Mabou Mines’ Dead End Kids & Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament
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Mabou Mines’ Dead End Kids & Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament

Mabou Mines performers in Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.

Performance studies scholar and theater historian Hillary Miller offers a new study of the 1980 production of Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power by the New York-based avant-garde theater collective, Mabou Mines. Through a close reading of the play, Miller explores the relationship between this production and the little researched organization, Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND), revealing the correlations between collaboratively-generated theater practices and concurrent protest movements. 

Hillary Miller, “Mabou Mines’ Dead End Kids & Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament,” in Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s1980s, eds. Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, Vol. III of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020).

“Radiation lends itself to illusion.”
–Robert Jay Lifton, MDRobert Jay Lifton, “Beyond Psychic Numbing: A Call to Awareness,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 52, no. 4 (October 1982): 622.

In 1982, psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton wrote that the existential dimension of nuclear warfare was evidenced in the very fact of living “with the sense that we can be annihilated in a moment … while at the same time we carry on our everyday activities, business as usual. That’s our kind of existential absurdity.”Ibid., 619. This inscrutable threat—too large and too disturbing to comprehend—constituted new psychic terrain. Lifton termed it “psychic numbing”: a state of resignation encouraged by the leaders of the arms race. He identified the illusions about radiation that have persisted through history, concluding that these collective illusions were byproducts of social madness, and needed to be confronted. At that time, in the early 1980s, citizen activists were building peace institutions that sought to counter this psychic numbing as well as the secrecy upon which Cold War nuclear planning relied. Supporters of expanded nuclear arms systems bolstered its attendant illusions: that nuclear war could be waged rationally, that foreknowledge and preparation could be adequate protection during an actual nuclear attack, and that nuclear weaponry could ever mean security.Ibid., 623–4. The nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s sought to dispel these delusions and expose the hidden nuclear enterprises of the military and government. 

The experimental theater collective Mabou Mines confronted two of these illusions—the illusion of foreknowledge and the illusion of preparation—through their work Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power (1980). The performance history of Dead End Kids is critically connected to the history of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND). In 1982, theater artist Florence Falk brought together concerned artists to create PAND, a grassroots constituency responding to Jimmy Carter’s threat to use nuclear arms after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the Reagan administration’s First Strike capability policy, both of which signified a continuation of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine.Florence Falk, “Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament,” Performing Arts Journal 6 (1982): 110–111. See also, Robin Herman, “Anti-Nuclear Groups are Using Professions as Rallying Points,” New York Times, June 5, 1982, In Carter’s final year in office, he threatened the use of nuclear arms if the Soviet Union moved beyond Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and its oil reserves. MAD thinking contends that nations can deter aggression through the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal; it first appeared as doctrine in the 1960s during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. See Henry D. Sokolski, ed., Getting Mad: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004). It should also be noted that Dead End Kids premiered just one year after the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania, which brought national attention to the issue of nuclear power. PAND’s initial formation built upon existing anti-nuclear performances, including Mabou Mines’ Dead End Kids which premiered in 1980 at the Public Theater in New York. Dead End Kids reassured PAND’s founders in the downtown theater community that innovative work around this urgent political issue was being created. Theater scholar, critic, and PAND Vice-President Elinor Fuchs celebrated the play in her 1980 review of its premiere, writing: “At last, theater has done something. In Dead End Kids, nuclear insanity has been made into a brilliant piece of entertainment that is urgent as a scream.”Elinor Fuchs, “Too Late for Kidding,” The Soho News, November 19, 1980, 38. I thank Elinor Fuchs for speaking with me about her involvement in PAND.

Dead End Kids is an effective piece of theater because it created new rhetorical and visual languages that served to critique and satirize the bureaucratic and militaristic language employed in nuclear planning. JoAnne Akalaitis, one of the co-founders of Mabou Mines and a member of PAND’s Board of Directors, grew up rehearsing for nuclear strikes through air raid tests. Similarly, actor Jill Clayburgh traced her motivation to join PAND to “the time I was hiding under my desk (during air raid drills) with my coat in second grade.”Jill Clayburgh, quoted in Paul Moses, “Stars Work for Nuclear Disarmament,” The Associated Press, March 31, 1982. These artists understood the threat of nuclear war intimately; they had rehearsed for it since childhood. Dead End Kids theatricalizes these collective anxieties through a pastiche docudrama, placing invented scenes alongside multilingual texts from many sources, chief among them Goethe’s Faust. The play constructs a history of nuclear power borrowing from the language of alchemists and the Rand Corporation’s Project Sunshine, a series of secret studies on the effects of nuclear contamination that began in 1953.

Ellen McElduff (left) with other Mabou Mines performers conducting a demo on how to build a hydrogen bomb in Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.

