(With Ilana Abramovitch)
MP- Talking about Judaism as a unifying principal in theatre and life, I’m wondering what you think about the connection between tradition and change. If we are talking about a religion, about ritual practices, how do you satisfy on the one hand the need for continuity, the sense of a connection with history with the constant need to renew oneself to make a spiritual path relevant to contemporary life?
JM- I think the Jewish tradition here is no different than any other progressive movement in nature. Though different in almost every other way. it?s no different than the cultural changes that we see in any changing pattern. In order for a culture or a language to survive there has to be enough flexibility for change.
If however there is not enough rooted tradition for that change to be a change of the tradition, there has to be a tradition in order to change the tradition if that change is so great that fundamental tradition is lost, then that strain or that culture or that language perishes.
MP- Yet we can’t avoid some change. The motility of Creation pushes both us and God forward whether we like it or not.
JM- What is needed, it seems, what we have because we’ve survived, is a foundation rigid enough on which to create enough changes on which to keep a breathing viable cohesive form, Judaism, and that form is a form, in which if there were too many changes it would cease to be Judaism, as Christianity was a form of Judaism until the changes within the Christian Jews became so great that they were no longer Jews they were really another faith and they recognized this at some point and a division was made, no longer between Christian Jews and Jewish Jews but between Jews and Christians.
MP- And the Muslims.
JM- Either our tradition is going to be strong enough and flexible enough to accommodate itself to the modern world or it?s going to go under for a while until it revives because I don’t such a great idea, the unifying force. is going to easily go away whereas all the sectarian questions of congregational and communitarian organization educational organization. that could go away.
I’ve seen out here on the streets in this part of the city a tremendous amount of change from a specific kind of Jewish community that lived here on this avenue, and that had lived here for maybe some 30 or so years before I got here which has changed entirely, so that the synagogue that is on our corner, one of the oldest congregations in the city, Anshe Chesed, is a very different synagogue, one struggling for its very existence to maintain the building, there is a no rabbi at all and it has broken up into small minyans of various groups, mostly of young people though the older members of the regular congregations still attended.
Some of these minyans have taken some very modern revolutionary steps. Women participate in the place of the rabbi, there is a responsive reading from the Torah and a response from the congregation. Every member of the congregation can takes one of the Shabbos services, women as well as men, and a whole different form begins to develop that strengthens that whole form.
We do see a resurgence of Jewish interest not only on this street. Certainly with a general resurgence of religious interest this is a very interesting moment to see whether this shattered old form will in fact grow into something fruitful or whether it will fail; it is going to be a noble experiment.
It depends on how much energy we give it. I have gone off on another subject; it seems sort of relevant to the…
IA- You started to talk about the sense of renewal in connection with organized religious life; I think that this is one place where renewal takes place through the creation of new types of institutions that are more or less responsive to their changing needs. I was wondering if you would go further in the direction of innovation in ritual or theatre using either themes or imagery from works done in the history of the Living Theater. I wonder how ritual in the theatre works, how this connects with ritual in Judaism?
JM- This has always been a central theme of the work of the Living Theatre and efforts to explore the possibility here have gone for 30 years and continue to go on with as Julian Beck used to say with a lot of questions and very few answers and we continue to ass these questions even into creating scenes and forms of experiment that have at moments reached the rich level, ritual repetitions of an action that reaches possible extensions.
MP- If things get ordinary enough we won?t notice them at all, much less be able to judge them morally.
JM- Of course. Let me give you an example of a wicked ritual. It?s easier to look at evil than to look at good as we know; good is transparent and difficult to catch. Evil is blatant.
There was a recent story that we all know in which a charismatic man with a lot of power over a group of believers was able to make a large number of people poison themselves and their little children; we wonder show could anybody poison their little children? How could he get them to do that? IN fact some, did balk at the end. Most did the action.
What they did was: they rehearsed it as in the theatre with sugar water and in the place of the poisoned kool-aid, so that when the poisoned kool-aid was brought out the action was already possible; they could overcome their deepest feelings because they were already doing a routine that was routine, ritualized.
They could do it because they had done it before even though it didn?t mean the same thing. That?s wicked ritual, in the sense that tie Carthaginian people threw their babies in the fire as sacrifices to Moloch.
That was certain a ritual, an evil ritual, not a good ritual. A ritual that we try to create for beneficent purposes also has this quality of making the action so routine, so antral that one part must follow on the other.
Sequence is everything in ritual; in this way after you have done it once, you do it again as if it were ordinary. In this way instead of overcoming our best instincts and being able to poison our children we are able to overcome our worst instincts which God knows would ordinarily don?t know how to overcome, be better than we know how to be because we have rehearsed it, because we have created it externally; we can now enter into it in the inspirational moment.
