Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)

He Made All That Happened to Him a Transcendent Experience

"What are you going to do today?" I'd say.

"I don't know, Adrienne," he'd always say. Then he'd ask me, "What did you think about yesterday?" And he'd describe something he'd done the day before. He'd sit staring intently at the stage for a while, as the actors waited. He'd lean over, elbows on his knees, and continue to stare passionately at the empty stage. Suddenly he'd jump up, go to the actors, and almost whisper to them. I couldn't hear him. He'd then go backstage and talk to the prop person and bring out a prop he'd never seen, examining the prop and considering it in great detail for a long time. He'd go talk to the actor or actors he was working with and sit down with them and talk very softly again for a long while . . .

Then he'd come back to where we were sitting. And with a tiny smile, he'd say, "I think you're going to like this." And sit down next to me.

Joseph Chaikin
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Joseph Chaikin

Suddenly the actors would start to do something extraordinary that I never could have dreamed of, something beautiful, shocking, overwhelming, and breathtaking. I wanted to run out and cry.

Edward Albee, playwright

When you've known and admired someone for over 40 years they develop a kind of permanence and it shocks you when they cease. Losing Jack Gelber and Joe Chaikin within a month of each other was a double whammy, but this piece is about Joe, gentle, soft-spoken, eagle-minded Joe.

A sequence of memories crowds in: Joe in Jack Gelber's The Connection; Joe working with Jean-Claude van Itallie to make a new idea of theater; Joe alone in a chair in a spotlight on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London, reading Beckett; Joe in Alaska—just last year—performing Sam Shepard before an audience of eager young playwrights who, after, crowded him to pull from his presence nourishment, knowing they would get it; these and much more.

Thank you, Joe.

Arthur Miller, playwright

Joe inspired those who could quiet their souls long enough to listen to him, or more accurately, observe him. He seemed to bear happiness into his art and world, irony and laughter and respect for living things and ideas. Long ago, he composed a scene around a Thanksgiving dinner in which eight or 10 actors "talked" by simply vocalizing sounds and gesturing and using their faces to convey attitudes and character while uttering a nonsensical no-language. It was hilarious and conveyed a crippled poetry that backed one into a corner where the view of humanity was devastating—suddenly we were all fools and simultaneously gallant enough to go on struggling to climb out of our fatuousness and ignorance and vanity; and it somehow ended up in some kind of tragic space. Joe, I suppose, lived so close to death that it was for him simply the part of life one had to give the nod to and fend off at the same time. And it all came down to a kind of artistic decency, for he was a servant of truth, which is not at all as easy as it sounds.

Anders Cato, director

During the years that I spent with Joe as his assistant, co-director, or co-eater of countless Indian brunches, he taught me many things about theater, but what he really taught me was something much bigger. Joe was not afraid.

In his work as well as in his life, he embraced dark and difficult questions, the ones that really matter. Often Joe would cut through any kind of small talk when meeting people, and immediately ask them, "What do you believe?" The big questions were not asked to make people nervous or challenge them, but rather part of his own ongoing search for the joy and wonder of being alive. Once when we were on an airplane, crossing the Atlantic, Joe was listening to music on his Walkman. He handed me one of his little Post-it notes on which he had written, "Mozart 90 percent happy."

On several occasions during the last couple of years, Joe told me in his simple and beautiful way: "No need living longer." I remember asking him if there wasn't a part of him that was still afraid of dying. Joe responded with his particular, light tone of voice, his face completely open: "No."

Related Story:
"Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003), Part II: 'You Can Make a Fresh Start With Your Final Breath'"

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