With Akalaitis at the helm, Mabou Mines developed Dead End Kids by exploring the connections between alchemy, nuclear physics, and twentieth-century technologies. Dead End Kids “offers a history of nuclear science’s subconscious” through at times obscure juxtapositions of texts and images related to the theme of trading morality for power, whether it be in the name of scientific discovery or geopolitical dominance.Joel Schechter, “Notes from Under My Desk: On the End of the World and Other Spectacles,” Theater 13 (1982): 38–9. Akalaitis and her collaborators placed excerpts from the writings of Goethe and Jorge Luis Borges alongside institutional reports on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The printed program for the play reproduced two pages of quotes from Mabou Mines’ research. Comments about nuclear arms treaties from Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State General Alexander Haig, a declassified report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about bomb-grade uranium, and a quote from the sixteenth-century Hermetical and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus serve as an introduction.Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, program, March 1982, Walker Art Center Archives. This documentary approach to theater is dense, and for some, impenetrable. Its aesthetics capture the rhetoric around nuclear arms proliferation that motivated anti-nuclear mobilizations, but in its style and tone the play departs drastically from the symbolic acts preferred by older Leftist grassroots organizations involved in the anti-nuclear movement. These organizations employed very different tactics of performative protest and public disruptions. 

Program for Dead End Kids at the Walker

When the play premiered at the Public Theater in 1980, its trans-historical theatrical collage puzzled many critics confused by its indeterminate and fragmentary structure. As a performance about nuclear annihilation, its stylistic blending could be read as trivializing. Some critics dismissed the work as an example of postmodern theater artists deconstructing the dominant system of representation around nuclear hysteria only to passively reproduce it. Others interpreted its satire as amplifying the fear tactics and embedded sexism of warmongers using a confusing blend of performance techniques including documentary theater, vaudeville, and devised movement. In his review of the work, playwright and critic Dare Clubb ponders: does the play substitute bitterness for depth, and fail to meaningfully engage with the beneficial elements of nuclear power that made it so seductive to begin with?Dare Clubb, “Dead End Kidding,” Theater 12 (1981): 46–50. These dramaturgical tensions cannot be analyzed without contextualizing the play, and its reception, within what has been considered the largest social movement of modern times—the grassroots struggle against the bomb.For an overview of this global citizen activism, see Lawrence S. Wittner, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009). The context of Mabou Mines’ affinities with PAND adds specificity to the shifting public and pedagogical functions of the production, and counters some of the skepticism expressed in reviews of the show’s various iterations. It also conjoins the production’s archival performance trail with one node of the peace movement’s massive anti-nuclear mobilizations.

In April 1982, the inaugural public PAND rally at Symphony Space in New York featured speeches from an eclectic group of artists, activists, and scientists, all stepping forward as advocates for the anti-nuclear movement. The nine hundred-seat hall was filled to capacity, with a thousand guests turned away at the door. The evening’s roster included presentations by musician Harry Belafonte, producer Joseph Papp, director Harold Prince, playwright Maria Irene Fornes, composer Lukas Foss, choreographer Trisha Brown, and filmmaker Robert Altman.“Performing Arts Group for Atom Curb Formed,” New York Times, April 4, 1982, 55. Theater director Andre Gregory read from Jonathan Schell’s ground-breaking polemic on the nuclear threat, The Fate of the Earth (1982). Released just months before the event, the text summarized: “at present, most of us do nothing … we take refuge in the hope that the holocaust will not happen.”“Rally for Disarmament” [electronic resource], organized by Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament, 1982, videotaped in performance at Symphony Space, New York, on April 5, 1982, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, MGZIDF 8547. See also Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth: And, The Abolition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). Dr. Jonathan Lorch of Physicians for Social Responsibility sketched out a terrifying moment-by-moment scenario of a nuclear blast hitting Symphony Space, the venue for the event. Experimental musician Laurie Anderson, folk singers Ronnie Gilbert and James Taylor, and the José Limón Dance Company all performed as well.

Akalaitis contributed a three-and-a-half-minute excerpt of her play, Dead End Kids. After Meryl Streep’s dramatic recitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Epitaph for the Race of Man,” the stage went to black. Lit by a tight spotlight, three women in roller skates appeared on stage. Wide-eyed, they held fast to a long horizontal pole meant to call to mind museum exhibition guardrails, staying a safe distance from the terrifying contents of an imagined exhibit. An audio recording accompanying the performance welcomed viewers to the Smithsonian, and narrated the first stop on a tour through the history of nuclear preparedness. After first describing the thirteen nuclear-powered submarines planned by the United States government, the content grew darker. The voice remained jaunty and nonchalant, however. Nervousness during a nuclear episode was deemed natural; the voice reassured: “It’s helpful to chew gum. Chewing gum will make you calm as a cow.”“Rally for Disarmament.” The women skated to the next spotlit display where an actor mimed directions to properly shield one’s head while ducking for cover during a nuclear attack. The next spotlight revealed the “two sanest men in America,” seen controlling the triggering systems for the country’s nuclear missiles. Seated side by side, staring straight ahead, their hands gestured fluidly as they manipulated the controls. The audience was plunged into darkness again, before the final display was projected onto the stage: a shadowgraph visualization of a vaporized blade of grass after a nuclear blast. The lights went down and the tour was over.

