Julian Beck | Biography
Julian Beck was born in New York City on May 31st, 1925. His talent as an actor, writer, set designer and theatre director was already evident in the nineteen-thirties while he was a pupil at the Horace Man High School, with classmates such as future beat generation writer Jack Kerouac and Kenneth Kock who would later be awarded the Pulizter Prize for literature.
In 1943, he abandoned his studies at Yale University, saying that he could “no longer serve what he did not believe in”, meaning the way of thinking imposed by the academic world, so he returned to New York City, intending to dedicate himself to painting and writing. That was the year he met his life partner, Judith Malina. They founded the Living Theatre together in 1947, and for the next forty years staged experimental plays which left a profound and lasting mark on twentieth-century Western culture.
As a painter, Julian belonged to the New York school of abstract expressionism, exhibiting at Peggy Guggenheim's “Art of This Century” gallery, among others alongside Jackson Pollock and other prominent figures involved in the movement from 1945-1958. He went on to develop his artistic talent principally in the field of set design, for which he gained international recognition.
The three premises occupied by the Living Theatre in New York from 1951 to 1963 were home to twenty-nine shows, some of which were directed by Julian, who designed all the sets, lighting and costumes, and he appeared on stage in most of them. With the enthusiastic support of prominent figures from the world of entertainment, such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jean Cocteau and Paul Goodman, the Living Theatre was a place of extreme freedom, which made it perfect for artists, poets, writers and activists to meet and share their work.
From 1959 onwards, the Living Theatre, in its third home on New York's 14th Street, stood out as the meeting place for the avant-garde, including beat generation poets, action painters, underground film makers and contemporary composers as well as cool jazz musicians.
A pacifist anarchist, Julian Beck took part in civil disobedience protests leading to numerous arrests. From 1960 to 1963, he promoted the General Strike for Peace with Judith Malina. This event, repeated on two separate occasions, resulted in massive public demonstrations not only in New York and San Francisco, but also around Europe, such as the demonstration organised by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bertrand Russell.
The Strikes for Peace, organised from the premises of the Living Theatre, actively involved the majority of its members in the preparation of events that culminated in the 1963 opening of The Brig, a performance by former marine, Kenneth H. Brown. Denouncing the mistreatment of US Marines by other US Marines in military reformatories, the play led to an investigation by Congress and aroused much controversy, reaching the pages of the “New York Times” and “Life Magazine”.
Around this time, the Internal Revenue Service closed the Living Theatre down on the pretext of tax arrears, despite the fact that the Living Theatre was a not-for-profit company and therefore exempt from taxes. Julian and Judith ended up in court, ready to defend themselves in person, a gesture in keeping with the movement's position on civil rights at the time; they were sentenced to 60 and 30 days' in prison respectively, to be served at the New York Federal prison. This provided the occasion for the entire company to choose the path of voluntary exile.
After two European tours in 1961 and 1962, the company was already known internationally as an expressive example of the new American theatre, the off-Broadway movement. It had won a significant number of awards and had attracted much praise. When he returned to Europe in 1964, he was warmly welcomed by the public in several countries, where his counter-culture and the example he set were much appreciated. Julian and Judith were already well known for their bold statements on both art and politics, underlined by the more daring aspects of their productions, which became subjects of debate, but were also highly acclaimed.
Julian and Judith had shared a dream since the nineteen-fifties, namely a company that would endeavour to do everything necessary to build up a repertoire of performances, doing away, in true anarchic spirit, with both producer and director. This was a dream that would only come true during their European exile. It was during their travels from country to country between 1964 and 1968 that the company developed its tribal identity. They became nomads: a group of artists open to the public, seeking to elicit a spark of political awareness.
The first, and varied, works created by its members, Mysteries and Smaller Pieces (1964), Frankenstein (1965) and Paradise Now (1968), conferred upon the Living Theatre an important role as innovators in contemporary western theatre.
Beck's poetry played an important part in the formation of these collective creations. His first book of poems - Songs of the Revolution - came out in New York in 1963. New editions of this series of poems appeared with the same title, and Julian would keep on writing them for the rest of his life in English, French, German and Dutch. He would continue to do so throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. With Judith Malina, he wrote Il lavoro del Living Theatre, and together with her and Aldo Restagno We, The Living Theatre, while with Jean-Jacques Lebel he authored Entretiens avec le Living Theatre. Julian appeared in front of the camera in a number of films in the sixties, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Edipo Re and Bernardo Bertolucci's Agonia.
After a year of experimental street theatre in Brazil in 1970-1971, leading to his arrest and the expulsion of the Living Theatre by the military regime, Julian returned to the US and published The Life of the Theatre, recently republished by Limelight Editions. It has also been published in Italian, Spanish, French, and Greek editions.
Working in close contact with workers, students, artists and activists, the Living Theatre continued its activities in the United States until 1975 when it returned to Europe at the invitation of the Venice Biennale. Performing in the street and in unconventional environments, and working with theatre festivals and alternative cultural circles, the Living Theatre once more became an itinerant group, touring the whole of Western and Eastern Europe until 1983.
Its activities, all bearing the hallmark of political commitment, resulted in the production of more than 30 shows in different styles and of varying length. Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism (1972), Strike Support Oratorium (1973), The Money Tower (1975) and Six Public Acts to Transform Violence into Concord (1975) were milestones in this sense. Julian Beck wrote two plays, Prometheus at the Winter Palace (1978) and The Archaeology of Sleep (1983), all of which were staged in New York in 1984.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1983, he spent the last two and a half years before his death on September 14th, 1985, acting in films like Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984) and Brian Gibson's Poltergeist II - The Other Side (1985). In 1985, in addition to appearing in television series such as Miami Vice and All My Children, and in Nam June Paike's art videos, Julian trod the boards for the last time in Beckett's monodrama, That Time at La Mama in New York and in Frankfurt, Germany. (He was also meant to appear at the Venice Biennale, that September).
His book of poems, Daily Light, Daily Speech, Daily Life, came out in a bilingual edition in Italy that year. Julian left a manuscript on the metaphysics of the theatre, titled Theandric, for which he had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (the book was published in London by Harwood Academic Publishers in 1929), as well as The Last Songs of the Revolution, and a large number of writings that go to form what he called his Workbooks. Many of his paintings were shown at the Venice Biennale in an exhibition curated by Arturo Schwartz in 1986. A retrospective of his paintings was also held by Dore Ashton at the Cooper Union in 1986, followed by an exhibition of his pastel drawings at the Bleeker Street Gallery, both in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1993.
After receiving numerous awards for his accomplishments in the theatre, including the Grand Prix of the Theatre of Nations, the New York Newspaper Guild's Page One Award, the Brandois University Creative Arts Citation and half a dozen Obies, Julian Beck left the cultural scene as an artist of extraordinary achievement and exemplary integrity, and the work he produced in the course of his lifetime has inspired generations of viewers and readers around the world.
By Ilion Troy and Hanon Reznikov