatrical company that took a different road than those of traditional theaters. Lead by Julian Beck and Judith Malina, the Living Theater smashed the barriers between art and politics. This far left-wing company was ready for a new theater, a theater that was out to change the state of things, performing plays that were not being done and doing them in new untried ways(Gottfried 95). American theater of the past was made up of complete right-wingers.
Right wing plays, right-wing directors, and right-wing theatergoers. In the 1940’s left wingers started stepping into the theater challenging the traditional right wing theater. Although the number of left wing plays was no more than a few dots on a page of thousands of dots, those few gave the left wing plays a pulse beat leading them into the theater of tomorrow. The left wing turned away from realistic plays that search for and provide answers to social problems or questions. Instead it seeks the what is the point? he where am-I going? and the what is my identity? (Gottfried 57). They think of theater as an art not a business. Because it is looked at as an art there are not limits to the content , no right or wrong. Boundaries were erased. Julian Beck, a far left winger, looked at life through art and saw life itself as unrealistic. In 1946 Julian Beck and his partner Judith Malina found the Living Theater. Located in New York, the Living Theater performed poetic dramas and plays by dramatists of the avant-garde( 463-464).
Performing new and controversial plays of their own, the Living Theater took their theme of the world as prison to the theaters of the United States, Europe, and Brazil. In the 1950’s the Living Theater started following the theories of Antonin Artaud. Artaud called for “a theatre in which the actors are like victims burning at the stake, signaling thru the flames” (beatland authors 1). His intention was to communicate to the audience through shock. He focused on intensifying the gut reaction of people. This idea was the “theater of cruelty” that Artaud theorized and the Living Theater followed. Mysteries” a play performed by the Living Theater, was described by Beck and Malina as a number of theatrical events that explored all the physical senses, and at the same time portrayed the physical defects and glories of man’s present being(Gottfried 298). Special characteristics of this play relate back to Artaud’s idea of the “theater of cruelty”. In the last scene of “Mysteries” twenty-five people dye of the plague, each actor acts out their death, after all are dead there is a blackout and all human senses are attacked.
You hear female voices, see flashes of lights, then smell that of incense. Following the blackout, six of the people who died rise from the dead to bury the remaining dead (Gottfried 298). Also to add to the Artaudian effects there is use of ceremony, ritual and incantation to help intensify the art of the left wing theater. Although the Living Theater started in 1947 in New York they did not really become established until 1959 when they presented a play about drug pushers and addicts written by Jack Gelber ” The Connection”.
This play outraged the public, there was the use of drugs being shot up and harsh street language, this was content that was not yet used in the theater. Although the content of this play caused a fuss, it received good reviews resulting in growing success for the Living Theater (Downer 104). The next production that put the spot light on the Living Theater was a play written by Kenneth Brown called “The Brig”. “The Brig” dramatized the day to day life of the Marine Corps. It’s purpose was to expose the relentless ways of military inhumanity (Gottfried 298).
Using Artaud’s theory, Beck and Malina tired to make the audience feel as if they were actually there experiencing life of a Marine themselves. Once again the Living Theater upset the right wingers including the government. The company was charged with nonpayment of admission taxes and their theater was seized from them (Gottfried 297). However, Beck and Malina fought to keep their theater by locking themselves in the stage prison and staying there until they were physically removed and taken to real prison (beatland Author 2).
After being sentenced to prison the two fled to Europe where they traveled around performing the plays of the Living Theater. The Living Theater was very into drugs which helped encourage the police to chase the Living Theater out of New York. While traveling around Europe they continued to interact with artists that supported their thoughts and ways, and provided them with acid and cannabis (Acid Dreams 1). The thirty or so members of the Living Theater often tripped on acid together and sometimes performed while tripping. Beck put it this way,
We were willing to experiment with anything that would set out minds free. We were practicing anarchists, and we were talking about freedom in whatever zones it could be acquired. If drug trips were a way of unbinding the mind, we were eager to experiment (Acid Dreams 1). Beck and Malina decided after twenty years of traveling around Europe that they could not keep running. They returned to the United States in 1983, served their sentences, then tried for another shot on opening the Living Theater in New York. Although the idea was there the money was not.
Before the money was found to get started Beck died in 1985 of stomach cancer. Malina reorganized the Living Theater; focusing on social and political events. Malina struggled to keep the Living Theater going, she was successful in keeping the theater alive until 1993 when there was once again problems. The small storefront space of the Living Theater was condemned. The Living Theater opened doors to American theater. They did what no one else had done. Eyes of the right wing theater were exposed to a whole new idea of art. The Living Theater untied the strings that America had put on theatrical art.