This is the purpose of ritual: a theatrical event in which one rehearse and repeats, then one repeats on different nights and on different occasions and ceremonies or rites. In the theatre rituals and ceremonies and theatre pieces have in common that they are supposed to be done more than once; they are supposed to be done again and again or are themselves sequential; within them there is an inner sequence outside of which there has been a larger repetition.
We are really dealing with these sequences; all of them are significant. In our being we are able to put ourselves into the state in which we can surpass ourselves because we had rehearsed it in a way an athlete can do things which they could not do because they have prepared their whole body. The ritual we prepare with our mind and spirit to do; we could not do without that preparation.
We have and can all be given a level of wall that we can leap across; we can all with six months of work improve how high we can leap. We can all within six months improve how high we leap unless here is something the matter with us, or unless we have trained so much and taken our talent so far that we can leap no higher.
We can all improve our capacities in training with repetition, with that grinding work like learning how to play the piano that we must do over and over again; none can do it the first time, unless we have options of magic.
You can only do it if you do it very often in a way the ritual allows us to do it, an action done much more often than we would normally do it in order for us to do something that is not that action at all, maybe even seems to have very little external relations to that action.
Our feeling is that if we can repeat this action it is also an emblem of another action: to surpass ourselves hopefully, not in evil but in good though it could be used either way.
MP- Since good turns into evil and vice versa an evil ritual might if we did it long enough turn out to be good. And the contrary. I?ve always felt nearly all malefic rituals were once good ones. We rarely take up weakness initially; we have to be habituated to it.
!A- You are talking about ritual as a kind of movement when the human spirit can leap into something else; as you say, a kind of leap into the unknown. We don?t know whether it will be good or evil.
JM- Oh, I think we can known that. I think we can.
IA- How can one know that?
JM- Well, if we want to do a ritual action for a woman to lighten her labor pains and we sing to ameliorate her labor pains, the likelihood is that this is not going to have the same effect as dancing around a voodoo doll wishing somebody ill or sticking pins into it.
Clearly it is different. We know we are making an effort to do good or making a different action to achieve negative results. Now some people talk about then negative results as really the best. I don?t think this is a question between us.
IA- You are talking about intention.
JM- Yes, I am talking about intention. I would say that most rituals that we do tend to do good. Now if you think of slaying a child in a sacrifice, it may be threatening the child so he will be reborn stronger and better. Then your intention may be good but so cockeyed that you don?t know good from evil at All. Such things have happened; this is not such an unusual example. Yet it seems almost unimaginable.
It’s an error in judgment on the parts of those who believe it; of course we could always be in error in our judgment. I think intention has a lot to do with it.
IA- You are talking about the power potential of ritual and also pointing out that it also has a problem because it is such an intensified action that one can easily deceive oneself about its effects. It brings us back to the question of haw theatre relates to ritual; there is on the one hand the for the actor the question of repeating and arriving at a state which can be a kind of shamanistic force a kind of passage between some very strong spiritual energy and people.
JM- You sound as though you are describing the daily and weekly laying on of the Torah.
IA- The holy actor.
JM- There is certainly something like that can happen, it doesn’t happen all the time but you feel it when it happens. Most of the people that I know who are in the theatre are in the theatre because that shamanistic moment means much more to them than fame or glory or anything else.
We don?t talk about that much. We talk about who is casting whom. What we really want is that moment; that moment does come to us sometimes. When it comes to us it touches the audience too we share it. It?s one of the best things that can happen to you.
IA- Julian wrote in his diaries that if a play doesn?t reach the sublime then he is not interested in it.
JM- To find that sublime, to make it worthy because in the theatre we have this shamanistic role is everything, You know we used to say among ourselves by way of definition in the Living Theatre: what is the difference between the spectator and the audience? in a real effort at participatory theatre we are not talking about of course in conventional theatre.
Why is this still on us and why can?t we or they unify both concepts? It has nothing to do with money. They get paid and we get paid but we would both be doing free; if they were not paid it wouldn?t make any difference.
The difference appears to be that we are prepared for the event and they are not prepared for the event. If they really prepared they would be performers like ourselves. If we sent them all our script and they prepared them in some way, if they prepared themselves they would be performers. They are spectators, participant spectators; it has a different role than ours for those moments.
Next day I may be the spectator, they the performer, but at that point we have prepared ourselves.
MP- Unlike life the actors always know what is going to happen. They even are sometimes on visible civil terms with the playwright.
IA- In the Living Theatre what are the links between its sense of ritual and the Jewish ritual?
JM- Let me say that it probably in one of two ways, one of which is the simpler one. If you look through the plays there are very few plays in which there you cannot find some referential clues to the Jewishness of the directors; sometimes also the writers in the text; sometimes reflecting the division of Jews and non-Jews in the company…
IA- Are you referring to material, subject matter, or manner?.