Mabou Mines performing an excerpt of Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power at the Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament’s Rally for Disarmament held at Symphony Space, New York, April 5, 1982. Courtesy Mabou Mines and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The Dead End Kids excerpt differed in tone from the rest of the evening’s program. The speeches from celebrities and activists expressed sorrow and frustration, all with somber gravity, their voices at times ringing with panic. But Mabou Mines dismantled the rhetoric of nukespeak by using the museum exhibit as a dramaturgical convention: the terrifying images needed to be isolated, framed, and set apart from everyday life. In Dead End Kids, the existential absurdity of “real” dangers comingles with the fictions of government propaganda. The framing of the museum exhibit emphasizes the position of the Symphony Space audience as bystanders in the illogical narratives that both obscured and fueled the government’s hunt for nuclear dominance. This might cast the concerned public as passive museum spectators, but it also encourages a questioning of the technical jargon used to portray nuclear concepts in a neutral way and foreclose public deliberation on the development of nuclear weapons.See Edward Schiappa, “The Rhetoric of Nukespeak,” Communication Monographs 56 (September 1989): 253–272.

Dead End Kids reveals a different shading of Mabou Mines’ collective practice, one that transmuted the fears of a generation of artists into a performance that served varied purposes adjacent to anti-nuclear organizing. Mabou Mines was officially founded in 1970 and continues to operate as a collective today, though the group has had various configurations of collaborators and associates during its years of existence. Akalaitis met two of the other founding members of Mabou Mines, Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, in the early 1960s at the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco. Throughout the decade they trained in workshops with the Open Theater in New York, and with Polish director Jerzy Grotowski in France.Akalaitis, quoted in Craig Gholson, “JoAnne Akalaitis by Craig Gholson,” BOMB, April 1, 1983, In 1970, while on retreat at a house near Mabou Mines, Nova Scotia, Akalaitis, Maleczech, Breuer, Philip Glass, and David Warrilow founded the collective as co-artistic directors, taking the town’s name as their own. In addition to Grotowski’s training methods, they incorporated the practices of a variety of avant-garde theater collectives, including the Living Theatre and the Berliner Ensemble.“History of the Company,” Mabou Mines, accessed June 17, 2019, Fred Neumann was also a founding member of the company. Former company members include: Bill Raymond, Ellen McElduff, L.B. Dallas, B-St. John Schofield (1952–2013), Dawn Gray, Julie Archer, and Honora Fergusson (1936–2012). Akalaitis acted in their early works, and her first project as a director with Mabou Mines was a 1976 production of Samuel Beckett’s Cascando, with music by her then-husband Philip Glass. In the collaborative theater model of Mabou Mines, each production is developed over a long period through intensive workshopping, and “the actors are very heavily involved in what could be called directing,” as are colleagues who might be design or acting associates.Akalaitis, quoted in “JoAnne Akalaitis by Craig Gholson.” “Even though Mabou Mines is the collaborative theater,” Akalaitis describes, “ultimately the director is responsible for the conception of the piece.”Akalaitis, quoted in Jonathan Kalb, “JoAnne Akalaitis,” Theater 15.2 (1984): 8.

Portrait of theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, New York, 1991. Photo: Martha Swope. ©Billy Rose Theater Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Because the group creates work in various configurations of collaborators and associates, their projects are united by a set of shared curiosities and concerns rather than a uniform aesthetic or style. Their highly collaborative development process is defined by a dedication to language and research, “an interest in a multimedia approach to storytelling … and a blending of comedy and sentimentality.”Jessica Silsby Brater, “Ruth Maleczech, JoAnne Akalaitis, and the Mabou Mines Family Aesthetic,” in Women, Collective Creation, and Devised Performance, eds. K.M. Syssoyeva and S. Proudfit (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 117. Dead End Kids was conceived at a particular moment in the history of the company. After ten years of creating experimental, idiosyncratic performance pieces, the collective’s members and associates—both individually and collectively—were increasingly accepted into the halls of high art (as epitomized through Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass’s move uptown with Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976). By 1977, the Village Voice described Akalaitis as “the only avant-gardist … who welcomes the audience from Scarsdale who come to see a play because they read a review, not because [they] are part of a scene.”Terry Curtis Fox, “The Quiet Explosion of JoAnne Akalaitis,” Village Voice, May 23, 1977, 77, 79. Mabou Mines maintained something of this broader appeal among theater audiences, and by 1980 “the members of Mabou Mines were engaging in a more public dialogue” with their work.Iris Smith Fischer, Mabou Mines: Making Avant-Garde Theater in the 1970s (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 90. “I’m through being an elitist,” Akalaitis told a Twin Cities newspaper in 1982. “I want constantly to be in touch.”Akalaitis, quoted in Carla Waldemar, “Nukes Enough,” Twin Cities Reader, March 1982. This and many other critical responses to Dead End Kids were accessed through the Mabou Mines Archive, MSS. 133, Series XC, Box 46, Folders 1852, 1847, 1848, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

Akalaitis had national ambitions for Dead End Kids, but these plans proved difficult to fully realize. After the play premiered at the Public Theater in November 1980, Dead End Kids began fundraising to tour the show, a protracted process that continued for years but eventually enabled them to reach Toronto, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Charleston. Actor Terry O’Reilly remembers the tour as one of self-education and outreach: 

We network, through our churches, unions, restauranteurs, soccer teams. And we work for the [Nuclear] Freeze … When people ask me where we have been on our tour, I tell them: “We went to America.” There is today a passion rising in America. We had discussions after every show—they were actually the last act, because the play does not presume to tell people what to do. We talked with fishermen, doctors, tool and die makers, physicists, students, family members, and all we could really say was: “Let’s work together to stop the madness that is being committed in our name.”“Performing Dead End Kids: Statements by Mabou Mines Actors,” Theater 13 (1982): 35.

