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October 24, 1963, Vol. IX, No. 1
Living Theatre Goes Broke; Becks Brigged by Feds
By Michael Smith
Nobody ever expected the Living Theatre to die quietly. And after four frantic days — with events ranging from a melancholy press conference through a boot-leg performance of “The Brig” to 25 arrests — New York’s leading avant-garde playhouse, although stripped of physical premises and possessions, is still a living idea.
On Sunday, while co-directors Julian Beck and Judith Malina were in federal prisons on charges of impeding federal officials in the performance of their duties, the physical assets of the Living Theatre were removed from the building at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue pending an auction toward payment of $23,000 owing in back federal taxes. The Becks have always been newsworthy, but the daily newspapers have given them more coverage for their political activities — in protest against civil defense drills and as leaders of the General Strike for Peace — than for their artistic achievements. The latter have won them numerous prizes here and on two European tours, and The Voice recently described the Living Theatre as America’s “most original, profoundly adventurous and persistently important theatre institution.” In this incarnation it persists no more.
The climactic events began quietly. At a Thursday noon press conference in the 160-seat auditorium Julian Beck announced that the Living Theatre would end its 12-year career (six of those year at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue) on Tuesday of this week. The theatre’s landlord, Wyckoff-Bent Corporation, because of more than $4000 in rent being unpaid, had served an eviction notice. Beck said that in order for the theatre to continue, it would be necessary to satisfy other creditors — particularly the Internal Revenue Service — and have assurance of operating funds. According to Beck, unless at least $45,000 could miraculously be raised immediately, the theatre would close after the Sunday night performance.
The press conference was well attended, but the situation seemed hopeless. The theatre had been through a long series of financial crises, and its benefactors had been generous again and again — they could not be asked to give still more. Audiences for “The Brig” had been sizable since a Life article appeared in August, and the theatre was making a small weekly profit; but debts were too pressing, expenses were too high, and in gerneral the Living Theatre had come to a condition the Becks described delicately as “not conducive to creative work.”
The reasons for the Living Theatre’s economic failure went deeper than those of the standard flop. “The Brig,” for example, received rave reviews everywhere except in the New York dailies. But even its most fervent admirers could never describe this brutal reenactment of a day in a Marine Corps prison as “entertaining.” “The Brig,” like other Living Theatre productions before it, was not so much a dramatic event as an impassioned object lesson, and no audience could take it lightly. As Julian Beck suggested toward the end of the press conference, because of the necessarily high ticket prices, the Living Theatre audience, like most contemporary audiences, was made up mostly of the comfortable middle class, with a heavy percentage of tourists. But these audiences are not interested in having their world and their standards challenged as aggressively as they are by the Living Theatre. And those to whom the plays might be most meaningful — students, working people — could not afford tickets…
Various possibilities lie ahead. Theatre-owner Irving Maidman on Friday offered the Becks the rent-free use of his Masque Theatre on West 42nd Street, and negotiations are underway for an independently produced immediate revival of “The Brig” there. A national committee to raise money for the Living Theatre has been formed under the direction of Mrs. Charles Evans in Philadelphia, and Julian Beck feels it is possible that the 14th Street premises may yet be regained. And the London production is a very definite possibility.
Said Julian on Tuesday, “Whatever happens, Judith and I now have the impetus for future work. For the past year or more it took loathesome effort to get on each new production, but now we have great zest.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]