JM- I’m saying in every play, if you look, the playwright, the theme, the melodies have a Jewish element. You know we could take a play by German with a German translation based on a story by a Greek writer and we could put in a melody like “Dai. dai, dai, dai, dai…” as you know well having often sung I.
There are other places too if you search for them where you find referenced in almost every play there is some c clue if you wanted to trace the thread of a Jewish theme, of Jewish expressions; there is always a thread in there.
That is as I have said the simpler aspect; sometimes this is very heavy, sometimes this is just a little clue I think that from the very beginning Julian and I had seen the concept of poetic theatre id before we called it ritual theatre and ritual art and whether it was probably ritual theatre or poetic theatre. They are probably the same thing. We can talk about examples; that is not so important. We saw from the very beginning the importance of certain fundamental premises on which the Living Theatre is based; one that had an ethical basis.
Now when we talk about useful theatre or meaningful theatre or theatre that brings change, this is just a parlance that can be summed up in Jewish terms as needing to have an ethical basis. It is such a fundamental premise that it never came into question. It has certainly marked all our work without our having to repeat it except sometimes when someone new would come and we would have to explain it to them. It?s got to be useful; it?s got to be meaningful and ethical.
Of course our whole political stance has certainly been based on principles that at least Julian and i and other members whether or not Jewish, specifically on the Torah and sometimes for non-Jewish members. We could talk about Bill Shari, who had a Jesuit training, but who shared many fundamental principals, theological, ethical that are based on Judeo-Christian principles that are consonant with to the Jewish spirit.
Many such people, Bill Shari comes to mind as a particularly vital thinker, a really religious thinker in a very strange ornery way, a very religious man.
There are many streams of influx. The Jewishness of a Steve ben Israel, who could draw on that quality of being able to kvetch his soul out in public in a way we haven?t seen since the Yiddish theater plays. Not that it is like Yiddish theater–it isn’t–but it shares with Yiddish theater that willingness through tremendous personal emotional exposure.
and this too is very visible in the Living Theater to be willing to stand there and say: ?This is what I am and oy vey; that is how it is? and open ourselves with a certain shamelessness for which we Jews have been much derided, an arena in which we feel ourselves rather like the prophets, rather like the scoundrels they say we are.
This answers your question in two ways. One is the simple one in that all the plays with very few exceptions, maybe Cocteau’s Orpheus, has no over Jewish theme in it; I can’t think of one; otherwise it works itself in, it is very deep in us; we don’t really suppress it though we went through a period of suppressing it; Julian went through a period like that.
Julian called himself an agnostic always; When Julian travelled with a very sophisticated artistic group in which being Jewish meant something very different in the Art world around Peg@ Guggenheim where he had exhibited his paintings as a youth there was a certain attitude towards being Jewish that was both aggressive and probably racist, probably fundamentally racist, even on the part of those who were Jewish–a certain kind of racist attitude that was taken for granted.
MP- It?s wickedness hiding behind the ordinary again like Chesterton?s murderous postman.
JM- Yes, let me give you an example. Among those very wealthy artistic gifted driven people that you meet in the New York art world there is a mixture of tolerance that is accepted; for instance in the acceptance of ethnic jokes that are considered not only acceptable and de rigueur for you to be able to tell them. If you want to tell them in my house and have a certain willingness to do so, how does the racism come out?
At a party a Jewish person would be willing to accept a certain amount of semi-rancorous jibes against himself or herself and be able to be a good sport and come back and laugh about themselves. That’s the kind of racism I’m talking about.
It?s very hidden; it manifested itself then in certain social groupings: who gives money to whom, who buys what pictures and who produces what plays, who gets cast, who gets starred, that’s all there. It manifests itself in a complex way, in some way the willingness to play the game, the willingness to play the ritual if you accept the ritual.
I call that the racist ritual. Maybe you have to be willing to make fun of the Black woman who comes in or accept the fact that your hostess does and keep your mouth shut; you don?t say anything except maybe to make another little funny joke about mammy.
That kind of constraint is a whole level of behavior. I wouldn’t say that I have felt or suffered personally from it in my life. I have found it rather privileged to be Jewish. Oh, I met some kids in high school who said things; you know, on the whole I don’t feel that I have been a personal victim although I associate with the victimization of all those around me.
I feel that my pacifism which might have been based on something else had my life had other circumstances; since it has these circumstances is based on what is fashionably known as the Holocaust, it?s a new term. I?m used to calling it concentration camps or the Hitler years or the Nazis. Certainly pacifism is a reaction to those events; they were very vivid in my childhood without my being part of it but with my family being decimated, my mother and father suffering the blows of the destruction of their family.
