This is the tenth of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theater history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA) respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.
In the post below, senior Joan Owens responds to the early writings of Julian Beck and Judith Malina about the Living Theatre. Joan appreciates the powerful work done by Beck and Malina, but focuses in on one particular line in which Beck quotes Malina on the importance of beauty. Joan asks whether, in a culture such as ours that is flooded with anger and ugliness, the creation of beauty might not be the most radical act possible, as well as a necessity for the sanity of the individual artist. It’s an intriguing idea. As always, I hope that readers will respond to Joan’s ideas, as it is through dialogue that the students learn the most. –Scott Walters
Each day, everywhere we go, there are expectations we impose on others concerning their behavior, and privately, in our minds, we enforce those laws with an iron fist. When someone breaks our rules, we proceed with a imaginary slaughter in which we rob them of breath and permit them an examination of their own intestines (maybe not that extreme, but you see my point).
For example, I am sitting here drinking a coffee and scritch-scratching away at my notebook formulating this piece. All the while, I am valiantly resisting the urge to hurl said book at the man sitting at the table next to mine, who is happily humming along to “Let it Be” while hum-hawing at his own reading. You see, I entered the shop with the expectation of sipping coffee while pretentiously scribbling away at this article in my legal pad while moodily contemplating the state of modern theatre. And chipper humming from my enthusiastic neighbor is screwing my aesthetic.
And so this brings me around to my actual point. The man is not humming for my benefit. As annoyed as I may be, his actions are not about me. His humming is for his own enjoyment. He is feeding the positivity of his own mood. Perhaps, in all other hours of his day, he disposes himself to the constant service of others, and so for these few minutes he takes the time to quietly hum for himself, pretentious legal-pad-toting college student be damned.
Similarly, theatre artists must also take moments to hum for themselves, push-pen-toting critics be damned.
This is part of what Judith Malina and Julian Beck sought to do with the Living Theater. Dissatisfied with the falsity and vanity of Broadway, they set out to create a theatre for themselves — and for the benefit of audiences — to show life as it is. They wanted a breathing theatre of flesh and blood that portrayed the raw, ugly beauty of life. The search was for human roots that could grow visibly through the theatrical arts.
“Isn’t it a sign of an overdeveloped culture to search for more and more bloodless stylization?” Malina asks. She and Beck wished to escape the unwritten, formulaic expectations of “high-brow” arts, and instead live freely through their own works and hum along to their own tune, whenever and wherever they pleased. Broadway and the like were too stylized, too false. They wished to give the world something they felt was real.
They strove to deliver their ideal theatre to an audience. They presented their sweat and tears, and the more terrifying edges of passion. And throughout all this work, all this drive, we hear little of play, of un-grotesque beauty and simple joy. Always they seem to be working toward a deeper meaning, a more penetrating message. And this mission is necessary and good, but exhausting. It feeds a world in which all art must be critical, needs a profound intention. Today, what once was radical seems to be becoming the norm. So in the spirit of the Living Theatre, we must ask how do we combat this growing sameness? How do we continue to make theatre meaningful?
We must start by examining the current mindset regarding art and its worth. The common opinion increasingly seems to be that, if one simply creates something that is lovely and moving to look at, the work is seen as shallow and unworthy of attention; on the other hand, should it attract enormous attention, then enjoyment of it must be justified through the insertion of “deeper meaning” into the work.
Yet Malina says, “By observing what is beautiful, we can learn what is meant to be.”
So why can we not take time to create something that is simply beautiful?
So often in the arts, particularly in theatre, there is this pursuit of genius. It is a beast fed by the search for critical art. There is this constant endeavor to be clever, a constant commentary on the world and philosophy. In art there ought to be protest, an outlet for the thoughts and pains of those afflicted with the wrongs that manifest themselves in this life. This is necessary and important. Yet I would argue that, in an age of unrest, would not serenity be radical? A moment of quiet, a moment of beauty that can just be appreciated, without hidden meanings lurking underneath. Give ourselves a moment to breath in a choking world. Not to escape it, no, but to simply remember that there is happiness alongside the sorrow. We must remind ourselves that there are reasons for being alive.
The Living Theatre was radical and experimental in that it sought the beauty in the underbelly of the world at a time when it was much more convenient to ignore the slimy side of a stone for the smooth surface on top. The Living Theatre strove to show the raw world truthfully, and in a way that discouraged audiences from looking away. This is an important and crucial form of art, and it must continue. However, today, it is just as crucial to permit ourselves views of peace, reminders of what we live for, what all the pains are worth. Yes, the world has teeth, but art is not required to show them in a constant snarl.
Theatre must continue to strive to be relevant. We know this. It will also always be important. Less known, but true nonetheless, is that we must be as bold and brash as the Living Theatre, we must dare to look into the dark sludge of life and pull out the grotesque beauty. But we must also remember ourselves, take moments to regroup. Create something for us, something simple and unfettered. Then we can share these quiet, simple moments with the world, and remind it to reflect on all that is good along with all that is dark and frightening.
Theatre should always aid in the fight for better life, but it must also remind us why we wish to live.
Joan Owens is a graduating Theater and Literature student at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She is pursuing a career in properties design and fabrication for the stage, as well as continued studies in theatre history and classical literature.