Judith Malina, an actor and director who with her husband, Julian Beck, founded the Living Theater, a troupe of activists and provocateurs who advanced the idea of political theater in America, catalyzed fierce debate over their methods and intentions, and in the name of art ran afoul of civic authorities on three continents, died on Friday in Englewood, N.J. She was 88.
Her death, at the Lillian Booth Actors Home, was confirmed by a friend and playwright, Karen Malpede. Ms. Malina had lung disease caused by years of smoking.
For movie and television buffs, especially those not old enough to remember beatniks, Lenny Bruce, Vietnam War protests or other symbols of remonstration against Eisenhower-era complacency, Ms. Malina was best known as a character actress. She appeared on “The Sopranos” (as Aunt Dottie, a dying nun who reveals to the gangster known as Paulie Walnuts that she is actually his mother) and in films including “The Addams Family,” Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” and, perhaps most memorably, “Dog Day Afternoon,” as the anguished and frantic mother of Sonny Wortzik, the misguided bank robber played by Al Pacino.
But she steered a far more emphatic and influential course with the troupe sometimes known simply as the Living, which occupied the leading edge of stage experimentation in the 1950s and 1960s and both fed and fed on the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. It was perhaps the most prominent and persistent advocate for a “new theater,” one that sought to dissolve the accepted artifice of stage presentations, to conjoin art and political protest, and to shrink, if not eliminate, the divide between performers and the audience.
A diminutive woman (journalists often noted that she weighed less than 100 pounds) who studied acting and directing with Erwin Piscator, the German director and theorist who, like Brecht, was a proponent of epic theater, Ms. Malina was tireless and passionate in advancing the idea that theater can be, and should be, a blunt force for cultural change. She and Mr. Beck, an Expressionist painter as a young man who became renowned as a set designer, considered themselves anarchists and pacifists, and their productions were statements as much as performances.
Idealistic and fervent, they began planning a new kind of theater company in 1947, when she was 21 and he a year older. The troupe’s first public production, Gertrude Stein’s “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights,” was staged in 1951 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village.
Their belief that the theater and real life are part of an experiential continuum drew them, at first, to present plays written in verse or otherwise abstract language — they produced work by Kenneth Rexroth, T. S. Eliot, Paul Goodman, Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, among others — and to involve their audiences in the action of their shows in defiance of the so-called fourth wall, the conventional presumption of separation of the actors from the audience.
“We believe in the theater as a place of intense experience, half-dream, half-ritual, in which the spectator approaches something of a vision of self-understanding, going past conscious to unconscious, to an understanding of the nature of all things,” Mr. Beck wrote in The New York Times in 1959. He added that “only the language of poetry can accomplish this, only poetry or a language laden with symbols and far removed from our daily speech can take us beyond the ignorant present toward these realms.”
The period of Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina’s greatest impact and notoriety began in the late 1950s with productions that included groundbreaking dramas like “The Connection” (1959), Jack Gelber’s harrowing depiction of a den of heroin addicts, and “The Brig” (1963), Kenneth H. Brown’s portrayal of a harsh day in the life of a Marine prison. (Both were made into films.) It was during the run of “The Brig” that the Living was shut down by the Internal Revenue Service — an event that led to demonstrations outside the company’s home at West 14th Street and Avenue of the Americas, with placards bearing slogans like “Art Before Taxes.”
Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina represented themselves at their trial, arguing that it was both wrong and unreasonable for the government to take away their theater without making a good-faith effort to help them save it, and that their nonviolent civil disobedience was a reaction against the unfair administration of the law. But they also turned the trial into a loopy spectacle that included rambling speechifying, outbursts of protest and Ms. Malina’s recitation of her poems.
“The human heart and the human mind have to examine the rigidity of the law,” Ms. Malina said in summing up the case to the jury, which convicted her, Mr. Beck and the Living Theater on several counts surrounding the crime of impeding federal agents from seizing the assets of the tax-delinquent theater.
“Innocent!” Ms. Malina exclaimed, each time the prosecutor, Peter K. Leisure, used the word “guilty.” Judge Edmund Palmieri reprimanded her.
“You can cut out my tongue, but you cannot stop me from saying that I am innocent,” she responded. “I will not grant you that privilege, sir.”
Mr. Malina and Mr. Beck were fined and given brief jail sentences, though pending an appeal they were allowed to leave for Europe, where the Living had bookings, and they and the company went into self-imposed exile.
As time went on, their shows, which included adaptations of “Antigone” and “Frankenstein,” were staged, usually by Ms. Malina, with mounting radical fervor and an application of techniques that tended to sublimate artistic craft in favor of political passion and to blur the distinction between performance and real life. Living Theater productions through the 1960s were increasingly characterized by improvisation, and troupe members addressed spectators directly, encouraging them to participate vocally as if contributing to a spontaneously evolving script and even exhorting them to join the troupe onstage or exit the theater and take the performance into the streets.
