Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003), Part II

'You Can Make a Fresh Start With Your Final Breath'

Sam Shepard, playwright

Reinventing himself: Joe Chaikin in 1991
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Reinventing himself: Joe Chaikin in 1991

I died the day I was born

and became an angel on that day

since then

there are no days

there is no time

I am here by mistake

These were Joe's own words and became the opening lines of The War in Heaven back in 1984 when we sat down to work in his New York apartment. He was recovering from a stroke suffered during his third open-heart surgery, which had left him with a kind of left-hemisphere aphasia (a fancy term for the loss of language). This was a devastating setback for Joe, whose language was such a profound aspect of his work in the theater. As always, Joe responded to this terrible dilemma with a bright, energetic courage, as though life had again presented him with a rare and mysterious challenge. He was determined to write a piece that dealt with the idea of an angel crashing to earth but he was adamant about not wanting to perform it himself (as he had with our two previous collaborations, Tongues and Savage Love). As we continued with the work, I became convinced that not only would it be a great kind of therapy for him, but that he was probably the only actor who could possibly embody the language that was coming out of him. It was truly being delivered from another world:


I can tell

where God is my life

I've been dead

so many times

so many times

I've been dead

then better


now better

so many times

These cadences and phrases were surging out of him in sporadic coherent bursts, then locking up incomprehensibly around single words like loose or Venus or turtle, where the word itself—just the mere accomplishment of it, the phenomenon of its sound hitting the air—seemed like a matter of life and death for Joe. The struggle was physical as well as psychological. I became more and more of a stenographer as I watched and listened to his fierce probings into dark territories of demons and planets, then floating down into earthly birds and souls of the dead and air:


again it comes


it comes


so much more

and more

and more

and more

and air

I was in the presence of an extraordinary man, reinventing himself on the brink of disaster, and realized that this had always been the case with Joe and his work. His whole life had been in the constant company of death due to his chronic heart disease, and this reminder of his own mortality informed everything he did in the theater and in life. It characterized the atmosphere surrounding the early Open Theatre days on Spring Street. It was the sign by which we all recognized him as a true teacher and seer into the terrible predicament of our modern era. And it was, finally, the root of his inspiration, which he transferred to us with such amazing generosity and sweetness. Joe liked to quote from Brecht in his early workshops. One line I remember in particular was, "You can make a fresh start with your final breath," and I believe this is truly the way he lived and died.

Joyce Aaron, actress

Joe Chaikin was my friend, my teacher, my director, for 30 years. He was the most important figure in my growth and development. It was his questions that ignited our imaginations and stimulated the finding of forms for the original work that we created in the Open Theatre. His questioning never stopped.

I last worked with Joe in October 2002, in the revival of Beckett's Happy Days at the Cherry Lane Theater. I felt enormously privileged to work on this play with him: He loved Beckett and had wanted to direct Happy Days for many years. He was a master at plumbing the depths of the text, all its details, its humor, and its rhythms. He never stopped exploring. He never stopped giving notes—at the last performance I received notes from him. His devotion to the material, to the work, to the actor, was relentless.

It was his courage, his endurance of life itself, that was an inspiration to all who knew him when he had to re-create himself after the stroke in order to go on. He did that. He went on. He fought for his life every moment, and he won.

I remember seeing him go into a pastry shop, looking around to make sure no one could see him. I watched from across the street as he happily ate his marvelous pastry.

I will miss his presence, his eye, his enormous talent, which he gave to all who worked with him. I will miss him for the rest of my life.

Sara Hartley, psychiatrist

Hearing Joe give a public reading, it struck me that he was utterly dedicated to narrating his sense of the serious puzzle of being human. He had little interest in inþuencing anyone—his authority derived from his earnest attention to the problem of saying something worth saying. It seemed this was what so captivated others—his conviction that art was a necessity for him to create a life.

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