You’re right, Ilana, you’re right; the Living Theater is a paradigm of the German Jewish Congregation in New York the main object of which outside of to worship God by reading the Torah. Is gathering together.
The main objective outside of that primary was trying to find a space to do it. My father went from synagogue to synagogue in my earliest years in New York. I remember us as being in a downstairs chapel. they called it. of Central synagogue on Lexington Avenue, the one with the lovely onion dome roof.
We were located there because that synagogue was built to have a daily minyan room and of course they don’t have a daily minyan being a heavily reform synagogue. in fact one of the pioneer reform synagogues. It?s the second largest synagogue in the city; after our experience there we went from various people’s synagogues to lofts to hiring renting halls, renting a larger hall for the High Holy days.
We used to go to the Peter Stuyvassant Hotel on 86th St.; my father held together this raggle-taggle group of German refugees, certainly deracinated, declasse people who form a very small world unto themselves in New York City.
A group of German Jews were not particularly well integrated, rather holding together in what Julian used to call “the Living Theatre Shoebox? which he spoke of when we were traveling through Europe, speaking mostly to each other, not being able, even though God knows we tried to mingle with the world outside; we were in a contained community.
There was my father’s little congregation. He was into political work very different from mine; he pursued with the same fervor. He wanted America to go to war against Hitler. Then again, also a pacifist notion, the certainly whole structure. the structure of how the German- Jewish congregation was held together, the structure of how the Living Theatre was held together, relates to this banal Freudian fact that women marry men like their fathers; Julian had some of that burning energy that Max Malina had. He had after all edited a newspaper called Der Zeitgeist, you know. which shows you a little of that.
So as it were I come from not only my actress mother but my rabbi father. Certainly I don”t like to admit to faults while the tape is running, but if I have any faults, certainly I have a tendency to preach; I am often told so by former friends. But I have always very consciously thought preaching is developed naturally, that I was continuing my mother”s acting career which she gave up to marry my father and have a baby and be the actress that she had wanted to be.
I was a surrogate for her as an actress; I feel that in a certain way I continue the work of my father. Only I knew my father as a political person. His main object was to get Jews out of concentration camps. By the time that I really became aware of the work other than just going to synagogue and thinking that every little girl has a father who has a synagogue which is what you do.
When I became aware of the nature of the work and my father was really using the congregation as a base for the work of trying to get people out of the concentration camps and there were things that people could do; they could provide for court proceedings, they could get married to someone in a concentration camp, with money and a marriage certificate he could have saved them all; they were willing they to let people out with an arrangement.
My father went around, really around America looking for people who were willing to save people. I suppose his task was to explain to people it was a mitzvah and not a lie because in fact they did help them in a deep way, giving them real love because they were saving their life.
This was a great blessing they were giving, this a chance to exist. The divorce that followed for them and their legal mates under a law that was a far lesser law than the one of choosing life and saving life.
He went around and convinced people to do it; he saved many lives; some of my people got out that way. It was of course illegal to do it; of course everybody knew about it, everybody was glad to save lives. It was illegal but it wasn?t illegal in spiritual law.
IA- Your father was very unusual. Nowadays people are asking about the involvement of American Jews in saving Eastern European Jews. The Judgement is that not enough was done.
JM- Surely not enough was done. That was the pioneering part of my father?s work@ I wouldn?t go with on America wanting to declare we shouldn?t fight Hitler. I couldn?t get into the war-like aspect of that but God knows I feared a German victory as much as anybody. Nevertheless I had very high hopes that this would not be the only form of dissent from the war or at least that was certainly not my part of it.
IA- I wanted to know about the theatre in particular and also. about mysticism in connection with the theatre.
JM- Yes. I started to say that my father was a political person as I knew him; his interest was totally in saving the people that were being massacred. Only after he died Julian and I went to visit an uncle of mine. my uncle Leon. my mother?s brother; he told me about my father when he was a young man, that my mother?s brother who knew him as a brother-in-law said they made terrible fun of him and they didn?t want their only sister, their lovely little Rose to marry this man. because he was always going into a trance.
He was putting his tallis on his head and going into trances and would vanish into thin air and not be heard from for hours or days. He would trance out and do Kabbalistic stuff. They didn?t like it at all.
At that point he was going in that direction. Then he met my mother and went in another direction. They decided to go to America and being very good Jews and modern at the same time. She took off her sheitel and they brought the German-Jewish congregation here; they decided to be pioneers in an adventurous life!
Then of course the terrible events in Germany happened my father gave up everything except the congregation that he had, the newspaper and the spiritual aspect. I didn?t know when that disappeared!
