Sunday, April 19, 2015

In Praise of Judith Malina

And not just her, but also her husband, Julian Beck, and the Living Theater (or "the Living"), which they co-founded.  Though I have to admit, I'm not sure I would have always offered them praise.

I first learned about them in a New York Times article that described an event billed as the First Annual Congress of Theater that took place in 1974.  It was an early attempt to find common ground between commercial and non-profit theater enterprises and, as such, it was something less than a complete success.  The one quote from this article that has stood out in my mind over the years is from Beck, who, at one point during a panel discussion, ran into the audience and screamed "The capitalist pig theater must go!  It must die!  We rejoice in its death!"

Even conceding that this moment was completely consistent with the aesthetic of the Living, both in form and content, it always annoyed me.  By this time, thanks in no small part to Joseph Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival, it was already painfully obvious to me that commercial and non-profit theater could in fact collaborate, in a mutually beneficial way.  To say otherwise, then and now, was to deny what was already happening.  And yet, as the Times account of the Congress demonstrates, there were people on both sides of the theater divide committed to denial.

In the intervening decades, of course, both sides were forced to move beyond denial.  Skyrocketing production costs limited Broadway's ability to take risks with producing new work.  Shrinking government and foundation support limited off-Broadway and regional theater's ability to produce anything at all.  Today, as a consequence, collaboration between the two worlds is now taken as a given, and I am grateful for that.

But with age comes a somewhat deep appreciation of what made theater appealing to me in the first place.  And the one aspect of theater that I value the most is that it offers the potential for anything and everything to happen, whether it is Mother Courage sacrificing her children, or Anna and the King of Siam bringing East and West together with a waltz.  When theater can maximize that potential, our ability to understand ourselves and each other is maximized as well.

And, in the non-profit arena, no one did more than Beck and Malina to maximize the ability of theater to serve as a political force as well as an artistic one.  As long as there are men and women like Beck and Malina alive, to call into question our most powerful assumptions about our system of government with works like "The Brig," you will know that the First Amendment is alive and well. And, simultaneously, you will know that we have the fearless theater we all need to feel fully alive.

So I join with American Theater among many other individuals and institutions in mourning Malina's passing, knowing that, even though she and her husband have both gone off to that great performance space in the sky, they have left behind them a theater company, and a point of view, that all of us can hope will never die.

Bravo, Julian and Judith.  May we all aspire to outrage, inform and transform others as you did.

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