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The Living Theatre and the French 1968 Revolution: Of Political and Theatrical Crises

Emeline JOUVE


En 1968, Jean Vilar invita le Living Theatre à participer à la XXIIème édition du Festival d’Avignon. Cette invitation de la troupe anarchiste américaine s’inscrivait dans la dynamique d’ouverture initiée par Vilar désireux d’ouvrir son festival à la jeune génération et à l’expérimentation théâtrale. Cependant, suite à la révolution de mai à Paris, le festival de Vilar fut rabaissé au rang de « supermarché de la culture » par Jean-Jacques Lebel et les « enragés » dont le Living Theatre était proche et Avignon devient alors le théâtre d’une seconde révolution en cet été 68. Les conflits de mai et juillet à l’Odéon puis au Festival d’Avignon, où les théâtres devinrent les scènes de spectaculaires débats passionnés sur la mise en place d’une nouvelle société, ont démontré non seulement la synergie entre le politique et le théâtral mais ils ont également mis en lumière la dimension théâtrale de la politique. En dépit de l’importance du rôle joué par le Living Theatre lors de cette Révolution française de 1968, la participation de la compagnie américaine n’a pas été retenue par l’histoire officielle. Cette amnésie est symptomatique du traumatisme des illusions perdues que 68 a fini par incarner. Le cinquantième anniversaire de 1968 est l’occasion de lever le voile sur les épisodes oubliés de cette révolution et de remonter le temps et reconstituer la traversée révolutionnaire du Living Theatre.

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it isn’t enough to write poems to enlighten the intellectuals: for 400 years I labored under the deceptive theory that you could revolutionize the consciousness of the bourgeois or aristocracy thru the medium of art, and then they would transform the whole world… (The Life of the Theatre 45)

  • 1 In The Connection, a play about “nothingness” in which junkies wait for their drug dealer, the char (...)

1This conclusion that Julian Beck draws in his “Meditations 1969” contrasts with the early belief of the founders of the Living Theatre who created in New York City in 1947 a theatrical repertory company based on their trust in the power of the poem to reform society. Prior to 1968 with their 1959 success, The Connection, and before that with Faustina in 1952, the company started to slowly emancipate themselves from the power of the text and experiment with breaking down the barriers between the actors and the audience.1 After their eviction from their theatre on Fourteenth Street in New York in 1963, the Living Theatre left for Europe and performed where they were invited to perform. Abandoning the dream of a playhouse of their own to embark on a nomadic life marked another shift in their departure from a traditional approach to theatre. The progressive metamorphosis of their work toward the growing inclusion of the audience in the theatrical creation was in tune with their pacifist anarchist convictions and they saw their theatre as “revolutionary”: “the revolutionary theatre of our decade,” Julian Beck wrote in 1967, “not only sets about changing the dramatic forms; it also aims at unlocking and unblocking the instinctivity that 10,000 years of civilization have repressed” (in Entretiens avec le Living Theatre 259, Trans. J. McAlleer).

  • 2 The term enrages or “enraged” initially designated a specific branch of the rebellion but it then c (...)

2Both the Paris revolution of May 1968 and the Avignon Festival protests of July acted as catalysts in affirming the political mission of The Living Theatre's performances, the necessity of playing for and with an audience which did not usually attend the theatre now became pressing. The theatricality of the revolution led by the French enragés gave the American troupe the opportunity to fully enact their revolutionary theatre.2

3The Living Theatre had been invited in November 1967 by Jean Vilar, to present two plays and a creation in the coming festival. The majority of the troupe arrived in Avignon in May to work on their new play, Paradise Now, but Julian Beck and Judith Malina stopped first in Paris to take part in the protests. A wind of change was blowing through France, the Revolution was underway, opening its arms to what Beck defined in 1969 as the “Theatre of Changes” (The Life of the Theatre 46). I would argue that Paradise Now was a turning point in the company’s definition of the concept of “Theatre of Changes.” Prior to that creation, the Living Theatre toured Europe with plays that aimed to change society by denouncing its flaws for the spectators to react and take steps. This new production inaugurated a new phase in that, as we are going to see, the performance was meant to actually change the spectators themselves so that a better society could be created from these individual transformations.

