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Chronicles: Revolution at Cherry Lane

Image from New York Daily Photo

Image from New York Daily Photo Blog

Housed in a former farmhouse-turned brewery-turned industrial factory is the oldest continually-running Off-Broadway theater in New York City.  Since its 1924 founding by Edna St. Vincent Millay and friends, the Cherry Lane Theatre has hosted performances involving an illustrious string of historical treasures (considering its budget and size) such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett and modern personalities like Barbra Streisand and Jerry Stiller.
 
But it was its role as the home to The Living Theatre in the 1950s, an artistic movement helmed by actor Judith Malina and her poet/abstract expressionist painter husband Julian Beck, that cemented Cherry Lane with a reputation as a hotbed of avant garde culture.  Sharing similar aggression and viewpoints regarding politics, the establishment and drug use with their Beat contemporaries, the Malina and Beck promised to provide an alternative to Broadway-to create a breathing repertory that “honestly” portrayed humanity and its dilemmas.  Their Living Theatre was specifically pioneering in poetic drama, launching performances of works by European and modernist U.S. writers, including Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein.

Shortly after viewing the Living Theatre’s production of Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, American writer William Carlos Williams sent the Malina and Beck a letter:  ”I am walking in a dream, the aftermath of what I saw and heard at your Cherry Lane Theatre last evening…It is so far above the commercial theatre that I tremble to think it may fade and disappear.”
 
The Living Theater began to build critical success through its Evening of Bohemian Theatre (which included Picasso’s surrealist Desire Trapped by the Tail, Stein’s Ladies’ Voices, and Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes) and performances by experimental musician John Cage and poet Dylan Thomas.  The Malina and Beck’s theatrical dream was gaining traction and piquing the public’s and critics’ interest in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway as legitimate artistic outlets.
 
However, in 1952, William Carlos Williams’ fears eventually proved true; after three performances of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and The Heroes by John Ashbury, the NYC Fire Department shut down the Cherry Lane due to a violation of safety codes.  The Off-Broadway community maintained that the landlord turned the theatre in to the authorities over the repeated use of the word “shit” in Ubu Roi but regardless of protests, the Living Theater was homeless. Left hopping from theater to theater (and being shut down over and over), their productions finally found a permanent home in 1990 at 19-21 Clinton Street in the Lower East Side.
 
Cherry Lane Theatre, the place where Malina and Beck “made [their] initial statements,” and which now also includes the Cherry Lane Studio, a laboratory to support burgeoning playwrights, continues to provide the irreverent and anti-commercial productions that the New York couple knew it could.
 
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, New York, NY – (212) 727-3673

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