The performers involved in the project found an outlet for their activist energies, and touring the show became an important element of Mabou Mines’ reciprocal public dialogue. Dead End Kids actor B-St. John Schofield reasoned, “It makes far more sense to be out in Minneapolis or Seattle performing Dead End Kids than to be digging a bomb shelter in my backyard.”Ibid., 37. The play’s natural symbiosis with the anti-nuclear movement offered Mabou Mines a public platform of the kind rarely enjoyed by an experimental theater company. They eventually realized, however, that they did not have the resources to take full advantage of this public engagement, or to participate more directly with the various anti-nuclear advocates inspired by it. 

David Hawley, “‘Kids’ uses overkill appropriately,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, March 12, 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.

This opening toward new publics and communities exposed Mabou Mines to hostile responses as well. Activists critiqued the play’s satirical scenes filled with obscenities, critics deemed its techniques too oblique to be accessible, and advocates judged its content too off-beat to be political. At the time of its theatrical premiere, critics questioned Dead End Kidschaotic assemblage of eclectic imagery, calling it seductive but superficial. True to the surprised laughter that the Symphony Space scenes elicited from an otherwise grim audience, the overall effect of Dead End Kids’ nightmarish layering was often amusement. Clubb suggests that the play’s comic irony only hints at complex messages. “Ironic juxtaposition replaces the conceptual work of the piece. The heart of the social issue of nuclear power is in fact never touched. The play remains on the edges and comments satirically.”Clubb, 48. For Clubb, the play only serves to intensify feelings of helplessness among audience members, its satiric, deadpan voice provoking self-disgust and a sense of limitations. 

  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.
  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.
  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.
  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.
  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.
  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.
  • Mabou Mines performing Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.

Amid the intensity of the anti-nuclear movement, Dead End Kids became a conduit for debating the efficacy of “political theater” and rehashing questions about social action and performance. In his 1980 review, critic Frank Rich declared Dead End Kids a success as agitprop theater with a “fresh” beat, “subversive in the best sense of the word.”Frank Rich, “Stage: Mabou Mines’ ‘Dead End Kids,’” New York Times, November 19, 1980, C34. His deployment of the term “agitprop,” which refers to didactic performance with the goal of direct action, was a common response to Dead End Kids. The press coverage expressed a reactionary desire to be done with the entire tradition of 1960s agitprop performance; in Philadelphia, the play was panned as “lousy agitprop,” whereas Robert Brustein praised it as “hardly a piece of agitprop” in the New Republic.Robert Brustein, “Solutions,” The New Republic, December 27, 1980, 25. For John Simon in New York Magazine, the show is “about as jolly as a piece of agitprop on a nasty subject can get.”John Simon, “Theater,” New York Magazine, December 1980, page unknown. The Philadelphia Daily News denounced it as “amorphous propaganda,” and Julius Novick of The Nation used his entire lead paragraph to contextualize the psychological state of left-leaning theater audiences downtown as the Reagan era dawned.Julius Novick, “Dead End Kids,” The Nation, December 20, 1980, page unknown. See also, W. Speers, “Voices of ’60s Raising Critical Issues of ’80s,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 20, 1983; Peter Zeisler, “On Re-Examining Theatre’s Role,” Theatre Communications, February 1982, 22. For more on the political theaters of the 1960s, see James Harding and Cindy Rosenthal, eds., Restaging the Sixties: Radical Theaters and Their Legacies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006). These writers articulate a particular grief over the strategies of the 1960s as well as the belief that experimental theater remained tainted by wrong-headed politics and failed strategies. Even those critics who embraced the play’s approach took pains to defend it from claims of agitprop.See Wayne Johnson, “‘Dead End Kids’ Offers Message in Clever, Entertaining Package,” The Seattle Times, March 18, 1982. See also, Susan Jaffe, “Faust in War, Faust in Peace,” Village Voice, November 19–November 26, 1980, page unknown. “[I]f this evokes the specter of Jane Fonda exhorting you about your failings in her famous Westchester lockjaw, relax—the evening is remarkably theatrical, and totally free of self-righteous denunciation,” wrote Brustein. In the case of Mabou Mines, this proposition was inaccurate (prior to Dead End Kids, Mabou Mines had not overtly tackled specific political issues in their work), but many critics nonetheless applied this frame to the production.The American avant-garde that includes the Living Theatre, the Open Theater, Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, and Mabou Mines has been analyzed as an ambivalent wave that replaced the politically committed avant-garde of prior decades. See David Savran, “The Death of the Avantgarde,” TDR 49 (2005): 10-42; Richard Schechner, “The Conservative Avant-Garde,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 895–913; Sue-Ellen Case and Jeanie K. Forte, “From Formalism to Feminism,” Theater 16 (1985): 62-65.

