I saw him first as Marcus Aurelius in Paul Goodman’s play,
Faustina. Prester John’s company was an anarchist group performing
great theater in a freezing-cold artist’s’ loft on 8th
Street, long before it became the fashion to perform in artists’
lofts. That was in June of 1949 and the loft was Robert Motherwell’s,
shared with Barney Newman’s art school. Mac Low’s Aurelius
was spare and solemn against the Roman world of debauchery and decadence.
He showed plainly the painful tearing apart of passion and rationality
that Aurelius suffered.
But in Washington Square Park on certain days, Jackson could be seen cavorting in a costume covered in maple leaves.
We were together through the turmoils and triumphs of the small but cohesive anarchist movement in New York during the Cold War, at the weekly meeting on 13th Street, Jackson defending the validity of individual action, talking of “the inevitability of the right choices.” But he also spoke of his need for a regenerated faith in man, as his good will was trodden bare by his repressed cynicism.
Then, in March of 1954, we devoted all our energies to Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. Everything went smoothly - except the music wasn’t ready - Jackson worked like a blue streak. All day long the dissonances drove me to distraction. Dick Stryker came to organize a recording session. He arranged for Grete Sultan to play the piano part, for Tui St. George Tucker to play the recorder and Larry Rivers, the saxophone. Larry called from Southampton, having received the score, and played it over the telephone for Jackson’s ok. Between the rigors of the mathematical and the sensual pleasure of the pure flow of words and meters, Mac Low suspends his life on the grid of chance and the intuitive freedom of his musical choices create a new harmony into which the prodigious talents at hand merge.
It was during the run of Phèdre, in which he played Theramène, that he rallied me to my first protest action. That was in June, 1955 when he called about the Phèdre rehearsal and then added, “I’m going down to City Hall to picket against the air raid drills.” I went with him and did some jail time for it, and so began my commitment as an activist.
On August 9 of that same year, Jackson fasted for the memorial period between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We went with the Catholic Workers to the Japanese Consulate in the Empire State Building, bringing a note of repentance.
It was when he played The Heckler in our production of Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise, that we first saw his strictness applied to the question of honesty in the theater. He felt Pirandello was too structured, too falsified. “These improvisations,” he cried, “are not improvisations!” He was searching for the ultimate freedom of action that comes of true freedom of interpretation, yet adheres to a matrix that gives form to the improvisational. This is the highest form toward which the anarchist philosphers are always reaching, freedom within harmony, and harmony consisting of freedom.
John Cage was perhaps our closest mentor. Merce Cunningham had his studio in our building on 14th Street and John was there every day, pounding out rhythms for Merce’s classes. John’s influence on all of us was enormous. He came downstairs regularly to tell us of his latest explorations of music, mushrooms and random procedures. Jackson absorbed it all. John proposed a new philosophy of art, and no one understood this new terrain better than Jackson, except of course, for Merce, who put it all directly into dance. Mac Low, however, put the theory to the test of theater, the theater which has traditionally resisted any tampering with its form. He created The Marrying Maiden, a play of changes, an altogether new type of theater.
Jackson took an existing text, one of the world’s classics, the I Ching, and interspersed it with what he called, “chance operational systems.” He derived characters from the Chinese text: The Marrying Maiden, The Ancient King, The Great Man and The Superior Man. Beyond assigning the text to the various characters, Jackson inserted a series of directions for how the lines should be spoken, in terms of volume, rhythm and tone. Each word or phrase was marked as “piano” or ”fortissimo,” etc. and as “slow” or “very fast,” etc. In addition, the actors were given suggestive phrases about their tone of speech, varying from “yieldingly” to “gratingly” to “righteously” to “like a stage African,” etc.
Though my staging of the play was quite sparse, Jackson felt it was too narrative. When I suggested that the actors arrange their bodies as a ship, for instance, he objected to this being “too explicit.” But the anarchistic quality of the unexpected, the unforeseen was always present. The actors were constantly interrupted by a dice thrower, whose results determined which Action Cards they were given to execute. These were actions compiled by company members, ranging from “kiss anyone” to “stamp your left foot three times.” Jackson was willing to be more reliant on the hazards of chance than I was. It is a kind of faith that if you follow the form with rigor, the inner meaning will express itself and be congruent with the form. I lacked that faith. I wanted to make it clear. For Jackson, it was perfectly clear.
In the theatre, as in the poetry, he was an advocate of the true being always beautiful, though we often talked until dawn about whether the converse is true...
“What about coincidence?” I asked him. “What do you mean by coincidence?” “I mean when it uncannily seems to fit, to make some unanticipated rationale.” “Then we celebrate because it fits.” “And when it doesn’t fit?” “Then we celebrate that it doesn’t fit.” I suppose that this means that having abolished the standard of fitting and not-fitting, there is cause to celebrate.
Jackson struggled with the purity of his politics. A life-long ardent anarchist, he panicked at the idea that at a particular time, refusing to vote could mean being responsible for a fascist regime. As a life-long pacifist, he feared he could be guilty of a lack of compassion in certain situations where intervention might be needed. He set us an example in thinking long and deep about these mattters, patiently persuing feelings and arguments, and remaining through it all resolutely anarchist and pacifist.
I visited Jackson three days before his death at the Cabrini Medical Center. He lay back on his pillows, still strikingly handsome, his face at 82 unlined except for the two vertical furrows between the eyebrows which I remember as being there always.
Anne was with him, tending to him tenderly, with extraordinary love, and Clarinda stood at his side. I moved closer to him and took his hand. He looked at me deeply with a look of unmistakable recognition, the same look I saw in Ezra Pound’s eyes when we met in Venice during his long silence. When Pound heard that I had played Daysair in his Women of Trachis, he took my face in his hands and gazed at me as if to say, “Although I can’t speak to you, I am saying everything to you.” It was Jackson, too, who had befriended Pound in the time of his suffering and disgrace, visiting him in his hospital prison, St. Elizabeth’s. Now Jackson offered me that same deep gaze, ”I can’t speak to you, but I am saying everything to you.”
All of Jackson’s work, in poetry, music, theater and political action exemplifies the extreme of the uncompromising search for pure form, for the miracle of the mathematical in the miasma of uncertainty, for the crystallization and the flow.
What he has done is to throw light on the abyss.
In 1947, together with Julian Beck, Judith Malina founded The Living Theatre, which she directed alongside Hanon Reznikov, her husband from 1988. Resist, a documentary film about the company’s long odyssey by German director Dirk Szuszies, was released in 2003.
Copyright © by Anne Tardos, Executor of the Estate of Jackson Mac Low. All rights reserved.