In the middle Sixties I wrote an essay saluting a new theater that was just beginning to evolve in opposition to the existing theater on Broadway and in the culture centers. At the time, the “third theater” as I called it, was a fringe movement whose continued survival was as problematical as its anti-war position was unpopular, so it was with considerable surprise that I watched it, soon after, begin to take a position of power in the theater. This development paralleled a failure of nerve among the middle classes, as the forces of conventional culture seemed to grow guilty and weak before the culture of the young, and the American avant-garde, for the first time in its history, became the glass of fashion and the mold of form. What was once considered special and arcane—the exclusive concern of an alienated, argumentative, intensely serious elite—was now accessible, through television and the popular magazines; vogues in women’s fashions followed hard upon, and sometimes even influenced, vogues in modern painting; underground movies became box office bonanzas, and Andy Warhol’s factory was making him a millionaire.
The narrowing of the traditional distance between serious and mass-middle culture was accompanied, in the “third theater,” by a growing callowness, sloppiness, and arrogance which made me suspicious of it. Indeed I developed much the same ambivalence toward the anti-war and black power movements as they have changed from noble acts of non-violent resistance by highly serious individuals to disruptive and histrionic acts by infantile “revolutionaries.” For just as the frustrations over the endless conflict in Vietnam and the unresolved dilemmas of the black people have given a vaguely totalitarian coloration to certain cadres of the Left, so the success of the third theater, which reflects these frustrations, has tended to sanctify its failings and conventionalize its virtues. What once seemed daring and original now often seems tiresome and familiar; stereotyped political assertions, encouraged by their easy acceptance, have replaced instinctive, individual dissent; and the complex moral and metaphysical issues of great art are being obliterated by a simple-minded nihilism.
Does this suggest that I am ready to repudiate my earlier assumptions? Only in so far as I must repudiate all theater movements that begin to take an ideological direction. While the new theater as a whole has taken a wrong turn, however, there are still many young American playwrights with the gifts to blast this theater out of its formulas. Jean-Claude van Itallie, Sam Shepard, Charles Dizenzo, Ronald Ribman, Leo Rutman are a few of them. Similarly, while I overvalued Viet Rock in my relief to discover a play that mentioned the Vietnam war at all, I still regard America Hurrah, Dynamite Tonite, and Macbird! as works of real imagination and originality, and will continue to defend these plays against hostile critics who attack what is genuine in the new theater movement along with what is spurious. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly clear, now that the new theater has begun to rigidify, that it may be as great a danger to dramatic art as the old theater. It already embodies similar defects. Its anti-intellectualism, its sensationalism, its sexual obsessiveness, its massacre of language, its noisy attention-getting mechanisms, its indifference to artistry, craft, or skill, its violence, and, above all, its mindless tributes to Love and Togetherness (now in the form of “group gropes” and “love zaps”) are not adversary demands upon the American character but rather the very qualities that have continually degraded us, the very qualities that have kept us laggard and philistine in the theater throughout the past three decades.
It is ironic that these qualities, already so conspicuous in the commercial theater, should be offered as expressions of a new sensibility—even more ironic that one should find them in the work of the Living Theater upon its return after an exile of four years. Initiating a tour designed to revolutionize not only the stage but the various university and civic centers that it visited, the Living Theater proved, upon its very first appearance, to have changed its style in a manner similar to the changes in the new theater. Indeed, it soon became clear that it was the original source of many off-off-Broadway conventions. Having eked out a precarious existence for seventeen years as an embattled minority troupe dedicated to the great classic and contemporary European works as well as to the more experimental American plays, the Living Theater returned to America with a fierce antagonism to all dramatic texts that could not somehow be translated into its special anarchistic program. The members of the company had developed an almost symbiotic unity in their years of traveling together over the European continent. The company had become a self-generating, self-perpetuating organism whose existence was more important than any work it performed; and it was inflamed with a sense of mission that was less theatrical or even political than religious and evangelical.
These changes were reflected physically as well. Julian Beck’s features now contained an ascetic calm usually associated with Hindu gurus and Confucian monks, while his wife, Judith Malina, had taken on the look of an unprotected street urchin, her eyes sometimes ablaze with fervor, sometimes limpid with compassion for all martyrs, not excluding herself. The Becks—as well as the entire company—had developed an extraordinary physical integrity that gave at once the most immediate, and the most lasting, impression one had of them. Dressed like gypsies, hippies, and nomads in clothing from every quarter of the earth, the men sometimes indistinguishable from the women, and even the children beaded, bangled, and longhaired, they moved with a beauty that testified to an inward grace, as well as to months of arduous training in breathing and the body.
