“The Brig” details numbing banality of military cruelty

Living Theatre revives famous gritty production of the 1960s
By Lucy Komisar

Kenneth Brown’s play The Brig is a numbing expression of the banality of institutionalized cruelty exercised by the U.S. military. It’s based on the author’s own experience as a prisoner for 30 days in a Marine Corps brig at Camp Fuji, Japan, in 1957, during the Korean War. The play was first staged by the Living Theatre in 1963, and its gritty social realism reflects the essence of the company’s political mission.

A cell with five double-decker bunks is enclosed by a chain-link fence, and the area outside, concrete floor or gravel exercise yard, is separated from the audience by barbed wire. Ten men, who have committed unknown, apparently minor infractions, are confined for up to 30 days to suffer dehumanizing treatment at the hands of guards who punctuate their disapproval with punches to the stomach.

The first irony of Judith Malina’s direction occurs when a black officer calls a white inmate boy. It summons up the tradition of white men treating black men like dirt. In fact, the officers call the men maggots. Or they call them by numbers, never by names.

The guards turn basic minutiae of life – dressing, showering, shaving, smoking – into opportunities for control and humiliation. The inmates must pull on boots, then take them off and step on them (they are not allowed to touch feet to floor) to put on their pants. Eyes must gaze straight ahead.

When the men move, it is in double time, knees high, arms raised with fists near chins. When they leave the cell, in double time, they must shout requests for permission to cross white lines painted on the floors between spaces and enclosures.

Inside the cell, they stand and silently read the Marine manual. Outside, they do chores, swabbing, scrubbing or mopping the concrete floor.

There is a Nazi sort of order, efficiency and gratuitous cruelty. It is surprising when one bursts into the Marine Hymn. Is that meant as satire?

The spectacle is a macabre dance. One can see how the cacophony of voices, the repetition, and the tension seared and stunned audiences more than 40 years ago.

The only one who reacts normally is a man who freaks out and is put in the hole, where he screams, My name is not 6; my name is James Turner!

Curiously, Brown said at the post-play opening night reception that the men locked in the brig didn’t feel they were being subjected to cruelty. They believed they were being duly punished for infractions. Perhaps the military had the acceptance of cruelty built into them.

In a director’s note, Malina says, In The Brig we see the discipline and the training to obedience that suppresses free will and makes it possible for good-hearted young women and men to commit the atrocities that armies everywhere commit. Through the bio-mechanisms of the drill and the enforcement of the absurd precision rituals, a mind-body adjustment is made, designed to overcome their natural humanitarian qualms.

Malina and her late husband Julian Beck founded the Living Theatre in 1947. The Brig is the first production in the company’s new home on Clinton Street, in the arts and café district of the Lower East Side.

The Brig. Written by Kenneth H. Brown. Directed by Judith Malina. Starring Johnson Anthony, Gene Ardor, Kesh Baggan, Steven Scot Bono, Brent Bradley, Brad Burgess, John Kohan, Albert Lamont, Jeff Nash, Bradford Rosenbloom, Jade Rothman, Isaac Scranton, Joshua Striker-Roberts, Morteza Tavakoli, Evan True, Antwan Ward, Louis Williams. Designed by Julian Beck & Gary Brackett.

The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street. (F train to Delancy St.) Thu-Sat 8pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: 2:15. Through July 8, 2007. $30. Pay what you can on Thursdays. http://www.livingtheatre.org/

Photo 1 original cast; photos 2 and 3 by John Ranard

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11 Responses to "“The Brig” details numbing banality of military cruelty"

  1. D Ross   Nov 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    The brutality of the Marine brig is a matter of comparability. The USMC brigs must be strict and harsh, otherwise they would have not have power over their charges – especially in the short term.
    The USMC job is to engage and kill the enemy. In a culture like this it is absolutely necessary. By necessity, USMC punishment of miscreants must be brutal. It is a brutal business.
    Again, a US Naval brig is not, and never will be a place of repose, but rather a place to consider to actions (or the lack thereof) and the consequences.
    Ten Hut!

  2. J.Richardson   Nov 30, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    I was an inmate in that Brig. We called it “The Box.”

    The Play did not come near the reality of spending time there. Most of us understood well our responsibility and requirement for obedience and discipline to the Marine Corps but not the mean spirited and excessive physical punishment meeted out by a bunch of sadistic and cruel Neanderthals for minor infractions.

    If I was pulling duty as a guard there back during that time, I would not advertise that fact on the internet especially the fellow that asked me if he could fuck my Mother? Or did my girlfriend have big tits? This happened on a work party at noon chow, four guards sat at the next table with their riot guns, including the one who had made the remark.

