Moon Magic

By John TytellNovember 25, 2015

Full Moon Stages by Judith Malina

who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed

— Lines alluding to The Living Theatre from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”


IN 1945, 19-year-old Judith Malina auditioned for the famed German director Erwin Piscator, Brecht’s collaborator on The Threepenny Opera. She performed a dance accompanying her own poem “Lunar Bowels.” Shouting, spinning like a gyrating rubber doll, she tried to express being trapped inside the moon while yearning to return to earth:

voluminous universe
against my cheek and thigh
and pain of all space
against my breast surge
and then-------
my foot upon the moon
my foot upon the slippery moon
moon globular and light
`            dance
a hundred feet!

This is a fragment of a poem that took five minutes to perform and it reveals the jagged, rough ambitions of youth. Her movements on the stage convinced Piscator to allow Malina into his acting program at the New School. She had chosen the moon as her subject, a “moon-child” of sorts then, identifying with its luminescently longing desire and magical potency.

Full Moon Stages, a collection of Malina’s personal notes, picks up almost two decades later in 1964. A literary curiosity, the kind of book only a small, adventurous press would have the courage to publish, it is a minimalist, touchingly intimate record of a phenomenally active life, as Malina would make a brief hand entry for whatever occurred on every full moon for the next 50 years.

With her husband, Julian Beck, on a shoestring budget back in 1947, Malina had created a theatrical adventure devoted to poetry, dramatic experiment, and the most clearly political perspective since Clifford Odets in New York City. Although Beck died in 1985 Malina kept The Living Theatre alive in a subterranean space on the Lower East Side until her recent death, and its embers still glow.

They began in the oldest theater in the city, the Cherry Lane in Greenwich Village on Commerce Street — the street shaped like a horseshoe. Ironically, perhaps, it was the commercial side of theatrical longevity that eluded them. They staged plays by Gertrude Stein, the San Francisco anarchist and classicist Kenneth Rexroth, the poet John Ashbery, and the painter Pablo Picasso. With extremely limited financial resources, actors were barely paid. Some of them began staying overnight in the theater, causing problems with a landlord who wanted to gentrify the area. When the fire department declared that Beck’s sets — often drawn on brown paper — were flammable, they were ejected. It was the start of a pattern.

Malina was so passionate about her theatrical aspirations that they began performing what they called Chamber Theater for invited guests — some of them the nascent group of Abstract Expressionist painters whom Beck knew — who sat on pillows on the floor of their living room on the upper West Side. They found a loft in their neighborhood, four flights up in a wooden building on Broadway and 100th Street, and staged plays by Ibsen, Strindberg, and Pirandello that suggested a model for spontaneity and ways to liberate theater for the future.

Malina and Beck charged a modest admission, but would let you in for free if you could not pay. When they put on a play about Socrates by the anarchist Paul Goodman in which one of the philosopher’s students admitted on stage that “our master is fucking me,” the space was vacated by the Department of Buildings as unsafe for audiences and unlicensed for theater. It does sound hard to believe that a single Anglo-Saxon expletive for copulation whispered on a stage could close a theater, but Beck understood that they were living in what he characterized as an ice age of repression in the 1950s. Goodman, a poet and novelist as well as a playwright, had been fired by three academic institutions for staging plays alluding to homosexuality. He also practiced a kind of psychoanalysis called gestalt therapy without a license, and encouraged Malina and Beck down an anarchist/pacifist path in which what one wrote or said should risk dangerous consequences.

Once again Malina and Beck were without a theatrical space, but they had formed the core of an idealistic community of actors and artists who wanted their work to affect change. Their unprecedented commitment was reflected in the gritty labor of renovating the space they found on 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. It was the start of off-off-Broadway as the actors themselves and other volunteers demolished the former men's department store’s interiors, dragged out the debris, constructed a stage, and then carried in the seats, the bricks and plaster needed to rebuild.