Unfortunately, the Living Theater had little of substance to contribute beyond its athleticism and its exotic style of life. Although two of the four works presented on this tour (The Mysteries and Frankenstein) showed original techniques, they did not fulfill their initial promise largely because they lacked a gifted playwright to conceive them intelligently. It was disconcerting to discover that the Becks no longer seemed interested in coherent theatrical productions. What obsessed them now was their missionary program; they were more eager to convert their audiences, through whatever means, to their special brand of revolutionary politics. In production after production, the company demonstrated its remarkable capacity to manipulate minds. Playing upon the general sense of emptiness in a world where even individual salvation seems far too complicated, the Living Theater proselytized among the young in the manner of hip evangelists, encouraging each spectator to make his decision for love, freedom, and anarchy. The most depressing thing of all was how easily university students, and even some of their teachers, responded to the baldest of slogans and the most simplistic interpretations of reality.
After The Mysteries, a series of process exercises which for me was the most interesting and least pretentious of its offerings, the Living Theater proceeded to demonstrate in Antigone (a version of the story which reduced it to a melodramatic confrontation between political evil and oppressed good), in Frankenstein (a Camp horror tale with Radio City Music Hall prestidigitation techniques about how civilization turns man into monster), and particularly in the audience-participation epic, Paradise Now, that it had virtually abandoned its interest in creating serious drama. It was now clear that the Becks’ previous efforts to examine the boundaries separating art from life (in such pre-exile productions as The Connection and Tonight We Improvise) had been expanded into a full-scale assault upon any separation whatever between the spectator and the stage. Audiences were invited over the footlights to join some performers while other performers wandered through the house; actors whined plaintively about their inability to travel without a passport, live without money, smoke marijuana, or take their clothes off, after which they stripped to loin cloths and bikinis; students peeled down, upon this encouragement, to jockey shorts; mass love-zaps and petting parties were organized on stage among couples of various sexes and sexual dispositions; and after the endless, loveless, sexless groping was finally over, everyone was exhorted to leave the theater and convert the police to anarchism, to storm the jails and free the prisoners, to stop the war and ban the bomb, to take over the streets in the name of the people—and, then, to disperse quietly lest any of this end (as it did one night in New Haven) with somebody in jail for disturbing the peace.
Needless to say, unfulfillable demands of this kind were extremely irresponsible, given the impressionable nature of young audiences; they were also extremely meretricious, since the Living Theater invariably took refuge in its theatrical function whenever things threatened to get out of hand. For all its emphasis on reality, the company never quite managed to escape from its performance; for all its emphasis on spontaneity and accident, it still followed an almost fixed pattern which ended the same way every evening. To extend a theatrical action into the audience is not to annihilate the performance, it is to annihilate the audience—everyone becomes a performer, the seats become part of the stage. This paradox was not lost on Jean Genet, whose play, The Balcony, was based on his understanding that since revolution is dedicated to the destruction of artifice, its greatest enemy is playacting. But it was a paradox from which the Living Theater was never able to escape. And when the Becks appeared recently on the Merv Griffin show, outlining their political theories between a series of nightclub acts, they only dramatized further their imprisonment in show biz—in Genet’s image, they were still in the brothel.
What was finally most disturbing about the Living Theater was the content of the ideology it was marketing under the name of anarchism. In spite of all the invitations to participate in free theater, it was constraint and control that remained most conspicuous: No spectator was ever allowed to violate the pattern of manipulated consent. At Yale, we saw a female student launch into a passionate denunciation of the Living Theater, only to be hustled offstage by a group of performers who embraced her into silence—unbuttoning her blouse, feeling her legs, and shutting her mouth with kisses. Another student, beginning an impersonation of Ed Sullivan while navigating around the interlocked bodies on the stage, was prevented from introducing a note of satire into the evening by an actor who drowned him out with an imitation of the Kennedy assassination. The company, particularly vulnerable to ridicule because of its lack of humor allowed no alien laughter ever to penetrate its relentless solemnity, self-righteousness, and self-importance.
Love and brotherhood were continually on the lips of the actors, but no actors in my experience have bristled with so much aggression or more successfully galvanized the aggression of the spectator. As for love and brotherhood, all one saw was herd love and brotherhood among the anonymous. It was, finally, not a vision of human freedom that one took away from Paradise Now but vague, disturbing memories of the youth rallies in Hitler’s Nuremberg. The return of the Living Theater described a full circle in so far as the company had now taken on the very authoritarian qualities it had once denounced, the very repressiveness that had driven it from the country four years before.
