We are heartbroken.
NYTimes article: Judith Malina, Founder of the Living Theater, Dies at 88
Judith Malina on Aging
Judith Malina is a German-born American actress, writer, feminist, theater director and anarchist. With her husband Julian Beck she created The Living Theatre, which began staging plays, happenings and events in New York City and Paris during the 1950s and '60s. The company is still active to this day. Perfect Wave sat down with her in Englewood, NJ at the Lillian Booth Actors Home.
JM: I’m doing a play in New York with the Living Theatre, that I’ve written, or at least I’ve finished one or two scenes, called “No Place To Hide,” which is about our separation from one another, our separation from the people we think are our enemies, even from the people that we think are our friends, our separation from our mothers, our husbands, wives, brothers, and even our separation from ourselves. We don’t really open, even to ourselves. We have certain limitations. We’ve all been trained to hide. Whether we hide from the cops, or from the criminals in the street, or we hide from each other. Which we’re doing all the time, even right now. Or whether we hide from ourselves. It’s all this idea that we can hide, this play is saying we can find ourselves and be open, and not hide. So I’m working on that, but before I do that, I’m doing a play here, with the residents of the [Lillian Booth Actors] Home. And I’m very concerned with the dire situation of older people. In civilization, but certainly, especially in the United States. Where older people are simply discounted and disdained. I mean, I’m in a lucky house. There are a lot of people in other homes, where it’s not so nice. And people just get rid of the old people. But even in our daily discourse, where people say, “Oh, come on, he’s just an old guy, what are you listening to him for.” Or, “What do you mean, that’s just an old wives’ tale.” There’s a certain disdain for something that people don’t recognize. That the society doesn’t take into account. And that is that we keep getting older, we keep getting wiser, and better. Now, trust me, the disadvantages of old age are all perfectly too apparent. I’m in a wheelchair, I can’t breathe, I can’t hear, my eyesight is going, all those things happen. And of course we don’t like that, it’s terrible. But at the same time that we’re diminishing our physical powers, we’re also increasing our wisdom and our knowledge. People don’t understand that. People well know the difference between a 5-year-old and 10-year-old. You can tell right away. A 10-year-old is different from a 5-year-old, mentally, physically. A 10-year-old is different than a 20-year-old. You expect different things from them. But people really believe there is no difference between an 80-year-old and an 85-year-old. And I can tell you, I’m a lot smarter now than I was five years ago. That’s just personal. But I think all thinking people continue to think. I mean, some people are dumb, they’re born dumb, they live dumb, and they die dumb. Of course. But almost all people grow when they’re older. And I’m just reading a book by a very interesting writer called James Hillman, who’s written a book called “The Force of Character.” He says there’s a reason for old age. Which is that after a certain age we begin to finish our characters, which are constantly changing and growing. When I say we get wiser, as we get older, I don’t mean that we know the dates of births and deaths. We forget that, things we knew. But, we get more compassionate. We know what life is about. We understand relationships the way no 30-year-old can. We change, and we grow, and it’s our characters that change, and grow. And I want to do a play about that. I’m finding it very difficult. I’m communicating with the residents here, and they’ve mostly been convinced by the myth that, “No, you don’t change, what do you mean.” You’re finishing your character. You’re completing your character. And that’s a very important thing. And society has a resource in us that it doesn’t use. It doesn’t recognize. In fact, it denies it. We’re losing a big capability of society. Namely the growing consciousness and wisdom of the old. We don’t listen to it. People think it’s better in Italy, they say “Oh, it’s because people stay with their families.” And they’re at least used to consulting. You know, “I’m having a lot of trouble with this woman, I’m gonna ask Grandma what she thinks.” We don’t say that in America. We say, “I have a lot of trouble with this woman, but what would Grandma know about that.” Or, “I can’t make my business problems work out, I gotta talk to Grandpa.” That’s not only what I mean, but it’s part of it. And it’s better to have the old person in the family, used as a consultant, than to throw them away in an old age home like we do here.
PW: It’s interesting that you mention this as well, because the generation of the ’60s are becoming older now, but they also are in possession of the resources now. They’re in control.
JM: Yeah, but they haven’t stopped the wars, they haven’t disarmed the military, they haven’t fed the poor. So they haven’t done the work.
PW: What I’m saying is, do you think it’s possible that they feel like they can give up on this now, rather than come back to it?
JM: I think every generation gives up at a certain point. Because the social myth is that after you’re 60 or 65 you should “retire.” Instead of, that’s when you should start working hard.
PW: My only experience is I had studied music from India, and in the music and art traditions in India they really have a lot of respect for those elder artists. That they are the source of everything, that they are the ones that have really refined it. Like in Indonesia, they have the concept of refinement — that you get stronger, you get more refined with age.
JM: That’s wonderful.
PW: I really admire this piece, I think it’s Julian [Beck]’s piece, which is about questions concerning The Living Theatre. It starts, “What is the difference between questions and answers?”
JM: I know it by heart. Yeah.
PW: “Why do you go to the theater?” These questions. This is such an important piece to understand a little bit more about the Living Theatre, and Julian, and Judith. I wanted to ask you, you’ve had a long relationship with this piece. You’ve read it many times.
JM: I read it as an entertainment piece, you know. People ask me if I can do a piece, and I and another person read these questions and alter them. We don’t answer them, we just read them.
PW: That was my point. Why don’t you answer them?
JM: Well, when Julian said, “What is the difference between questions and answers?” he didn’t have an answer to that. He just wants us to think about that. And if you have an answer to that, beautiful. Tell me.
PW: My experience after reading it was that each time you ask the questions, it’s like an opportunity. It’s a new time, it’s a new place, there’s new people. So, the answer could change. So maybe there’s no answers because each time you bring them up you’re in a different situation.
PW: They strike me as very productive, because although there might not be answers, there’s always something to be gained through the experiments. And I thought it had something important to do with evaluating these art protest groups of the ’60s that we’re talking about. Like Ben Morea. This brings up certain questions, but I was actually focused on, before remembering this piece, trying to figure out all the answers. And this is a good one, in that regard. So I wanted to thank you for keeping that one in the forefront, because that is a great piece. So maybe we’ll end here, what do you think?
JM: If you want to end. If you want to ask me some questions I’ll give you my best.
PW: So even though the intention isn’t to answer them, we can still ask them, right?
JM: I don’t know. Maybe somebody has answers.
PW: How can we touch one another?
JM: By leaving ourselves open to be touched. By opening ourselves up. By having no secrets, and no hiding places. By not putting on airs. By not pretending for each other. And by really only asking what we really wanna know.
PW: What is the important inquiry?
JM: The important inquiry is something you really wanna know. What you really wanna know, is the important thing to ask. And that might be anything. What’s the name of that tree? Or you might want to know, how can I make the world less cruel? Both are questions. Both are inquiries.
Interview by Will Cameron and Alexandra Wagner