Judith Malina  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Judith Malina (June 4, 1926 – April 10, 2015) was a German-born American theater and film actress, writer and director. She co-founded The Living Theatre, a radical political theatre troupe that rose to prominence in New York City and Paris during the 1950s and 60s.


Early life and education

Malina was born in Kiel, Germany, the daughter of Jewish parents: her mother, Rosel (née Zamora), was a former actress, and her father, Max Malina, a rabbi in the Conservative denomination. In 1929 at the age of three, she immigrated with her parents to New York City.

Her parents helped her see how important political theatre was, as her father was trying to warn people of the Nazi menace.

Except for long tours, she lived in New York City until her move to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Interested in acting from an early age, she began attending the New School for Social Research in 1945 to study theatre under Erwin Piscator. Malina was greatly influenced by Piscator's philosophy of theatre which was similar to Bertolt Brecht's principles of "epic theatre" but went further in departing from traditional narrative forms. Piscator saw theatre as a form of political communication or agitprop (“Theatre interests me only when it is a matter of interest to society.”); Malina, unlike Piscator, was committed to nonviolence and anarchism.


In 1963 they had to close the Living Theatre because of IRS charges (later proved false) of tax problems, and Malina and Beck were convicted of contempt of court, in part because Judith defended Julian wearing the garb of Portia from The Merchant of Venice - and tried to use a similar argument. They received a five-year suspended sentence, and decided to leave the U.S. The company spent the next five years touring in Europe and creating increasingly radical works, culminating in Paradise Now. They returned to the US in 1968 to present their new work. In her book The Enormous Despair (1972), part of her series of published diaries, Malina expressed the sense of danger and unfamiliarity she felt on returning to the U.S. in the midst of the social upheavals of the late 1960s.

In 1969 the company decided to divide into three groups. One worked on the pop scene in London, another went to India to study traditional Indian theatre arts, and the third, including Malina and Beck, traveled in 1971 to Brazil to tour. They were imprisoned there on political charges for two months by the military government.

After Beck's death from cancer in 1985, company member Hanon Reznikov, who had become Malina's lover (they married in 1988), assumed co-leadership of the company. In 2007 it opened its own theater at 21 Clinton Street in Manhattan. In April 2008 Reznikov suffered a stroke, and while hospitalized, he died of pneumonia on May 3 at the age of 57.

Malina appeared occasionally in films, beginning in 1975, when she played Al Pacino's mother in Dog Day Afternoon. Other roles include in Pacino's Looking for Richard. She played Rose in Awakenings (1990), Grandma Addams in The Addams Family (1991), and had major roles in Household Saints (1993) and the low-budget film, Nothing Really Happens (2003). She appeared in an episode of long-running TV series The Sopranos in 2006 as a nun, the secret mother of Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri. Judith Malina is the subject of a 2012 documentary by Azad Jafarian titled Love and Politics. The film premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Malina also had a significant supporting role in well-received film Enemies, A Love Story (1989), acting alongside Lena Olin, Ron Silver and Anjelica Huston.

Personal life

Malina met her long-time collaborator and husband, Julian Beck, in 1943, when she was 17 and he was a student at Yale University. Beck, originally a painter, came to share her interest in political theatre. In 1947 the couple founded The Living Theatre, which they directed together until Beck's death in 1985. Malina's and Beck's marriage was as unconventional as their work: Beck was bisexual and had a male partner, and Malina was involved with a series of men. The couple had two children: a son Garrick and a daughter Isha.

Selected credits

  • Entretiens avec le Living Théâtre (with Julian Beck and Jean-Jaques Lebel) (1969)
  • We, The Living Theatre (with Julian Beck and Aldo Lastagmo) (1970)
  • Paradise Now (with Julian Beck) (1971)
  • The Enormous Despair, Diaries 1968-89 (New York: Random House, 1972)
  • Le Legs de Cain: trois projets pilotes (with Julian Beck) (1972)
  • Frankenstein (Venice Version) (with Julian Beck) (1972)
  • Sette meditazioni sul sadomachismo politico (with Julian Beck) (1977)
  • Living Heist Leben Theater (with Imke Buchholz) (1978)
  • Diary excerpts Brazil 1970, Diary of Bologna 1977 (1979)
  • Poems of a Wandering Jewess (Paris: Handshake Editions, 1982)
  • The Diaries of Judith Malina: 1947-1957 (New York: Grove Press, 1984)

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