Oh. he was very spiritual in his sermons and discourses but he always brought it to a political worldly reality, the situation we have to give our energy to, not to anything less than that. At least that?s how I knew my father. I had heard later how this had been a change.
Now in my own development I was brought up with religious ritual as theology and not much more than theology! Theology was not the center but the validity of the ritual, The validity of the ritual was the theology. The practice was the theology of my experience.
I think this is not so uncommon in Jewish life. Judaism once you’re out of cheder you really don’t have to discuss that so much. Men and women in Jewry find that the discussion of the practice is unnecessary. Then there is the choice that we all have nowadays of which level we want to continue with; everyone makes their choices there. Most people make different choices from what they would do if they could do it
?If I were living this way, if I didn’t have a nagging wife, or responsibilities internal or external,? they say. I think people?s practice of Judaism very different from people’s ides of their practice of Judaism. The importance of action that has Jewish religious principles which translated into your way of doing theatre. though the content itself is not necessarily Jewish; it?s the Jewish style, having a spiritual content.
Let me add, not as irrelevantly as it sounds at first, we Jews have been anarchistic, and there has always been a lot of representative Jews as anarchists and for a good reason. We can say we?ve been anarchistic sine Korach who was so horrible that Moses had to open up the earth to swallow him up. He couldn?t think about a fair trial for this man who dared to say that aren’t we all equally holy?
Wasn’t that the sin of Korach, am I wrong?
MP- And his 200 men, everybody died.
JM- What did they say? It was a pure anarchist statement. We’re all holy, not just the special priest, we?re all priests, a nation of priests, we are all priests!
IA- Unfortunately he got punished for that.
JM- Was there anything bad he did or was he an anarchist? He questioned Moses? authority. That is just anarchism.
IA- I think the important thing is that they didn?t entirely suppress the story.
JM- To warn anybody against anarchist tendencies! (Ilana laughs)
MP- About the Levites.
JM- Yes Korach had certainly complained about the Levites, the ruling class, the hierarchy of the structure; his answer was, wasn’t it, that many people had complained about the Levites and he didn’t get it or he did and they didn’t record it like that. Korach had the nerve to say that we’re all Levites; that’s the thing that opens the story; that’s the unthinkable act that singles him out.
When you ask about the structural Living Theatre Jewishness is, I feel that a tendency towards an egalitarian community that Korach was asking for.
In the history of Jewish anarchists which is reality quite large in proportion to the numbers of Jews and anarchists in the general population, there has been a great tendency for us to look at this philosophy with special interest b because the question of our community, being an egalitarian community, and all of us having a unified sense of the congregation in which we would rather an equality than have a king. We were told not to have a king; we can honor him as a king.
Nevertheless the community is the holy part of the Jews, not our king; this has always been recognized as such even though there have been all these stories of kings and liberation from kings.
IA- I noticed Matthew asked some question about anarchism in New York in the forties and fifties; I want to come back to some more questions about authority.
JM- I could try to answer succinctly. I can give 15 minute answers, 5 minute answers, even 3 minute answers.
MP- You would have satisfied the king who wanted the secret of the universe in one word.
JM- I can be even more succinct than that.
MP- Well, actually there are a few things I wanted to ask about Ilana’s direction in he questions. First of all did you consciously address God or let’s say, invent the Living theatre on the basis of principles or did you move from situation to situation and say: I would rather do it like this or like that? Had it been something that came up from the bottom?
JM- No, there was no programmatic intention. When we wrote out our proposal and our fund raising letters and wrote our paragraphs which are always in such letters, they contained these principles of only in terms dedicating the Living Theatre to ethical and pacifist and anarchist concepts.
That was conscious and overt; we did not overtly related that to Jewish thought or Jewish practice. If anyone asked us we would say yes, of course, it is based on Jewish thought and Jewish practice, though we never particularly said that; certainly not in earlier times; of course the interest in one’s religious affiliation is very much greater since the ?Os.
MP- Well, take for example In The Jungle Of Cities, which I saw, was put together as an implied religious statement. Actually I would rather ask about the Haggadah. The thing I’m trying to get at is that, I wonder, in this process that occurred, had it come deductively out of certain situations or had it come from the top where principles were active in applying examples?
JM- Let me give you a brief narrative of what actually happened. I had trouble with the Haggadah since I was about 10 or 11 years out when I walked out on the Had Gadya and said I am never going to sing that vile song again. If God is so smart, why didn’t he stop the Angel of Death before he killed the lamb and not at the end of the whole Megillah?
I can’t accept it. I don’ t accept it, I said, God, I’m sorry; I don’t want to sing this song; I don’t to be at the table when it’s sung. We had a congregational seder with sometimes 70, 80 people singing there, some times the whole congregation came; it was a big deal. The little daughter made a big disgusting scene. So it cane out of example.
