The first volume of Judith Malina’s published diaries opens on her 21st birthday, June 4, 1947. The entry begins with a line in German, her first language. (She was born in Kiel, Germany. Her father was a rabbi and her mother an aspiring actor who gave up her artistic dreams for marriage and motherhood; the family immigrated to the United States in 1929.) Then Malina repeats the line in English: “Twenty-one already and I still haven’t done a thing worth immortality.”
It’s an astonishing assertion not just for its youthful hubris but more so because Malina was projecting herself into a romantic artistic ideal that did not typically admit women in those days. By that point she had already argued her way into the directing workshop taught at The New School by Erwin Piscator, the eminent, exiled inventor of epic theater (extended more famously by Brecht). At first Piscator dismissed Malina’s application, predicting that she’d get married and give up the theater. Young as she was, and barely more than five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, Malina was apparently already blazing with the urgent fire that made her a towering presence on stage and off: She talked the old maestro into accepting her. Malina needed the workshop to help her pursue the grand plan she’d been hatching for some time. She mentions it at the end of that brief birthday entry: “the Living Theatre, the most important work of my life, for which I am now preparing.”
Soon after, along with Julian Beck, she founded the Living Theatre and she kept it going for nearly 70 years, working right up to her death at 88 on Friday. Under her guidance (Beck died in 1985; Malina’s later partner and co-artistic director, Hanon Reznikov, in 2008) the Living created a body of work well worthy of the immortality she dreamed of in her youth. What’s more, Judith gave the world, in her very being, a model of the revolutionary future she worked for. She was absolute about her principles as a pacifist anarchist, yet never dismissive or judgmental toward those who didn’t share them. Her commitment to nonviolence was that thorough. Most amazingly for a life-long leftist, she had no cynicism. She exuded love, even joy, when she spoke—her voice strong even as she aged, her eyes always smiling—the actor’s pleasure of the spotlight combined with her utter conviction in what she had to say. On many occasions, I saw her speak to students about the role and power of theater—and about making an engaged life, rather than a career, in the theater—with such sincerity, delight, and openness, that if she’d hollered, “Okay, let’s go!” every one of them would have followed her right to the barricades. If you sat near her, she’d take your hand in her tiny one and grip it for emphasis with Herculean force.
Judith liked to boast that she’d been arrested for civil disobedience in 12 different countries. (The Living performed all over the world, and from the beginning—before ‘diversity’ became a buzzword—the company was international, multiracial, radically queer.) She made no apology for insisting on “the beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution” nor for the seeming simplicity of slogans the Living sometimes declaimed from the stage and on the streets: Stop the Wars. Open the Jails. Abolish Money. Scorn her as a “utopian,” and Judith would shrug her narrow shoulders, shoot you a wry smile and ask: “What else could I be?”