The unprecedented success of the Living Theater with the radical young—and with those who follow the radical young—was, however, of momentous significance because it indicated precisely what these audiences were now demanding of the stage. For these impatient generations, with their inability to sustain frustration for a moment, it was the opportunity for participation that proved most attractive. The passive role of spectator had become insufficient. Now theatrical production had to satisfy the thirst for an elusive, often spurious “relevance” and convince its audiences that they were helping to enact an episode in history. The Living Theater promised the theatricalization of campus revolts, confrontations, and occupations—the theatricalization of those numerous quasi-revolutionary gestures by which students are persuading themselves today that they are having a significant impact on their times. That these gestures are aimed not against the Pentagon or the napalm-producing factories, but rather against the university itself (for all its faults, still one of the last outposts of civilization and humane values) only indicates that the desire for effectiveness somewhere far transcends the desire for effective change.1 But it also indicates that with the day of protest upon us, the conditions necessary for the creation of great art may very well be over, at least for a time. As one gifted acting student told me when he withdrew from Yale: “I don’t give a shit about art. I want to create events.”
For myself, I regard this development with mingled feelings, mostly sad ones. This extraordinary generation, upon whom so much praise and attention have been lavished, cannot help but inspire feelings of respect—but my respect is becoming mixed with great apprehension. At once so vital and idealistic, and so childish, irrational, and overindulged, the radical young are questioning the very roots of our civilization, but what they would substitute, apart from continuous improvisation and an ethics of expedience, is far from known. The silent and conservative students of the Fifties are no more, thank heavens; they have gone off to join the system and consolidate its errors. But some of the demonic students of the Sixties may very well, in their impatience for change, destroy what is valuable in our culture along with what is despicable—destroying even the valuable things their contemporaries have helped to create. While the theater, along with popular music, has benefited enormously from an infusion of young energy that has transformed our way of seeing and hearing, the more radical theater is less an advance than a throwback. With this theater, we have returned to the Thirties, watching the same abuse of truths that do not serve political ends, the same contempt for writers who do not try to change their times, the same monolithic modes of thought, the same assaults on any expression that is not a form of consent. The “theater of commitment,” which had just begun to shake itself free from dependence on narrow ideology, is again becoming a theater of naked slogans and raw emotionalism, and death knells are once more being heard for the works of Western civilization.
These works will, I hope, survive—they are certainly among the few things worth preserving. But they will survive only through renewed efforts at conservation, and this means renewed efforts of intelligence and will. The threatening apocalypse is something for which many of us must share the blame: By radically questioning the prevailing humanism, we helped to start violent engines in motion which may end in pushing everything we value over the precipice. Secure in our powerlessness, and certain that thought would never lead to action, we let our minds play upon questionable possibilities, never suspecting that those possibilities might soon be upon us, more swiftly and more irrevocably than we could dream. These were errors of judgment—but there were those who made less forgivable errors of power. Seeking a Mosaic role, they led these hungry generations to a violent view from Pisgah that could have no creative issue. Guilt-ridden, indecisive, flaccid, hating authority and enamored of influence, they surrendered principles they had once affirmed, accepting again what was so hateful in the past. In a time when intelligence is needed more than ever before, they encouraged a form of intellectual decomposition, becoming fellow travelers of a movement they could never hope to join, which would, in time, proceed to swallow them up.
We honor the young because without them there is no future. But there will surely be no future either unless the more extreme of our young can cease from trying to annihilate the past. With our civilization tottering, the temptation is strong to release our hold on reality and credit the most fantastic flights of absurdity simply because they signify change. But the more radical inventions of the new generation are nothing if they proceed from the same violent and mindless sources that originally brought our civilization to this terrifying juncture. We fail the future when we surrender what we know and value for the sake of fashion and influence, and we fail the theater when we countenance the rejection of language, form, and accomplishment in favor of an easy culture. The third theater I once described contains, in Synge’s words, “reality and joy”—which is to say it synthesizes the principle of work and of pleasure, discipline and imagination, form and process, reflection and improvisation, age and youth. It is a theater that spans the generations—a theater, in other words, that has yet to appear in this country of divided spirits.
February 13, 1969
This is not to say that some of the more extreme revolutionists are not preparing, at least in their fantasies, for assaults on the Pentagon. My sixteen-year-old stepson met a girl the other day who was practicing jujitsu in preparation for encounters with the US Army. “Can you throw a tank?” he asked. ↩