These reviews amplify the stakes of a troupe of 1960s theater artists tackling a political issue in a very different decade. Other critics discerned in Dead End Kids the complex legacies of 1960s agitprop and avant-garde theaters. Critic Erika Munk described Dead End Kids as “a brave, astonishing event,” made more astonishing because “Mabou Mines—a group praised and damned for many things, but never yet for its politics—has merged uncompromising experimental theatricality with outfront didactic intent.”Erika Munk, “Dead End Kids: Signaling Through the Flames,” Village Voice, November 12, 1980, page unknown. For Munk, Dead End Kids was a bulwark at the onset of the Reagan years. Her writing positioned Bread and Puppet Theater—the radical puppet theater company founded by German sculptor and baker Peter Schumann in the early 1960s and famous for its anti-war street processions featuring giant papier-maché effigies—as a counter-example. Schumann had a long history of anti-nuclear performance work. Even before the official founding of Bread and Puppet, his first production in the United States, Dance of Death, took place at Judson Memorial Church in early 1962 on the occasion of the anti-nuclear General Strike for Peace organized by their fellow avant-garde collective, the Living Theatre.For more on this early performance, see Erik Wallenberg, “Bread and Puppet Theater in Gotham,” Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History, April 12, 2017, On the Living Theatre’s General Strikes, see John Tytell, The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 170–8. Bread and Puppet formed in 1963 on New York’s Lower East Side, but after years of puppetry workshops and pageants across the city (frequently at anti-war demonstrations), the company relocated to Vermont in the early 1970s. There, they took a hiatus from political street agitation as they focused on circuses and pageants that emphasized themes of religion and nature.Stefan Brecht, The Bread and Puppet Theatre, Volume 2 (New York: Routledge, 1988), 464–465. Bread and Puppet mounted two anti-nuclear armament shows in 1981: The Ploughshare Eight and Seven Obsessions with the End of the World. For more on their parade-within-a-parade, Fight Against the End of the World at the June disarmament demonstration, see Brecht, 636.

Bread and Puppet Theater performs during an anti-nuclear protest in New York, June 1982. Courtesy AP Images.

But Bread and Puppet were about to return to anti-nuclear street demonstrations to join the major nuclear freeze events that blanketed the globe in June of 1982 around a United Nations Special Session on Disarmament and simultaneous National Freeze Campaign. A demonstration on June 12 of that year called for a freeze on testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons and brought approximately one million people to New York City’s Central Park.Jonathan Schell writes, “It was not only the largest antinuclear demonstration but the largest political demonstration of any description in American history.” Jonathan Schell, “The Spirit of June 12,” The Nation, July 2, 2007, The 1982 disarmament mobilization built upon the foundation of existing leftist peace groups that constituted the anti-nuclear movement. This network of long-standing organizations included the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the War Resisters League (WRL), and Women Strike for Peace (WSP). Founded in 1915, WILPF had shifted its original aims to include a nuclear test ban treaty and economic planning for disarmament by the 1960s. The WRL grew out of the Anti-Enlistment League and founded Liberation magazine in 1956 with the explicit goal of sharing nonviolent, direct actions in favor of disarmament and civil rights. The WRL protested civil defense bomb shelter programs in the 1950s and 1960s, and founded the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) in 1957 to protest against nuclear weapons. WSP, founded by Bella Abzug and Dagmar Wilson in 1961, worked for disarmament and a nuclear test ban treaty.Brecht includes much of this history in the voluminous footnotes of his book, 468–469. He draws particularly from Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963–1975 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984). This is only a partial accounting of organizations that existed under the shared umbrella of disarmament, without mention of many allied ecological groups, coalitions of minority unions, and religious organizations involved. Some—such as the African American Coordination Committee, Asian American Caucus for Disarmament, and Hispanics for Survival and Disarmament—were formed specifically for the June rally.For more on the connections between nuclear disarmament activism and racial equality, see Vincent J. Intondi, African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015). Dancers for Disarmament organized benefit dance classes, visual artists like Joseph Nechvatal created anti-nuclear installations, Harold Prince announced an interest in scripts concerned with the PAND theme, and Musicians for Disarmament organized an event that raised $312,000 for the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.Leighton Kerner, “Ringing for Survival,” Village Voice, November 8, 1983, 76. Nina Felshin, Disarming Images: Art for Nuclear Disarmament, (New York: Adama Books,1984); Jim Schley, ed., Writing in a Nuclear Age (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1984); Paul Brians, “Resources for the Study of Nuclear War in Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies 13 (1986): 193–197; Daniel Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture: The Nuclear 1980s (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

PAND was constituted with a similar sense of urgency, and, after its founding, committed itself to organizing performance events as part of the massive June demonstration. “Nuclear disarmament is the arts issue,” declared a 1982 editorial in PAJ about the group.“Editorial: A Celebration of the Human Spirit,” Performing Arts Journal 6 (1982): 5. PAND’s inaugural public event at Symphony Space took place just two months prior to the June global mobilization; members of PAND worked quickly to discern the organization’s goals within the larger activist efforts, and disagreements within PAND attested to the pressures of organizing. In the early months of PAND’s creation, one leader questioned its objectives and its relations with other organizations:

With the exception of several individuals we have established virtually no organizational links with the rest of the movement. Communication has been sorely lacking. Indeed, though in one respect we see ourselves as a service to the movement we have yet to present ourselves as such. Since we have been quite visible in our initial organizing efforts most other groups I have been in touch with tend to view our lack of contact as elitist self-absorption and this has led to a degree of resentment toward PAND.Mabou Mines Archive, MSS. 133, Letter, May 2, 1982, Series XIII: Administrative Files Box 128, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

Skeptics questioned PAND’s use of their considerable spotlight and their potential to unfairly dominate the cause’s fundraising dollars.All of the anti-nuke arts organizations received criticism for their public advocacy. See Michael Levin, “The Springsteening of Disarmament,” New York Times, June 19, 1982, 125; and Judith Miller, “…and Now a Disarmament Industry,” New York Times, June 25, 1982, 14. Which projects should receive PAND’s endorsement? What is the appropriate disarmament messaging for PAND? How could they rein in affiliated PAND chapters that neglected to consult with local anti-nuke groups? PAND expanded quickly and diversified its outreach and involvements as a result of these discussions, particularly as they organized gatherings in concert with the global mobilization on June 12. The menu of events included neighborhood meetings and a performance festival which ran all day and into the night at twenty performance sites across New York City. 

Flyer for “Caravan: A Performing Arts Tour of Theater, Dance, and Comedy for Nuclear Disarmament,” 1983. Courtesy the Swarthmore Peace Collection.

Anti-nuclear theatrical activism was in some ways a culmination of prior decades of anti-war organizing. The national media’s emphasis on the celebrity wattage of PAND’s larger fundraising events, however, overshadowed the fundamentally grassroots character of the movement. PAND pledged to include “the famous, near-famous, and not-so-famous; the unemployed, underemployed, and over-employed; off-off Broadway, Hollywood, and everything in between.”Falk, 111. While PAND inspired detractors and internal debate, it also inspired affiliates around the country, including active chapters in Boston and Portland, as well as a steady stream of plays on the topic of nuclear disarmament.In March 1983, Martha Boesing’s Minneapolis-based feminist theater collective At the Foot of the Mountain toured their play Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down, which the company advertised as “a ritual drama about nuclear madness and the denial of death.” I thank curator Wendy Chmielewski at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection for her assistance with PAND archival materials. PAND’s own Performance Caravan for Nuclear Disarmament toured twenty cities and small towns across New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts between April 20 to May 15, 1983. It involved sixty-three performers, including members of Bread and Puppet, Mabou Mines, Emily Mann’s Still Life, The Talking Band’s Soft Targets, and Paul Zaloom.The PAND Caravan’s budget was funded by a NYSCA grant, guarantees from its institutional sponsors, as well as small contributions from Dancers for Disarmament, but still estimated a deficit of $58,898. In the categories of salaries and pre-production, Mabou Mines’ expenses were the highest of the arts groups involved. Mabou Mines Archive, MSS. 133, Touring Files Dead End Kids May 5–15, 1983, PAND Caravan Tour, Series VIIIA, Box 40, Folder 1491, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

The New York kick-off event for the Performance Caravan was hosted by actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee along with writer Grace Paley. The event took place on April 12, 1983, at a Manhattan public high school on 65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Paley was one of the more prominent literary voices of the peace movement, a fact that makes her appearance in an anecdote about a flare-up between Dead End Kids and long-standing anti-nuclear activists particularly notable. During Paley’s decades of involvement with the WRL, much of her focus went to the ballooning American military budget. In her work, she made explicit the links between economic injustice and the degradation of urban areas. Paley’s 1982 “Women’s Pentagon Action Unity Statement,” condemned the $500 million per day ($157 billion per year) that fed the Pentagon’s “murderous health,” while American cities suffered ruination through bankruptcy and deprivation.Grace Paley, Just as I Thought (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 143. The document, writes Darcy L. Brandel, is “one of the earliest manifestos to draw explicit connections between issues such as violence, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, the global capitalist economy, the nuclear arms race, and the environment.”Darcy L. Brandel, “Performing Invisibility: Dialogue as Activism in Grace Paley’s Texts,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 31 (2010): 77. See also, Marianne Hirsch, “Grace Paley Writing the World,” Contemporary Women’s Writing 3 (December 2009): 121–126. 

The Unity Statement for the Women’s Pentagon Action, November 16 and 17, 1980, written by Grace Paley. Courtesy of Diana Mara Henry.
Grace Paley (center) and activists at a preliminary huddle for the Women’s Pentagon Action, November 16, 1980. Photo: Diana Mara Henry. ©Diana Mara Henry.

