|IN OUR IMAGINATIONS
WE ARE HARDLY EVER ALONE: AN APPRECIATION OF JUDITH MALINA
by Jude Rawlins
First published in
Direkte Aktion magazine, Berlin, September 2013
"When the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right, and those grand works of the more ancient and consciously and professedly inspired will hold their proper rank; and the daughters of memory shall become the daughters of inspiration... Rouse up, O young men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the camp, the court, and the university; who would, if they could, for ever depress mental and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works... there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying... if we are but just and true to our own imaginations, worlds of eternity in which we shall live for ever..."
William Blake, 1799 (introduction to “Milton”)
I am not American, I do not work in the theatre, and I do not live in New York. My views on the cultural importance of Judith Malina and the Living Theatre are global, for everyone, for all time. Governments the world over do not seem to know anymore when they are gambling with their own cultural identity. Either that or they do not care. In either case it disqualifies them from the municipal planning process. In fact, they are not even qualified to govern. Let that be it then, my statement from the outset is that Judith Malina and the Living Theatre, for starters, have successfully demonstrated beyond question that our governments are useless and unqualified to govern us. That’s a good place to start.
Secondly, I must address the problem of writing about theatre, indeed any performance, or in fact any art. I am not a critic, I have little time for critics or any of those journalists who seem to spend most of their review space writing about themselves rather than the work. Art is NOT cultural journalism. Art is NOT satire. We ask nothing of it except that it be good. And we each decide for ourselves what GOOD actually is. Great art creates it’s own world in which the audience may live for the duration of the piece. The worlds of imagination, spoken of by Blake, Milton and the great minds of the creative tradition, whole universes of imaginary possibility, unbound by the crude limitations of our tiny, materialistic, badly-governed societies. Criticism exists to place art in a neatly-filed box, but great works will not allow themselves to be contained in this way, never, not for a moment.
And whilst I will give you a little bit of a history lesson, for the purposes of context, seeing as how you can google away to your heart’s content and learn the history of the Living Theatre for yourself, perhaps a more efficient use of my time and word allowance would be to expound upon my own emotional response to the life, work, and cultural significance of Judith Malina, a woman without whom New York’s worldwide reputation as an edgy, sophisticated-yet-primal melting pot of creativity would never have even got out of spacedock.
In the late 1940s, after decades of depression and war, New York City was rapidly emerging as a dominant force on the political and economic forums. After the war, many of Europe ancient cities lay in ruins, whilst others, such as London and Paris, licked their economic wounds for many years. In this climate, New York blossomed, becoming host city the newly founded United Nations. For a short while there was everything to play for. Alas, economic mismanagement and the US’s burgeoning Cold War paranoia were soon to interrupt this spike in good fortune, and over the following decades New York would experience a slow and painful slump into depression and decay from which it has arguably never truly emerged. Today, gentrification papers over the cracks, but the cracks are not only still there, they are growing into gaping wide bottomless crevices from which eventually nothing will escape. But I digress…
Out of the cultural post-war soup of New York’s streets emerged the artist Julian Beck and his young wife, the actress and activist Judith Malina. Together they founded the Living Theatre in 1948, an ever-evolving company of radical creative performers, tied into a philosophy of personal liberty, revolution of the self; yes, anarchists, but peaceable and enthused by notions of love and equality for all. Indeed, one of the great ironies, and strengths, of Malina’s work and apparent philosophy, is that the cornerstone of the American Dream, the pursuit of happiness, is an essential component of her own approach. Malina is serious, but not dour or humourless. There is a powerful and alluring commitment to truth in Malina’s work.
The daughter of a German Rabbi, Judith Malina’s family emigrated to New York from their native Germany in 1928. Malina recalls that the immigrant German Jewish community, of which she was part, held a snobbery towards other Jewish communities, particularly Polish Jews. She was raised to believe that German Jews were superior, and she realised that their apparent charity and compassion towards their lesser, unwashed Polish counterparts was just another way of exercising this snobbery. Later she discovered that her parents had lied about their German origins, and that the whole family was, in fact, of Polish descent.
Malina’s subsequent commitment to her own truth, at the very least, and her unerring ability to express this commitment through the universal language of theatre, has resulted in some of the most enduring theatrical spectacles of modern times. Historically, the Living Theatre garnered a radical reputation through it’s interpretations of the works of Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein and others. Some, such as its production of Kenneth Brown’s The Brig, have passed into legend. However, being theatre, and all about live performance, the moment, it is hard to present or discuss the work without illustration. Talking about theatre really is like dancing about architecture.
