As a benefit for itself, the Theatre for Ideas, a private group which arranges symposiums on a variety of subjects, organized last month a symposium called Theatre or Therapy. In the expectation of a large turnout, the group hired a former Friends’ Meeting House near Gramercy Park, now preserved as a New York landmark. The white auditorium, in which both participants and audience were arranged in pews, provided what seemed a good atmosphere for rational discussion. The director of the Theatre for Ideas, Shirley Broughton, had invited Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, Paul Goodman, and myself to participate in the symposium, and I had accepted, in spite of an instinctive distaste for symposiums and a deep sense of foreboding.
I had recently published an article on the Living Theatre in these pages in which I criticized the company, along with some elements of the radical young, for mindlessness, humorlessness, and romantic revolutionary rhetoric. The meeting looked to me like a good opportunity for more extended debate on the subject, as well as for exploring the differences between those who practiced the “new theatre” and those more skeptical about its aims and aspirations. On the other hand, I had been hearing rumors that attempts would be made to disrupt this symposium. Since I don’t function well under disruptive conditions, I thought it wise to make some notes, rather than run the risk of trying to extemporize during a heckling session.
Because of difficulty with the sound system—a difficulty never adequately repaired—the symposium began a half hour late. I passed the time chatting with Nat Hentoff, the moderator, Goodman, and with the Becks, whom I had not seen since their visit to Yale last fall. The Becks seemed amiable, though a little breathless, and talked about their American tour, then in its final week. Non-violence was in trouble, they said. The “revolution” was going beyond pacifism on the assumption that only violent overthrow of the Establishment could cure its insanity and corruption. I wondered if the Becks, too, had rejected the non-violence which they always declared to be the basis for their anarchistic program.
Hentoff worried about the proper order of speakers, Goodman about the meaning of the topic. We decided to limit our statements to ten minutes apiece, then to debate each other, and then to throw the debate open to the audience. We also decided to make some effort to interpret the vague topic title in the course of our statements. I was to speak first, Goodman second, and the Becks last.
We entered the hall past an audience that was growing restive. I caught sight of a number of friends in the house, as well as several members of The Living Theatre company stationed in the balcony and the orchestra. Hentoff started to introduce the discussion—into a dead mike; when it finally seemed in comparatively good working order, we were able to begin. Hentoff reflected on the confusing nature of the …
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Playing It Straight May 22, 1969