4This revolutionary crisis was political and theatrical: The Odéon and Avignon crises of May and July, when theatres became the stages of spectacular heated debates about the creation of a new society, demonstrated the synergy between the political and the theatrical by simultaneously enhancing the theatricality of politics and the politics of theatre. Interestingly (and paradoxically), in spite of the importance of the part played by The Living Theatre in this French Revolution of 1968, official history has been oblivious of the involvement of the American company. This amnesia is symptomatic of the trauma of the lost utopian dreams which 1968 came to represent. The fifty anniversary of the revolution of 1968 is the occasion to lift the veil on the forgotten episodes of this historical moment. Original primary sources of different natures (personal notes, letters, newspaper articles, etc.) were digged up and interviews with actors from that period were conducted to further discover about the participation of The Living Theatre and turn back the clock.

1. May 1968 & the Odéon Crisis: “l’imagination au pouvoir

Théâtre de l’Odéon (Paris) occupied by the enragés

Théâtre de l’Odéon (Paris) occupied by the enragés

© Eric Koch / Anefo

  • 3 The performative power of words is based on John Langshaw Austin’s theory in How to do things with (...)

5In 1968, revolutions broke out in different parts of the world as the young generation was craving for change. In France, young people worried about their future, wanted to deconstruct the paternalistic hierarchical structure which President Charles de Gaulle had come to embody, and put an end to capitalism. Free expression became central: “something unheard of took place; we started taking to each other” as French scholar Michel de Certeau wrote in La Prise de parole (7, Trans. J.M.). As the walls of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) remind us, the rebels, who had tagged the slogan “power to the imagination,” extolled imagination as the ultimate power; Jean-Paul Sartre praised the power of imagination of that generation which he considered was without precedent (in Cohen-Solal 587). The myriad of slogans printed on posters, tracts or painted on walls competing in wit, or the events that took place in universities, factories, but also in theatres, proved indeed that the enragés were imaginative and that they viewed politics as a creative process. In 1969, in an interview with Richard Schechner, Judith Malina underlines the poetic dimension of this French revolution: “Parisian revolutionary kids who are so beautiful that they can write poetry on the walls and they can play Paradise Now like no other audience” (in The Drama Review 33). A noticeable characteristic of this revolution was thus its poetic dimension: free expression and imagination became performative as the rebels were not only “doing” the revolution with “words,” but the words were translated into concrete actions that were meant to rally forces against the established order which they attempted to overturn.3 Poetical, this revolution was also theatrical. Denouncing the “Society of the Spectacle,” along with Guy Debord and the Situationists, the young discontents had nevertheless a shrewd sense of the spectacular as shown by the oratory talents of leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Alain Geismar, Jacques Sauvageot or Jean-Jacques Lebel, or as their setting up of public gatherings or demonstrations illustrated.

6The occupation of the Odéon, that was then the Théâtre de France, and the subsequent protests against the Avignon Festival, were highly symbolic of the desire to put an end to the conventional theatrical culture and create a new one that would be revolutionary both in form and content. The occupation of the National Theatre under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault was decided on May 14th and took effect on the following day. It was initiated partly by the architect Paul Virilio and the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, a close friend of the Becks with whom he had spent time in Cefalù, Italy, where they had started working on Paradise Now just before their departure for France. On the tracts by the Comité d’Action Révolutionnaire (CAR) calling for the occupation of the theatre, one could read:


The workers’ and students’ revolutionary struggle which began in the street, is now spreading to the workplace, and infiltrating the pseudo values of the consumer society. Yesterday, Sud Aviation in Nantes; today, the so-called Théâtre de France, the Odéon. The theatre, the cinema, art and literature etc., have all become industries under the control of an elite bent on alienation and profiteering. Sabotage the cultural industry! Occupy and destroy the institutions! Reinvent life! You are art! You are the revolution! Free entry to the former Théâtre de France from today on! (Leaflet from the CAR, May, 17th, 1968, qt. in Loyer 226-7, Trans. J.M.)

7The shift from the injunction “power to the imagination” to the assertion “imagination is taking over” shows that the revolution was now in full swing: the occupation of the Odéon was emblematic of the success of the rebellion of May which overturned the cultural institutions in the name of the people. Barrault, who had received from the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, the order to engage in dialogue with the rebels, offered no resistance, and opened the doors of what became then the “ex-théâtre de France” (former Théâtre de France). More than three thousand people, including Julian Beck and Judith Malina, occupied the theatre that could host only one thousand (Rauch 193).

  • 4 On March 20th, 1968, activists from the Comité Vietnam National (CVN), who defended the rights of t (...)
  • 5 On May, 16th, Daniel Cohn-Bendid went to the Odéon to publically express his disdain towards the Th (...)
  • 6 In his memoir, Jean-Louis Barrault wrote that when he met The Living Theatre in 1966, he and the Be (...)

