This Day in Jewish History

1926: A Radical Theater Founder Is Born

Judith Malina, the unconventional German-born actress who co-founded the alternative Living Theater, turns 87 today.

Love and Politics

June 4, 1926, is the birthday of Judith Malina, actress, non-violent political radical and co-founder of the Living Theater, America’s oldest alternative-theater company.

Malina was born in Kiel, Germany, to Max Malina, a Conservative rabbi, and Rosel Zamojre, a Polish-born actress who gave up her career when she married Max. When Judith was 3, the family moved to New York, where Rabbi Malina had been sent to raise funds for needy rabbis living in Jerusalem. Max Malina understood early on the threat Germany’s Jews faced, and he spent much of his time during the period leading up to World War II trying to convince politicians of the need to have the United States admit more Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. At the age of 7, Judith appeared at an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, and she later recalled how, as a young child, she would stuff leaflets entitled “Do You Know What Has Happened to Your Jewish Neighbors?” into packets being sent into Germany. She also was present when her father was visited by Albert Einstein, with whom he worked on a proposal to ransom German Jews for $5,000 a head, a plan opposed by the Roosevelt administration.

Rabbi Malina died at age 42, in 1940, of leukemia. Rosel took a job in a factory, before becoming ill herself, and Judith dropped out of high school to work, before a grant from a fund for the families of deceased rabbis made it possible for her to finish her studies. She had inherited a love of the theater from her mother, and knew from a young age that she wanted to be involved in the arts, specifically in theater.

In 1943, Judith met Julian Beck, a painter and drop-out from Yale University. Two years later, she began attending the New School for Social Research, where she studied theater with the director Erwin Piscator at his Drama Workshop. Piscator viewed what he called “epic theater” as an agent of social and political change. Comparing Piscator’s style to that of another leading acting teacher, Malina told writer Lehman Wechselbaum in 2011, “Stella Adler would say, ‘Quieter, more refined,’ Piscator would say, ‘Louder, stronger.’”

Malina and Beck were married in 1948, the same year they founded the Living Theater, and they were together until Beck’s death, in 1985. Like their work, though, their marriage was unconventional: Beck was a bisexual, and both of them had relationships with other people, including at one time the same man. The couple also had two children, Isha, a girl (the word means “woman” in Hebrew), and a son, Garrick.

The Living Theater made its home in New York’s Cherry Lane Theater, and over the years presented plays by such American writers as Gertrude Stein, Paul Goodman and John Ashbery, and European playwrights like Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht and Jean Cocteau. The company often shocked -- with its nudity, with its engagement of the audiences, and its anarchistic messages – and it sometimes simultaneously infuriated and elicited the admiration of critics. Playwright Charles Mee once wrote of it: “The Living Theater is the brat-child we love to see hit by a car – until we realize that, for all its damnable qualities, it had life; for all its silliness and irresponsibility and selfishness and egotism, it was so often right.”

Each of the Theater’s successive homes was closed down by authorities – the fire department, the Internal Revenue Service, the city buildings department – and in 1965, it had to shut down after charges, later dropped, of tax evasion were leveled at it. Shortly after that, Malina and Beck left with their company for Europe, where they lived and toured over the next five years. After returning, the couple split the company into three parts, which worked in London, studied traditional theater in India, and toured Brazil. The company’s founders were in the latter group, and found themselves imprisoned there for two months after offending Brazil’s military government. (“I’ve been in jail in 12 countries,” Malina told interviewer Wechselbaum.)

After Beck’s death, another member of the company, Hanon Reznikov, became its co-leader; he also married Malina in 1988. Reznikov died in 2008, at the age of 57. 

Earlier this year, the Living Theater had to give up its physical home in New York’s Lower East Side, having fallen four months behind in rent. At the same time, Malina, who turns 87 today, moved from the city to the Lillian Booth Actors Home, in New Jersey. But she is still active, and in February told a reporter from the Forward that she intended to commute into New York to continue working with her theater.

“I’m in the theater because I’m a revolutionary,” she told Jon Kalish. “I want to make the beautiful anarchist non-violent revolution and I think this is where, if anywhere, it’s going to happen. We’ll keep going. If we have no place, we’ll do street theater. We can always work on the street and pass the hat.”