An Interview with Judith Malina with Hanon Reznikov
Judith Malina: So, what should we talk about?
Will Swofford: Well I'm happy that Paradise Now, and other early works featured on the Living Theater DVD, are going to be released very soon. In that sense it will bring out a new audience of much younger people into connection with the work of the Living Theatre.
WS: With that in mind, could you talk about the mission and the goal of the work.
JM: I want to just say something first about the Beautiful Non-Violent Anarchist Revolution. That essentially our effort is to make art useful to people, especially of course to the people who are suffering - and there's almost no one who isn't suffering! The ultimate goal that we like to talk about is the Beautiful Non-Violent Anarchist Revolution.
Now this has many sources and many aspects. We hope all of them are art, and we hope all of them are politics. But it's the merging of the concept of social change (in the sense of really overturning the horrible abuses under which everybody lives) with the money system, the national system, the whole hierarchical structure of education, society, the economy, all of it ... and rethink whether there isn't really a better way to do things. Our plays are all involved in searching for that direction. And Paradise Now, as it were, was the epitome of that research.
Hanon Reznikov: When Julian died in 85, I was called upon to redefine the mission of the Theatre as we decided to continue and what we, what I, wrote down then said:To call into question
who we are to each other
in the social environment of the theater,
to undo the knots that lead to misery,
to spread ourselves across the public's table
like platters at a banquet,
to set ourselves in motion
like a vortex that pulls the spectator into action,
to fire the body's secret engines,
to pass through the prism
and come out a rainbow,
to insist that what happens in the jails matters,
to cry "Not in my name!"
at the hour of execution,
to move from the theater to the street
and from the street to the theater.
This is what The Living Theatre does today.
It is what it has always done.
I saw Paradise Now when I was 18 in 1968 and I was very turned on by it, I found it very sexy. I discovered extraordinary means of communication that were non-verbal and non-linear, evidently happening between the actors in the performance. This indicated to me very much the sense of there being other possibilities than the limited, rational, logistic possibilities we were being told were the only way to go. So my trip with the Theatre really began with my contact with them in that year, in '68, when they were doing Paradise Now. I didn't actually start working with them until a few years later. But my sense of the event of Paradise Now was one of extraordinary freedom, and it seemed like the world was just beginning to figure out how free it could be.
WS:So the play was conceived when the company was in Europe, and there were two productions just before, Mysteries ... ?
HR: Mysteries was '64, then came Frankenstein is '66, and Antigone in '67
JM: And Paradise in '68.
WS: I've seen a lot of really interesting pictures from the beginning stages of the play when it was being created, pictures taken in Italy...
HR: It would be interesting to point out the historical context of the creation in '68 in France...
JM: Well there was certainly a revolutionary spirit - that we felt that it was really possible to change the world, and to change it not at some future date as we still hope to do today, but immediately. In fact we wanted to do it as we left the theater, it was that immediate. And when Julian Beck cried out "The theater is in the street!", we went out to make the revolution. And my teacher Piscator used to talk about the only truly effective piece of theater in history as taking place in Brussels at a performance of a revolutionary play, at the end of which the audience joined the actors in a song about liberation. Then they all stormed out of the theater, and the next morning they had overthrown the government and liberated themselves - not yet completely, we know that, but Piscator felt that this was what the theater should be. We should come out and change the world.
HR: And when Paradise Now was created, the workers had just done this in France.
JM: Yes, they had just taken over the factories, the students had taken over the schools, and we thought everything was possible. Now we have to say we weren't prepared to make it go as far as we would like it to go, and as far as we who are still hopeful hope it will go. And I hope that the art and the theater and the music and the dance and the philosophy and the education will take that next step, and really give us a world in which the unnecessary aspects of exploitation and forced labor and starvation and poverty and war and prisons and borders and police really become unnecessary.
Who needs that? We can work it out without that. That was the premise of Paradise. And at that time there was a spirit that made it very easy for the audience, especially furious were the young people who were into this movement, got into this idea, made it easy for them to join in, to express their ideas, to rush on the stage, to rush out into the street, to take all the seats out of the theater and pile them up on the stage, to burn money, sometimes even to make real love in the theater. There was a spirit of possibility. And maybe that's coming up now in the next wave of activism. I feel that way. I feel that the big demonstrations are moving in that direction of preparing us for the next step in liberation. And Paradise was such an effort, such a step. Many people said that they never really were the same afterwards. Not that we've made the revolution, because we haven't made it yet. Because there's war, worse wars and worse starvation, and still we struggle, and still that's what poetry is about.