8When Barrault saw Beck, he ironically greeted him: “Hi Julian! Wonderful happening, a merveilleux happening, don’t you think?” (Barrault in Ravignant 59, Trans. J.M.). The Living had been invited to the Odéon by Barrault in 1966 when they performed the Brig and Mysteries and Smaller Pieces. The Brig depicted life in a US Marine Corps military prison and denounced the violence of the military system. The play, which received three Obie Awards in 1964, was first performed in May 1963 in New York and ran for five months before the eviction of the company from their theatre on Fourteenth Street. The reason given by the Internal Revenue Service was the company’s failure to pay their taxes but, as John Tytell writes, “most of the company believed that the IRS seizure had just been a pretext and that actually The Living Theatre was being harassed for daring to perform a play offensive to the Marine Corps” (189). The young French generation was sensitive to the Vietnam War and denounced the American offensive policy. The Movement of 22nd March 1968, at the origins of the rebellion of May, was in fact initiated by students from the University of Nanterre as a reaction to the arrest of a group of Anti-Vietnam war activists.4 In programming The Brig, Barrault seemed thus in tune with the students’ concerns, their interest for the artistic avant-garde and their political standpoints. Barrault believed that his complicity with the younger generation had been further evidenced in 1967 when a group of students led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit opposed the demonstration of the hard right wing which demanded the banning of The Screens by Jean Genet on account of its denunciation of the French army’s attitude in Algeria (Cohn-Bendit 32). The director of the Odéon had thus not foreseen the attacks he faced in May 1968 and which made him tragically conclude, in response to Cohn-Bendit’s diatribe, that “Barrault [was] dead” (Ravignant 152, Trans. J.M.).5 The disdain of the students during the occupation of the Odéon and the participation in the protest of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, whom he believed were his “friends,” as he wrote in his memoir, was a great blow to Jean-Louis Barrault.6

9In her Le Théâtre en France en 1968, Marie-Ange Rauch reports a quarrel between Barrault, Beck and the stage director Raymond Rouleau. Rouleau argued for the suspension of the shows whereas Beck was in favour of running the plays to support the strikers. Rauch interprets Beck’s position as evidence of his embarrassment since The Living Theatre was about to leave for Avignon where the troupe was to perform (197). The chronology of the events established by the Festival team reports that Paul Puaux, Jean Vilar’s right-hand man, got in touch with Beck when he was in Paris and the latter told him over the phone that the company would play since performing was their way of “taking part in the protest” (Chronologie). Due to the strikes, participation in the Festival by the French troupes (the companies of Antoine Bourseiller, Roger Planchon, Jorge Lavelli) was cancelled, and only the foreign troupes, the Ballet du XXème siècle directed by Maurice Béjart and The Living Theatre, would be eventually programmed. Beck and Malina were aware of the paradox they faced and when, in 1968 at the Odéon, Beck made a statement about the importance of occupying the theatre, he paid tribute to its director who had welcomed them two years before and acknowledged their own enslavement to the bourgeois system:

It is important to occupy the Odéon, because of its proximity to the Latin quarter, but above all because it is a centre of highly-developed talent, the talent of the company run by Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault. They, like myself, are after all, slaves of the State. And that leads us to the idea that we should immediately change our form of action. It must be said: The Living Theatre has accepted engagements in Cultural Centers and bourgeois theatres etc. We should be in the street! We need to go towards the man in the street so that he can be made aware of his potential for being (in Arrabal 162, Trans. J.M.)

10The Living Theatre did indeed accept invitations by cultural institutions now deemed elitist, and they did not refuse to perform in July at the Festival for which they were paid even though the amount was considered very low by Beck who declared in 1969 that “they paid [the company] very little money” (The Drama Review 33). The call to the streets prefigured their attempt to perform outside the Cloître des Carmes in Avignon. In his speech, Beck went on to praise the occupation of the Odéon which gave new impetus to their “Theatre of Changes”:

What is happening here is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a theatre. For twenty years we have been calling for revolution, and we think that the proof of our success would be the moment the revolution began. But it must be remembered: this is only the beginning. The revolution must go on; that is the crux of the matter (in Arrabal 162-3, Trans. J.M.)

11A marvelous performance, the enactment of the power of the imagination, the revolution was, in turn, seen as the necessary condition for The Living Theatre to reach its theatrical objectives. From a practical artistic viewpoint, the occupation of the Odeon did not influence the company’s creative process, which had started in Italy months ago and which the members of the company already present in Avignon in May were developing, but it confirmed their artistic revolutionary enterprise. All of the sudden, at the Odéon, the dream of a new society was possible for Beck and Malina and the belief that a performance could carry out the transformation of the world to a greater extent through the transformation of the spectator-citizen became more tangible.