Fortunately, some moments are captured, and perhaps the most enduring of these is the astonishing Paradise Now. Mostly created in exile in Europe after ludicrous false accusations made against Malina and Beck by the IRS resulted in a legal action in which they were both sent down for contempt of court (a badge of honour for any anarchist, surely), Paradise Now is perhaps their most powerful and timeless work. It is quite frankly like watching the news today, almost half a century after it’s creation. Its artistic influence can be detected in many places, notably in the radical and fearless cinema of English filmmaker Ken Russell, indeed it’s hard to believe that Russell’s masterpiece The Devils was not inspired to a phenomenal degree by Paradise Now. Tracing similarities between Malina and Russell is both useful and telling. Russell was the real deal, an anarchic thinking machine whose creativity seemed to know no bounds. He was briefly in vogue in the 1970s, his films were both controversial and commercially successful. But he never took his eye off the mission, he didn’t sell out, he carried on being challenging and controversial even when he fell out of fashion and when the British film industry treated him with apparent contempt. Russell, like Malina, was too colourful, too imaginative and just too thoughtful to ever become safe. So they cut off his funding, and he just carried on regardless, on the cheap, becoming more radical and challenging with every apparent blow. Malina is the living embodiment of this absolute refusal to comply with the whims of fashionable fools.
The genius of Paradise Now lies in its simplicity. Just those small, affecting statements; I am not allowed to get naked in the street, I am not allowed to live without money, etc. contain a powerful protest against oppression. It forces us, the audience, to ask the obvious question; why not? And we all know the answer, because “society” says so. And we all know that is NOT good enough.
Paradise Now touches on of the central themes that belie the punk ethic. It takes it name from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and as such the Living Theatre can be held up as one of the links in the great chain, the Creative Tradition that joins all the voices of truth and reason throughout time. It is powerful, and worthy of its name, it demonstrates that its creators are people of integrity and truth, and moreover, like any great work of art, it has plenty to say on the subject of freedom. It is a fundamentally spiritual work, and here I will qualify that by defining what I mean by “spirituality”. Spirituality is the opposite of materialism. It has nothing to do with the supernatural. Paradise Now, like Paradise Lost before it, has a singular message. The Holy Grail, the kingdom of heaven is within, and so on; essentially that rules and materialism, property, religion, money, etc. are all systems imposed on us like prison sentences, things we never asked for but were brainwashed into thinking we needed. As Blake said, I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. Anarchy is not about chaos, it is about learning whom each of us is, knowing ourselves, meeting our needs and understanding the needs of others. Anarchism requires us to develop empathy, compassion, charity, tolerance, and it rewards us with absolute freedom. It is a better way to live than the one we have now. No one needs to be better or worse, they can just be themselves, whoever they are naturally, and just celebrate that. Because no one needs permission just to be themselves, if they did that would mean they were oppressed, and oppression is not acceptable, not never, not no how. History teaches us that we must destroy oppressors; Judith Malina shows us how we can do this with love. And it works, it really does. Nothing disarms anger faster than love. It’s the only way to be confrontational without being reactive. Malina is an actor, not a reactor, in a very literal sense. She understands that as soon as you “react” you become the pinball, you begin to exist on the terms of the thing you’ve reacted to instead of on your own terms. But if you consider your response, and if you understand that there is always a third answer, there is always “I don’t know” (and if you can’t answer A or B then the truth probably is “I don’t know”) – a simple but radical thought so superbly, sublimely portrayed in Paradise Now – we are allowed NOT to have all the answers to life. That is our right, and it may even be thing that gives us our purpose, our most spiritual/non-materialistic element. And so it was that Malina completely dissolved that always spurious line between character and performer; the character lives inside the actor, like a thought or a dream-state, like the statue inside the block of marble. And so it is that the actor sculpts with their body, expressing the character from the inside rather than adopting it merely on the outside.
Judith Malina, of course, may disagree with everything I say about her. She herself may have an entirely different view of her work, and of the place of the Living Theatre in the echelon of American culture. And she may be right. I’m just a punter. But as a punter, I take a stand and put forward my own fierce defence of Malina and her legacy, in my view one of the most influential and enduring of it’s kind. And ultimately my response to her work is personal, emotional, and one of absolute truth, and I think she would appreciate that regardless of how else we may differ. And that is the joy of art, unlike politics or criticism or religion or philosophy, it can take it, it can disagree with itself, it can be many things to many different people, all of them relevant and all of them the truth.
The Living Theatre is not dead, despite what you may have read in the New York Times. The New York Times is a mere newspaper. Remember it as the source of the KGB’s doomsday device information in Dr. Strangelove, a little bit of journalistic “licence” that results in World War III.
As Blake said, it is our imaginations in which we live forever in worlds of eternity. And in our imaginations we are hardly ever alone.