Living Theatre's journey toward change

Stagecraft and spectacle are the Living Theatre's tools. But ideas are its foundation - relentlessly radical ideas that have swept up controversy and even outrage for more than three decades.

It was in the late 1940s that Julian Beck and his wife, Judith Malina, formed the Living Theatre. The idea was ''to create a theater that was persistently artistic, divorced from all the commercial thrust,'' Beck recalled in a recent interview in the West Side apartment he and his spouse share with their teen-age daughter, Isha.

For the past 15 years the Becks and company have worked in Europe, settling recently in France, where a government grant helps support them. Ideally, they would like to spend six months each year in the United States; but they may set down permanent roots in Paris, where they hope a theater will soon be provided them - an instance of strong public support which they feel Americans can't (or won't) match.

Still and all, they have a high profile in their native country just now. They recently presented a repertory of four plays at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan; the Malina diaries, covering 1947 to 1957, are being published this winter by Grove Press; and a new film on the Living Theatre called ''Signals Through the Flames'' was released last month. On the side, Beck is playing a part in Francis Coppola's new epic, ''Cotton Club.''

What sort of ideas is the Living Theatre based on? Pacifism, for one. ''Nonviolence isn't just getting America to disarm its nuclear power,'' says Judith Malina, who is co-leader of the company with Julian. ''It's what Gandhi called ahimsa, his principle of nonhurting. It's looking your enemy in the face and saying, 'You are not my enemy. Let me see if I can help you.' It's following this path no matter what.''

Activism and absolute personal freedom - to the point of license and chaos, detractors say - are also on the agenda. ''We speak of a journey toward change, '' says Julian Beck. ''This involves both collective and personal activity - with the understanding that you can't change the world unless you change yourself, and you can't change yourself unless you change the world.''

The journey's goal is ''a world that's less authoritarian, more peaceful, more active in eliminating class abuses,'' adds Judith Malina. ''Awareness of this goal comes in cycles. We optimists think the cycles are spiraling upward. After all, everyone wants the same thing: to create a world without hunger or violence.''

Of course, far from ''everyone'' agrees with the Becks' antimilitary, antigovernment, brashly libertarian views of how to reach the ''same thing'' we all want. But it never bothers the Becks to be accused of going too far. ''They call it 'utopian' when they don't want you to do it,'' says Miss Malina, quoting social critic Paul Goodman.

In starting the theater, ''we . . . insisted that experimentation is one of the essences of art,'' Julian Beck remarks. ''That's what art is - an attempt to discover what is new, to create some sort of revelation. And we insisted on speaking out politically.''

These goals dovetailed neatly, since in Beck's view, experimentation is a political act. ''Every experiment with form indicates that life could be different and still be effective,'' he said.

Controversy attended such early offerings as ''The Connection,'' about society's outcasts, and ''The Brig,'' about militarist thinking. The furor reached its peak in the 1960s with ''Paradise Now,'' a communal production that was never the same from one performance to another, but encompassed nudity and hot rhetoric in its wild-eyed call for instant anarchism.

Although the troupe has kept its convictions and its penchant for strongly physical theatrics, today it speaks to audiences in a different way. ''During the 1960s,'' says Beck, ''we became more and more politically outspoken. We used shock techniques, trying to shake people up and arouse them. Now we're trying to instigate a fruitful reflection - on where and who we are, and what we can become.''

Today is a hard time for political theater, in Beck's view. ''There has been a certain recovery of the artistic impulse - it's acceptable to experiment even on Broadway now - but absolutely none of the political impulse,'' he says. ''The door is closing to political theater in Europe, too. Brecht is very out of fashion, and when he is produced, it's for the sugar coating. It's the same with Shaw.

''The interest is always in the performance, how brilliant the actors are, how clever the text is, how diverting and amusing the production is. The public and producers extract the superficia from these two giants, washing out the essential political, social, or philosophical statements.''

Thus, he feels, ''the struggle to make theater into an honest, truthful reflection of the world has become very difficult again. Yet such a theater must include commentary on the economic, social, and political conditions, or it's leaving out some of the essentials of life.''

There is hope for the future, though, because alertness to political issues is growing. ''I see us ever more in the grip of military domination on the whole planet,'' Beck says. ''But at the same time there's an enormous growth in our moral and ethical awareness. I see a greatly enlarged peace movement. Minorities are more aware of their oppression. Workers know more about self-management. Children are reaching for more freedom at home and in school.

''So there's a consciousness of conditions. How to change things is less apparent, however! This is a period in which we're silently mulling, working, grinding away at what the solutions could be. The service of theater now is to study these problems - to learn how we can get out of the grip of a militarist culture, and begin real action to stop the march toward nuclear catastrophe.''

Rather than call for instant revolution, therefore, the Living Theatre now ponders how an evolution - a process of change - is best prodded along, hoping that what Beck calls ''some new news from nowhere'' will inspire an answer before long. ''The form of change must be as pure and total as the goal of change,'' says Miss Malina. ''It's the old ends-and-means story. No change is valid if we don't understand Gandhi's beautiful principle, which was certainly not understood in the '60s.''

With such unusual ideas and uncommon ways of expressing them, is it probable the Living Theatre will affect no one but a radical fringe? Judith Malina bristles at the term - not suggesting that a mass audience is around the corner, true, but feistily defending her company's fans. ''Those people you call the radical fringe we consider the heart of reality,'' she says with a voice that's half velvet and half iron. ''These are the people who are going to make the changes. They are the future. . . .''

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