2. Festival in Crisis: Théâtre Populaire or Cultural Supermarket?

The Living Theatre in Avignon with Jean-Jacques Lebel (right)

The Living Theatre in Avignon with Jean-Jacques Lebel (right)

© Jean-Marc Peytavin

  • 7 The absence of legal status for the company was in tune with the anarchist philosophy of the group (...)

12In a letter from Cefalù written on May 1st 1968, Julian Beck announced to Paul Puaux the unexpected arrival of the troupe on May 13th, about two months early because of changes to their programme. On account of their dire financial situation, the troupe asked the Festival team to secure free lodgings for the forty members. This initially appeared impossible as Puaux explained to Beck over the phone on May 10th, but a solution was eventually found and an abandoned high school, the Lycée Mistral, was put at the company’s disposal (Chronologie). The contract setting out the terms of the Living Theatre’s participation in the Festival was signed by Julian Beck and the Mayor of Avignon in March, a crucial element to understand the events of the following months: the Festival had no legal identity as such, and the town supplied the legal structure and was thus the official organizer of the event which was, in practice, coordinated by Vilar and his team. On the other hand, the Living, like the Festival, did not have a legal status, but was represented by Julian Beck who signed in his name on behalf of the company.7 Shortly after the arrival of the Becks in Avignon, enragés from Paris paid visits to the Living at the Lycée Mistral. In the 1969 interview with Schechner, Beck remembers:

[Parisian revolutionary kids] came to Avignon to disrupt the Festival, to withdraw. Why did we continue this capitalist thing? We kept saying Paradise Now was our contribution to the revolution. Even though we knew we were caught in the same trap that the rest of the world is caught in. (The Drama Review 33)

13Although Jean-Jacques Lebel told me in March 2017 that he could not remember precisely how the idea of carrying on the revolution in Avignon came about, he confided that he believed that the impulse came from Beck and Malina who would then have proposed to the enragés to follow them (Jouve).

14Like Barrault’s theatre, Vilar’s festival was denounced as bourgeois. In his Procès du festival d’Avignon. Supermarché de la Culture published in 1968 just after the events of July, Lebel presented the criticisms directed against the Festival: Vilar’s “capitalist and technocratic” approach to art, the close relationship between the organizers and the Communist party, and the complicity between the Mayor who banned performances of Paradise Now and the Festival team (11). These attacks were considered unfair to the organizers of the Festival for whom that theatrical event was the implementation of Vilar’s dream of a théâtre populaire which was part of the democratization and decentralization effort initiated by Jeanne Laurent for the French government in 1946. Vilar’s objectives were to offer theatre productions of high artistic quality outside of Paris at a reasonable price to make theatre accessible to people who did not have access to art. Besides, for the last two years, the Festival had made its own revolution by, notably, opening up its programme to arts other than theatre, and to young artists. In the wake of Charles de Gaulle’s announcement of his decision to dissolve the Assembly on May 30th, Vilar wrote to Malraux to inform him that his political conscience obliged him to eventually refuse the government’s proposition to be in charge of the project of an opéra populaire on which he had already started to work: “the President’s address, broadcast on May 30th obliges me in conscience to go back on the agreement in principle I previously gave” (Jean Vilar par lui-même 291, Trans. J.M.). Vilar, who had opened his Festival to young artists and who had invited the Living Theatre, believed that Avignon would be a great forum for defiant youth, and on June 12th, he declared to a journalist of the Nouvel Observateur that he “wished to transform Avignon into a place of protest made international by the presence of large numbers of young people” (Trans. J.M.). Vilar did not anticipate the controversy which he was to face in July. Like the members of the Living who kept saying Paradise Now was their contribution to the revolution, the Festival team believed that maintaining the event was also their contribution against authoritarianism. When Beck underlined in 1969 the paradox of their participation, Vilar, that same year, concluded the press conference in which he took stock of the 22nd Festival by saying that if his Festival had been a commercial enterprise, he would have resigned:

If I had thought that our organisation was pointless, mechanical, commercial, subject to the laws of capitalism – either unbridled or regulated – or that it was at the origin of a ‘supermarket’, it is obvious that I who speak to you, would stand down. There is no question of that, either now or last summer. There is at least one theatre company chief who has understood this, my friend Julian Beck. (Le Théâtre, service public 500)

15When I met Melly Puaux, the wife of Paul Puaux who was also involved in the organization of the Festival in 1968, she picked up on these closing words from the conference and underlined the irony of Vilar’s reference to Beck as his “friend” (Jouve).