WS: So at a certain point the Living Theater moves back from Europe and moves to America and starts to schedule a tour of the play?
HR: They came from Europe to perform Paradise Now in America as a four play tour with together with Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, Frankenstein, and Antigone. That was conceived as a major tour that lasted nearly a year from 68 to 69. But Julian was quite determined to go back to Europe. He didn't want to settle in the United States, he was terrible prejudiced against the United States.
WS: I've felt that one of the strong points of the film is that there is a lot of footage from these American performances of the play and you can see the young people, and the energy of what was happening in the universities - that you were able to work with that everywhere you went.
HR: You're right. That's where I made the discovery of the Living. It was extraordinary, the chemistry was really magical at that moment.
JM: I think what's important right now, maybe I'm jumping ahead, but what is important right now is to understand that we're again on the brink of a very very active generation. A generation that's overcome the dissappointment of the '68ers, in not having fulfilled all their visions of the revolution. Though I think many things changed, and changed permanently. I think the relationship between students and teachers, the relationship between bosses and workers, the relationship inside the family, the relationship between men and women, all these relationships are very different. I think that's one of the great results of that period. Now we're standing on the brink of that sort of thing again.
HR: Well I believe that, I agree entirely. I think that it has a lot to do with the unifying effect of the transversal crises of climate change, of global warming, of the depletion of natural resources like petroleum, and particularly water. I think that the need of the people of the planet to deal with those enormously profound crises will create and is creating the conditions for another level of co-operative behavior. That's the hope. I think the development of internet technology has facilitated that possibility, has made it much more possible for us to coordinate on a global level than was ever the case before. It is contributing to the development of a global consciousness, with all our desire to preserve diversity, that is an important part of our heritage that we hope not to lose.
There is an emerging global consciousness that artists in Shanghai are no different than artists in Williamsburg in their awareness of the real problems in the world. They have to do with there not being enough water, with there being too many weapons, and with our having not yet found a way to deal with our conflicts other than this ridiculously archaic notion of a "military option".
WS: I think there's 300 million Americans now, and there's also 200 million guns, are the numbers I've heard.
HR: There are 3 billion cell phones in the world. That's half the number of people.
JM: I certainly hope that anybody that thinks about Paradise Now, or sees the film of it, or remembers what that was, can relate it to what's happening now. What is happening now is like what was happening in 1961 and 1962. When some of us were also already calling for a general strike for peace, and there were student movements, and there were artistic movements. But we hadn't yet cohered into a movement, and that is what I think is happening now. And that is what I would like to see Paradise Now inspire. A sense that now is the only moment that anybody has.
HR: You know I have to say, though the film I find beautifully done, it doesn't lend itself to that easy an understanding of the structure of the play, and maybe you could say something about the structure.
JM: We were of course very structured. We had a very rigid plan, and I think the best guide to that is the map and the two figures. The Hindu figure and the Kabalistic Jewish figure - the stages of revolution as they are epitomized in the human figures, beginning with the feet on the Earth, beginning with the groundwork and rising through the various aspects of art, philosophy, science, poetry, until at the end there's the expansion into what-we-know-not-yet, a kind of ecstatic foreverness up there beyond our being.
But that we have to start with our feet on the Earth, we have to understand there is a right side and a left side to everything, that we are trying to balance spirit and soul, individual need and social need, and a thousand other dichotomies that split us apart. We have to unify that in some way, each of us in ourselves and all of us together, and that somehow this can lead to a paradisal kind of life. Of course there's still much to do, for it to be paradise we might have to, say, conquer death.
That's very far in the future . . . maybe not. That's only a futuristic, sort of, what we call a science fiction vision. But to overcome the obstacles that people go through now. First of all to feed all the people and stop all the killing. In some way that should be so basic, and that should become idiomatic to what a human being is. We are all for each other. We don't hurt each other. We help each other. We haven't gotten past the obstacles to that realization yet. So that's a very important step. Artrt and theater, theater being the most social art in this sense, is very adapted to creating petri dishes of belief where you can see it work. You can see it work in this human relationship, and in that breakdown of barrier, and in that fulfilled aspiration. And I think that theater, poetry, are really the most available steps towards that kind of revolutionary change.
