In March of this year, it will have been fifty years since I was imprisoned for thirty days in a Marine Corps brig under Mount Fujiyama in Japan for being AWOL for a few hours. In May of 1963, the Living Theatre presented my play, The Brig, in which I recounted the experience as accurately as I could. The reaction to the brutality (physical, psychological, and carefully orchestrated according to a long tradition) struck a chord in America. JFK instituted an investigation of all military penal institutions. Life Magazine published an extensive photo essay of the play. After a run of more than a year in NYC during which the play was closed by the IRS and harassed by the Department of Justice, European producers seized on the publicity, and the original production went on tour on the Continent and remained in the Living Theatre repertory there for about three years. Then, like the fervor of the Sixties, it faded away into the materialistic, self-serving desert of modern times and slept, raising its ugly head ever so slightly on occasion, awaiting the opportunity to pounce once again.
After Abu Gahrib and Guantanamo Bay, there were questions abroad in the land about how these things could happen and what source in the American personality had permitted and encouraged them to flourish. Like Yeatsí "rough beast," with "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," The Brig stirred and began "moving its slow thighs." The Living Theatre will soon reopen in NYC in a new location after an absence of more than thirty years with a revival of The Brig. Rehearsals have begun in a loft in lower Manhattan. Every day I enter the building and take the elevator. As I approach the fourth floor, I hear the sound of marching feet and the unique rhythmic call of Marine Corps cadence. The conditioning process is under way. Civilian actors are being squared away in a mini boot camp to be able to function as marines onstage. I am reminded that, in London many, many years go when I was young, the Living Theatre needed replacements for the play, and I tried to step in. I recall leaving the stage and literally tearing the uniform off my body because it was not possible for me to relive the experience of several years before, even in make believe. It would never be make believe for me. In the loft, however, the marching continues. The scenes are blocked out. A cast of seventeen is engaged in a relentless riot of details: the position of attention, right face, left face, "Sir, prisoner number two requests permission to cross the white line, sir!" Violence is choreographed, and I cannot help but compare the behavior of the guards in my theatrical brig with that of the guards in Abu Gahrib. I conclude that there isnít that much difference. The difference is for those who suffered real pain in Abu Gahrib as opposed to the staged pain in the play, but the guards donít suffer any real pain in either case. And so, with another tip of the hat to Mr. Yeats: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" The Sphinx, like all icons of the distant past, renews the majesty as well as the horror of which the human imagination is capable when brought back to life.