“We insisted on experimentation that was an image for a changing society. If one can experiment in theatre, one can experiment in life.” – Julian Beck
That quote sums up the reason for the existence of Off-Off-Broadway, a movement started by theater artists disillusioned by Broadway and fenced in by the increasingly restrictive professional standards of Off-Broadway and its diminishing adventurousness. (OB, which had taken form in the early-1950s as a practice stage for theater artistes trying to make it on Broadway, morphed into an arena for adventurous new work, challenging the “lowest common denominator” appeal of Broadway.) Julian Beck, an abstract expressionist painter, actor, director and poet co-founded The Living Theatre with his actor, director and writer wife Judith Malina in 1947.
Beck and Malina were anarchists, activists and part of a small avant-garde theater movement in the 1950s that was outside OB. Theirs was a theater which offered bold new works, as well as revivals of little-known American and European classics. The nomadic Living Theater moved around Manhattan with an entourage of bohemian actors, playwrights, painters and poets. The couple immersed themselves in the experimental — they had an open marriage and at one point shared a male lover. Their “lifestyle and theater were almost seamless,” writes David Allison Crespy in his 2003 book “Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater.” The living room of their Upper West Side apartment was sometimes used to stage plays by European playwrights and poets such as Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and T. S. Eliot.
The Theater’s significant contribution that sparked OOB took place when it moved into its 14th Street and Sixth Avenue address and staged “The Connection” in July 1959. The theater was a loft, with only 160 audience members (compared to over 300 in a Broadway production). Playwright Jack Gelber’s narrative depicted the life of heroin-addicted jazz musicians who were in full view on stage instead of in a pit and interacting with the actors, making the music part of the performance not just a background score. It showed a graphic representation of drug use and was criticized by mainstream newspaper critics but critics, writers, poets and directors such as Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Henry Hewes appreciated its realism.
“The play provided the most direct link between the Beats of the 1950s and the OOB playwrights of the 1960s, bringing together jazz, poetry, and drama through intense, heightened realism. The effects on the audiences were profound. No other young writer had captured his generation’s pain and disillusionment with such devastating accuracy,” writes Crespy.
By the end of the ’50s, The Living Theater had become a hotbed for artists. It was considered the most experimental group of its time, sometimes abandoning a script to be more performance-oriented. Former members moved on to set up institutions that would be pillars of the OOB movement. Joseph Chaikin, the founder of the Open Theater, was an actor at The Living Theater. Lawrence Kornfeld, TLT’s assistant director and general manager, moved to the Judson Poets’ Theater to direct plays and musicals.
The Living Theater went on to comment on conditions in a Maine prison in 1963’s “The Brig” before a conflict with the Internal Revenue Service on non-payment of taxes led to Beck and Malina’s arrest. The theatre then moved to Europe, their work more politically charged than before. Multiple arrests for indecent exposure resulted when the Theater returned to the U.S. in 1968 to stage their best-known work, “Paradise Now.” A tour of Brazil in the early-1970s resulted in imprisonment and deportation. The Living Theater, now housed at 21 Clinton St. in New York City, still produces plays with anti-war themes. Beck passed away in 1985, but Malina continues to direct.
The Living Theater personified the role of artists as political and social commentators, eschewing commercial considerations to challenge the status quo. Critics might argue the Theater broke the rules for the sole purpose of being avant-garde. But the group did challenge the establishment, however self-conscious that challenge might have been.