IA- it went on like this every year.
JM- Now every year we had a family seder anyway; I carried on and finally they accepted it. I would cool out and I just went away at that point. It was understood by everybody that I was going to do that. Then the family seders gradually evolved into the days when we traveled and did theatre. Julian and I and a few friends said why don’t we have the seder in the hotel room? I’ll get some matzos from the synagogue in?
We were in Yugoslavia or whatever; we found out soon that every one in the company wanted to come, the rule is everyone is supposed to come and so it became a Living Theatre Seder. It became perfectly natural; the fact that Julian and I wanted to do it. Of course we invited everybody. You can’t just invite the Jewish people in the company; the ritual specifically disallows that.
We got Haggadahs, we read through Haggadahs, we read critically. Some years we had some very frivolous seders; they really didn’t resolve themselves very well. People couldn?t take seriously the texts that were racist and very much vengeful and sexist, of course.
One year in Milan in 1979 instead of doing a seder in which we were so critical of the Haggadah I decided to rewrite the book and I sat down with the book, the Haggadah as it is, and I rewrote it. I had read the Freedom Seder and I took some elements from that. I took that as an example which was a rewriting by an American radical who were experimenting with advocating religious ideas for the movement.
IA- Poems from your friends like Allen Ginsberg
JM- Right, I took the Ginsberg poems; then I rewrote the book. It seemed to serve much better than the original book. Perhaps it isn’t as full and rich and deep; at least it is a little closer our concepts.
MP- So, what happened was that you adapted your ritual theatre to nature according to the anarchist principle that nature goes first; the ritual comes out of nature So it wasn?t a fiat, a set of principles, like I don’t like to have God.. It came out of life.
JM-, It came out of a long struggle that we had with the Haggadah in life. The whole company was involved with this question and one day I said, why don’t I rewrite it? Of all those things some of them are religious, some of the rituals would be nice if they also included the women. Some of the things I like to leave in the book itself: to say our fathers used to say this and that but now we don’t see it that way, now we see it this way, to present the tradition as present and we acknowledge that that’s our tradition but that we need to change it.
MP- This is actually quite similar to an argument in John Marshall about the Constitution where he says that the Constitution is progressive yet rooted in tradition; it’s almost like a paradox. You feel the same way?
JM- Yes. I feel that way about the Constitution too.
MP- The Torah specifically says that, there is a sin of some kind where a goat is killed and is thrown over a cliff as I remember, There seems to be animal sacrifice in the Torah; it’s regarded as a good thing to do.
JM- It also says if you commit adultery you should be stoned to death, I don’t think I’d like to see what happen either. It would wipe out a lot of the population.
MP, How does one deal as a leader as a religious? figure as you describe yourself with this aspect with these aspects of the tradition you don’t like?
JM, This is for me a great problem to which I have not found an adequate solution; I’m not; in a sense I’m not a religious leader who knows the answers to all the questions; I’m a questioning, searching person and again I would like to answer with a story, an example. when I was 14 years old my father had just died and left us penniless. I was privileged be in the Youth Torah discussion group of Rabbi Young of the Jewish Center on 86th street.
Rabbi Young was a very distinguished Rabbi; in my family the most important person saw about the religious sphere. The young people in the group were very sophisticated, a much more eloquent group than I am. I was poor; they were rich. That was one of the differences. They were very sophisticated people; I had a certain marginality almost.
One day in the course of the discussion of the sacrifices in the Temple Rabbi Young talked about sacrifices. I said, Rabbi Young when we come to this section of the literature, I really feel that out of my moral and ethical principles I couldn?t pray for the returning the sacrifices; I don’t want to pray for that. He got very angry at me. He thought it was a sneaky question which it wasn’t; it was a deeply felt one.
He stood up, got red in the face, he banged on the table and he said: ?Then you are not a Jew.?
I set myself in front of, not my peers but my admired superiors, terribly humiliated; I felt myself excluded from them. I’ve worried about it ever since.
In fact, about two years ago. a friend of mine. Michael Posnick. took me to see a wonderful rabbi. who came from Jerusalem, called Steinsaltz; I was privileged to enter a discussion group. He was one of the great rabbis. He spoke of the sacrifice of the cow. Again, I had to speak up; I said he had said something about the sacrifice of the cow, what a good act it is to sacrifice a cow.
Then I said under my breath, you wouldn’t say that if you were a cow, the Rabbi didn’t say anything. The great rabbi doesn?t have to say anything.
I had some discourse wit him later on the subject; one of his students who accompanies him along with all his retinue of disciples, remarked in an enraged whisper to me, You can?t call the rabbi a cow. I felt misunderstood again, this was only two years ago.
MP- Maybe we should sacrifice an onion.