16Although demonstrations had already been organized by the enragés from the very opening of the Festival, the event that really stirred the rebellion was the banning of the amateur play La Paillasse aux seins nues (a metaphoric title comparing the French Republic to a prostitute) that was supposed to be staged outside Avignon in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The Prefect of the Gard forbade the performance of the company Le Chêne Noir because he feared that the play could “pose a serious threat to public order” (Arrêté du Préfet du Gard). This official decision was denounced as censorship by both the protesters and the organizers of the Festival. Vilar’s team and The Living Theatre had however contrasting visions of how to express their discontent. The American company decided to cancel their performance of Antigone whereas Vilar believed that performing Bertolt Brecht’s work about rebellion was an act of resistance in that context. If Beck had initially explained to Puaux that his company would perform in Avignon as it was their way of “taking part in the protest”, The Living Theatre was now adopting another stand (Chronologie). They would however resume the performances the following day. The Living Theatre’s oscillation between refusing to perform and performing as a political act, was recurrent throughout this month of July. On July 20th, The Living Theatre threatened not to perform Antigone if free extra tickets were not given to people who had not booked the show that was already sold out. The play was eventually performed. On July 24th, after the company had received the rest of their salary from the Festival, the première of Paradise Now was also threatened with cancellation that evening because, once again, the organizers of the Festival refused to let people into the Cloître des Carmes without tickets. The arguments put forward by Vilar were firstly about security, since the venue could host only a limited number of people and, secondly, about respect for those who had paid for their seats. While the demonstrators were chanting “Vilar, Bejar, Salazar” comparing thus the director of the Festival and the choreographer to the Portuguese dictator, Beck was calling on people to “Free the theatre!” The show eventually took place and ended in the street, which led to complaints by the inhabitants to the Mayor who asked for the play to be cancelled. It should be said that the chart on which the performance was based and which was distributed to the public did mention the fact that “the street” was the ultimate stage of the performance so, as the official signatory of the contract with Beck, the Mayor should have known that the final rung of Paradise Now took place outside the theatre.

Chart of the Paradise Now

Chart of the Paradise Now

© Living Theatre

17Another element which explains the position of the Mayor is that his people were shocked by excerpts of the play on the national TV channel which displayed naked bodies lasciviously piling up on one another. Vilar opposed the ban and when a court bailiff came to prevent the performance of the 26th from taking place, the festival team argued their case and Paradise Now did take place (Chronologie). On July 27th, the Becks met with Henri Duffaut who asked them to substitute their creation with another play. The local newspaper, Le Dauphiné Libéré, published an interview with the Becks who, after their confrontation with the Mayor, told the journalist that they would yield to the official’s demand and replace Paradise Now. That evening, the company went to meet the inhabitants of Louis Gros, a working class quarter of Avignon, and explained their desire to play free of charge for the population; on the next day, The Living Theatre issued an eleven point declaration to announce their decision to leave the Festival. The Living accused the City of Avignon of censorship, and denounced its capitalist approach to art which did not comply with the company principles, a posture that was severely criticized by The Living Theatre’s detractors who argued that the company took the money while demanding free performances, and left without having presented the number of performances for which they had been paid. On July 30th the company left for Châteauvallon where free performances of Paradise Now were to be given. The police evicted the members from the Lycée Mistral, a tactic that Jean Vilar publicly condemned.

18The departure of the Living put an end to the Avignon crisis: the enragés also left and the Festival went on until August 14th with only minor incidents. This sudden dwindling of the revolution of July may be interpreted as the Living’s failure to change society with their performances or as Vilar’s inability to take into consideration the demands of the French rebels who, according to the director in a 1969 TV interview, did not actually offer any concrete solutions to transform the Festival for the better. The oscillation of the troupe between the necessity of performing and that of not performing demonstrates the complexity of the dynamics between art and politics and points up the limits of “Revolutionary theatre.” It may be argued, however, that the French 1968 revolution proved Beck right when he declared at the Odéon that “we think that the proof of our success would be the moment the revolution began” (in Arrabal 161, Trans. J.M.). Paradoxically, in spite of what could be considered as their political shortcomings, The Living Theatre did succeed theatrically as they did revolutionize the theatrical form: the revolution gave the company the impetus to explore the deconstruction of traditional patterns to establish a closer relationship with the audience to an extent that they had never envisaged before.

3. Paradise Now & the Crisis of Drama

Paradise Now by the Living Theatre at the Cloître des Carmes

Paradise Now by the Living Theatre at the Cloître des Carmes

© Jean-Marc Peytavin

19Artistic movements are the reflections of social and political crises. To reflect public changes, art forms regenerate themselves. Artists keep questioning the relevance of traditional aesthetic patterns to represent the public and the private or, in other words, the national and personal concerns of their contemporaries. Theatre “whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet explains to his players in the second scene of Act III, reflects the series of crises which have been shaping history both socially and aesthetically. Modern drama, as demonstrated by Ludwig Lewisohn, Peter Szondi, Robert Brustein, Robert Abirached, or Jean-Pierre Sarrazac among other eminent scholars, has been defined as a “drama of crisis” in that the playwrights were eager to renew the dramatic form as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the post-industrial revolution era which had shattered the progressive dreams of social and political equality and justice.

  • 8 If the American, French and German scholars mentioned here have all advanced the argument of the “c (...)

20Our age of post-modernism and its “crisis of representation” has given birth to post-dramatic theatre which not only deconstructs reality but also its very representation. In 1999, the year Hans-Thies Lehmann published in Germany his seminal Postdramatic Theatre, Emile Copfermann passed away, leaving behind him a book which turned out to be one of the early ancestors of the postdramatic theory.8 In his 1972 work significantly entitled La Mise en crise théâtrale, the French intellectual argues that contemporary theatre posits itself as “a place for staging the sort of crisis which allows its positive elements to emerge, all the better to generate a therapeutic cure by challenging either the individual theatre-goer or the underlying conditions which form the reified consciousness of the time” (7). Copfermann’s vision is inscribed in the very specific Artaudian and Brechtian paradigms and is representative of the avant-gardist political theatre of the 1970s of which The Living Theatre is emblematic. Politically, the works of The Living Theatre were responses to what Hannah Arendt identifies as “the crisis in culture” in her 1961 book Between Past and Future. Echoing Hamlet’s mirror metaphor, Julian Beck wrote in his history of the company: “the theatre is a mirror of the world. We would clean the mirror” (“History of the Avant-Garde”). The American troupe did clean the mirror to create an original theatrical pattern removed from the modern tradition in the hope of eventually transforming the world. In Mel Gordon’s words, The Living Theatre invented “a contemporary post-modern Theatre of Cruelty” (19, Trans. J.M.).

21The Avignon creation, Paradise Now, appeared for the company as their great theatrical achievement: “in this work,” Beck explained, “we suddenly found that we made, at last, what was for us the first truly personally satisfying breakthrough in form” (Yale/theatre 22). In his January 18th, 1968 letter to Paul Puaux, Beck included a description of what their collective play Paradise Now would be:

The Living has chosen the theme of Paradise Now because we are anxious to balance the five plays now in our repertory, all of which deal with the horror of contemporary civilization, with a more hopeful and optimistic work, a work of joy, presenting something toward which the spectator-participant can reach as opposed to something which makes him recoil in terror …. The form of the work is based on the thesis that society will not change until the form or the culture changes. Therefore we seek fresh ways of being. (« Présentation de Paradise Now »)

22The shifting from a negative (terror) to a positive (joy) theme is illustrative of the internal crisis the company was going through: through the metamorphosis in “form,” the Living no longer aimed to denounce social and political flaws but rather to invite the audience to embark on a journey towards personal inner changes, so as to be prepared to take action in the public sphere and make the revolution. Paradise Now was thus a prelude to the public revolution, a preparation for the Revolutionary Man that is the New Man who, thanks to his enlightening theatre experience, will engage in the non-violent struggle to change society. Although the Living had experimented with the “spectator-participant” paradigm in the last scene of the first 1964 production of Mysteries on Boulevard Raspail in Paris, they quickly abandoned what they called “free theatre” defined in Beck’s The Life of the Theatre as “improvisation unchained,” “a situation in which performers and public get the taste of freedom” (83). If the company gave up on free theatre until 1968, it was because the audience was not ready, and misbehaved during the show, as the founders told Pierre Biner (93). From Beck’s declaration, previously quoted, we may surmise that the revolutionary French context offered the troupe what they saw as the perfect background to re-experiment with their “improvisation unchained” which required an active participation from the audience.

