The Living Theater

During the peak of the 1968 Sorbonne uprising in Paris a group of artists and cultural workers got together to discuss how they could best show their support for those who were engaged in running battles with the police. Among those present at the meeting was Julian Beck of the Living Theater, an experimental performing troupe that traveled extensively in Europe. Controversy always surrounded the Living Theater, for they were among the boldest and most innovative experimenters of the 1960s. Their performances included rituals of love, affirmation, nonviolence, and communality drawn from various mystical and contemporary sources: Artaud, the kabbalah, the continuous use of drugs. The thirty members of the Living Theater frequently tripped together and often performed while high on LSD. "We were willing to experiment with anything that would set the mind free," Beck explained. "We were practicing anarchists, and we were talking about freedom in whatever zones it could be acquired. If drug trips were a way of unbinding the mind, we were eager to experiment."

The Living Theater was already heavily into drugs when the police chased them out of New York City in the early 1960s after many of them had been arrested during pacifist demonstrations. They fled to Europe on a wing and a prayer, hoping to avoid the legal hassles that plagued them in the States. Wherever they traveled on the Continent, the Living Theater interacted with the thriving acid sub-culture that took root in the mid-1960s. In each city they mingled with turned-on artists, poets, dropouts, and other nonconformists who shared their anarchist vision and provided them with cannabis and acid.

Amsterdam was the touchstone, the magic city where every drug was readily available. It was also the home of the Provos (short for Provocateurs), a large anarchist tribe whose political art happenings anticipated the style and essence of the San Francisco Diggers. The Provos took Amsterdam by storm in 1965 when they plastered peace insignias across the city streets along with their own logo, an upside down apple, which represented the modern Johnny Appleseed--planting the seeds of a liberating culture. They unrolled reams of newsprint like carpets through the streets of Amsterdam to protest the "daily newspapers which brainwash our people." They also staged pro-ecology rallies and elected several of their pot-smoking members to the city administration. Provo groups sprang up in Milan, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Brussels, and Antwerp as the drug scene spread rapidly throughout Europe. London emerged as a major psychedelic center in the summer of 1965. Acid was also plentiful in Munich and Berlin, where hippies were called Gammler. Rome had its capellones who liked to get stonati by ingesting hallucinazione. LSD trickled into Paris, Zurich, Madrid, and the Greek Isles, and a Czech expatriate reports that young people in Prague were turning on to acid in the months prior to the Russian invasion in August, 1968.

As Beck put it, "LSD carried with it a certain messianic vision, a certain understanding of the meaning of freedom, of the meaning of the as yet unattainable but nevertheless to be obtained erotic fantasy, political fantasy, social fantasy--a sense of oneness, a sense of goodness, a marvelous return to the Garden of Eden morality...That's why we thought if you could put it into the water system, everybody would wake up and we would be able to realize the changes we were dreaming in terms of societal structures. People wouldn't be able to tolerate things as they were any longer. They'd realize that something is wrong out there, something is wrong inside me, something is too beautiful, too indescribable, too irresistible to put off any longer."

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An excerpt from Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Grove Press)
Copyright 1985 by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain
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