    I got up and approached him and told him that if He made a remark like that about my family again, that I would take that gun away from him and bash his teeth in with it. I returned to my table and finished eating. The ashen faced guard never spoke to me again. Crime and punishment should always be balanced.

  3. Rick Francis   Jun 11, 2014 at 1:17 am

    I went through bldg 222 two times in 1966-67, it was brutal.
    Beat down, hosed down, best shape in my life body wise, but never healed from the abuse. Anyone got news stories of it closing?

  4. jack mcbride   Sep 30, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    I spent 30 days in the red line brig aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea. I joined the navy at age 17 1965 and when I was 19

    I was sentenced there for fighting a second class petty officer who was drunk.

    That was a brutal place. The marines on occasion at 2 am would beat the bars to wake you up and point a 45 in your face and yell I am going to kill you. That was just an intro to their torture.

  5. Joe Zahra   Apr 23, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    I spent 4 months in Youkosuka ” red line ” brig. From dec 8 1967 to march 17 1968,

    I know that 2 of the jarheads were homicidal maniacs. If any one out there spent time in solitary there, let me know. That’s not to say that they were all bad.

    I remember breaking down and crying at early morning exercise, I was 3 months into this hell, a black guard came over to me and said you can do it don’t let them break you. I got thru the rest of it and was grateful to that guard.

    I was beat, thrown down a flight of stairs. Had piss throw in my face. I’ll never forget those days. How could I? They stay with me almost nightly. I lost the best part of me there and I was never the same. All that for 7 days over the hill in Japan 🇯🇵.

  6. Richard Nill   Aug 8, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    Nothing but a living hell on earth, I was a sailor I did three tours at navy base San Diego in 1962

  7. Joe   Aug 15, 2017 at 10:36 am

    I survived 6 months in the Youkosuka red line brig. It was hell. psychotic marines controlled every second of the time from getting up in the morning and lining up on a red line in your skivvies where a sick bastard inspected you before you were sent back to your bunk to get dressed.

    You ate by the number, 1 pick up fork, 2 put in mouth, 3 chew, 4 put down fork. a sick bastard stood behind you with the butt of his gun to the back of your head. you made every move by the number from marching to taking a dump.

    The statement above is true, if you survived you are indestructible. I am 72 now and only thanks to a good loving woman and the grace of God I still survive mentally and emotionally. I nearly cry still while writing this. I sat down and wrote about it after I got out then threw it into the fire place and watched it burn as part of my survival strategy. It helped.

  8. Richard McConnell   Jun 6, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    Anyone in the MCAS iwakuni Brig riot on 7/4/1970?

  9. Leonard Spinks   Jul 11, 2020 at 6:00 am

    i spent 30 days in the brig on the uss bonne home richard for being absent without leave for 3 days. if i were to see and know that they were marines that worked in that brig at that time.i would do my best to kill them!

    i entered the navy at 17 years of age. ive seen marines try to kill inmates for no reason. i myself was handcuffed to the over head just inches off the floor for hours at a time,so the guard whoever he was could come by and beat me in the ribs with a night stick.

    i know a sailor his name was david miller they stood him at attention and beat him in the chest for days. he was so bruised and beaten that almost didn’t make it.and the navy doctors were no better. he finally had to see a doc and the marines told him that he fell down the stairs, and that was all that was said.

    i’m 72 now and have never been right since the torture i went thru in that place! all the marines that worked there were complete maniacs. i don’t know how they can live with themselves knowing how they treated those kids that were sent down there by just as cruel officers or the ships captain himself.

  10. Johnnybitchin   Jul 29, 2022 at 5:34 pm

    I spent 60 days in the brig MCAS Iwakuni awaiting court martial for beating down a Master Sergeant for shoving me on the floor of a bar right out the main gate. I put him in the hospital with a broken jaw and broken right arm. I had no idea who the guy was much less his rank. I was an E5 with a perfect record. The turnkeys mostly left me alone except for one L/Cpl who fucked with everyone.

    Frankly, at that time Iwakuni had a well run Brig with very few problems. After weeks of hearing and interviews I was cleared of all charges and walked out of the brig in uniform and my stripes….I found out later the MSgt had shacked up with a bar girl and was married with his wife in the states. All this came out in interviews and statements. He thought I was messing with his Japanese girlfriend. Which was true…

  11. Ron Keas   Mar 23, 2024 at 7:33 pm

    I am writing a Zinn booklet about my abuse by the Marine Guards in 1966 in the Brig aboard the USS Hancock, carrier. http://www.3dviewmax.com


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