Theater scholar and critic Elinor Fuchs describes the play’s reception when one of its scenes was presented at a joint anniversary celebration of the WRL and PAND in May 1983. In this scene from Dead End Kids, a stand-up comedian invites a naïve woman in his nightclub audience on stage for an upsetting sequence of humiliations. With a raw roasting chicken as a lewd prop, he goads the ditzy woman—a Mabou Mines actor—into demonstrating obscene gestures with the bird. The comedian jokes about a book, The Effects of Radioactive Fallout on Livestock in the Event of a Nuclear War, a scientific manual Mabou Mines found in their research. In her recollection of the 1983 event, Fuchs describes, “women in the hall began to shout to the female character, ‘Don’t do it honey, don’t let him do it to you!’ Within moments, accompanied by mounting booing and hissing, there occurred a full-scale feminist walkout from the hall led by Grace Paley,” followed by an angry confrontation with Akalaitis.Elinor Fuchs, The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 111. Fuchs considers the possibility that “an audience unaccustomed to the ironic strategies of the alternative theater lost sight of the common political ground shared with the performers, but perhaps the WRL women would not have tolerated the scene on any grounds.”Ibid., 112. The tumult over the excerpt points to a conflict between the aesthetics of Dead End Kids and the strategies of the organizations with which Mabou Mines collaborated. 

David Brisbin discusses radiation and chickens with Ellen McElduff in Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power presented by the Walker Art Center at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Great Hall, Minneapolis, March 1982. Walker Art Center Archives.

Certainly, many audience members and activists took issue with the nightclub scene for its representation of female exploitation. WRL is one of the oldest secular pacifist organizations in the country and its feminist members were especially sensitive to the critical issue of gender within the peace movement. At stake in the debates within the anti-nuclear movement “were competing understandings of the female body and corresponding understandings of appropriate feminist consciousness and protest action,” writes Tina Managhan.Tina Managhan, “Shifting the Gaze from Hysterical Mothers to ‘Deadly Dads’: Spectacle and the Anti-Nuclear Movement,” Review of International Studies 33 (2007): 647 The American anti-nuclear movement utilized the domestic and expressive world of women in order to draw attention to their targets, “the estrangement, uniformity, and anonymity associated with the world of men.”Ibid., 638. Because of this, women protesters chose to organize not only under the sign of motherhood, but a “hysterical motherhood.”Ibid., 638. Insurrection through civil disobedience and guerilla theater emerged as key tactics used to project the spectacle of hysterical motherhood in contrast to militarized men and isolated scientists. These public demonstrations led to public relations successes like the front page image of a military official stepping over the head of a female protester lying on the Pentagon steps. In the summer of 1983, one hundred female activists walked twelve miles from Seneca Falls to the Seneca Falls peace encampment holding images of women who had previously fought for justice on the same ground—Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton among them.The camp, one of many that developed and spread in the 1980s, remained active for nine years. It was in Europe in the 1970s that resistance to Swiss, French, and German nuclear power expansion evolved into peace camps, with the first anti-nuclear occupations in Switzerland in 1974. See Anna Feigenbaum, Protest Camps (London: Zed Books, 2013). But when the women arrived at the nearby town of Waterloo, a huge sign greeted them: “Nuke them till they glow. Then Shoot Them in the Dark.” The town’s citizens protested the peace encampment, chanting, “Commies,” “Lezzies,” “Kill them,” and “Nuke them.”For her description of the peace encampment, see Paley, 148–157. In the ensuing confrontation, fifty-four activist women were taken by the Waterloo police to spend five days in a provisional jail set up to accommodate the large number of imprisoned Jane Does. The women were cast as traitors to their country, their sex, and their societal responsibilities.

Activists planting a cemetery of “gravestones” for women victims of the war machine in front of the Pentagon during the second day of the Women’s Pentagon Action, November 17, 1980. Photo: Diana Mara Henry. ©Diana Mara Henry.

The juxtaposition of the women’s encampment and its sexist hecklers with the Dead End Kids nightclub scene offers a perspective on the supposed clash between the production and anti-nuclear activism. Akalaitis’s Dead End Kids mirrors the confrontation at the peace encampment as a distinct instance of the performative politics of the anti-nuke movement. Both are so blatant in their misogyny that the unrestrained sexism festering behind nuclear proliferation is easily conjured through different systems of representation. Dead End Kids does not subscribe to the same performative logic as the WRL protests when it comes to the presentation of its female characters. For Mabou Mines, theatrical reasons for the poultry scene justified themselves, but the activists understood no such theatrical necessity. Jessica Silsby Brater’s analysis describes the play’s examination of the traditional scientific master narrative, as “a feminist historiography” that reorganizes “hierarchical arrangements of historical reference.”Jessica Silsby Brater, “Collective Creative and ‘Historical Imagination’: Mabou Mines’s Devised Adaptation of History,” in Contemporary Approaches to Adaptation in Theatre, ed. Kara Reilly (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 27. But from the perspective of many in the women’s peace movement, the play lacked an Other to counter the masculinist logic of militarism. In interviews, Akalaitis describes her interest in the character of Marie Curie as a mother, wife, and scientist, but Curie (played by Ruth Maleczech)—here an obscure figure in a lab—is enthralled by the power of the mind (and of radium). The play satisfied formalist experimentation for Akalaitis, who wanted to tell the story of Faust through different modalities: in German, in translation, in music, and in gesture. Perhaps for some in the anti-nuclear movement, this doomed the project from the beginning. To tell the story of Faust without a counter representation of intense moral integrity was to create a world with no (feminine) alternative to moral relativism and depravity.

