Living Theatre: Julian Beck, Fabio Donato, Mario Franco

Fabio Donato, Living Theatre. Paradise Now, Napoli, Teatro Mediterraneo, 1969. Courtesy Fabio Donato

The Living Theatre is an experimental company founded in New York in 1947 by Julian Beck (New York 1925-1985), painter and poet, and the actress and stage director Judith Malina (Kiel 1926), a student of Erwin Piscator. From the very beginning the group’s activities bore the stamp of social and political commitment, imbued with a strong libertarian matrix. The troupe became widely known with The Connection, staged in 1959, which depicts the dramatic reality of drug addiction in harsh, direct language. Following the controversy stirred in 1963 by the premiere of The Brig, a glimpse of life inside a Marine prison, the company was forced first to give up its theatre space on 14th Street and then quit the United States in December of the same year. Its numerous pacifist demonstrations and civil disobedience campaigns had already earned the Living Theatre a reputation that went far beyond the limited scope of avantgarde theatre, making it, precisely because of this political commitment, unacceptable to the U.S. Government.
By the early 1960s the Living Theatre was performing mainly in Europe, and particularly Italy, with tours and long stays, including many in Naples. These were the years of productions considered masterpieces of collective creation, such as Mysteries and Smaller Pieces (1964), Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone of Sophocles (1967), Frankenstein and Paradise Now (1968). During the company’s European exile the Living Theatre also defined the programmatic foundations of its theatrical work: rejection of the stage, elimination of the boundaries between art and life and, consequently, between actors and audience. The group’s theatrical language was based largely on gesture and body language, working on dramatic effects and the audience’s physical and emotional involvement. Inspired by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the Living Theatre offers drama aimed not at instructing or entertaining but attacking and provoking the audience.
In the 1970s the group focused almost exclusively on street theatre, creating productions with a powerful impact such as Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism (1973), The Destruction of the Money Tower (1975) and Six Public Acts (1976) before returning to the theatre with Prometheus at the Winter Palace (1978), The Yellow Methuselah (1982) and The Archaeology of Sleep (1983). After Julian Beck’s death in 1985 Judith Malina continued to run the company together with Hanon Reznikov. Since the latter’s death in 2008 she has been assisted by the executive director Garrick Beck (son of Malina and Beck) and the administrator Brad Burgess (Reznikov’s assistant). In all, the Living Theatre has performed some 80 works, acting in numerous languages and 25 different countries.
The exhibition “Living Theatre. Labyrinths of the Imaginary,” curated by Giuseppe Morra, Achille Bonito Oliva and Lorenzo Mango in 2003 at Castel Sant’Elmo, was a visual reconstruction of the Living Theatre’s whole creative trajectory.
Since 2007 the Fondazione Morra in Naples, an established cultural foundation active nationally and internationally, holds the perennial and exclusive rights to authenticate the paintings of Julian Beck and to catalog and archive the works of the Living Theatre (drawings, diaries, photos and documents).
The Living Theatre’s name expresses the whole force of its project: the idea of a theatre that is open to life, politics and change without ever renouncing research and experiments with new forms of expression. The installation of the room at the Madre, devised in terms of immersion, is intended to give an account of this extraordinary phenomenon and the universe that has always motivated and accompanied it, presenting a set of materials as evidence of a creative process rather than straight documentation. The room presents a reconstruction in the form of a visual history of the work of the Living Theatre, accompanied by video footage of Antigone (created in Marigliano in 1980) shot by Mario Franco and photographs by Fabio Donato, testimony to numerous performances and moments in the Living Theatre’s work in Naples. Special emphasis is given to a selection of some of the works Julian Beck painted in the 1940s and 1950s, acquired and submitted to restoration by Giuseppe Morra. These works are today the sole testimony to the powerful personality of an action painter who found a natural outlet for his energies in the theater.