JM- There is a tradition against animal sacrifice. There is a very fine book on Jewish vegetarianism. the whole history of Jewish vegetarianism. There is a whole literature on the subject There is a Jewish vegetarian, I’ll show you this book, it’s very fascinating. It culls opinions on diet from all our great men. There is no ethical reason why a Jew has to eat meat. Theoretically I have to pray for the return of the animal sacrifices in the Temple. Yet I don’t have to eat meat. There is no point to this prayer for me; possibly the bone at the seder table is the closest we would come.
We don’t have to eat meat; that’s our sacrifice. We throw the bread in the water. There is no real problem for us at our seders now though we started with this problem.
MP- To get to the question of the leader: essentially the Living Theatre is leading the Seder is leading. In taking on the role of leadership isn?t there a presumptive aristocratic element that I thought you were talking about earlier.
JM, I don’t like when people call me a leader but there is nothing I know how to do about it. I would never call myself such a thing. I don’t want to argue with you about whether you think I’m a leader or not.
MP- I’m concerned with how you feel about it.
JM- I feel I haven’t made our position clear to you. I think leadership is presumptive; I also think that about all of us that it’s really an obligation for all of us to see that each person fulfills their highest possibility.
That the people do anyway naturally. Now we should begin to create that morality. It is a question of morality: a practical question, For instance, Daniel Cohn-Bendit who thinks you have to have a certain amount of defensive violence, even more maybe, says: I don’t want to be disarmed, because I don’t want anybody to come up and attack me with a weapon and I have none.
It seems to me that there?s a new step in that thinking which he somehow couldn’t think even when I argued with him. What is the best way to assure his self that he is not going to be attacked with a weapon is to live in a disarmed society. You try to create a disarmed society so that no one will attack you because it’s one of the things that is socially unthinkable. Here it’s like ritual.
Every time we think it and reinforce the possibility, we?re like mothers feeding the children Good kool aid so when they drop a bit of arsenic in it- what was it they dropped in there?- it still looks the same, feels the same; you can do it. It’s just practice.
Ahinsa, that beautiful Hindu word for non-hurtfulness- which is what I’m saying: to make it taboo. Hurting each other is something that injures in a cosmic sense. I just wouldn?t do that.
This becomes a social inner reality for everybody. You don’t have to teach it anymore than you don’t have teach people how not to be cannibals anymore. You don?t have to make laws against cannibalism; it isn’t necessary; we don’t want to do that. In the same way we want to create that tabu. As I said to my parents, why did they have a Commandment that you should honer your father and mother and no commandment that says you should honor your child?
The love for the parent for the child is natural and taken for granted. The child questions, has to be taught to honor his guides. The child questions his relationship with his adult guides; the parent doesn’t question it because its bond with the child is the nature of parenting and nurturing.
MP- I saw quite a few early Living Theatre productions; I also saw quite a few later ones. It was different in 1968 than it was in 1958 Had there been a process by which all of you had decided to make that change?
JM- There were many stages in changing eras, periods, very different ambiences, very different traumatic experiences of traumatic changes, heartrending divisions, decisions that sometimes were made very quickly, sometimes took months of working out, becoming a collective. It was one that took years and years.
MP- The first breakdown that I saw between the audience and the actor was in The Connection.
JM- William Carlos Williams’ Many Lovers had the beginning of that. Before that, before that, there was a play that was the real forerunner of all of that, which was Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise which we had done very early, which in fact before we had first done it at the Living Theatre, did at the a dramatic workshop. A very important different direction was taken by Paul Goodman in Faustina.
In Faustina there was a real heavy break which I talk about a lot in my diaries- you might find them interesting to read- in which Paul Goodman describes a ritual murder. The Emperor Aurelius sacrifices a young gladiator allowing his blood to run over his wife?s body since he had been her lover. This would purge her of her passion for him for sure.
At the end of the play Paul Goodman had the actress who played who played Faustina stepped out and speak to the audience and say: my name is so and so- Judith Malina- the name of the actress was Julie Bovasso- I want to say to you that if you had believed one word of this play, if you had any feelings in you, you would have gone up on stage and struck that dagger away. Julie Bovasso said: ?I cannot say this speech.?
JM- She said: it’s against my nature; it?s against my theatrical ethics. I can’t do it. I said, is it because the words are not your words? Paul why don’t we re-write it? Make it your words. They sat around for days, trying to write something that she would be willing to say. She wasn’t in the end willing to say anything. She wasn’t even willing to stand up and say: my name is Julie Bovasso. That was only the first thing that she wasn’t willing to do. (laughs)
Once we determined that, we didn’t have to argue about the rest. Paul tried to rewrite it to say: I’d like to say a flew words for the playwright. She didn’t like the: I wanted her to say-it; she wouldn’t do it. She’s a very fine actress- one of the great ones- she wouldn’t do it.