HR: The aspect of theater that makes it particularly interesting to us as political activists is the way the theater exists as a social model. And for that reason, we have this particular interest in seeing it be a vehicle of participation, and Paradise really represents the launching pad of that experiment.
Paradise was the first play that turned the theater around on its head and said to the audience, "You're the actors now, you make the revolution, you figure out what the action is."
We've really taken it from there since then towards the elaboration of different strategies of trying to find ways to enable the audience to develop its capacities to take action, to create both speech and a natural action. And that remains the core of our experiment as a theater, and it really has its origin in Paradise Now.
WS: As I understand it I've always felt that the point of the play was to reach, through all the actions and the rituals and the connections and happenings, a place where one is ready to do things from a radical standpoint, to take action from a point of radical consciousness.
JM: Even begin in the theater to do that, and then bring it out of the theater. So that we formed cells and action cells, and artist collectives. People started to talk about creating internal infrastructures that were free, free schools, free stores, a lot of that kind of thing developed. During the performances we would have certain times when one would say, "Let's sit down together now and form cells to solve some of these problems," and women's groups started, and all kind of things, health care groups started...
HR: Tenants associations, any number of things.
JM: Any number of things. And those still have repercussions today. Not as much as we'd like.
WS: You're saying there were points in the play where people were having conversations and reflecting and making decisions, yes?
HR: And even organizing.
WS: Even organizing at that moment.
JM: We said "Now organize!" And some people did. And some people said, "Fuck off."
HR: Some people said, "Organize this!"
WS:Organize this - yeah. You might have met some people who were not so sympathetic.
HR: Yes, there were those.
JM: Usually they left early in the play because they didn't like it. If you don't want to open yourself out to a minimum of sympathy for it, its an awful experience. If you don't want to discuss the question of your responsibility for the war, and someone comes over and says, "We don't know how to stop the war, and its your fault, and my fault, now what are we gonna do?" If you don't want to talk like that, or think about that, or think about how you might be, even as a good person, how you might be responsible for the war, you don't want someone coming to you and talking like that. People go away. A lot of people went away during the play, depending on what kind of audiences.
In some towns we had all marvelously revolutionary people, in some towns we had a lot of people who didn't think we were revolutionary enough because we were against the armed struggle movement. And some people equated the true revolution with the armed struggle movement. And of course, we were much blamed for that. We were considered not revolutionary enough, other people considered us too revolutionary, but this is not so unusual in a volatile situation.
WS: I understand Hanon's comment about the structure of the play, and I too feel that the film, with regard to the structure of the play, is more of an "immersion" in various moments than a linear representation of the play - to balance this, we are going to publish the MAP of PARADISE NOW.
JM: I think the poster is very important. That's great because we gave them out in a poster size at each rehearsal. It was important for us for people to see the structure. It's a map. It's a real map and a real guide to each scene, and explains the content of each scene, in a very linear way, in a way where the ascending aspect of the various stages of the revolution are very clear, and how each of our scenes that we've presented reflects that aspect or that step in revolution. Of course, it is different all the time, and it should be different all the time, and then very often the audience took it into something completely different, and that was good too.
WS: I think I understand that the different sections of the play had stages. And there was a ritual aspect. Can you describe a personal experience during the play that was particularly meaningful for you?
JM: That's very difficult. It's too difficult, you know? You know why? Because it becomes an incident. And it wasn't really ever that. It was a large arc of experience for those of us who went through it, that began when we opened it, or began really when we started to rehearse it, until the last performance. And some of the performances were riotous and incredible. And many of the performances were up to a certain point frustrating, though in the end I must say that I feel we always won the day, but you know I saw the optimistic side of it. We opened up something. I don't want to diminish it to an interesting anecdote of when this happened and when that happened and when the other happened.