At the repertory they formed on 14th Street, they decided to do plays by unknown Americans, and in 1959 they staged The Connection, about a group of anguished addicts in an interminable wait for the man who would bring them heroin. The subject, despite Nelson Algren’s Man With A Golden Arm and William Burroughs’s Junky, was taboo as stage entertainment. What proved most exciting to returning audiences was Beck's notion of allowing four jazz musicians to make music on one side of the stage and interact as the play continued. The musicians were African-Americans, former addicts who could not get cabaret licenses required for public performance in New York City because the track marks on their arms made them fail the requisite physical exam.

What finally closed the 14th Street facility, one that was shared at the time by Merce Cunningham, his dancers, and John Cage, was a play called The Brig about abuses in the U.S. Marine penal system. Ken Brown, a Yale graduate, had served in the Marine Core. Stationed in Okinawa, he received a 30-day sentence in the Marine brig for overstaying a recreational pass.

The action of Brown’s play was simple, repetitive, and hellish. It showed the progress of a day from sunrise to bedtime, arranging the action in a series of dehumanizing episodes where the excruciatingly boring routine of the prisoners was interrupted by the torture of the guards. Influenced by Antonin Artaud's The Theater and Its Double, the play was directed by Malina using intense lighting effects and deliberately raising the volume of voices to rouse an audience from the comfortable complacency of being spectators. The effect was shocking. When the play was reviewed in the winter of 1963 by Howard Taubman, the New York Times drama critic, he was so appalled by what it portrayed that he demanded a federal investigation.

Instead, the theater was padlocked by agents of the I.R.S. on charges of tax avoidance. In fact, The Living Theatre was a legally chartered non-profit, although the charge was based on failure to pay the I.R.S. in full the withholding taxes on the miniscule actors’ salaries. The company insisted on performing and found a way into the theater. The I.R.S. cut off the power but light was provided by television cameras. In the end, with demonstrators in the street, the actors, Malina, and Beck, were dragged to paddy wagons.

There was a courthouse trial and absurd histrionics — Malina in a black Portia robe. Malina was sentenced to a month in prison and Beck two months. It was the beginning of a theatrical diaspora as the members of the company, spouses, and children, fled to Europe where in Belgium an aristocratic leftist gave them a place to live and work. They came to Europe with the success de scandale of having been censored by a society that supposedly valued free expression, and performed The Brig on German television for millions of viewers. Malina, Beck, and the company members collaborated on creating Mysteries, Frankenstein, and Paradise Now, highly experimental and ritualized performances sometimes closer to dance than traditional drama, which they would stage on sets they often had to build themselves all over Europe for the next five years.

Full Moon Stages starts in 1964, the beginning of the exile. This collection is unlike her fuller, more detailed published diaries, a lifetime effort begun after Malina met Anaïs Nin. Malina’s first diary collection, The Enormous Despair, was published by Random House in 1972, and a huge segment covering 1947 to 1957 was published by Grove Press in 1984. Malina’s diaries are never as salaciously provocative as Nin’s, but more devoted to exploring the emotional consequences of personal love and political struggle. The entries in Full Moon Stages are imagined differently as brief notations, haiku blinks in an eventful life.

One of the first entries for 1964 notes that a member of the troupe “went mad in London” — a sign, perhaps of the dangerous leap the company had made with Malina and Beck, but also of the precarious risk involved — of family coherence, career, and national identity. A subsequent entry for the same year is worth quoting:

At the Full Moon in December
I was in jail in Passaic, New Jersey
for contempt of court.

Understated, as tersely clipped as Catullus, such messages — like those enigmatic mysteries sometimes found in bottles at the edge of a sea — come with a submerged impact. What she cannot reveal here due to the formal limitations she accepts is that she was obligated to return to the United States to serve her sentence, where, in her cell, she was ordered her to sew damaged American flags. If she had time, she was able to work on her translation of Antigone.

Each of the more than 500 entries begins “At the Full Moon in,” naming the month in question. This solemn invocation, with its improper capitalization suggesting the ritual and mythic dimension of the event, is as fundamental in its use as in the Old Testament or Greek lyric. We soon realize that the simple repetition is the rhythmic basis for a poem of life more than an anecdotal memoir. The music of the repetition, its insistent organizing principle, functions like the serial arrangement in Cage, Steve Reich, or Phillip Glass, and it provides a haunting resonance. The impact on a reader over 200 pages is cumulative. Even though Malina’s lens may be tightly focused, the scope of her story stretches over a half-century.