The company’s most notorious show, “Paradise Now,” consisted of a jumble of nonlinear vignettes, theater games, ritualistic exercises, group embraces and volleys of incantatory anticapitalist slogans and other epithets, some encouraging sexual abandon and marijuana use, often culminating with members of the company and the audience taking off their clothes. The vehemence of the revolutionary message and its delivery joined the Living irrevocably to the more perfervid nonviolent strain of the 1960s counterculture.
“I demand everything — total love, an end to all forms of violence and cruelty such as money, hunger, prisons, people doing work they hate,” Ms. Malina explained in a 1968 interview with The New York Times Magazine about the sort off revolution her theater wanted to engender. “We can have tractors and food and joy. I demand it now!”
Performances of “Paradise Now” often generated chaos in the theater and controversy outside it. In Europe, where the Living became a collective (operating as, in one reporter’s words, “a tribe or an anarchist’s commune”) and commanded a large and youthful following that newspapers routinely described as hippies, the police were called to shut down or prevent performances of “Paradise Now” and other Living shows in Rome, Avignon and elsewhere. In 1968 the Living returned to the United States, where, after a performance at Yale, several members of the company and the audience were arrested for indecent exposure.
The Living subsequently appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where their performances engendered, in addition to the usual raucous reception, a critical war waged in print, including in The New York Times, where critics including Walter Kerr and Eric Bentley dismissed the Living as jejune and antitheatrical, and Clive Barnes, who approved of the company’s invention and physicality, saw in it a melding of theater and dance.
The critic Richard Gilman wrote of the Living’s “Antigone” in The Atlantic: “The play is nearly intolerable whenever it has to be acted, whenever lines have to be spoken and consciousness invoked,” adding, “It is evident from the beginning that whatever else it has become, the Living Theater has lost almost all its never more than marginal abilities for the rudimentary processes of acting: speech, characterization, the assumption of new invented life.”
Writing in Saturday Review, however, Henry Hewes declared, “What they have done with Brecht’s 1947 version of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ is incredible and enormous.” He added: “This ‘Antigone’ makes theatrical history with its fierce totality of commitment. It is beyond theater.”
Ms. Malina was born in Kiel, a port city in northern Germany, on June 4, 1926. Her mother, Rosel Zamojre, had been an aspiring actress before she married Max Malina, a rabbinical student who became a leading cleric after the family moved to New York City. There, according to John Tytell’s exhaustive book, “The Living Theatre: Art, Exile and Outrage” (1995), Ms. Malina met Mr. Beck in 1943, when she was just 17, and together they undertook a cultural education, attending the theater, visiting museums and reading modernist writers like Joyce, Pound and Cocteau. Ms. Malina worked as a singing waitress in a Greenwich Village bar and eventually enrolled in Piscator’s workshop at the New School for Social Research.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Living again spent much of its time out of the country, partly in Europe and partly in Brazil, where Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck were once again arrested, this time for marijuana possession, though they said they were innocent, and supporters of the company suspected that the authorities were wary of the work they were preparing, a series of short politically tinged plays to be performed in the streets of the town of Ouro Preto. After their arrest, protests from cultural figures around the world, including Susan Sontag and Jean-Paul Sartre, focused attention on their plight, and they were released but expelled from the country.
Julian Beck died in 1985. Ms. Malina’s survivors include their two children, Isha Manna and Garrick Maxwell Beck; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In 1988, Ms. Malina married Hanon Reznikov, who wrote and performed in many Living productions and who had been running the company since Mr. Beck’s death. For a time they established a theatrical home on East Third Street in Lower Manhattan, until the city’s Buildings Department closed the theater in 1993.
The company continued to produce work motivated by contemporary political concerns, including the two Persian Gulf wars, the Wall Street bailouts and income inequality, presenting it on different New York City stages; they also created site-specific new works in Italy and Lebanon. Just before Mr. Reznikov’s unexpected death in 2008, the theater established another home in Lower Manhattan, on Clinton Street. There Ms. Malina directed Mr. Reznikov’s last play, “Eureka!,” based on a dense late work about the origins of life by Edgar Allan Poe, showing that the company had lost none of its ambition and energy.
“The Living Theater wants nothing less than to rewrite the theatrical contract,” Rachel Saltz began her review of “Eureka!” in The Times. “Viewers can no longer remain passive spectators hidden in the dark. There is no fourth wall, so they must become participants. In ‘Eureka!’ — a mix of science class, happening, utopian dream and group hug — that means helping out with a mighty task: creating the universe.”
The Living was evicted from its Clinton Street space in 2013 but staged Ms. Malina’s “Nowhere to Hide” at the Burning Man Festival in 2014. The troupe will continue to produce work under the leadership of Brad Burgess, Tom Walker and Garrick Beck, who will share directorial duties, with Mr. Burgess as artistic director, Mr. Beck said in an email.
Ms. Malina’s published books include a compilation of her diaries and in 2012 a memoir of sorts called “The Piscator Notebook.” In his foreword to that volume, the theater scholar Richard Schechner wrote:
“The thing about Judith Malina is that she is indefatigable, unstoppable, erupting with ideas. Malina is long-living, long-working, optimistic, and by the second decade of the 21st century girlish and old womanish at the same time. She survives and she bubbles, both.”