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Autumn 2013

In January 1963, New York pacifist-anarchists Judith Malina and Julian Beck, co-founders of the Living Theatre, debuted a remarkable play called The Brig. The playwright was a former marine, Kenneth Brown, who had been incarcerated in a military brig for thirty days while stationed in Japan. In the brig, prisoners followed a strict sequence of routines, day in and day out, for the length of their incarceration. The goal was to strip them of their identity and instil unquestioning obedience. Each inmate was given a number and forced to answer to it. Punishment was to study the Guide for Marines to the letter while obeying rigid protocols of behaviour within a tightly confined space sectioned off by lines that could not be crossed without permission or an order to do so. Prisoners were screamed at, punched, and subjected to constant humiliation by the guards, who enforced a strict code of silence between inmates. Brown’s play presented a day in this brig, with all its attendant brutality.

The Living Theatre regarded their performance of The Brig as a political state- ment. This is clear from Malina’s director’s notes, published in 1964, in which she interprets the play as a transformative critique of society’s authoritarian structures. ‘Whether that structure calls itself a prison or a school or a factory or a family or a government’, she writes, ‘that structure asks each man what he can do for it, not what it can do for him, and for those who do not do for it, there is the pain of death or imprisonment, or social degradation, or the loss of animal rights’. Outlining her techniques for staging the marine brig’s ‘structure’ of psychological and physical cruelty, she underlined that her ambition was to radicalise people through the play. She also interpreted the play’s message as anarchist. The Brig’s brutalised marines and their guard-persecutors were united by the choice, at some juncture, to submit to authority. Each soldier had decided to ‘draw the line at that line’ and this was ‘the symbolic key of his repressed powers’ [Malina’s emphasis] and his suffering. In a free society no such line need ever be drawn by any individual. What inner force could free us to usher in such a society? ‘Love, the saving grace in everything human’, was the Living Theatre’s answer. In The Brig, Malina revealed, the Living Theatre ‘called on pity last, on basic human kinship first’ so that their audience may ‘know violence in the clear light of the kinship of our physical empathy’. When humanity grasps the truth of violence, she predicted, we will ‘confront the dimensions of the Structure, find its keystone, learn on what foundations it stands, and locate its doors. Then we will penetrate its locks and open the doors of all the jails.’

Anarchist Studies Vol 21 No 2