By Robert Heide
In the summer of 1957 the founders of the Living Theatre Julian Beck and his wife Judith Malina went to jail with members of the Catholic Worker including Dorothy Day. They were protesting civil defense drills in New York City that they believed were held as a preparation for (nuclear) war that the Catholic Worker and the Living Theatre were both opposed to. The women served their sentences at the House of Detention for Women on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich Village. Other ‘celebrity’ inmates, there at different times, were the redheaded cocktail lounge hostess/murderess Alice Crimmins (she killed her two children and buried them nearby her apartment on Long Island) and the ‘wanted’ outlaw and activist Angela Davis—a graduate of the Little Red Schoolhouse on Bleecker Street. Also the famed actress Mae West served a short time in the mid 1920s for ‘indecency’ related to her play Sex although it was actually in a previous prison on the same spot. That building was torn down and replaced in 1928 by an Art Deco style skyscraper prison, itself demolished in 1973. Today the space is occupied by the beautiful Jefferson Market Garden.
While Judith was sent to the Village, Julian went to Chinatown to the Tombs. Later he was transferred to Harts Island where he served his sentence of 30 days. In 2020 Beck’s journal of his time there, entitled How Happy We Were—A Prison Journal was published by Michael Smith—former theater critic for The Village Voice and a close friend and supporter of the Becks and now the editor and publisher of Fast Books Press. It has a Forward by Living Theatre actor and archivist Tom Walker and an Afterword by Garrick Beck, Julian and Judith’s son who was eight years old at the time of their arrest. He was in summer camp and they were, of course, unable to see him on ‘parent visitor day’ which he says made him wonder at the time what good might have come from their protest. He writes that he now realizes that their yearly acts of civil disobedience helped form much of the next generation of anti-Vietnam protests and that the shelter drill protests of the 1950s morphed into the women’s, gay, and civil rights groups of the 60s and 70s.
The brilliant social revolutionary and artistic leader Julian Beck wrote in his journal, a minutely observed personal account never before published, about his humbling experience working as an inmate in New York City’s cemetery for unwanted or unidentified or simply unclaimed bodies on an isolated island off the eastern end of the Bronx in Long Island Sound which he said helped him to examine his role as an artist, activist, and humanist and set him in his purpose to commit his life and art to nonviolent anarchist revolution. In 2021 Michael Smith published two plays by Julian Beck—Prometheus and Archaeology of Sleep. Prometheus, which has an introduction by Tom Walker, premiered in Italy in 1978. Archaeology of Sleep has a forward by Walker who performed in both plays which had successful tours in Europe. In 1983 Archaeology of Sleep premiered in New York at the Joyce Theater.
The last time I saw Julian Beck was in 1985. It was in the Village at the historic Bigelow Drugstore on Sixth Avenue. At that time Bigelow’s had a substantial lunch counter and there was always in view a large fresh roasted turkey on a big platter. I was sitting on a stool savoring a vanilla ice-cream soda when Julian rushed in, seemingly in some kind of panic, and sat down two seats from me. He stared at me for a time, blankly, and I said “Hello.” Surprisingly he said nothing even though I had known him for years when I was a part of the Living Theatre. When the waiter appeared and asked him what he would like to order he repeated haltingly, “what would I like?”, then blurted out, “I think I’d like a lettuce and tomato sandwich [pronouncing it as ‘tomahto’] on rye bread.” When his order was served he looked at it, threw some cash on the counter, and dashed out leaving the sandwich untouched. The waiter asked me, “What’s wrong with him?” I later learned that Julian was suffering from a form of free-floating dementia. He died that same year, of cancer, at the age of 60.
The Living Theatre’s opening production at their first permanent home on 14th Street was a play by William Carlos Williams called Many Loves,which I attended. At the time I had a personal involvement with the handsome Jimmy Spicer who ran the theater’s box-office and he also functioned as a general manager. He was a lot of fun until he got into heroin and later became addicted to the drug that finally did him in. I remember mostly many great times at the Living Theatre with people like the collagist Ray Johnson and the avant-garde composer John Cage and his sidekick steady pal David Tudor. They collaborated on a super collection of 90 wild short absurdist stories that were later recorded with chance compositions chosen by Tudor. Called Indeterminacy, each of the stories were read by Cage in one minute. The original boxed set of 33 rpm records has since been re-mastered and is now available on a two-disc CD set. Another of my favorite Cage performances, this one in the lobby of the Living Theatre with the audience seated inside, had John dragging a wired-up live mike loudly scraping along the tiled floor. Some ran out of the theater that night.
I first met the Living Theatre actor Warren Finnerty through Linda Eskenas who starred in my play Moon at the Caffe Cino. Warren liked to drink at an unending series of Village watering holes. In July, 1959 Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a play that utilized live jazz music opened at the Living Theatre. Warren, as Leach, played a drug addict who in a terrifying scene shoots up with such accuracy that it was as if it was really happening. For his shattering performance in a play where every character is turned on by drugs—yes, listlessly waiting to make a drug connection—Warren won a Best Actor ‘Obie’ Award. Later, in 1963 he appeared in another spectacular Living Theatre production, Kenneth Brown’s The Brig. Warren appeared in a number of movies including the filmed version of The Connection, directed by Shirley Clark, Panic in Needle Park, the film debut of Al Pacino, Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman and the 1969 motorcycle movie Easy Rider with Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. Many say, including this writer, we lost a great actor when Warren Finnerty died of a sudden heart attack in 1974 at age 49.
Back in 1959 The Connection was originally panned by the seven critics, but when world-famed theater critics Kenneth Tynan and Robert Brustein both raved about its unique qualities, it became a sensation. I remember just after their reviews there was a night at the theatre where everyone who was in on things theatrical attended including Lee Strasberg, Kim Stanley and a lady I studied with for two years—Miss Stella Adler. That night I was chatting with the glamorous and stunning Stella when the playwright Edward Albee, who was a good friend of mine came up to us. After introducing them, Miss Adler reached out, touching him on both sides of his head with her hands, then stepped back, and exclaimed, “Isn’t he beautiful?” She asked Edward, “Tell me dahling, do you like the theater?” Edward, who could sometimes be very shy, just grinned, blushed, and walked away. The Living Theatre toured The Connection and The Brig, two of its most influential productions all over Europe. In 2006 Peculiar Works Project, a site-specific Obie Award winning theater company staged a re-enactment of Judith Malina’s incarceration on the site of the notorious Women’s House of Detention and also presented segments from The Brig and other off Broadway hits all over the Village, including my play The Bed, which had the two actors playing their parts in a large wooden bed on wheels that was being pulled by ropes up 7th Avenue.
Fast Books Press (fastbookspress.com) published Julian Beck’s Prometheus/The Archaeology of Sleep—two plays and How Happy We Were—a prison journal. Fast Books also published Robert Heide—25 Plays. Heide’s collection includes new essays and over 50 photos. The three books can be ordered from the publisher and are also all available on Amazon.