Many of the entries from 1965 through 1972 commemorate the whirlwind of European travel to perform Mysteries, Frankenstein, Paradise Now, Jean Genet’s The Maids, and Antigone in Berlin, Frankfort, Milan, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, on an American tour in 1968, but also on the edge of the Sahara in Morocco and in a favela in Ouro Preto, Brazil. Sometimes life intrudes and there are notes of Seders, the birth of Malina’s daughter Isha, the company battling the flu in France, and acting in a Pasolini film in Italy, or Malina dancing naked under the moon at an outdoor performance.

Some entries, like the one for July 1971, seem particularly disturbing:

At the Full Moon in July we were in prison
In Belo Horizonte DOPS, and Julian’s mother
Came to take Isha out of Brazil.

The generals who ran Brazil had become suspicious of the company’s free performances in the slums, and had manufactured a pretext for arrest of the entire company, a sham trial, and some selectively applied but brutal torture.

The company returned to the United States, still on the road, performing new work like The Seven Meditations, The Tower, and Six Public Acts, demonstrating against wars and nuclear testing. In one entry, in June of 1971, Malina flatly announces having “made love on the roof with Abbie Hoffman.” Do we take such an admission as a sign of revolutionary communion or of the confusing, turbulent despair felt by many that despite all the sturm und drang of the 1960s, little real change would occur? Beck and Malina had two children and an open marriage. In her diaries, she weaves accounts of love affairs with the writer James Agee, the composer Alan Hovhaness, and others. But this rooftop revelation is somehow quite jarring. Unlike the more substantial understanding provided in diary entries, this jolts like a flasher’s naked display.

In 1976 the company bounces back to Europe, walking in woods in Bavaria on Walpurgisnacht, driving to Madrid in their Volkswagen buses for street theater while surrounded by police, “carrying our bags of Matzohs” for a Seder whose service had been written by Malina. With local support, they spent most of the next seven years in Italy.

The itinerant travel continued until a staggering entry in 1984:

At the Full Moon in June Julian was in the
Medical Arts Hospital, gravely ill, where
Allen Ginsberg visits him, is gloomy and takes
pictures, while Hanon calls everywhere to find a
hopeful therapy.

Beck would recover sufficiently to perform as a machine-gunning gangster in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club and then in a Beckett play, That Time, but would die of cancer in 1985.

Malina had a few startling cameo appearances on television: naked again in ER, and clothed in The Sopranos. She got roles in several films, in Awakenings, then as Anjelica Huston’s mother in The Addams Family, and yet another mother in Household Saints. In 1988 she married Hanon Reznikov, a company member and a gifted playwright who was able to help organize the continuing theatrical commitment in Alphabet City on Third Street near Avenue C, and then finally in a dank, cavernous underground space on the Lower East Side, on Clinton Street near the Williamsburg Bridge.

That’s where I saw her last when she sponsored a memorial for a mutual pal, the poet Ira Cohen. Judith was as bravely defiant as ever, a five-foot dynamo still anxious about funding, concerned with issues of vitality and relevance, with the plays she was planning to direct, with the importance of keeping alive a theatrical company that could explore dissenting cultural and political perspectives — one that could hope to do more than merely entertain.

The Clinton Street basement felt as claustrophobic as the subway but it was the exact polar opposite of Broadway business where a tourist ticket could cost several hundred dollars. Broadway was built by investors; The Living Theatre was always dependent on donations.

Malina kept her Clinton Street space going until early in 2013. She died five days after the Full Moon last April of emphysema.


John Tytell has taught in the English Department of Queens College (C.U.N.Y.) since 1963.

LARB Contributor

John Tytell is best known for Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano and Naked Angels, an early history of the Beats. He had two new books appear in 2014: Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem and The Beat Interviews.


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