We got another actress. She wouldn’t do it either. She was just a nobody. I mean, Julie Bovasso was a wonderful actress with a temperament. We cast some girl we had taken off the street and she wouldn?t do it. Perhaps she heard the other one didn?t; she wouldn’t d& it either.
I was really furious. Fin&ally one of the actors who played the witch did it. It was impossible to get actors to do this presentational thing. Yet the whole exploration of spectator-actor has been for us absolutely fundamental. Every day I”m working on new and other and different ways to create this unification between us and the other people. We find that in some plays we have had breakthroughs.
In some plays we make unsuccessful efforts; it seems to me that the relationship between spectator and performer is always a paradigm of the social problem, of human relationships.
MP- Or the covert lack of them.
JM- Especially in politics. in sex it’s hidden as you say. It?s what it shouldn’t be like; it?s like playing chess, which is one of the things that I have a little sermon against. I’m strongly exposed to chess. I think it trains the mind in a bad way. in one way it’s very good; it trains your mind for retention; it?s very good for that. In another way, it’s almost a pure form of competition; the emotion you have while you do it is a sheer desire to destroy.
MP- that?s why I quite it. I agree with you.
JM- You know, you are one of the few people I have ever known who admitted that. Julian and I felt it. Julian and I played chess. One day we felt the sensation; we realized we had it all the time when we played chess. We said suddenly in the middle of the game- we talked about having the feelings- we said we?ll never do this again. It was like throwing darts at each other. It was just something we would never do again. (laughs)
It’s a ritual that trains you in the art of structure but also in the Art of personal contempt. It relieves you of all social responsibility. Those puppets are like little people who get between you and the other person.
MP- They?ve never lived; yet they die and they come to a wooden mimicry of life again.
JM- You really sit down opposite this other person and you say to them in effect: now I’m going to prove to you that I?m smarter than you are. Now we will put up these little pieces, then we?ll prove which one of us is’ the smarter.
MP- But that is what is interesting. Between the desire to kill is the elegance and the moments in which chess can be very beautiful. There is a peculiar connection between beauty and a predatory desire to destroy which is exemplified in that game; that?s why it’s so incredibly seductive. It’s both beautiful and murderous.
JM- Well, the problem of beauty is a fundamental one; many of our Anarchist thinkers have written a lot about that. The tyranny of beauty is a very interesting modern subject; I agree with you. Yet I’m not sure that it isn’t true that truth is beauty and beauty truth; I’m not willing to abandon that high ideal.
It’s just that our definition of Beauty is too narrow. It’s not the definition- it’s the Perception- if our perception of beauty is too narrow, we limit ourselves in a terrible way. We limit the world around us.
MP- Maybe truth isn?t even more than marginally manifest; as Spenser says the truth often isn?t beautiful. The time when Elijah goes out into the desert he doesn’t hear a loud sound; he hears a still small voice; so does Moses. He hears a whispering.
IA- That kind of neural static.-
JM- That kind of neural lesion the Dianetics people call an engram. It?s a moment of pain which marks or imprints a certain instant. It?s an interesting idea out of a dated and otherwise outrageous theory, Dianetics. Yet the idea that which accompanies pain is particularly imprinted because pain is such a unique experience. The question of whether something can be learned without that painful experience is intriguing.
Certain uncomfortable things we bear one should always have candor about. I question it; I hope that the pain is not always necessary. Yet when I think of the actual learning process, when I think of my own learning process (chuckles) I haven?t escaped it. I am learning the lines of the Duchess of York. I get the part, I know that I am going to have to do it. There’s no way that I will learn the lines without suffering over how hard it is for me to learn them.
Yet there’s no reason why they can’t go into my head right away. I’ve got a good mind. I learn slowly, you know. I suffer, I struggle, I also know and accept that I suffer, l must struggle. I also know I don’t have to. I know I already know those lines; they don’t come out unless I say the lies over a hundred times. Sometimes you have to say the lines over a thousand times.
IA- Something came up when you were talking about chess and connecting it with ritual and the power of ritual; I was thinking about the cathartic and the anti-cathartic in theatre and ritual, especially in ritual theatre.
JM- Yes, the problem of pain; we?re talking about cathartics. There are fundamental problems of embracing pain and how we deal with evil in the world. There is the problem of hidden evil and evil in the face of us. Then there is the mysteriousness of the merciful good God. There’s certainly the problem of enduing pain in any learning process. Is it always necessary to suffer in order to learn? It’s a very interesting question.
The suffering doesn’t mean that you have to get hit over the head because you don?t know the answer. You just have to feel humiliated for a moment because you don?t know the answer.