What happened was we opened up a possibility where we said to people, "Do anything you want, but don't hurt anybody," and people thought, "What can I do?" And people did it. And people did all kinds of things. And in the end this is such a horrendous taboo socially, you can't do what you want, if you do what you want they bust you, and at the end of the play, very very often, more than any other Living Theater production, we were busted. We were busted time and time again, in city after city, for all sorts of ordinances, they thought something must be illegal, certainly burning money is illegal.
HR: Or being naked.
JM: Taking your clothes off is illegal. Advocating the non-violent overthrow of the government is illegal.
WS: So the cops would wait till the end of the show to bust you?
JM: Even before. The police often came in when we arrived in town and said, "Look", they said, "You can do anything you want in the theater, I don't care what you do in there, what you do sexually, you want to burn money, you want to smoke pot, we don't care. But once you get out, don't go out into the street. Don't go out in the street." Even before we did anything they would tell us, "Don't go out into the street." And yet of course we went out in the street. There was a lot of fear on the part of the police.
I think this would be very different now. I don't think anybody would be scared in that way of what we would do. Even if we burned a couple of dollars, people are more tolerant. Maybe not, I don't know - it depends. We went from community to community, and every community has its standards. But those communities that had more liberal standards, also would tend to have in them more radical people, you know, so that when we went to Ann Arbor, where it is relatively free, and met the really ardent revolutionary kids, you get in more trouble because when you say, "Do anything you want," people take it to mean something further out than in other communities!
I think that today it would be very good to try to do it, but it would need a different script, because we're facing different, not so much different problems but different vocabulary. I think the problems are the same. People are starving. People are exploiting each other. Racial hatred is a terrible thing. Religious and ethnic prejudices are killing people right and left. It's a terrible time.
That has in some way always been so, and it will continue to be so until we make these changes. And we have to make a lot of changes yet, and I think the young people are ready. You see they weren't ready. After '68 there was a retreat, and the generation of '68 said to its kids, "Don't do what I did, it doesn't work."
They said, "look you want to go out and protest, that was alright in '68. But this is different, you were born too late," and the kids say, "What do you mean I'm born too late? I want to change the world for the better, and you tell me I'm born too late?" They don't want to hear that. They don't want to learn from that bad experience of their parents, and the discouragement. They have no sense of right and left.
But they do have a sense that the real grievance is against capitalism and the capitalist system, because television (which we decry and we have much reason to decry) shows them these starving people sitting on the ground in Africa. They have nothing, they just have a lot of children, more children keep coming, and they're dying, and they have nothing. Then they also see on television that there is plenty. Plenty exists. If we could bring the plenty to those people, and that there's the means of transportation, there's lots of us willing to take it from here to there, there are people who will transport it, there are people who will share the abundance, why don't we get that stuff, that food, to those people? And they look at it and they say, "Why indeed?"
Because there's a system, and they begin to see that there's a system that doesn't let that food go to those people. And that's what they're rebelling against. They're rebelling against the capitalist system because it's starving the babies. Because it's starving the people of Darfur. Because the oil interests are more important than the human interests. And they see that. And they don't know right from left, it is just getting that stuff to those people.
WS: Like New Orleans . . .
JM: Like New Orleans, but that's only another example of people in need. The means to do it but a system that's all screwed up, and what we're looking for is a clarification. And that's where art comes in. And we say, "Yeah, you can do what you want to do. You see, these people are examples, here's a poetry of hope, here's a lesson on how to organize a society, here's a great play, here's a scene of audience/actor interaction, of participation, of change," and we can give these examples, and out of these examples can come, hopefully, a real change, where people say, "Yes, I want to change it, and I can change it, and take action."
WS: I think that Paradise Now is still very much a part of that continuum . . .
WS: Its always been there, but I think people will see it and they'll realize that its very related to the politics of today.
JM: I think so, I think people will.
WS: Ira also said that. He said, "There should be a quote on the DVD package that says, 'More relevant now than ever.'"
HR: You could say, Paradise Now: more relevant now, because we're closer to now than we ever have been.
JM: That's true. That's very poetic, we are closer to now than we ever have been.
Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov interviewed by Will Swofford for The Ira Cohen Akashic Project. Interview transcription by Dave Kadden.
Paradise Now will be released in the spring on The Living DVD of AUM Theatre distributed by Arthur Magazine. For more information on The Ira Cohen Akashic Record DVD Series, please visit www.arthurmag.com.