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Living Theatre

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Sweeney Agonistes, Ubu the King, Faustina, Orpheus, Many Loves, The Connection

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Lights of Bohemia to Love in Livery

American theatre company. Founded in New York City in 1947 by Judith Malina and her husband Julian Beck, it was originally committed to poetic drama and modernist plays that had little chance of commercial success, such as Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, Alfred Jarry's Ubu the King, Paul Goodman's Faustina, Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, and William Carlos William's Many Loves. The most pioneering company of avant-garde theatres, and the one that survived longest, it elected the most extreme forms of experimentalism in its productions, was structured as an egalitarian organization, and was proto-anarchist in its political colouring. From its earliest makeshift locations, it was eventually established at a former department store on Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street in New York, and its theatre named as The Fourteenth Street theatre, also called the Living Theatre Playhouse. The 1959 production of Jack Gelber's The Connection, and the 1963 production of Kenneth Brown's The Brig, brought it widespread critical acclaim and financial success. The Fourteenth Street theatre was eventually closed in 1963 by the Inland Revenue Service because of back taxes owed by the Becks. In 1964 the company moved to Europe and, with brief return visits to the USA, went into exile in Europe and Latin America for the next twenty years. Throughout this time it was increasingly committed to subversive social politics, matching its unorthodox productions, which included at one time a willingness only to give street performances, so as to dissociate itself from the inherent cultural elitism of the conventional theatre. In Europe its success was based on a sequence of other brilliant productions, such as Mysteries (1964), Frankenstein (1965), Antigone (1967), and, above all, Paradise Now (1968). Since the early 1970s the political extremism of the company has been modified by its interest in theatre–audience relations, and the consequent ideal of a communal challenge to the imperialist politics of the American mainstream. In the mid-1980s Julian Beck left the company to work in motion pictures, television, and off-off-Broadway theatre, and Judith Malina composed a video documentary on the Living Theatre, Signals Through the Flames.

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