Playwright, author, and teacher Jean-Claude van Itallie reflects on Occupy Wall Street’s weapons: art, poetry, theater, and steadfast on site meditation.
Zucotti Park, Liberty Plaza; these are the places to be these pivotal days — where the brave and the beautiful are.
The people coming off the Brooklyn bridge on Saturday, October 1, for example, appeared to me determined and attractive — attractive because they were charged with an important mission: doing the right thing. They were determined but peaceful, and non-violent — in the traditions taught by Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and by Buddhism.
The weapons of their non-violent, populist movement are, naturally enough, those of the imagination: art, poetry, theater, and steadfast on-site meditation. The battle here is for our collective mind, to freely imagine peace on earth, to stop global warming and nuclear proliferation, to bring about a more equal distribution of resources, to end torture and war, to make health care and education for all a reality.
Judith Malina, co-founder of New York’s Living Theater, who, for civil disobedience, once spent a month in a jail cell with Dorothy Day, said at one Occupy demonstration in Washington Square Park, “I’ve been waiting all my life for this.” Judith is eighty-five.
America’s great Tibetan Buddhist political poet Allen Ginsberg, who sold the manuscript of his poem “Kaddish” to pay for a Living Theater tour, said, “A single line of poetry can liberate a city a thousand miles or years away.” And meditation sessions have been a recurring part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, with hours posted at Zucotti Park/ Liberty Plaza. More than that, the whole movement is in some sense a meditation itself — a non-violent, walking meditation spontaneously arising. (Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche once warned against precipitous political action. He felt that, however well-meaning, it could add confusion to an already confused situation. “Right action,” he said, “is spontaneous.”)
And so the Occupy movement has gone viral, with demonstrations held in over a thousand cities. It is a spontaneous, self-liberating, and peaceful movement – an expression of spirit whose time has come.
The Occupy demonstrators in New York City are forbidden electronic voice amplification, so demonstrators, phrase by phrase, amplify a speaker’s voice with the voices of many. (Read Matthew Remski’s comments about this technique on Mindful.org.) The effect is hauntingly dramatic; everyone is in the embrace of the theatrical circle — not as in our commercial Western theater where professional actors on stage face a passive seated audience.
Hearing this wonderful echoing, I feel a callback and connection to Greenwich Village in the 60’s, when we at the Open Theater were making political plays like “The Serpent,” exploring vocal techniques to, as we said, discover God’s voice. There is also a lineage connection to Buddhist meditation and a non-violent way of living. It is marvelous that art and meditation are meeting in a political movement.
In New York East 4th Street between Second and Third Avenues, on October 16 was just renamed Ellen Stewart Way in honor of the founder of LaMama, who, exactly fifty years ago, started housing experimental theater in New York and then over the world. LaMama too was part of the awakening finding its expression in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On Christopher Street in New York recently at the memorial for gay activist playwright Doric Wilson, I noted how Doric’s persistent theatrical pro gay stance and his presence at Stonewall, are also intimately related to Occupy Wall Street.
Generation unto generation, artists and meditators – an ongoing coming to consciousness, eventually occupying all our streets non violently, artfully, with the moral authority of an outraged humanity.
Like Judith Malina, I’m glad to be alive to see Occupy Wall Street. People from many countries, classes, occupations, ages, backgrounds, and races are joining together to march, sing, and live together on small patches of urban land, reclaiming for humans what has been co-opted by corporations with more than human rights.
So how will change finally be effected? We don’t need to know that yet. How something like a single line of poetry brings down a whole corrupt system will reveal itself. We know it has to do with the unbeatable force of public opinion, with the growth of human imagination, and our steadfast ability to envision a better world.
It’s a great beginning. May it grow, remaining always non-violent.