The Living Theatre  

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

The Living Theatre is an American theatre company founded in 1947 and based in New York City. It is the oldest experimental theatre group still existing in the U.S. For most of its history it was led by its founders, actor Judith Malina and painter/poet Julian Beck; after Beck's death in 1985, company member Hanon Reznikov became co-director with Malina.

The primordial text for The Living Theatre is The Theater and Its Double, an anthology of essays written by Antonin Artaud, the French anarchist. It was published in France in 1937 and by the Grove Press in the U.S. in 1958. This work deeply influenced Julian Beck, a bisexual and painter of abstract expressionist works. The troupe reflects Artaud's influence by staging multimedia plays designed to exhibit his metaphysical Theatre of Cruelty. In these performances, the actors attempt to dissolve the fourth wall between themselves and the spectators.

In the 1950s, the group was among the first in the U.S. to produce the work of influential European playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht and Jean Cocteau, as well as modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Based in a variety of small New York locations which were frequently closed due to financial problems or conflicts with city authorities, they helped to originate Off-Broadway as a significant force in U.S. theatre. Their work during this period shared some aspects of style and content with Beat generation writers. Also during the 1950s, the American composer Alan Hovhaness worked closely with the Living Theatre, composing music for its productions. In 1959, their play The Connection attracted national attention for its harsh portrayal of drug addiction and its equally harsh language.

The Brig (1963), an anti-authoritarian look at conditions in a Marine prison, was their last major production in New York before a disagreement with the IRS led to the closure of the theatre space and the brief imprisonment of Beck and Malina. For the rest of the 1960s the group toured chiefly in Europe, and turned to even more politically and formally radical work carrying an anarchist and pacifist message, with the company members creating plays collectively and often living together. Major works from this period included the adaptations Antigone and Frankenstein, and Paradise Now, which became their best-known play. Paradise Now, a semi-improvisational piece involving audience participation, was notorious for a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while themselves disrobing; this led to multiple arrests for indecent exposure.

Having returned to the U.S. in 1968 to tour Paradise Now, the group broke apart the next year. Malina and Beck toured with the remaining members in Brazil, where they were imprisoned in 1971, then returned to New York to form a new version of the group. Former member Joseph Chaikin left to form The Open Theater.

The Living Theatre has toured extensively throughout the world, often in non-traditional venues such as streets and prisons. It has greatly influenced other American experimental theatre companies, notably The Open Theater (founded by Living Theatre member Joseph Chaikin) and Bread and Puppet Theater. Its productions have won three Obie Awards: The Connection (1959), The Brig (1963), and Frankenstein (1968). Though its prominence and resources have diminished considerably in recent decades, The Living Theatre continues to produce new plays in New York City, many with anti-war themes.

In 2006, The Living Theatre signed a 10-year lease on the 3500 square foot basement of a new residential building under construction at 21 Clinton Street, between Houston and Stanton Streets on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The Clinton Street theater is the company's first permanent home since the closing of The Living Theatre on Third Street at Avenue C in 1993. The company moved into the completed space in early 2007 and opened in April 2007 with a production of The Brig by Kenneth H. Brown, first presented at The Living Theatre at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in 1963. The revival, directed by Judith Malina won two Obie Awards, for Ensemble and Direction. The Brig is still on stage, and the run will continue through the summer of 2007.


  • Neff, Renfrew (1970). The Living Theatre: U.S.A.
  • Rostagno, Aldo, with Judith Malina and Julian Beck (1970). We, the Living Theatre. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • The Living Theatre (1971). Paradise Now. New York: Random House.
  • Malina, Judith (1972). The Enormous Despair. New York: Random House.
  • Malina, Judith (1984). The Diaries of Judith Malina, 1947-1957. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
  • Mystic Fire Video (1989) Signals Through the Flames. Documentary. Originally released by The Living Theatre in 1983 as a motion picture, produced and directed by Sheldon Rochlin and Maxine Harris.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Living Theatre" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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