Born in Manhattan's Washington Heights district, Beck was the younger of two boys born to Irving Beck, a motorcycle parts business owner and salesman, and Mabel Lucille Blum, a teacher. From an early age, he showed an interest in the theater and enjoyed being taken to plays, concerts, and operas by his parents. Beck attended the privileged Horace Mann School, where his classmates included William F. Buckley, Jr., and Jack Kerouac. At Horace Mann, Beck acted in numerous theatrical productions and began writings plays, stories, and poems. In 1942, he was admitted to Yale University, but dropped out in his first year. He later attended City College of New York from 1946 to 1949.
In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Beck met Judith Malina through a mutual acquaintance. The two became partners in both life and work. They married on 30 October 1948, and later had two children. Beck and Malina's dream was to start an experimental repertory company in which they could direct and act. In 1947 they legally incorporated The Living Theatre, which they launched using an inheritance of $6,000. They staged several productions by experimentalist writers such as Paul Goodman, Gertrude Stein, Luigi Pirandello, and others. The Living Theatre stages included the home of the Becks on West End Avenue, the Cherry Lane Theatre, a loft on 100th Street, and a building at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City.
In 1957 Beck and Malina spent thirty days in jail for refusing to participate in an air-raid defense drill, the first of twelve incidents in which they were arrested for various acts of civil disobedience. In 1961 Malina conceived the idea of a General Strike for Peace, which took place on 29 January 1962. The strike lasted a few days, as participants marched to the New York Office of the Atomic Energy Commission and to the United Nations, where the strikers spoke to U.S. and Soviet officials. Other Strike for Peace rallies occurred in the next few years, and Beck and Malina would be arrested at several of these demonstrations.
In the 1960s Beck and Malina formulated the mission of their theater. Their presentations would be imaginative, the casts would improvise, and the themes would reflect Beck and Malina's view of anarchy and pacifism. The Village Voice, which in 1959 awarded them the Lola D'Annunzio Award for their decade-long contribution to the off-Broadway movement, was a staunch supporter, and gave Living Theatre productions numerous positive reviews.
In 1961 The Living Theatre was asked to participate in the Theatre des Nations festival in Paris, where they staged their play Connection, in which a young actor by the name of Martin Sheen performed. The company won the Grand Prix of the Theatre des Nations, and the cast won a medal from the Paris Theatre Critics Circle for best acting. A year later, Beck and Malina's company went to the Theatre des Nations again. The French loved The Living Theatre productions, especially those in which the actors mingled with the audience before and during the performance. The mingling between cast and audience was to become a trademark of The Living Theatre, which in 1962 toured other European cities and established a European base.
In 1963 Malina directed The Brig, which dealt with the harsh life of a military prison. The play reinforced Beck's belief in the French visionary Antonin Artaud's idea of "the theatre of cruelty" ("a theatre in which the actors are like victims burning at the stake, signaling through the flames"), and confirmed The Living Theatre as a repertory company with a social and political agenda.
Beck and Malina had a strong following for their productions by the 1960s, but their theater was constantly in debt, and their actors were underpaid. Although Beck was able to obtain a nonprofit status on donations for The Living Theatre, he still needed to pay tax on ticket admissions, and ended up owing federal, state, and city taxes. By 1963, The Living Theatre was in financial trouble, owing monies to the landlord, the local power company, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Beck and Malina protested the federal government's seizure of theater properties for back payment of taxes, and their acts of civil disobedience again landed them in jail. In 1964 Beck and Malina were given an eleven-count felony indictment for preventing IRS agents from performing their duties.
Beck and Malina left the United States in 1964 to stage their production of The Brig in several European cities. Other productions performed by Beck and Malina's company in Europe were Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, The Maids, Frankenstein, and Antigone. While in Europe, Beck appeared as an actor in such films as Living and Glorious (1965), Amore, Amore (1966), Agonia (1967), Oedipus Rex (1967), Le Compromis (1968), Etre Libre (1968), and Paradise Now (1969).
Paradise Now was conceived in 1968 and was to be a whole new experience for The Living Theatre. Before it was filmed, it was performed on stage. It dealt with such topics as loss of Eden and the "resurrection of Native Americans," and included audience participation. In 1968 Beck and Malina, with their repertory company, returned to the United States for a two-week engagement at Yale. Paradise Now involved nudity both from the actors and audience, and after a performance, Beck, other actors, and some audience members were arrested for indecent exposure.
During the 1960s, Beck published the poetry collections Songs of the Revolution: One to Thirty-five (1963) and Twenty-one Songs of the Revolution (1969). Other writings included Revolution and Counterrevolution (1968), and Conversations with Julian Beck and Judith Malina (1969), edited by Jean-Jacques Lebel.
The Living Theatre company returned to Europe in 1969, and in the 1970s performed in Morocco, Brazil, and Mexico, where they were either received openly and praised for their productions or found themselves in trouble with the authorities. They continued to have money problems, and were bailed out by various supporters. They also remained politically active and returned to the United States in 1971 to perform in various cities. After more than seven years in Europe, from 1975 to 1983, The Living Theatre returned to New York. Beck had been diagnosed with cancer, but was well enough to film The Cotton Club, a Francis Ford Coppola film. Despite his illness, Beck appeared in a 1984 episode of the television show Miami Vice, and in the film Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986). Beck died of abdominal/colon cancer. Malina remarried in 1988 to Hanon Reznikov, and continued to run The Living Theatre in the early twenty-first century.
Writings on Beck and his career include John Tytell, The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage (1995). Also useful is Jean-Jacques Lebel, ed., Conversations with Julian Beck and Judith Malina (1969). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Sept. 1985).
"Beck, Julian." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beck-julian
"Beck, Julian." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Retrieved May 26, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beck-julian
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