Ruth Maleczech performing as Marie Curie working on a lab experiment with alchemical flasks, in Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, 1980. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Courtesy Mabou Mines and Carol Rosegg. ©Carol Rosegg

The history of masculinist appropriation of the movement and attacks on feminist peace activists meant that the feminist members of WRL were not a receptive audience for Dead End Kids, regardless of how many reviewers believed the show was custom-made for downtown lefties. Yet Mabou Mines maintained that Dead End Kids could make audiences think about the collective fears borne of civil society’s madness. Testimonials from the cast of Dead End Kids suggest that they experienced the play as a highly political (and extremely emotional) act of dissent. Dead End Kids actor George Bartenieff perceived a marked difference in their performances after the achievements of the June demonstration, which increased awareness of the resistance to nuclear power and nuclear arms, and contributed to the freeze resolutions introduced in states across the nation, as well as the House and the Senate.See Schell, “The Spirit of June 12.” Bartenieff recalls:

When we opened in the Fall of ’80 this angry, ironic work addressed an audience suppressed, depressed and frozen numb with twenty years of quiet terror. After-the-performance discussions were usually immersed in a depressing gloom and inertia. Even those who were most positively moved and affected by the play wanted some extra catalyst that they could not find. In the Spring of ’81 the play received a similar response in Toronto, Canada, though this time the audience seemed better informed, polite but still uncommitted to direct action. Ten months later history has pushed us all up against the wall and perhaps through it.George Bartenieff, quoted in “Performing Dead End Kids: Statements by Mabou Mines Actors,” Theater 13 (1982): 35.

Actor Chas Cowing reflected on the anger and helplessness embedded in the play. “The subject matter itself is upsetting, and a secondary theme in the play, access to information, has implications equally disturbing for our future.”“Performing Dead End Kids: Statements by Mabou Mines Actors,” Theater 13 (1982): 36. In part because of this theme, community outreach was a key component of the Dead End Kids tour. In Seattle, there were post-performance audience discussions with members of the cast and local anti- and pro-nuke experts. The theaters that hosted them—On the Boards, the Walker Art Center, the University of Wisconsin—made financial sacrifices to do so, and they persisted in their efforts to raise money for the production even after a series of miscommunications regarding the amount of subsidy producer Joseph Papp would provide for the tour.Mabou Mines Archive, MSS. 133, Memo from Julie Hymen, July 24, 1981, Series VIIIA, Box 40, Folder 1479, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries. Mabou Mines performed Dead End Kids at the Walker Art Center in March of 1982. This was the sixth Twin Cities appearance for the company at the Walker, and it was Akalaitis’s second directorial effort to receive a performance at the museum, the first being Dressed Like an Egg in 1978. In 1986, the Walker screened Akalaitis’s feature film adaptation of Dead End Kids. This gave Mabou Mines uncommonly strong name recognition in a city far from New York. See David Hawley, “Comedy Troupe Targets N-bomb,” St. Paul Dispatch, March 11, 1982, 7B, Walker Art Center Archive. I thank Walker archivist Jill Vuchetich for facilitating access to archival documents about Dead End Kids.

Letter from Nigel Redden to Joseph Papp at New York Shakespeare Festival concerning the financial support of Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, August 18, 1981. Walker Art Center Archives.

As the play traveled the country and received press in local and national news outlets, letters of interest arrived at the Mabou Mines office in downtown New York. A woman in Berkeley wanted the company to work with high school students; a man in Santa Cruz offered up a theater at Cabrillo College for the production; a woman in Roseburg, Oregon, requested that the show visit her area, writing, “we hardly have any awareness here of nuke danger.”Mabou Mines Archive, MSS. 133, Letter from Jill Iles, June 11, 1981, Series VIIIA, Box 40, Folder 1486, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries. They all received similar form letters in response; even a scaled down version of the show cost $12,000 per week, and the funds just were not there. A man from Great Falls, Montana received the same message after sending his letter, which read: “I really do want to see the play come to the Great Falls area, and would like to work something out. The people around here need it to make them think, ’cause this is missile country. I think it would be a great service to the people of this region.”Mabou Mines Archive, MSS. 133, Letter from Mr. Kelly H. Freeman, June 12, 1981, Series VIIIA, Box 40, Folder 1486, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries. Dead End Kids did not theatricalize the dangers of nuclear warfare through scenarios of catastrophe. Yet audience and performer responses suggest that for some, Mabou Mines achieved the twin objectives of raising awareness as well as provoking action. In doing so, the collective bridged their aesthetic experimentation with unprecedented activist mobilization against a defining threat of the twentieth-century. 

Hillary Miller is an Assistant Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the author of Playwrights on Television: Conversations with Dramatists (Routledge, 2020) and Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York (Northwestern University Press, 2017), winner of the Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History and the John W. Frick Book Award. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Theatre Journal, Performance ResearchTheatre SurveyPAJThe Radical History Review, and RiDE: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance.