Commentary Magazine


Groping Toward Freedom: The Living Theatre

There were some three hundred of us milling about the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, audience-actors all, shuffling here and there to our own choreography, creating our personal actions and dialogue. The more timid among us, those with less dramatic flair, remained in their seats, there to be harangued by flailing, shaggy figures whose bodies, naked save for atavistic loin cloths or sagging G-strings, glowed with fierce, visionary sweat. At this moment, the Living Theatre’s production of Paradise Now was in its second act, or third metamorphosis, or fifth avatar—at any rate, it was reaching that moment in which performer and spectator are meant to blend, to create a dramatic conjunction, a unity that would cancel out the old distinctions between art and random human behavior. The Living Theatre was generously presenting us with a womb in which, it was shouted, we all could be born again as free, creative individuals; a warm revolutionary womb buffeted, to be sure, by intestinal rumblings and poorly designed to contain all the creative embryos clustered in it, but nevertheless a pungent, fructiferous place.

Earlier in the evening, when there was still some observance of the old distinctions between audience and performers, the members of the acting company, led by their director, Julian Beck, had strolled among us cataloging the various social outrages under which they and we suffer. “I’m not allowed to travel without a passport,” “I don’t know how to stop the wars,” “I’m not allowed to take off my clothes”—each one of these laments being repeated at various levels of hysteria until all the players joined in one long distillation of their agony and howled for a full minute or so. Though it is difficult—and beside the point—to remember the exact order of events, I believe the next phase was a tactile one in which the cast drifted among us and laid gentle hands on various parts of our bodies, whispering as they did so, “Holy forehead,” “Holy breast,” “Holy thighs,” etc. (I had, with typical good fortune, my physical moment with a chubby, balding actor, who told me, in a thick middle-European accent, that my right shoulder had sanctity.)

After touching us tenderly, the troupe returned to the stage and formed a circle around which a large pipe was passed—“I am not allowed to smoke marijuana” was one of the earlier protests—and then various acrobatic tableaux were attempted, culminating with the actors contorting themselves alphabetically so that their bodies spelled out the word “anarchism,” a feat which drew the only bourgeois response of applause that evening. Following this, some revolutionary apothegms were chanted and the audience was invited—no, better ordered—to begin a dialogue, to get with it, to not sit numbly by while the oppressors of society buried all of us. Some needed no coaxing at all, but these early volunteers were, for the most part, uninterested in the art of political dialectic, being content to remove their clothes and sit quietly on stage in various meditative poses; and as for the rest of us, we were still a little uncertain just what subject had been introduced for debate. (So far, I had agreed with everything that had been said to me. I certainly didn’t want to argue that my shoulder wasn’t blessed.) Sensing this, one of the actors came forth with a topic for discussion. “Che Guevara was a doctor,” he told us, “who took an oath to preserve life. Che Guevara was a murderer. Anyone want to rap on that for awhile?” Nobody did, but by this time more and more of us were working our way toward the stage, sensing that if there was to be any paradise on hand in the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night it could only be uncovered, literally, behind the actor’s backs, where one would not be pounced upon and charged with moral depravity because one was not breaking open the local jails and freeing the “creative individuals” confined in them.

I reached the platform just as one of the actors who had been rhetorically screeching “What is a man?” got an answer of sorts. A tall, sad-faced youth had embraced him and was crying that, yes, he was a man. The actor let himself be hugged for a few moments before he decided this was an insufficient reply to the question. He slipped out of the young man’s arms, swirled, and suddenly stood facing me. His eyes were wide and crackling with drama and, as he screamed his evening’s question at me, I had to respect the way his commitment to love and nonviolence suppressed the very apparent urge he had to crush my holy body to a pulp. “What is a man?” he shouted again, and though I had heard the question before I was not prepared. A deep sense of self-preservation told me that “rational animal” was not, under the circumstances, the best answer, and neither did I want to be too extreme and come up with something like “A divine featherless biped,” which might, plucked chickens aside, prove to be the right response and thereby end my first scene in the Living Theatre prematurely. However, before I could invent something passable, those febrile eyes that had me fixed for over a minute began to dull, and soon they closed altogether. I took this to mean a short time-out had been declared, and I slipped away hoping to have a creative answer ready should the two of us meet again. Pondering the question, I went on and followed the flow of people on the stage.

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There was one group dancing; another was playing with a balloon; some of us were singing; here and there couples kissed and stroked one another with a certain grim intensity, making breasts and bottoms perform as exhortative examples of the liberated society to come. And in the center of the stage were the naked ones; a string of a dozen or so young men and women clinging to each other as they jogged and stumbled about in a circle, their faces a little frightened but gracious in their refusal to reflect any preference toward the strangers who pushed in upon them.

I was in a crush that formed behind a small, blond girl who, from the insolence of her breasts and the charity of her face, I took to be around seventeen. She had done her thing, had peeled off the tyrannies of Western Civilization and was now, by definition, revolutionary, beautiful, and creative. Looking at her, I felt, with my qualifications and ironies, sadly out of place. If she wished to be another Eve, I was not going to play the serpent; the roses will fade soon enough, I thought, and then banishment into pregnancy and neurosis instead of the slim-figured madness she now enjoyed.

Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and I looked down and saw something glowing just beneath my shoulder. It was the head of an old man, malevolently cherubic, crimson in color, as though about to explode from its own fermenting juices. He was about sixty-five, just a few inches taller than a dwarf, and he was elbowing me furiously to one side so that he might take up an assault position behind the girl. He had a raincoat artfully folded over his groin in the practiced manner of Forty-Second Street moviegoers and, as he wheeled past me, he put a tiny claw on young Eve’s ass, then to her breast, then back to the ass again. For a time she didn’t notice who her new admirer was, accepting his kneads and probes as more simple evidence that there was communal love around her. But then she suddenly started, looked back and down at our reactionary society’s quintessential dirty old man whose raincoat had begun to flap with spastic fury, and said only, “Don’t pinch now.” Her face had not changed, and, at this gentle admonishment, his grew brighter, he took up the assault again, obviously ready to risk a cerebral hemorrhage to perpetuate this moment. How many girdled rumps had he struggled with on subways? How many times had he been forced to scurry from an outraged matronly voice? And now, with impunity, without fear of police intervention, he could leisurely fondle a breast proportioned beyond his darkest dreams. At least one of us had found his paradise now, and, for my conventional sense of theater, that was a good enough ending. For me the play was over.

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I know that many of my colleagues have been caught up in serious controversy over the implications of this production by the Living Theatre, but I just do not see how any critical language that I am familiar with could be of any use in considering the events that took place for the three hours or so I remained at the Brooklyn Academy. I, too, have talked about the theater of confrontation, of audience involvement, of new modes and manners that might rejuvenate our moribund rituals of theatergoing. The members of the Living Theatre attempt all this, but in such a depressed, inexpert way that only the most depraved intellectual thrill-seeker could seriously defend their techniques. Why, the actors are not even trained to shout obscenities vigorously enough so that they reach the balcony with any force; their cries of agony are no more than thin, petulant whines; their movements are heavy-footed; their notion of dramatic polemic is so brutally primitive that no response is possible to it, so that any intelligence not fanatically in love with its own voice must slink to the sidelines, dunned into a detachment that is precisely antithetical to everything the Living Theatre maintains it is trying to create.

All of this is critically unarguable, but I think it is at best a mistake and at worst a piece of dishonesty to speak of Paradise Now as a notion meant somehow to be related to critical judgments, as though all the old problems of form and realized intention were relevant to our response to this gathering of beings in a large, dark, permissive auditorium. It is somewhat like being asked to do an appreciative study of an automobile accident, or a suicide attempt, or a tavern brawl. One might certainly, offered the opportunity, want to witness such sights and find in them a guilty exhilaration. But to think of them in critical categories, to make of them examples of cultural history, would be an absurdly pretentious rationalization of one’s morbid interest in the grotesque eruptions of life. What the Living Theatre presents us with is a hopeless stylistic dilemma: to say one detests them and all they represent is to say no more than that one would not call it high art to see an old lady run over by a bus; to admit fascination means simply that one enjoys going to the Colosseum games on occasion. Both, it seems to me, are human statements that do not demand a great deal of analysis.

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Of course, there are other social considerations about this dramatic company that go deeper than its ability to hire a hall in which a bottom-pinching old man of hectic head can find sanctuary. They have, in the spirit of the times, set themselves up not only as an artistic entity, but as a moral and political one as well; and, beneath the antic frenzy, one senses that quality which generally comes forward as a substitute for art among visionaries—namely, the glum righteousness that goes with the assumption that one honestly shed tear is far more precious than any dazzling artifice. Of course, it goes without saying that all the honest tears belong to the Living Theatre. It will teach us how and for whom to weep, will show us, benighted Visigoths that we are, what a moral life is and how we are expected to achieve it. Like all the Messianic groups rattling about our consciousness today, they are ready to bustle us into sacrifices that they think are necessary for the coming order, not the least of which is their presumption that one is obliged, having bought a ticket to their theater, to talk to them.

But, finally, it is as fruitless to deal with the Living Theatre as an adjunct of moral revolution as it is to ruminate on its artistic fallacies. Each withering review, I’m certain, only strengthens its resolve that it must drag and prod us all into the New Jerusalem. It is too late for my objections to be considered by those wailing men and women whom I saw in Brooklyn, for there is too great an impasse between us. They want a fundamentalist paradise now that everyone can share; their critics will always be those who ask only for the right to go to hell in their own particular way.

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