Judith Malina, heart and soul of The Living Theater from the 1940s to now, with Hanon Reznikov and Julian Beck (right), the two men who were the lights of her life.
Judith Malina, woman alone (sort of)
By JERRY TALLMER
There’s going to be a benefit at Joe’s Pub this coming Monday, August 25, in honor of Judith Malina and The Living Theater, but Judith, though she will certainly be there along with Debbie Harry and other revolutionists—the evening is headlined “Revolutionary Acts”—doesn’t really want to talk about that.
She wants to talk about “Eureka!”
Imagine. Eighty-two years old, with hearing aids in both ears that do not work worth a damn, a woman alone after the deaths of the two men who were the lights of her life—Julian in 1985, Hanon just this past May—and here she is, bringing forth to the stage as director (she’s only been doing this for sixtysomething years) yet one more extremely offbeat drama, a heritage from Hanon, who left her and us before he could complete it
“October 1,” she says with a certain force. “That’s when we open. ‘Eureka, exclamation mark.’ Yes, at The Living Theater, 21 Clinton Street.
“It’s a participatory show – actors and audience participating together. Fifteen characters. Two of them are Poe and Humboldt”—Edgar Allen Poe, he of “The Raven,” that is, and Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century explorer and naturalist.
“Everything is flourishing—except money,” she says. This is the lifelong avant-garde torchbearer who likes to quote from Tennyson: “ … To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Julian Beck, poet, painter, actor, designer, ethereal anarchist, whom she fell in love with in their teens, and with whom she founded The Living Theater in the 1940s and built it into worldwide often-jailed fame, died of cancer, at 60, in 1985.
Hanon Reznikov, a Yale physics major from Brooklyn, was so thrilled by the Living Theater”s “Paradise Now” that in 1977 he dropped everything and joined that company, where he would flower as writer, director, and actor. He and Judith got married three years after the death of Julian. The groom was 24 years younger and almost that many inches taller than the bride.
“Hanon and Julian and I really ran the theater together,” she says. “We were lovers together. Everybody knew that.”
A romantic triumvirate?
“Yes. And because we were a trio, there was a kind of rhythm in our lives. And because I was never an independent woman – because we always worked together—maybe I shouldn’t say this, it could turn the feminists against me—it was always a partnership, so it’s very difficult for me now.”
Judith Malina, dependent woman! Maybe you should ask the fire inspector whom she threw a spear at one day in the ‘40s during the rehearsals of an Aeschylus or a Euripedes at the Cherry Lane, one of the earliest of the Living Theater’s many way stations. Or ask any one of the actors in “The Connection”: or: “The Brig” or “Paradise Now” or any other Living Theater curtain-smasher.
She pats the knee of a very nice young man who is sort of an aide these days—Brad Burgess, 23, from Boston. “A wonderful actor,” she says, “who gave up being in a European tour of ‘The Brig’”—Kenneth Brown’s jolting 1960s play about a U.S. Marines punishment center (think Guantanamo, 2001-2008)—”to help me out. And he was just wonderful in ‘The Brig’ in a whole variety of roles.”
It was during the original run of “The Brig,” at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, that the feds busted The Living Theater for back taxes. The cast, crew, audience, Julian, Judith, everybody swarmed over the roof and into the theater for one last bootleg performance. As recently as July 4, 2007, when a new generation of Living Theater people went to perform “The Brig” at Ground Zero, New York City cops tried to bust them all over again. Nothing changes.
Or everything changes. That is one of the possibilities raised by “Eureka!,” a play derived and begun by Hanon Reznikov from an 1848 book of the same title by Edgar Allen Poe, then finished by Judith after Hanon’s death.
“It was Poe’s last book,” she says, “a huge book, and practically unreadable. He called it ‘a prose poem’ ‘’ -- and dedicated it to Humboldt, a fellow explorer of terra incognita. “Poe realized, reading the works of Humboldt, that the beginning of creation must have come from a singularity, a single point, which somehow exploded in what we now call the Big Bang.”
Or, to put it in terms of one of the lines in the play (Poe speaking): “My proposition is this: In the original unity of the first thing lies the cause of all things, with the germ of their inevitable annihilation.”
Bang! And if you know Judith Malina and The Living Theater over all these years, the Big Bang of human orgasm is wrapped somewhere all through that equation too.
Indeed, “the Big Bang will happen on our stage,” she says. “The Big Bang is when everything flew outward, and is still flying outward. My objective is to make the audience realize they are participating in creation.”
Hey, Judith, you’ve been participating in creation since the cradle, wouldn’t you say?
“That’s right—but not everybody knows it,” she says, clasping her hands and nodding affirmation.
“Of course the scientists of that day pooh-poohed Poe’s theory,” Judith says, “and as Hanon was reading along, he said: ‘I could make a play of this.’ I said: ‘How could you possibly?’ and Hanon said: ‘I have a lot of ideas,’ and began making lots of notes.
“We actually started rehearsing in January and February, and then he died. He was working along under terrible stress—the difficulty of maintaining the theater—and one morning [April 9] he couldn’t speak very well. He’d had a stroke. I called 911. He was taken to Beth Israel, where after a month we thought he was improving. But then he got pneumonia, and two days later he was dead” (at 57).
They had survived much together, including a year or more in a rathole one-room apartment off Times Square while waiting for construction to be completed on the Living Theater’s new Lower East Side premises at 21 Clinton Street that they’d bought on the proceeds from the sale of the great old rambling West End Avenue apartment—once Julian’s parents; apartment – where Judith and Julian, and then Hanon, had lived for many years.
Back to “Eureka!” for a moment. It hypothesizes three kinds of civilization, Judith says: the cyclic civilization, “where everything will start all over again after another Big Bang;” the progressive civilization “that we live in now;” and the dissident, or anarchic, civilization.
That would be your choice, right, Judith?
“Yes, I am an anarchist,” says Judith Malina, the rabbi’s daughter, born Kiel, Germany, June 4, 1926. “Anarchists are looking for an alternative to the destruction of civilization. They like it this way.”
And her Living Theater is looking forward far beyond “Eureka!”—right at the moment, hopefully, to a 50th- anniversary production, on or around New Year’s, of the late Jack Gelber’s “The Connection,” the 1959 so-called “jazz play” that smashed, as never before, the glass wall between actors and audience, and was cordially detested by all but a few reviewers of its day (you are reading one of the few). Its subject: a bunch of guys, some of them musicians, waiting around in a dingy pad for Cowboy to come with their fix.
How do you keep alive, Judith? How do you eat? Do you cook?
“I don’t cook” she replies with asperity. “I don’t cook anything. Never did. I really maintain myself with the help of the Living Theater people.”
Living Theater—the sixtysomething-year-old international commune. Think of it that way.
Which brings us back to “Revolutionary Acts,” the August 25 benefit at Joe’s Pub organized by Barbara Maier, a voice teacher who lives in Chelsea and read about Judith in Goodie magazine, the journal edited and published by Romy Ashby and Foxy Kidd. “I can’t stand to see authentic New York disappear,’” says Ms. Maier. She has taught voice to most of the people on the star-studded August 25 entertainment bill.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets $30 (standing room) to $50 (plus $12 minimum at tables). Call (212) 967-7555 or (212) 539-8778, or go to www.joespub.com.
“Money!” says Judith Malina in her 82nd year. “It wore Hanon down and is wearing me down. But I’m too busy to care.”