23In order to prepare individuals – the theatre-goers – for the Revolution, the play is structured in eight acts called “rungs” – like the rungs of a ladder – to reach Paradise. These rungs are themselves structured as frameworks of improvisation for the spectators to go through with the help of the actors: “Rung I of Good and Evil” is an invitation to go back to our primitive roots; Rung II, “the Rung of Prayer”, sets the goal of the revolution that is to get to an anarchist Paradise; Rung III, “the Rung of Teaching”, is about the organization of the forces of the revolution; Rung IV, “the Rung of the Way”, Rung V “the Rung of Redemption” and Rung VI “The Rung of Love” are about the social elements (violence, capitalism, racism) to come to terms with in order to make a success of the revolution; Rung VII, “The Rung of Heaven and Earth”, offers glimpses of the post-revolutionary world; Rung VIII, “The Rung of God and Man”, is about the ultimate change that the New Man has to go through that is his reconciliation with death. The experiences the audience goes through were conceived as a “voyage” which was intellectual, physical and spiritual. The improvisations are of three different natures:

Each rung consists of a Rite, a Vision, and an Action which lead to the fulfillment of an aspect of The Revolution.

The Rites are physical/spiritual/ritual ceremonies which culminate with a Flashout.

The visions are cerebral. They are images, symbols, dreams.

The awareness which issues from the experience of the Rite and the awareness which issues from the experience of the Vision merge to precipitate the Action.

The Actions are enactments of political conditions performed by the spectators and the actors.

These conditions are specified as taking place in a particular city but lead to revolutionary action here and now.

The Rites and Visions are performed by the actors, but the Actions are introduced by the actors and are performed by the public with the help of the actors (Malina and Beck 5).

24The Living Theatre reconstructed the approach to acting by mixing different techniques which they borrowed from Kabbalah, Tantric, Hasidic teaching and I Ching. The spiritual approach to acting was new. After Stanislaski’s psychological approach, Artaud’s subconscious traumatic approach and Grotowski’s organic one, the American company was experimenting with different kinds of spirituality, that are religious processes of “re-formation [which] is aimed at the recovery of the original form of man, the image of God” (Waaijman 463).This spiritual-religious approach was very much in tune with their attempts to awake members of the audience to their new selves, to the state of the modern Adam Kadmon (the original man in Kabbalah) as the Chart of the show made clear. The spectators’ theatrical and spiritual journey ends in the street where Action VIII of the final Rung takes place. This transition from the playhouse out to the street, the public space, makes the political public outreach of the theatrical event a reality.

25If I bluntly argued that the relative failure of the Avignon 1968 revolution proved that the “whole world” could not be “transform[ed]” “thru the medium of art” – a view which seems to be confirmed by the Living Theatre’s USA tour –, the attempt to censor the play or, more generally, the hostility expressed by officials, in France but also in their homeland, may nevertheless be interpreted as the evidence of the political threat which such a theatrical form represented (Beck Life of the Theatre 45).The downfall of the Living Theatre would have thus been their relations with the audience: they had not been able to prepare the spectators “for action”, to transform them into Revolutionary Men. The difficulty in having a receptive audience was in fact aired by the founders of company themselves. In an exchange with Pierre Biner in 1968 prior to the early production of Paradise Now, Judith Malina referred to what she called the “non-paradisiac audience” that was the audience that lived in a pre-revolutionary world and who were taken aback by their way of approaching interaction and who would thus, “for the majority,” react in “a stupid way.” She however told Biner that she did believe that an “ideal audience” that would be “receptive” existed and that was the reason why they pursued their work (93-94). When discussing the issue of spectators with Robert Brustein during a debate hosted at the Experimental Theatre of the Yale School of Drama on September 1968, Julian Beck took up the issue of spectators who did not get involved in the action: “those members of the public who do not participate have the opportunity of feeling the separation, observing the separation, questioning the separation, and this too is a form of activity which the spectator has rarely, I imagine, been subjected to in theatre” (Yale/theatre 23). By nuancing the difficulty of prodding the whole audience into action and highlighting the indirect benefits of remaining passive, Beck somehow confessed that they did not meet their initial political expectations, but it does confirm that the theatre experience was indeed original as audiences were “subjected” to a non-traditional experience “in theatre.”

26After the departure of the Living from Avignon, Jean-Marc Peytavin, who spent a lot of time with the Living at the Lycée Mistral, tagged on a wall “Imagination didn’t take over, but we’re happy all the same” (in Benedetto 199, Trans. J.M.). This sentence which grasps the ambivalent dynamic of the post-revolution, resonates with the American company’s enterprise: theatre did not manage to take political power but there was nevertheless the satisfaction of having invented a new way of approaching the audience and thus by extension life itself. If the “Theatre of Changes” had therefore not managed to radically “transform the world”, Paradise Now changed the course of the history of theatre by opening new ways of performing the world (both in the sense of representing the world and acting upon it) (The Life in the Theatre 45). Although, after 1968 the troupe split on account of the members’ differing views, the founders did follow their dream to redeem society through art, and travelled to Brazil to make their stand against dictatorship. The experience of the Living Theatre makes us wonder if the political failure of theatre is not, after all, due to the theatricality of politics.

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1 In The Connection, a play about “nothingness” in which junkies wait for their drug dealer, the characters-actors mingled with the members of the audience and interacted with them. In Faustina, one of the earlier attempts at interacting with the audience, the eponymous character directly addressed the spectators.

2 The term enrages or “enraged” initially designated a specific branch of the rebellion but it then came to refer to any young rebels that revolted against what they saw as the authoritarian government of President Charles de Gaulle.

3 The performative power of words is based on John Langshaw Austin’s theory in How to do things with Words. In their work, When Poetry Ruled the Streets, Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman also emphasize the poetic dimension of the French May 1968 events.

4 On March 20th, 1968, activists from the Comité Vietnam National (CVN), who defended the rights of the Vietnam people against American imperialism, broke into the headquarters of American Express in Paris and were arrested. As a response to the arrests, a group of students from Nanterre organized themselves into a committee demanding the release of the CVN activists. The group, under the leadership of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, managed to get into the university boardroom and declared Nanterre an autonomous “people's university”.

5 On May, 16th, Daniel Cohn-Bendid went to the Odéon to publically express his disdain towards the Théâtre de France which he defined as a “symbol of the Gaullist bourgeois culture.” Barrault reacted vividly to his speech and declared that he was no longer the director of the place and therefore, he was dead.

6 In his memoir, Jean-Louis Barrault wrote that when he met The Living Theatre in 1966, he and the Becks became friends very spontaneously. He added that he had the feeling that he was one of them (393).

7 The absence of legal status for the company was in tune with the anarchist philosophy of the group who left the USA and abandoned the desire to own a theatre to free themselves from bureaucracy. However, the fact that Beck was the one who would sign in the name of the other members may be seen as paradoxical as it implied some kind of hierarchy within the community. The difficulty to fully succeed in building up a horizontal collective with no leaders has often been expressed by Beck and Malina who, in the end, represented the group and therefore led the group.

8 If the American, French and German scholars mentioned here have all advanced the argument of the “crisis of drama” to explain the mutations of theatre by the end of the 19th century, their approaches to this concept varies in nature. Confer (by chronological order) Ludwig Lewisohn, The Drama and the Stage (1922); Peter Szondi, Theorie des modernen Dramas (1956); Robert Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt (1991); Jean-Pierre Sarrazac, Théâtres Intimes (1992); Robert Abirached; La Crise du personage dans le theatre moderne (1994).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Théâtre de l’Odéon (Paris) occupied by the enragés
Crédits © Eric Koch / Anefo
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre The Living Theatre in Avignon with Jean-Jacques Lebel (right)
Crédits © Jean-Marc Peytavin
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Titre Chart of the Paradise Now
Crédits © Living Theatre
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Paradise Now by the Living Theatre at the Cloître des Carmes
Crédits © Jean-Marc Peytavin
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
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Emeline JOUVE, « The Living Theatre and the French 1968 Revolution: Of Political and Theatrical Crises »E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 23 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Emeline JOUVE

INU Champollion/Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès
Emeline Jouve is Assistant Professor of American Literature and Culture at Champollion University and Toulouse Jean-Jaurès University (France). She is the Vice-President of the International Susan Glaspell Society. He work focuses on the North-American “theatre of revolt” of the 20th and 21th century. Emeline co-edited Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and “A Jury of Her Peers”: Centennial Essays, Interviews, and Adaptations with Martha C. Carpentier (McFarland, 2015), Unspeakable Acts: Murder by Women (Peter Lang, 2016) and Chronique judiciaire et fictionnalisation du procès (Marre et Martin, 2017). Her book Susan Glaspell’s Poetics and Politics of Rebellion was published in 2017 by the University of Iowa Press and Avignon 68 & le Living Theatre. Mémoires d’une revolution was released in May 2017 (Edition Deuxième Époque). Emeline Jouve is the editor of “Ariel’s Corner: theatre” for the peer-reviewed e-journal Miranda and the co-founder of The American Theatre Project.

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